In order to have a sustainable and successful art community with the potential to develop instead of becoming stagnant or stilted, there needs to be a public discourse and criticism of art. Art cannot evolve without a context within which to grow—without one, there is only so far art can evolve before it becomes entirely stilted and obsolete. Pittsburgh, however, appears to be the exception to the rule. While the city maintains a growing art community, the art criticism and public discourse of the city is arguably invisible, scattered, infrequent at best and, in essence, just not good enough. How, then, has Pittsburgh managed to sustain a vibrant Art community? Is Pittsburgh’s art criticism in as dilapidated a state as people seem to think? In order to answer these questions, we must examine the current state of Pittsburgh’s art criticism in detail so as to understand from where it has developed and subsequently determine the best course of action to take.
Art criticism in Pittsburgh that does exist does so in print, on-line, video and television, but leaves much to be desired. First, a distinction needs to be made between simply writing about art in Pittsburgh and writing art criticism. Mentioning does not equate to critiquing or posing a valid argument. So, despite the fact that many Pittsburgh-based publications mention the arts, these types of articles do not fall in the category of criticism. These articles, then, cannot be discussed as if they were art criticism, despite the fact that many erroneously consider them as such, immediately and noticeably limiting the sheer amount of writing that can actually be considered criticism in Pittsburgh.
One of the first and most consistent sources that comes to in Pittsburgh is print publications. Specifically, Pittsburgh’s newspapers, which contain a range of articles about the arts on a consistent basis, Certain newspapers, like the New Pittsburgh Courrier, rarely, if not never, have pieces that make an argument or active critique about art that would qualify them as criticism. Even smaller papers, like The Northside Chronicle, do make a consistent effort to provide coverage about the art scene, managing to cover most major exhibits around the city. Like the New Pittsburgh Courier, however, The Northside Chronicle and other such newspapers simply post reviews of exhibits, which serve more to provide the reader with information and attempt to get them up and, ideally, out the door to the exhibit being mentioned.
Despite the bulk of the articles about art being written for newspapers. seeming almost promotional in nature, the authors clearly attempting to coerce readers into actually visiting the exhibitions with copious praise and a profound lack of actual critique, some well written articles do critically examine the arts. Major newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Pittsburgh City Paper and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publish pieces regularly about exhibitions going on at the more prominent exhibition spaces around the city and often actually have articles that would qualify as criticism. Hands down covering the most exhibits of any print publication in the city, the Pittsburgh City Paper offers consistent and thorough coverage of essentially everything arts-related event or exhibit going on in the city. Not only is the coverage thorough and consistent, many of the pieces go a step further to offer arguments and observations about the art, the artists and the exhibitions in an interesting and engaging manner. A notable shortcoming (or not, depending on how you look at it) of the Pittsburgh City Paper is that it more or less is limited in scope to exhibitions within the city of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh City Paper never write about events or exhibits in other cities, even ones that are relatively close.
The next print publication that affords some semblance of legitimate art criticism instead of restatement of basic logistical facts is the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Despite not having as many quality articles with the frequently of the Pittsburgh City Paper, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette nonetheless manages to present its readers with reviews about exhibitions going on around Pittsburgh that are decently written. Although the reader is often still aware that the author seems to be pushing you to go visit the exhibition for yourself, the paper and its articles nonetheless manage to be interesting and opinionated.
Finally, of the major Pittsburgh newspapers, there is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which affords at least some criticism of art. The paper has even fewer articles that would qualify as art criticism than the other two paper mentioned, but when they do, like the articles in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, seem to be trying to get readers to go to the exhibit by constantly shedding the exhibitions in a particularly positive light. Rarely is a negative or almost negative phrase ever written. Although the articles, when they occur, are amusing and intelligent, they are noticeably lacking in frequency. Their articles also always center on exhibitions or events in the Greater Pittsburgh area, rarely venturing any further than to explore the Easternmost parts of Ohio.
There are two other print publications worth mentioning for their contributions, however measly, to the state of art criticism in Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University’s The Tartan and University of Pittsburgh’s The Pitt News, both student-run publications. Both school’s student newspapers publish relatively frequent reviews of local art exhibitions. Unfortunately, they both rarely write to a particularly high standard, however, they do attempt to review the Pittsburgh art scene with some degree of professionalism. A valiant effort that falls just short of actually qualifying as well written art criticism, at least the students seem to know that the arts are worth being covered and should be covered, to whatever degree their writers are capable of; at least they’re trying.
