James Elkins writes in his co-edited publication, The State of Art Criticism, that contemporary art criticism has become a global mess; its once powerful and insightful influences are waning and serve abysmally small figures of readership. He attributes this decline in effective and engaging critical reviews to a variety of situational forces dictated by our globalized modern cultures, but makes particular notice in the mindsets of the writers themselves. The poorly-defined stakes in practicing art criticism, which intertwine with a missing set of common grounds for artistic interpretation, has devalued the historically fundamental idea of expressing straight-forward judgment in critical writing. Elkins also argues, however, that art criticism on the international scale is not simply absent, rather “flourishing, but invisibly” (Elkins 72).
While this may be true for most culturally affluent cities, Pittsburgh is slightly unique from this world-wide dilemma for art criticism that Elkins depicts. Contingent upon a number of factors that stem from the city’s history, economic structures, and current interactions between artists and their communities, Pittsburgh suffers more from the dominant circulation of dispassionate critical writing than from a case of unwilling or absent readership. The contemporary environment for the region’s artistic practice, as a previous Pittsburgh-resident states in The New Yorker, is “multicultural, connected to the intellectual mainstream, but secluded and spacious enough to foster original work” (Helford). The writer further defines artists in this mix of diversity and seclusion as “chronically underestimated,” leading to the question of where the city accurately stands. Considered on the local scale as well as beyond, writers and reviewers currently struggle to define the criteria for judging Pittsburgh art. Similar to Elkins’s point of criticism lacking mutual agreements for aesthetic standards on which to base critique, the sentiment suggests underdeveloped expectations for the Pittsburgh art scene, which grants artists unfair concessions.
Much of this is attributed to the roles artists have played in Pittsburgh in the past, and how certain traits have carried over into the present. When the 1970’s and 80’s saw the primary economic focus in steel mills take a sharp fall, artists seized the opportunity to reshape the city’s financial and cultural identity. Today, the Pittsburgh arts community takes great pride in such a tenacious emergence, still developing in the contemporary city’s post-industrial stages. The downtown area, following suit to other art-based sectors of U.S. cities, has nurtured much of the growing artistic involvement, but what is truly remarkable is how the surrounding neighborhoods too have introduced their own strong arts communities. The visual and performing arts across these sectors have come to contribute steady streams of stimulating visual experiences, but also have had major influence in supporting crucial economic aspects. The Pittsburgh Arts Council claims that 341 million dollars of economic activity are generated annually through Allegheny County’s modern nonprofit arts and cultural industries – ten times the input is initially invested into the arts from local and state taxes (“Pittsburgh is Art”).
Thus, the arts have clearly become an integral part of enriching the experience of living in and exploring Pittsburgh. Local publications often make note of these frequent opportunities, praising the numerous local arts programs and organizations, annual festivals, galleries and venues of many sizes and formats, and internationally renowned museums that make such a stimulating environment possible. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and The Pittsburgh City Paper all give regular attention to local visual art, theater, music, and literature events and highlights, encouraging patrons to continue support for the betterment of Pittsburgh’s citizens. In the digital realm, there are many websites dedicated to posting lists packed with art events in Pittsburgh, providing essential details for attendance (time, date, location, etc), and often including an attractive statement to entice one’s participation. Navigating the large pool of events at any one point in time can be overwhelming, especially with each described in a glowing light.
Yet, while this highly positive attitude and abundance of listings may stimulate greater attendance and excitement, a key element is missing from these public distributions that largely hinders the Pittsburgh arts from achieving its true potential. The mindset of media coverage has become an all-inclusive, “everyone’s-a-winner” display that makes distinguishing one event from the other difficult. This problem roots itself in the lack of well-formulated, well-circulated art criticism, which would provide a necessary evaluation of these artistic endeavors. The current model aims to avoid constraining Pittsburgh’s original aspects into an “intellectual or creative straight-jacket” (“On the Purpose of Art”) by commending most displays of artistic expression. Although without the properly balanced feedback structure, artists, patrons, viewers and readers are easily influenced to misunderstand or even become ignorant to the significance of the Pittsburgh arts community’s current wealth in creative diversity and potential to grow. The audience is not unaware of the events happening around them, but the majority is confused about how to process the ideas projected in the work within the grander scheme of contemporary art and society.
