Christopher Knight is art critic for the Los Angeles Times. A three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism (1991, 2001, and 2007), he received the 1997 Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism from the College Art Association, the first journalist to win the award in more than 25 years. Knight has appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes, PBS’s NewsHour, NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and CNN and was featured in the 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal. Prior to joining the staff of the Times in 1989, Knight served as Los Angeles Herald Examiner art critic (1980-89), as assistant director for public information at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1979–1980), and as curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (1976–1979).
From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. Prior to joining the conference’s panel discussion on Credibility, Criticism, and Collusion, he shared these words. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.
The redoubtable American writer Mark Twain once said that, “An expert is just some guy from out of town.” I’m from out of town. I imagine that my expertise, such as it is, has been requested because of all the symposium panelists, I pretty much represent the guy down at the boatyard where the ship is sailing.
He’s got one foot on the dock, and one foot on the boat, and watery doom is yawning wider and wider between slowly spreading legs. The dock in this instance is print. Newspapers, old media, dead trees, or the term that I prefer, “legacy media.” The boat, of course, is digital. The Internet and its proliferating social media formats. Now, we could talk about the differences between print and digital, starting with the limited size of a news hole on a piece of paper, versus the limitless space on the web, plus a lot more, but at this late date more than a generation into the revolution, we pretty much know what most of those differences are. For me, the most interesting and perhaps the most puzzling one has always been the audience. Who is the audience for print? Who’s the audience for digital? Are they the same person? Do they read the same way? How do they come upon the writing that is before them in print or in the ether?
In these kinds of discussions, the reader is often what Franklin Roosevelt once called, the “forgotten man.” The one being indifferently squashed down at the bottom of the pyramid. I think that one primary difference between most print publication and most digital publication has to do with the question of the forgotten reader.
Although the situation is changing, every writer knows that before something appears in print, it will be read by an editor. An editor is every print writer’s first reader. In digital publishing, this may or may not be the case. There may or may not be an editor. The span ranges from online journals, which probably will have an editor, to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which almost never do. Social media is home to society’s raging id. And readers, including editors, are its restraining super ego.
I write art criticism for one primary reason. I write art criticism in order to find out what it is I think. And my job as a professional art critic is to find ways to bring a reader into that process. Criticism is writing. If I knew what I thought before I sat down to write, I would not be writing, I would just be typing. I’d be taking dictation from my memory and transferring it through a keyboard.
Now, it will probably come as no surprise to you that no one is going to pay you a salary just to allow you to find out what it is you think. For a professional art critic, that’s where the professional part comes in.
The very first question posed by the folks at Superscript in putting together this symposium is this one: What is the role of the professional art critic? For me, there’s no question that’s likely to come up today that is more easily answered than that one. My role as a professional art critic at the Los Angeles Times is to sell newspapers. My role as a professional art critic at the Los Angeles Times is to generate traffic at our website.
I say this not to be sensationalistic or crass, although I suspect some institution somewhere will likely pull the quote and misrepresent my position. I say it instead simply for the sake of clarity. It was in fact the first lesson that I learned when I became a journalist 35 years ago. Like most professional art critics I know, I became one pretty much by accident. I had left my prior profession of art museum curator, which I discovered I didn’t have the temperament for, when one day the telephone rang. It was an editor at the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the afternoon newspaper in town. He told me they were looking for a freelance art writer and someone had given them my name. Would I be interested? I said, “Sure, but I don’t know anything about journalism.” And he said, “Don’t worry, we do.”
So I became a newspaper art critic, and I learned on the job. This was in the summer of 1980. And although the Herald had been publishing since 1903, it had never had a staff art critic before then. But it needed one now. A group of prominent and influential citizens had prevailed upon the mayor, Tom Bradley, to support the launch of a museum of contemporary art as part of a massive downtown redevelopment plan. In the face of this challenge, the old guard in town had gotten a bit nervous, so they launched a campaign of their own to build a big modern art wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And most important of all, recently a dead man’s will had emerged from a lengthy probate, and suddenly the little J. Paul Getty museum at the edge of Malibu was the richest art museum in the nation.
As an afternoon newspaper, the Herald had been struggling against the changing environment of television news and it was determined that one final push would be made for stability and success. So they did what most businesses do, they commissioned a marketing survey to analyze the competition. The LA Times. What areas of coverage did readers of the Times find to be deficient? It turned out that there were four areas that readers found to be wanting: local news, sports, Hollywood, and cultural affairs. So that’s where the Herald decided it would direct all of its assets and it began hiring a roster of critics to fill the cultural affairs part. It made for a somewhat schizy newspaper, but that’s how I got a new profession.
You may have noticed that the generative impulse for bringing art criticism to the newspaper did not come from some high-minded regard for these spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or otherwise tonic qualities of art. This is America we’re talking about, and in America, art has always been a minority interest. It came instead from witnessing the movement of power. Institutional power, political power, and social power within the city. It came from recognizing that engagement with power is a primary function of the power of journalism. And before I’m an art critic, I am a journalist. There are lots of different kinds of art criticism. But as a journalistic art critic, my aim is to enfold the power of art within the larger dynamic of power relationships in society.
I relate all of this personal back story, because I think it illustrates something important. If you ask what is the role of the professional art critic and the context that comes to mind for that role is limited to art, then the answer is, there really isn’t one. Art criticism has no essential role. Art can get along just fine without it. Artists will do what artists do. In the body of art, art criticism is the appendix. Surgical removal of the appendix causes no observable health problems.
The idea that professional art criticism has an inherent role to play in art is a fiction, and fiction is what art criticisms write. It’s a form of literary prose in which the writer’s imagination, experiences and engages with the work of art, and it invites the reader along. In other words, art criticism is social media. It always has been. Ever since Giorgio Vasari was making up stuff about Giotto and Piero della Francesca in the 16th century. Today its potential reach and interactivity are bigger, faster, and its sources theoretically endless, but I would submit that its moral and ethical conundrums are not much different than they’ve ever been. If my digital job as as a professional art critic is to generate traffic to the LA Times website, I just have to decide whether that’s best achieved by a nonstop diet of listicles and cat videos which would probably do the trick. Or by something else entirely. Thanks.