After print publications, arguably, the second important source of art criticism in Pittsburgh is online, specifically blogs. Two types of blogs that need to be taken into particular consideration when looking at Pittsburgh’s online art criticism: publications based in Pittsburgh and publications based outside of Pittsburgh. The latter is a very small category that is more or less limited, at least recently, to a single online blog based in Brooklyn, hyperallergic, that posted articles about the Miller Gallery’s Pittsbugh 2011 Biennial exhibit, the Warhol Museum’s pop art phone application and the Mattress Factory’s permanent Kusama piece. These articles can definitely be regarded as criticism and are particularly important in that they are some of the only instances where Pittsburgh art is placed in the context of a larger art scene, one beyond the city’s limits. Important to note in this discussion is that Pittsburgh is rarely, if ever, mentioned in major art journals or magazines based in other cities and, if it is, the Pittsburgh art scene or Pittsburgh in any capacity rarely notices.
Of the online publications based in Pittsburgh, there really aren’t many that contribute to the actual art criticism scene. There are only two, arguably three, blogs that actively contribute to Pittsburgh’s criticism that aren’t affiliated with one of the city’s art museums. The first of these is The Pittsburgh Art Blog which covers more or less all the art related activities and exhibits within the city. Not all the articles are of a critical nature: many are simply reviews or provide information to get the reader to visit the exhibit. Some articles, however, are more in depth and offer real opinions and critiques of exhibits or works around the city. The second notable blog is diggingpitt, which, although the articles about Pittsburgh aren’t particularly plentiful, do exist and do exist consistently. The articles aren’t the best written, but; at least, they do exist, which is a plus for Pittsburgh’s art criticism scene. The third Pittsburgh-based blog, arguably, worth making note of is venangago-go, which shares many similarities with diggingpitt. The articles dedicated to art are very much sporadic; if we’re being honest, there really aren’t very many of them. There are a couple of gems hiding on the site, however, that offer really interesting critiques on Pittsburgh-based exhibitions or on art in general. Regrettably, however, the fact that there are so few such articles on the site makes its importance to the Pittsburgh art criticism scene relatively minimal.
The second camp of art criticism blogs is those affiliated with museums: the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Mattress Factory and the Warhol Museum. Carnegie Museum of Art has a series of articles posted by its director Lynn Zalevesky called “Inside the Museum” that address a number of issues facing the museum world as well as occasionally critiquing significant works or exhibits in the art world outside of Pittsburgh. While some of Zalevesky’s articles are promotional in nature, making no secret of trying to get readers to visit whatever shows the museum has up; many of her posts are thoughtful insights and observations about contemporary art and museums. Since it is, however, written by an individual who is not only explicitly affiliated with a particular institution, but, as such, biased towards it as well, taking her posts as legitimate beyond the context of the Carnegie Museum of Art and her obligations to the museum and to Pittsburgh as its director is difficult to do and certainly marginalizes, however slightly, her contributions to the state of art criticism in Pittsburgh.
In contrast, the Warhol Museum has a number of blogs that don’t offer thoughtful or careful criticisms of art or Pittsburgh art, but serve purely self-promoting purposes, touting the museum’s current endeavors in a glaringly obvious attempt to nudge people in the general direction of the museum’s admissions desk. Similarly, the Mattress Factory’s blog bombards the reader with pictures of past events and details about upcoming ones in a not-so-subtle attempt to entice visitors to the museum. As much as it would be nice to be able to do, neither of these blogs really qualifies nor can be classified as criticism.
To finish the exploration of the significant contributors to Pittsburgh’s art criticism scene, two more venues need to be taken into account: the WQED Horizons series and CBS Pittsburgh. WQED Horizons is classified as “multimedia TV” and is essentially a series of short videos posted online by WGED that occasionally address art world issues, but, happily, address them critically and in depth. The infrequency of these arts videos cannot be stressed enough, but the fact that they exist in any capacity is nonetheless a pretty amazing contribution to art discourse, despite the fact that not many may realize they exist as they’re hidden on a website renowned for playing Jazz and Classical music on the weekends. In addition to this unique resource is CBS Pittsburgh, which provides articles about art related topics and events going around the city. Although the nature of many of these articles is clearly an attempt to persuade the readers, an overwhelming trend that appears to be occurring in Pittsburgh, their articles often go beyond simply reiterating the details of an event to actually giving a history and providing a context about an exhibit, event or artist. The articles are incredibly accessible and easy to comprehend; they’re not at all snobby, but they’re definitely intelligent, if not accidentally, art criticism, despite, their relative infrequency.