Further, to believe that the passive, shallow descriptions that too often serve the public are sufficient, in the place of real criticism, is denying the worth of the art itself. The efforts of artists and their influences on viewers are currently subjected to artificial conditions, with few fulfilling responses or documentations to both grant real value and spur further reflections. In a more accurate depiction of art criticism, carefully chosen descriptive language reasons certain subjective interpretations and judgments with its audience, giving meaning to the relayed pieces of information that illustrates a show of work. Such deliberation over descriptive precision reflects the experience of interpreting art in order to contextualize its meaning on the wide range of personal and global scales, rather than simply knowing “what is happening when.”
Currently, however, the most available sources to the Pittsburgh public ignore this powerful idea. Looking to the accessibility of digital tools to find and engage art events in Pittsburgh, awareness of what is available is not an issue. Still, one must choose the events that best suit our interests – a difficult task when one has so little information about the nature of the event itself – and perhaps gain some sense of the non-attended through critical reviews. And yet, among all of this digital information about when and where events will be happening, the number of visible and easily accessible Pittsburgh-based art criticism sites and blogs that would describe these events is pitiful. In this way, print-publications still seem to find the easiest routes to finding readership for Pittsburgh-centric reviews.
The Pittsburgh City Paper notably demonstrates a great investment in writing reviews, ranging from smaller galleries to “high-end” museum shows. However, there is a pattern of significant time-delay between the opening of a show and a written piece that provides interested readers with a sense of the show’s values. Robert Raczka, one of few contributors, submits thoughtful and critical responses about various experiences in Pittsburgh, even when a delicate topic surrounds the show. In a near 800-word response to Silver Eye Photography’s show HomeFrontLine, he gives City Paper readers a structured analysis of how the emotionally-charged images and stories reflecting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 would appeal to viewers. While he warns audience members of the show’s heavy content, informational density, and morbidly provocative themes, he is also able to demonstrate how these aspects contribute positively to the greater Pittsburgh arts community, challenging the boundaries of subject matter and seeking truth from all sides of a story, no matter the politics. Further, the review is available to the public online in the “Arts: Visual Arts Reviews and Features” category on the City Paper’s website. This separation of visual arts from theater, dance, music, and other creative forms is uncommon in most publications, and while some may prefer to integrate the related categories, the distinction makes navigating the reviews much clearer and easier for finding specific exhibitions.
Despite all of these important considerations, there is still room for improvement for the Pittsburgh City Paper to have a greater impact on the arts community. The main problems lie in the need to have more frequent reviews, with more efforts to publishing reviews closer to smaller gallery openings. The HomeFrontLine review was published November 16, 2011, more than two months after the show’s opening on September 11, while The Mattress Factory received a review on it’s Factory Installed show two days before its October 28 opening reception. While other contributors intersperse the review listings, Raczka’s piece preceding HomefrontLine was published August 18, 2011. If the immediacy of previews for more well-known museums and venues could be integrated with Racska’s critical writing, the City Paper would be well on its way to leading art criticism in Pittsburgh.
Yet, a different problematic facet of newspaper reviews is apparent in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s articles, which often provides previews for upcoming shows with information about the venue, and particularly intriguing interviews with associated predominant figures. While the frequency of these publications is fairly commendable, the content almost exclusively investigates the opinions of those promoting the exhibition, too often presenting the bias of artists and curators. Thus, the objective elements give great accuracy, but the subjective focuses separate themselves far from the actual experience of the viewer.
Pittsburgh magazines contrast newspaper publications by providing a larger range of writing constituted as art reviews and criticism, but are produced with less frequency in the nature of extended magazine curatorial, editing, and publishing periods. In The Pittsburgh Quarterly, for example, a single issue is far more likely to feature a substantial criticism piece investigating a larger Pittsburgh art event- one that while most city residents have already heard or read much concerning the objective information, are provided with a more in-depth and subjective justifications regarding the impact of the event. In the Fall 2011 issue, writer Graham Shearing contributes a near two-thousand word piece exploring the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial, committing extraordinary attention to the curation of each artist, as well as the art’s strengths and weaknesses to contribute to the larger art sphere’s development.
