Art was no part of my milieu when I was growing up; nor was art criticism. I must have first heard tell of that profession in the movies. I dimly recall watching a horror film about the enmity between an artist who declares “I live by my hand!” and a critic whose motto is “I live by my eye!” After the critic murders the artist, a pair of disembodied hands takes revenge by tearing out his eyes.
Yet I remember, too, the grade-school art teacher who showed us reproductions of works by Matisse and Picasso. When I made a crayon drawing of some downhill skiers—I’d never seen a ski slope any more than I’d met an art critic—she praised my decision to have one of the skiers cut off by the bottom edge of the paper. She thought this very sophisticated. I didn’t understand what the big deal was. That was probably my first practical experience of art criticism, and it made me at least nebulously aware that what someone sees in a picture isn’t necessarily just what its maker meant to put there.
Many years later, I learned of Marcel Duchamp’s view, usually paraphrased as “The viewer completes the work.” It’s a dictum I repeat regularly. What Duchamp proposed was that “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” I suspect that he did not know—nor did I, until after I was already familiar with Duchamp’s idea—that Walt Whitman had much earlier declared that “the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.”
It was thus Duchamp and Whitman who gave me a ready answer to an artist friend who once challenged me with a piercing question: “Why do we need art critics?” After all, she continued, “scientists don’t need science critics. Why is art any different?” And it’s true: There are no science critics. Yes, scientists doing a peer review are acting as judges of their fellow scientists’ work, but only in a sense: They are acting as fellow practitioners, not as critics. Science is not founded on a compact between maker and receiver. The art critic, however, formalizes and deliberately exemplifies the role of the spectator who realizes the artist’s work—not by leaving it just as it is, but by adding something to it, making a personal contribution.
If the art critic is, as I say, the self-appointed representative of the spectator whose existence is essential to art’s own, then the validity of the critic’s role ought to be assured. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It is not, as might have been true at times in the past, that the critic is too powerful, figuratively murdering with his eye the poor artist trying to live by his hand. Instead—or so one gathers from all the recent articles and symposia on the crisis of art criticism—the critic seems to be losing all influence. The overheated, ever-expanding art market on the one hand, and the explosive growth in the number of big international public exhibitions on the other, have rendered the critic’s aesthetic judgment superfluous. The critic no longer has the power to participate in forming a consensus of value; somewhere above his or her head, the collectors and curators are doing that. The critic can either tag along or get left behind.