Archive: Issue No. 72, August 2003

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Who critiques the critics?
by Andrew Lamprecht

The issue of art criticism in South Africa is not, I believe, an easy one to address. We are all well acquainted with the oft-repeated complaints about the state of criticism but there are certain structural problems that need to be acknowledged before constructive debate on the matter can ensue.

Firstly, there are very few critics around. This is due in part to the size of the South African art world, with too few buyers and, quite frankly, an art community that probably does not engage with the written word as much as comparable communities elsewhere (or even in South Africa: think of the theatre crowd).

Another problem is the composition of the company of critics. Many are artists themselves, others are trained in conventional art history (which in and of itself does not seem to me to be the best source to draw critics of work produced today, although there are exceptions as demonstrated by the excellent job Michael Godby is doing through his postgraduate course in criticism at the University of Cape Town, the fruits of which can be seen in the student reviews that appear on this site). Only some have formal journalistic training.

This is not to say that a art history graduate who is a practitioner and has no background in journalism is not capable of making a fine critic, merely that it seems that a large number of critics come to it through necessity rather than a conscious vocational choice. Indeed it would be difficult to imagine how someone who actually wanted to be a professional dedicated critic would keep body and soul together in South Africa.

I dare say we all remember Malcolm Payne's comments posted on this site early last year, which possibly reached its zenith in this gem from Payne (incidentally uber-critic Kathryn Smith's quote of the year): "any artist can be a critic, any critic can be a curator, any museologist can be an artist and so on, which is plain nonsense and anyone can be an idiot."

Payne seems to have hit the nail on the head. We are faced with a situation in which, through force of circumstances, a great deal of criticism is written by people who should not be writing it. However South Africa simply does not seem able to sustain a group of professional, full-time critics. The only solution is to draw from the pool of those working in the arts field (practitioners, historians, curators [no gallerists so far, but it can't be that far away?]) to swell the meagre ranks of professional critics such as Tracy Murinik and Lloyd Pollack.

I really do not want to get too deeply into the issue of quality of criticism here but again I think this matter is often treated ungenerously. I have heard so many complaints about how shoddy out arts criticism is and while at times there are serious lapses and problems I think there is a tendency to overstate these. On the whole I find criticism to be good, given the structural problems outlined above, informative and serious. Sometimes there is an undoubted lack of true criticality and perhaps a wariness of "hurting the feelings" of artists whom the critic probably knows socially in the close-knit South African art world.

Nonetheless the state of criticism is in my opinion definitely on the ascendant. Some newspaper editors are letting down the side a bit by not commissioning more (imagine a world of art criticism without ArtThrob and Art South Africa) but we are seeing a stronger body of criticism emerging, in no small way due to the two publications just mentioned.