While this occasional magazine is able to get away with longer submissions, quotidian formats of media coverage found length to be far too detrimental a means of deep-digging critical writing. Five years ago, the local public radio station WQED featured a regular program devoting an entire hour to art-based discussions and criticisms. The program was dissolved, however, because members of the station claim it was received by listeners as “too much talking.” The station filled the airing time instead by allowing more time for their focal programming, consisting of mainly classical music. One might agree with the majority of potential listeners that an hour of art reviews would become reminiscent of dull lecturing, especially taking into consideration how contemporary American media sources define efficiency in seeking out information. The world-wide web, in particular, teaches its audience to engage in shorter attention spans, where one has control to quickly collect a diverse range of bits of information within a vast network of sources. Yet, even the station’s attempts to mirror this mode of information circulation, revising the hour-long program into 1-2 minute opportunities for art critics, still failed. A gradual decline in these talks brought the station to its current state, hosting no available time-slots for art criticism.
There are plenty of articles available, both digitally and in print, that promote the Pittsburgh public to attend various art events, but little that would give an honest, critical reflection about why the events’ are significant. Writers seem highly concerned with presenting a positive, excited view to increase involvement, while efforts to develop a successful art forum are lacking. At PopCityMedia.com, one can browse events in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, read featured stories, or use the “PopFilter” to find excellent informational reviews about upcoming openings, shows, and other visual and performance art events. These “e-magazine” writers demonstrate a high commitment to research, including quotes from other published sources, statistics, artist/curator interviews, and hyperlinks to any mentioned organizations or venues. However, the “reviews” are as critical as a museum gallery brochure; there’s no sense of what events might actually be like. When a review precedes an event, it is easy to imagine why a writer’s main goal is to promote an interest in attending. However, there is a way to do this, while inspiring the prospective audience to think more critically about what Pittsburgh art has to offer. Critical judgment should be utilized here as a valuable form of growth, seeking to improve the strength of the art community and the work that is being produced.
As the local Pittsburgh arts previews, positive reviews, and listings flourish, taking the place of valuable local criticism, wider scopes of recognition in Pittsburgh’s art communities may influence the city to start challenging itself in order to compete with renown of other national and international art-rich cities. A particularly inspiring example arises in Hyperallergic, an art-centric “blogazine, podcast and journal” that has achieved remarkable readership on the internet, boasting 85 thousand visitors monthly (Gueyikian and Vartanian). The site’s two creators attribute their success to a joint commitment of publishing high-quality pieces, while “engaging writing and images from informed and provocative perspectives” (Gueyikian and Vartanian). Hyperallergic truly demonstrates this intent, featuring submissions from contributing writers not just in the New York area (where the creators maintain the site in Brooklyn), but from across the globe.
Within the context of this collective,Hyperallergic’s December 3rd post of an in-depth critical review for Pittsburgh’s 2011 Biennial that brings increased significance to the insights brought forth by the writer. The article’s writer, Leila Nadir, is able to provide a far more globalized perspective, presenting literal questioning of the Carnegie Mellon Miller Gallery’s portion of artwork is meant to be viewed with-holding the ideas put forth by the Pittsburgh-based art historian and critic Terry Smith. For Nadir to mention Smith, however, is an interesting situation, where the show’s location inspires the writer to seek the perspectives of an individual from that same location – an individual who happens to write prolifically on the larger scale of themes emerging from contemporary art of “global connectivity, environmental issues and the effects of media” (“Hyperallergic”). The fantastic realization and interplay of global and local influences in describing the exhibit identifies the strengths of this international art-criticism blogsphere even further. Terry Smith, on the other hand, seems to grant little devotion to criticism about local arts, although his influence at the University of Pittsburgh could provide potential for engaging youth to understand contemporary art criticism’s identity crisis. As Smith continues to engage modern art theories, hopefully his work will continue to draw international writers attentions to give new insights to Pittsburgh artwork, stimulating more introspection within the Pittsburgh community.
Within this notion of introspective viewpoints, in particular, should not be afraid to provide criticisms of Pittsburgh art. While the Mid-western influences on the city’s social norms tend towards friendly encouragement, dictating constant smiles and congratulations for presenting artists, there needs to be a more genuine correspondence between creator and viewer. Despite this idea to have more honest responses rooted in good intentions, the obvious concern for how this would affect personal relationships cannot be ignored. However, the anonymous forums for criticism could find a unique power in Pittsburgh. Nevertellmetheodds.org is one such place for open discussion of ideas in response to local events where posters are not held accountable for expressing negative judgments.
