In Visual Art Critic, I’m Better Known Than Immanuel Kant

Before it deservedly recedes into the mists of forgotten academic history, it may be worth bidding a not-very-fond farewell to what I have come to regard as the silliest, most expensive and least necessary “research” folly ever devoted to the art scene in this country. I refer to a mind-numbing, poll-driven, statistical compilation of unenlightening opinion called The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General-Interest News Publications in America . It was published last year by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University and bankrolled by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Frankly, I avoid reading such academic twaddle, but having made a New Year’s resolution to do my duty, I herewith present my findings.

According to András Szántó, author of The Visual Art Critic , “a timely question … is whether the popular news media provide sufficient exposure for artists, art institutions and the ideas that govern their work.” (By “sufficient exposure,” I assume the author means “adequate coverage.”) This is the kind of question to which everyone concerned with the subject already knows the answer-and no one else is likely to give much of a damn. So it’s obviously a perfect subject for a full-scale academic “research” project.

Dear Reader: Could you ever have guessed that a majority of our art critics are actually-gasp!-white males? Well, if you ever suspected it, the folks at Columbia’s National Arts Journalism Program have now confirmed your darkest suspicions. And how about this: Could you have possibly divined from your own experience that “news publications” (meaning newspapers and magazines) devote twice as much space to television as they do to art, or that these same publications have been known to devote four times as much space to the movies? Imagine such a thing! If you want to know the gory details, The Visual Art Critic provides a nice little pie-shaped diagram in delicate shades of blue and gray on high-quality white stock to indicate the “Proportion of arts newshole dedicated to various arts beats at 15 American newspapers (1998).”

And how about this shattering revelation, which the author of The Visual Art Critic considers sufficiently important to print entirely in italics: ” the likelihood of a newspaper having a critic falls sharply as circulation size diminishes .”

The really fun part of The Visual Art Critic doesn’t begin until page 34, with the section devoted to “Taste and Influence.” On the question of influence-that is, which “writers and theorists” influence what art critics write- The Visual Art Critic gets down to basics straight away: “For a theorist or writer to have an influence upon a visual art critic,” we learn, “the critic must first be aware that the theorist exists. Second, the works of the theorist must have an impact, in some way, upon the critic’s work.” Who needs to be told such things?

I have to admit that I’ve sometimes wondered whether certain art theorists actually do exist, especially when I attempt to read their prose. But it’s not altogether clear what the author of this publication means by the word theorist . Most of the time, the word is used as just another synonym for “critic,” which I deeply resent. I do not consider it an honor to be called a “theorist”-far from it.

Some of the name-recognition and popularity charts in The Visual Art Critic are really amusing. In the category of name recognition-that is, the percentage of critics who rated other critics-I didn’t do too badly, coming in with a score of 80, the same as John Ruskin, one of my idols, but one point higher than Sister Wendy and Immanuel Kant-talk about strange bedfellows!-and three points higher than Baudelaire, another of my critical idols. On a different chart, this one devoted to writers and theorists who exert a “greater influence on daily critics,” I scored 12, two points lower than Ruskin but two points higher than E.H. Gombrich and Matthew Arnold. In still another category, measuring influence on critics age 46 and over, I scored 16, one point lower than Robert Hughes, one more than Roger Fry, another of my idols, and six more than Susan Sontag, described by the authors as a “public intellectual” (that may or may not be a misprint for “publicity intellectual”).

Unfortunately, I’m obliged to report that the statisticians who preside over the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia appear to be unacquainted with The New York Observer . Though they’ve scanned a great many publications that you and I are unlikely ever to have read- Creative Loafing in Atlanta, for example, or the Weekly Planet in Tampa- The Observer doesn’t merit a single reference. The New Criterion turns up once, I think, on some list, along with the New Republic . Among the important critics who are nowhere mentioned in this absurd publication are Karen Wilkin, Dore Ashton, Roger Kimball, the late Fairfield Porter and my Observer colleague, Mario Naves.

In short, The Visual Art Critic is in every respect a perfectly useless enterprise-perfect, above all, in its flawless incomprehension of the subject it addresses. It’s no secret that the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia has lately been in something of a dither about its teaching program. Given the sheer fatuity of The Visual Art Critic , it certainly looks as if the school’s National Arts Journalism Program is still another problem in urgent need of the administration’s critical attention. To ignore this farce is to risk becoming a laughingstock-and not only in the art world.