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“What has happened to art criticism?” by Charlesworth Essay


This piece was written by a very bold author who appears to be well informed about the photographic industry. He has not refrained from mentioning instances of bad taste in the history of photography but has also looked at magical moments as well.

Perhaps the point of concern in this analysis should really be the theoretical basis for the author’s analysis. In other words, one must find out why the author said what he did in the article because every assertion has underlying principles that support it and carry it forward.

Contemporary art criticism pieces have been written against a background of interpretations. Some carry with them political and sociological interpretations that have created more debate than consensus.

In this article, it is clear to see that the author is mostly interested in the beauty or lack of it of photographic pieces. For example, in one case, the author explains that a photograph can capture what the naked eye would never be conscious of; when one wants to talk a walk, there are always plenty of movements involved in these actions.

Most may not be discerned by the naked eye but the camera faithfully captures this thus leading to the discovery of the unconscious. He has explained these concepts of beauty against a historical background as well as a technical background.

For instance, at one point he explains that the manner in which photos were processed eventually led to the creation of beautiful portraits.

Also, the author is immensely aware of the cultural and social conditions that prevailed at the time of the creation of most photographic pieces. This is definitely laudable.

When one looks at this piece of writing, one immediately realises that this author firmly opposes the commercialisation of art. In other words, the author explains that journalistic photos did not exist at the time when photos had initially been created.

People did not associate photo taking with fame because the only form of mass media i.e. the newspaper was inaccessible to the common man. Furthermore, those newspapers never featured any photos.

Consequently, people who took their photos were not preoccupied by the need to please others or the quest for fame. When businessmen got into portrait photography, most ruined this industry because they made the photos cheap and artificial.

In fact, the author believes that artists can never really make portraits as good as those ones that existed in Hill’s time since photography and actuality had not interacted at the time.

However, one can debate this point because there are still relatively unexposed societies around the world and certain photographers have made it a point to live among such native communities today and hence take photos of them as they go about their daily lives. These photographers are still able to capture that relative innocence that the author treasures in historic work.

Another critical assertion that the author makes which makes this work stand out is the belief in experimentation. He believes that any good work should not attempt to persuade but should seek to experiment and instruct.

This author therefore holds a modern view of art because he believes in the rapid alteration of art forms if he can endorse experimentation.


Art criticism is undergoing a crisis because of the failure of most critics to focus on art itself; they are now more concerned about educating the masses.

Indeed many debates surrounding art actually imply a crisis in art criticism today and these have been brought on by a series of issues. The most significant factor is the institutionalisation of art.

Other factors are culturally related. All require solutions in order for a re-examination of the relevance of art criticism in the world today.

The issues

Art critics can normally be found in daily, monthly or weekly publications such as newspapers and magazines. Most of these critics are concerned about keeping their jobs rather than voicing their opinions.

They have transformed their roles into educative ones because they worry about the existence of those publications without sponsorships; so they must dance to their masters’ tune.

Furthermore, other factors have also come in the way and one such factor is the continued dissolution of the line between low and high end culture. Indeed one of the reasons why art criticism flourished in the past was because there was a need for a dominant critical voice.

However, because these lines are no longer clear then it can be increasingly difficult for art critics to step up. Additionally, most artistic writings normally target niche markets and this implies that there is an inherent assumption even before making the critique. Eventually, this destroys the true essence of the phenomenon (Rubinstein, 2003).

It should be noted that times are changing and this is even worse for art critics. In the art world, the people who matter the most today are really audiences; which consist of collectors, businessmen; who consist of consultants and collectors and finally the artists themselves.

Very little room has been left to the art critic who continues to be marginalized by the decisions of the former mentioned individuals. Most businessmen in the industry have a way of getting directly to the consumer through various marketing methods and this leaves out the art critic.

In other words, the businessmen literally decide for audiences which pieces would be most appropriate for them and which ones would not. The art critic only plays the role of stating whether a certain piece is worth seeing or not.

This means that they are now seen as individuals who make value judgements about art work yet these judgments no longer attract the attention of those concerned. Eventually, they are becoming more and more redundant.

It is essential to understand how society got to such a place and whether the problem was brought on by these value judgements. In other words, one must question the role of art critics as interpreters of art works since such a crisis will require a re-evaluation of their respective roles.

Charlesworth (2005) articulates these issues very well in his article “what has happened to art criticism?” He asserts that the problems in art criticism have been created by the failure of art critics to reconcile value terms in the past and the present.

Most have such great expectations that are too rigid to be relevant today. Furthermore, a number of them adhere to the old school notion of transforming society through art criticism.

Transformative criticism is indeed irrelevant in today’s world because it requires art to be different from what it is. In other words, art critics are failing because they are still concerned about changing art in its present form into something else rather than appreciating art for what it really is.

