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the Complete Review
the complete review - art criticism


What Happened to Art Criticism ?

James Elkins

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To purchase What Happened to Art Criticism ?

Title: What Happened to Art Criticism ?
Author: James Elkins
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 86 pages
Availability: What Happened to Art Criticism ? - US
What Happened to Art Criticism ? - UK
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What Happened to Art Criticism ? - India
  • "This text is part of a work in progress called Success and Failure in Twentieth-Century Painting"

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting brief survey of the current state of art criticism

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Observer . 13/9/2004 Mario Naves
The Philadelphia Inquirer . 4/4/2004 Carlin Romano

  From the Reviews:
  • "Throughout the book, he patiently and, at times, lovingly dissects the writing of a variety of contemporary critics, gauging the nuances of each adjective, metaphor and semicolon. (...) Mr. Elkins gets to the point -- What Happened to Art Criticism ? is full of them. But what he believes in, I don't know. He prefers chasing his own tail to figuring out which end of the dog will lead him out of the intellectual rut he's dug himself into. And yet anyone who cares about art criticism will buy Mr. Elkins' book and read it hungrily, after which it will be put on the shelf, remembered primarily for talking the talk but not walking the walk." - Mario Naves, The New York Observer

  • "Elkins, happily, is a gadfly with a realist mind and idealist heart. (...) Interpreted most generously, his goad to art writers lightly revises Browning's famous advice to one and all: A critic's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's an aesthetic for ?" - Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       James Elkins is flummoxed by the state of art criticism. On the one hand, it appears to be flourishing: it's ubiquitous, it's everywhere. On the other hand, no one cares: it's not that widely read, and it doesn't figure in the intellectual (or other) debates of the day. Art criticism has little influence, and, apparently is considered to have little lasting value: with few exceptions, art magazines and gallery catalogues "are considered ephemeral by libraries and databases, and therefore not collected or indexed." Scholars don't refer much to it, and there's too much for readers to possibly handle.
       In this small book -- part of a larger work in progress -- Elkins looks at the current state of affairs, and wonders how the situation might be improved (and whether that is possible and/or desirable).
       Elkins sees contemporary art criticism as a seven-headed hydra: the catalogue essay, the academic treatise, cultural criticism, the conservative harangue, the philosopher's essay, descriptive art criticism, and poetic art criticism. In the longest section of the book he goes through these one by one, describing them and what they offer (and what their limitations are).
       From the catalogue essay, which he is certain is the least-read of the seven, to descriptive (i.e. largely non-judgmental) criticism (which he notes a Columbia University shockingly survey found to be the most popular type, i.e. the one the most critics aspired to), Elkins offers a good overview of what these are and why they are so popular (or not). He then goes on to suggest: "Seven Unworkable Cures" -- noting that these calls for reform are often (unrealistic) calls to return to a previous time: "the proposed solutions tend to be born from nostalgia for specific moments in the past".
       Eventually, he concludes:

So I do not think it is necessarily a good idea to reform criticism: what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment, and the attraction of description.
       Even so, he can't help but offer a few suggestions that could improve the situation, including the hope that criticism could come to figure in the debates, by being read and referred to by other writers and critics.

       What Happened to Art Criticism ? is a solid, small survey of the state of contemporary art criticism, accessibly presented, with good and not daunting examples (though some of the name-dropping won't mean much to those outside art-circles). It offers an interesting glimpse of something that appears so successful -- as at least the massive availability of art criticism would suggest -- and yet finds so little resonance, making it also of considerable interest to those with an interest in other forms of criticism or cultural commentary (book or theatre reviews, etc.).

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What Happened to Art Criticism ?: Reviews: James Elkins: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       James Elkins has written numerous books and teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago and at University College, Cork.

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© 2005-2012 the complete review

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