The website, however, would need to undergo a huge transformation, focused primarily in reorganization of the data and user interface improvements, to make the digital board an attractive and accessible means of criticism for the Pittsburgh public. As it stands right now, one must sift through any and all topics that users post, with no guarantee of quality writing. The site may well be past a point of generating a useful post-and-response database for art-specific events. However, there is hope in “The Pittsburgh Art Blog”, who announced on October 24, 2011 that the site will soon undergo a major change in the way they present information to readers about Pittsburgh’s art-based events, switching from short posts to full-fledged articles. With comments to such writing enabled, a Pittsburgh-based art forum may have a chance to flourish, if those committed to the site are truly willing to face the new challenges of real criticism.
This identifies another key element missing from most forms of critical writing in Pittsburgh: the incentive to spend more time towards or redirect one’s own writing into submitting critical pieces. Those already writing about the arts, employed by the city’s printed publications, have entered themselves into a lower-risk niche. These writers are susceptible to believing that there is an imbalanced trade-off by writing more critically, as the stakes for their own professional reputation are raised and the job becomes more difficult (with attention to word choice becoming even more of a commitment).
For those who are not established writers of the arts, the difficulty lies in the economic truth that most cases will not yield monetary payment for their efforts. In 2006, the Pittsburgh-based Sprout Fund granted a set of local and writers a five thousand dollar grant to embark on a project named the Pittsburgh Art Review, which intended to create a centralized forum for art criticism, discussion, and archiving of events. Lauren Goshinski, co-founder and manager of the project, explains that the group believed the money would have primarily gotten the movement started by providing stipends to the initial rounds of writing and development contributors. However, the allotted resources were still too weak to allow for interested participants to have a proper involvement with the project.
Goshinski reflects that the high-quality perspectives the project sought to bring together required time and money, which the already established publications do not necessarily require or find an issue when seeking contributors. However, she argues that focusing a similar project within a university setting would provide greater means of avoiding these issues. The idea is made possible by the contemporary world’s rare opportunities for art criticism to be learned within academic institutions, let alone practiced according to a standard set of writing rules or guidelines. With art criticism existing with such little means for certification, students could utilize critical writing as an empowering assertion of their involvement with modern-day interactions and feedback structures between media and its viewers.
While it isn’t impossible to find progressive and engaging forums for art criticism in Pittsburgh, too often the longer, more intense projects are overlooked and pushed aside to make way for the quick, frequent, and easily digestible. Some forms of media distributions, such as radio and newspapers, have interpreted Pittsburgh audiences to be less interested in committing daily time-slots to exploring the deeper critical evaluations of local arts communities. However, other formats show great potential for demonstrating Pittsburgh’s growing state of art creation and mindset, as well as its will to have a say in the larger art forums of the world. For this to happen, writers, artists, and audiences need to overcome their fear of giving honest feedback, and realize the personal and communal benefits of expressing such claims publicly. Just as artists re-defined this city’s identity within the past few decades, it is time for the community to learn from their efforts to persuade ourselves and others that Pittsburgh art has a valuable say in defining contemporary art.
“About The Sprout Fund.” The Sprout Fund. The Sprout Fund, 2011. Web. 13 Dec 2011. <http://www.sproutfund.org/about/>.
Byerly, Rick. The Pittsburgh Art Blog. N.p., n. d. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <http://pittsburghgalleries.blogspot.com/>.
Elkins, James and Michael Newman (eds). The State of Art Criticism. New York: Routledge, 2008
Goshinski, L. (2011, December 13). Personal Interview.
Gueyikian, Veken, and Hrag Vartanian. Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & its Discontents. Going Off Script, n. d. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <http://hyperallergic.com/>.
Halford, Macy. “The Book Bench: The Hills Are Alive.” The New Yorker. (2009): n. page. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/08/the-hills-are-alive.html>.
N.p., Online Posting to Never Tell Me The Odds. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <http://nevertellmetheodds.org/>.
“Pittsburgh: Arts and Culture.” Wikipedia. Web. 11 Dec 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is Art. The Pittsburgh Arts Council, n.d. Web. 11 Dec 2011. <http://pittsburghisart.org/>.
Pop City Media. Web 11 Dec 2011. <http://popcitymedia.com/>
“A Progressive Living Essay: Some Reflections Concerning the Purpose of Art and the Possibility of Objective Aesthetic Standards.”On the Purpose of Art. Progressive Living, n.d. Web. 12 Dec 2011. <http://www.progressiveliving.org/Art_Theories_files/purpose_of_art.htm>.
Shearing, Graham. “Art Thoughts: The Provocative Pittsburgh Biennial.” Pittsburgh Quarterly. 2011: n. page. Print.