That role of improving art through criticism may no longer be feasible and may actually require many critics to re examine their role today. Many may have to ponder over the best ways of mediating between art and the artistic audience.

It can also be said that the main problem today in art criticism is having a clear understanding of what standards are applicable in this field.

The public cannot simply do without art critics because they are indispensable; although it may be true that value judgements are becoming a thing of the past especially because society continues to eliminate the standards with which artistic species can be assessed.

The rate at which artistic tastes are changing is quite unpredictable and there seems to be a void in place; one that would be filled if there were explanations on what is really going on at such times.

The public sphere has become more interested in pursuing its own issues rather than focusing on societal transformations. Eventually, this leads to a situation where critical activity needs to be redefined.

Indeed, some art critics are redefining this role through the focus on art writing. Here, authors prefer to dwell on immediate impressions of art rather than the political connotations inherent in them.

In other words, the best way in which art criticism can survive in this rapidly evolving art industry is by becoming more assertive and focused on the objects as they are and not as they should be.

Since it has already been illustrated that cultural transitions are playing a large role in the crisis then art critics can work around this problem by looking within art rather than looking outside it.

In essence they can then focus on aesthetics rather than give value judgements. This immediately dissolves the many conflicts that have arisen in the recent past. In other words, the art critics should already accept the fact that judgements about good artistic pieces have already been made.

Indeed, the reason why most art critics lose their place in society is because most will assume that they already know what is best.

However, these premises are never welcome in a relativist atmosphere as no one wants to accept the fact that someone else will prescribe the truth for them (Charlesworth, 2005).

Another manner in which the issue of art criticism maybe solved is through the shift from interpretation to form based criticism. Content based criticism is what has brought along most of the conflicts the art criticism industry is facing.

Content gained favour over form in art when critics ignored the mimetic theory which postulates that all art is an imitation of material objects which are in themselves imitations of others.

Opponents of the mimetic theory instead believed that art is subjective expression and should there be treated as a statement made by the concerned artist.

This means that those concerned always had something that they could interpret from the work of art and it led to the popularity of form based interpretation. Such premises eventually led to the defence of art and this is why art criticism is bound to create conflict.

The problems being experienced today can be addressed fully if art critics were to move away from this defensive position and take on a bold and assertive position.

When artistic interpretation occurs, they may lead to positive consequences in certain scenarios and may bring on horrible results. These all depend on the cultural components of the societies under consideration.

Because it is relatively difficult to establish standards which can be used to interpret art then chances are that meanings will always be contested. This takes away from art its richness because instead of really looking at an artistic piece, interpretation causes most individuals to focus on what is behind it.

Ultimately, this hinders art from doing what it was really meant to do i.e. making an impact on people. Real art has the capacity to move people and to challenge them, however, when an interpretation is done then this attempts to establish some kind of conformity (Sontang, 1961). In other words, sometimes, the interpretations may be misguiding and may actually bring out the wrong meaning of the piece.

On the other hand, one may understand it in another way; some art critics choose to interpret because they are in essence unsatisfied with a piece of art and actually want it replaced with another.

Those critics may not be aware of these inclinations but they still exist anyway. If artistic pieces are taken on as brute objects which have a capacity to create certain emotions and sensibilities then they would eradicate the current problems that stakeholders in the artistic criticism world are going through.

Indeed photographs and film present a new form of art that has already demonstrated how form can be sufficient enough to appreciate the value of art. Criticisms that dwell on the appearance of art would not elicit the current problems and this therefore would be a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, modern society frowns upon numerous interpretations so one might as well do away with this critical component. Overproduction has become a challenge in this society and because of these excesses; many individuals’ senses have become numb.

The best way to deal with this slackening of senses is by dwelling on art criticisms that would help to recover those senses. In other words, the reality of art should be the main focal point rather than the expectations or the content of that art. Society has clearly illustrated its need for this new approach.


There is a crisis in art criticism because of economic conditions of the critics themselves, prevalence of relativism in society, failure to distinguish between high and low end cultures and the lack of reconciliation between value terms in the past and those ones existing today.

This crisis can be solved using two approaches and the first is art writing while the second simply involves moving away from content based analyses to form based ones.


Sontang, S. (1961). Against interpretation and other essays. NY: Farrar

Charlesworth, J. (2005). What has happened to art criticism? Art Monthly, No. 269 A small history of photography. Retrieved from Http://Artodisiac.Files.Wordpress.Com/2010/01/A-Small-History-Of-Photography.Pdf

Rubinstein, R. (2003). A quiet crisis. Art In American, 91(3), 39

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IvyPanda. (2019) '"What has happened to art criticism?" by Charlesworth'. 4 December.

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