Art Critics - Snobs or Teachers?

by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & rt critics get a bum rap. At worst, they're pretentious you-know-whats, spouting crap no one understands. (Of course, if you can't understand it, it's someone else's fault.) At best, they're valued -- by the few who genuinely care about art -- for explaining things like historical importance or how the artwork relates to the artist's previous work. Generally, art critics are tolerated -- when they're not being lampooned in the media for one stereotype or another -- because they provide crib notes for what we should be feeling, thinking or valuing.

Their influence on your sphere is likely based on 1) your level of interest in art and 2) the art criticism you've encountered. (If you're not interested in art, you probably haven't reached this sentence anyway.)

Let's assume you're interested in art (really interested, not just saying you are because it's fashionable, the way I pretend to be interested in politics because an educated person is supposed to care about elephants and donkeys). Your innately human curiosity and desire for understanding leads you to read the title, artist statement and that helpful information on the gallery walls or in accompanying literature. If the art critic did her job well, you'll glean something valuable from your reading and walk away having a fuller understanding of the artwork.

A good art critic needs to know the artwork, audience and format, guiding readership accordingly. They should not explicitly tell you if the work is "good," nor should they overshoot their audience's ability to understand what they're reading. Thus what works in an international magazine like artNEWS, for example, does not translate to a Spokane alt-weekly, nor to mainstream exhibition catalogs.

That's why the catalog accompanying the John Buck show is such a treat. In it, art critics Eleanor Heartney and John Yau distill a lot of information -- the exhibition spans 40 years and includes more than 50 works -- down to a few pages. Both are highly accomplished writers, yet they've tailored their writing to fit not only the audience, but the artist as well.

Yau, for example, relates how Buck's Midwestern roots make him "the quintessential insider who examines a way of life with which he is deeply familiar." No snooty artspeak there. As a poet (honored by the Academy of American Poets and American Poetry Review), Yau can be obtuse and as esoteric as any modern artist. But as an art criticism instructor (at Mason Gross School of Arts, Rutgers University) and art critic for such publications as The Brooklyn Rail, Yau is crystal-clear.

Heartney is equally down-to-earth, something she's known for regardless of membership in the International Art Association, teaching experience at Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons, and a publication list ranging from the New York Times and Washington Post to Art in America and New Art Examiner to numerous books.

Sure, you might need to look up a few words ("deleterious," "polemical") but it's worth it. Yau and Heartney are, according to curator Ben Mitchell, some of the "best art writers in America." In other words, these writers have clout; their inclusion in the exhibition catalog signifies that the exhibition is an important one (at least to people who care about art).

In addition, the catalog is the first published by the MAC since 2005. It was a massive undertaking, including a catalogue raisonn & eacute; or comprehensive list of every print Buck has produced during his career, as well as their provenance and condition and a bibliography of writing on the artworks.

Is the catalog alone enough to entice you to the exhibit? Maybe not. But if it was enough to get you to the bottom of this article, that's saying something at least.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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