Does Art Criticism in Baltimore ALWAYS have to be NICE? by Cara Ober

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I just finished reading the citypaper’s extensive coverage of the six Sondheim finalists. Read it yourself here: Every year the team at CP does an excellent synopsis of the finalists, and hires not one critic, but a whole crew, just to be extra thorough. I definitely learned more about each artist by reading this piece and I feel as though I have a better understanding of the work on display. This is no small feat.
There, I said something positive. Now I am going to complain, although I hope my art critic friends at CP know I am not complaining about their work. I’m not. I’m complaining in general, about my own contributions to this, too, about the overal high level of NICENESS present in local art criticism. There aren’t a whole lot of us here doing this work and we don’t get paid much, so PLEASE don’t take what I am saying personally, arts writers. (SEE? Niceness. Ugh. It’s everywhere…)
If I am honest, I have to say I felt disappointed in the level of criticality expressed in these reviews. I’m not advocating that critics be mean for the sake of meanness, however, these six finalists are in the hot seat. They are all contenders for $30 large. Shouldn’t they suffer a little bit? I mean this in a completely collegial way.
These folks are tough, intelligent, professional artists. They’re grown-ups. I think they can handle it. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, which will be evaluated by the judges this Saturday, and, let’s be honest, the scrutiny is at its highest in whispers from their artist peers. We all see certain strengths, many which were noted in these reviews, but we see the weaknesses, too.
Sometimes in Baltimore, there’s a sense of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ when writing about art. In order to avoid feeling hypocritical, I typicaly choose to only write about artwork I feel positive about and ignore the rest. But is this kidd glove approach doing anyone any good? Is pissing off an artist the worse thing in the world?
Last night, I had an interesting conversation at the Another Roadside Attraction opening with Jeremy Crawford. I have known this artist for several years and we were having a conversation about writing art criticism. He caught me off guard, when he mentioned a not-exactly-scathing, but critical review I wrote about The Man Show for BmoreArt, a show he put together at Flux Gallery. I had completely forgotten about writing this review – it was several years ago, but he remembered it very clearly.
He admitted his initial reaction to my opinions was offense. He took it personally and who the hell was this b**** to criticize his labor? But now that we’ve known each other for a while, it’s water under the bridge. Whether he took any of my gripes to heart is impossible to know, but my point is that he remembered the review. It was memorable because it was uncomfortably critical. I guess what I’m wondering is if this is a bad thing? And if the artists around here were forced to grow thicker skin and were faced with the possibility of the gloves coming off, critically speaking, could this make their work stronger in the future?
Are art reivews even interesting to read (by anyone besides the artist themselves) if there is no possiblity of some scolding or drama? Do art critics here owe it to artists to provide constructive, critical feedback that goes beyond being descriptive and nice? Sometimes the truth hurts and this is how we learn. Do we want art critics to be tougher and completely honest or is it better for everyone to be nice?
These questions are not rehetorical. I would like to hear from readers on this. I check my google analytics – there are 400 – 800 of you a day. I have no clue who you are, but you are out there. And I know you have no shortage of opinions.
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