Given this state of art criticism in Pittsburgh as a whole, a number of conclusions can be drawn about the nature of its character and, by extension, about the entire Pittsburgh art scene. First off, not only is Pittsburgh’s art criticism scattered, but genuinely good and well written criticism is excruciatingly hard to come by, either written in Pittsburgh or written about Pittsburgh. This lack of centrality makes it difficult to nearly impossible to form a solid foundation from which to develop or expand the city’s criticism in the future.
Of the articles that do exist about Pittsburgh art, a lot of writing is promotional in nature, trying to get people up and out to exhibits, rather than being critical of the quality of the work being produced. The writing aims to target people who wouldn’t necessarily go see an exhibition in the first place, people who aren’t interested in reading art criticism much more weighty than a simple and short review. The audience of these publications, the city newspapers specifically, is not exclusively art-y people. Their audience may not care about reading art criticism; they probably care more about whether the Steelers won a game. So that’s what the newspapers provide its readers instead of extensive and prolific art criticism because, after all, they are a business and want their audience to keep buying their product.
Furthermore, there’s simply not a lot of criticism produced in Pittsburgh; there aren’t many publications that take the time to write about art, let alone criticize it well. This may be indicative of the fact that, true to the city’s history, the art scene and its art criticism scene are more concerned with production of art in the first place. Perhaps Pittsburgh has not yet reached the place where it wants to or can be concerned with the overall quality of the art being produced. Yes, there is some great work being produced, but there is equally and more prolifically genuinely bad art being produced. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that there is no desire for a standard for excellence (or a standard of any kind, really) yet in Pittsburgh, probably due to a lack of criticism; a definite catch twenty-two.
Arguably the most important conclusion that can be drawn about the state of Pittsburgh’s art criticism is that it’s pretty much confined to itself; Pittsburgh isn’t looking outside itself and no one else is looking towards Pittsburgh. Any criticism about art or exhibits being produced or taking place in Pittsburgh is written about and published in Pittsburgh, with few exceptions. Occasionally, you might see a piece of art criticism from another city about something occurring in Pittsburgh, but you will also find very few people taking notice, let alone responding. If you look at blog posts from hyperallergic, the only feedback was in response to a video that took place at the Mattress Factory of a small and very adorable child. You rarely see pieces about art happenings in Pittsburgh in other cities’ publications because no one else really seems to care what’s going on in Pittsburgh.
Not only do other cities neglect Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh tends to neglect other cities in return. Only once in a blue moon do any Pittsburgh publications ever write about art outside of Pittsburgh. Furthermore, it’s rare to see pieces of criticism in Pittsburgh that are not directly based on a physical exhibition or event that’s taking place with the real exceptions, of Carnegie Museum of Art’s blog or The Pittsburgh Art Blog.
Based off these conclusions, the observation can be made that people, very generally, don’t expect criticism (let alone good criticism) to come from Pittsburgh. Taking it one step further, there’s virtually no one reading (or taking seriously) the criticism that is being written in Pittsburgh because it’s not particularly substantial. Rarely do you find criticism that goes to far as to make an argument or explicit assertion of any kind. Pittsburgh art criticism and, by extension, Pittsburgh’s entire art scene aren’t relevant to a large audience either within or outside the city itself. Criticism isn’t expected or desired and so it’s simply not being produced.
Despite the lack and lackluster status of Pittsburgh’s art criticism, important to note is that there is, nonetheless, a vibrant and developing arts scene. Despite the fact that the scene is more or less entirely independent, it is nonetheless blossoming and growing. The arts community, however, will reach a standstill if there remains little to no discourse or discussion.
There are a number of factors that contribute to making art criticism in Pittsburgh what it is today. The first is the state of Pittsburgh publications, art related or otherwise. None of Pittsburgh’s paper publications are particularly well respected outside of Pittsburgh. Simply put, no one takes the papers seriously; no one takes what’s written in them seriously, no one takes art criticism printed in Pittsburgh seriously. Not just a lack of reputability, but there is also a surprisingly small number of publications produced as compared to other cities with more successful art criticism occurring.
This leads to a second contributor: the interest, or lack thereof, in criticism from Pittsburgh. In terms of audience interest, these paper publications, which are more or less the only legitimate and consistent source of criticism in Pittsburgh, are not very interesting or appealing to very many people. Within Pittsburgh, no one has reason to believe that the existing publications will create or support intelligent criticism, so artists and art enthusiasts turn to publications outside of Pittsburgh to get their fix. The same can be said of artists and art enthusiasts who don’t reside in Pittsburgh: they have no reason to read Pittsburgh criticism, so they don’t. Furthermore, Pittsburgh’s art scene isn’t relevant to a more national audience so there’s even less reason to read about what’s going on in its art world if you’re not already a part. Within the community of those who should, in theory, be interested in what Pittsburgh has to say, they have, arguably, turned to other sources that maintain a level of credibility, legitimacy, frequency and consistency that Pittsburgh’s art criticism does not afford them.
