List Grid

Blogs Centerpoints

Embedded: Should critics be in the trenches?

“He just opened the conversation by saying, ‘When would it be convenient for you to have me over to select something?‘” That’s how Seattle artist Charlie Krafft said the city’s most prolific and long-serving freelance visual art critic, Matthew Kangas, started out a phonecall early in the artist’s career, just after he’d written a favorable […]

“He just opened the conversation by saying, ‘When would it be convenient for you to have me over to select something?‘”

That’s how Seattle artist Charlie Krafft said the city’s most prolific and long-serving freelance visual art critic, Matthew Kangas, started out a phonecall early in the artist’s career, just after he’d written a favorable review. In a fascinating and thoughtful piece, The Stranger looks into the ethics of art criticism, with Kangas at its core: When critics curate, what does it do to their credibility? Should critics own work by the artists they review, and should they ever accept–or ask for–art as “gifts” from artists? And, more nuanced, how close should critics get to the art and artists they so admire?

Stranger writer Jen Graves gives Kangas credit as a longtime booster of Seattle artists. His eight books, national reviews in publications like Sculpture and Art in America, and work as a freelance critic for the Seattle Times for 15 years have earned him esteem in the Northwest: “There’s no doubt about what he has done for the art community in Seattle; he stands alone in that area,” said one gallery owner.

But other contributions seemed more sketchy, like his curating: he currently has two shows up he’s curated. One includes three works he owns, although they’re labeled “Private collection,” and the other features 53 pieces from his private holdings. Graves’ blog post on what she thought was Kangas’ “error of judgment”–not disclosing ownership of works he promoted–generated a flurry of rumors that Kangas frequently asked for artwork before or after writing reviews. Nine artists went on record saying as much, including Krafft, who reluctantly gave the critic a piece. “It was an extortion,” he said. “He’s a character, and I appreciate him, but I think it’s predatory.”

Some of the artists thought the practice odd, but went along. Others refused, and saw no negative impact. None noted a quid pro quo: it didn’t seem to affect a review if they did or didn’t gift a work to Kangas. Kangas insists he doesn’t ask for or expect art. And that’s the way it should be, according to journalism ethicists and critics quoted in the article.

“Shaking down artists is never acceptable,” said Eleanor Heartney; The New York Times‘ Michael Kimmelman doesn’t collect at all, to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. His paper requires critics to submit a tally of acquisitions and sales of “exhibition quality” work to editors each year. Then there’s this great section on Jerry Saltz:

Jerry Saltz, Village Voice critic and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, collects only thrift-store paintings and ceramics (“the rule here is nothing over $10, no clowns, and no dogs”). He owns the work of a few artist friends, but doesn’t write about those artists.

“I find it appalling that a critic would ask an artist for a work of art–good review or bad,” Saltz wrote in an e-mail. “It’s as sick as an artist asking a critic for a review, good or bad. It’s more than tacky; it’s corrupt and clueless. You might as well advertise good reviews on Craigslist.”

Most interesting is, as Kriston Capps at Grammar.police comments, Graves’ consideration of outsider critics and those who are “embedded,” that is, “someone who is an art lover and expert first, and a journalist second”:

In the last 20 years, daily-newspaper editors have lost interest in critical reviews, asking writers for more trend pieces, profiles, and investigative reports. Last year, when Kangas wrote 20 reviews of regional exhibitions in the Seattle Times, the staff art critic Sheila Farr wrote only five, according to the paper’s online archives–she wrote other kinds of stories, such as a three-day series about Dale Chihuly, which she worked on with another reporter and a team of researchers. Given this disparity, Kangas can be seen as a friend to the art community in Seattle.

The emphasis on reporting instead of criticism, or in addition to criticism, has dragged critics into the same spotlight reporters work under, where lapses of judgment are firing offenses. Today, being embedded is looked at with suspicion, and being detached is more in vogue. Each position certainly has its merits. But the industry is still struggling to combine the two approaches in a way that keeps critics passionate, engaged, and knowledgeable, without allowing their biases to be, or to appear to be, personal or financial.

Kangas is a fascinating figure, an embedded critic who found himself in a field where detachment has become the norm and, for whatever reasons, never adjusted. Reportedly, he is as maddening to be around as he is endearing, as imposing as he is eccentric, and ultimately, he may be someone who compromised himself by his own habits.

  • Robert Haarman says:

    I see something problematic with your article theme. It suggests the trickery of negotiating art, music, dance etc. into commerce. We in the dance community might bode well with having a critic in our messes and buying up dances. The common dance critic here in Mpls., is an architect and critic of that field. We may do better with her there. Other writers for dance are of the practice and write with its discipline and effect in mind and pen. Yay, we artists are lo to have those who risk their cultural status, piece of mind and perhaps sanity, promoting the arts they ideally participate in.

  • The essay acknowledges that the visual art realm is particularly tricky in this regard, as it (usually) involves objects that are made available for sale, and criticism can affect that sale price. In dance, perhaps such distance isn’t as necessary, and maybe being somewhat more “embedded” is good, to a degree: the reviewer who’s close to the scene and knows the specific vocabulary is in a good position to help the rest of us — who may or, in my case, may not know a ton about dance — navigate the form. Getting too close seems problematic, too, if it creates the appearance that friendships and familiarities might be affecting reviews.