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How Art Critics Challenge and Provoke Artists and Audiences

Changing philosophies in, functions for, and materials used in artmaking has lead to a change in the way art is perceived by the public. A shift from the structural and cultural frames to the subjective and recently postmodern frames means that the interpretations of an artwork can be much more wide-ranging than previous to the 20th century.

This statement is especially true in relation to contemporary Australian criticism—as a comparatively young nation, it has taken some time for a uniquely Australian style of critical writing to develop.

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Both the popular press and specific art journals are mediums through which critics can express their opinions and interpretations of artwork, collection, gallery, or a particular artist. While some take the opinion that because critical writing implies authority, “the critic knows best” and that they are always right. However many will disagree with the critics depending on how they feel about an issue.

John McDonald is a well-known and often controversial art critic, with strong opinions on a wide range of aspects of the visual art world. In an essay entitled Up Its Own Art (Spectrum liftout, Sydney Morning Herald, April 6-7 2002), he launches an intense attack on the current state of contemporary art—“Dumbed down and robbed of the old taboos, contemporary art has lost its ability to move or stimulate us”. The article is very provocative, making claims like “Art criticism has reached it’s lowest ebb in 20 years” and “the kind of work that best represents the “New British Art” is…[a] fatuous affair”.

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It seems that McDonald has written this piece to provoke the artists, the audience (gallery-going public), and other critics alike. Along with other strong opinions expressed in the piece, this article would have supporters of modern conceptual art up in arms. His attacks on contemporary artists, who he claims are pursuing the career for “a taste of pop fame”, are sure to provoke practicing artists.

Provoking criticisms also appear in another of McDonald’s articles, Off The Wall written for the Sydney Morning Herald. As well as containing a scathing review of Adam Geczy and Ben Genocchio’s book What is Installation? McDonald writes in the article that installation art is a type of “light entertainment, leaving audiences titillated rather than challenged”. Comments such as this and “the best installation art may simply instill a sense of aesthetic pleasure”, while of challenging nature, are not supported by fact or second opinion and it can be easy to see that this article’s only basis is the opinion of McDonald.

Another famous Australian critic, but somewhat less controversial, is Daniel Thomas. Unlike John McDonald, he writes mostly for specific art publications. In the 1997 issue of Art & Australia, he writes a positive review of the art of Peter Tyndall. Using his position as a respected art writer, Thomas gives us his interpretations of Tyndall’s conceptual art. “Country cunning, patience, and planned chance here produce magical results…”. Although Thomas is not as sharply opinionated as McDonald’s, it still remains that these are his interpretations, which others may not agree with. On encountering Thomas’s opinions, a reader will most likely stop and consider his own position on Tyndall’s work.

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How Art Critics Challenge and Provoke Artists and Audiences. (2021, Jan 19). Retrieved February 8, 2023, from