In terms of getting art critics with more legitimacy in the world of art criticism than those currently in Pittsburgh, due to this lack of interest in Pittsburgh’s criticism, it becomes very difficult to attract reputable or competent writers. No one wants to write for a publication that isn’t well respected if they have the opportunity to work elsewhere.
Thus, Pittsburgh is faced with a dilemma: how can it increase the proliferation and quality of the criticism being produced? If the art community is to be sustained and developed in a long-term capacity, dialogue and discussion is absolutely crucial and most intelligent dialogue and discussion comes in the form of intelligent art criticism.
Before any recommendations can be made, the aims and the outcome that is being striven for must be considered. Art criticism is inherently intertwined with the art practice and art scene of a city, thus any changes to one will have implications for the others. This is not to say, however, that the change will be inherently good or bad. There are two approaches that can be taken in terms of changing the state of art criticism: an approach centered around the art world of Pittsburgh as independent and an approach centered around Pittsburgh’s part in the larger national and international art world. Before these two approaches can be taken, another course of action must first be pursued: to increase the amount and kind of criticism being produced in Pittsburgh, regardless of whether the implications are local, national or international.
If the goal is to increase the sheer presence of Pittsburgh’s art criticism, there are a number of simple steps that can be taken. First, and most obviously, there should simply be more writing about art happening in Pittsburgh. How can that happen? Well, there are a whole lot of art, art history and writing students in the city who would jump at the chance to intern with any one of the paper publications in the city. Not only would these internships would provide valuable experience and allow these individuals with the ability to contribute to the arts discourse by publishing visible, frequent and well-informed pieces of writing, but these internships would cost the organizations little to no money or time. The contributions could be as simple as an intern-run blog associated with the paper’s website; it doesn’t have to necessarily be in print. If a number of publications all instituted similar programs, art criticism in the Pittsburgh would automatically become more robust simply by becoming larger. In turn, this would lead to more reputable art criticism in Pittsburgh due to the frequency and quality of criticism being produced.
Another, slightly more complicated, potential solution for how to increase the amount of criticism being produced is also contingent on Pittsburgh’s student population. Universities inherently foster a dialogue and by simply find a means to make the discourse surrounding art public; Pittsburgh’s art scene can benefit and continue to flourish. Perhaps making private discussion forums open for the public to participate would act as a catalyst for further criticism in Pittsburgh.
A third potential solution for increasing the sheer number of pieces of art criticism being produced in Pittsburgh would be for an individual, university or arts organization, perhaps, to sponsor a competition for art criticism. Doing so would not only create art criticism, but also elevate its status as something important. Hopefully, by affording that particular type of writing a certain amount of prestige, more individuals would want to create a public art discourse in Pittsburgh.
Another possible solution is very simple: create a public, online forum where many different individuals have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of art in Pittsburgh. Since art criticism is currently very de-centralized, there’s very little public discourse and discussion because no one knows the best place to start discussing. Starting such a forum through a Museum or University facebook page, then moving the discussion to a separate online location may be most effective. Not only will there be increased discussion, this also opens the avenue for collaboration on other arts and art criticism related projects that would go otherwise unrealized because there’s no truly effective or remotely easy means of finding like-minded or interested individuals that would actually respond.
The only real distinction between expanding Pittsburgh criticism versus expanding criticism coming from Pittsburgh into the national and international art scopes is the actual content of the pieces, which is ultimately dictated by editors and writers, which is difficult control unless you are those editors or writers. If the goal is to expand and enlighten the Pittsburgh art scene and the exhibitions going on and artists working in Pittsburgh, publications should continue to focus on events and exhibits. Additionally, writers might want to focus on individual artists, perhaps going to their studios and writing from there.
If, however, the goal is to expand into and gain legitimacy in the larger national and international art scenes, the focus of criticism needs to expand beyond simply Pittsburgh artists, events and exhibitions to encompass other cities, other cities’ artists and discuss overarching topics and trends within the art world. In order for others to acknowledge Pittsburgh art and criticism, Pittsburgh needs to acknowledge the art, criticism and dialogue of other cities. Once that dialogue is created, hopefully, other cities and other art scenes will reciprocate and trend towards acknowledging and legitimizing Pittsburgh’s art and criticism on a broader level.
What the state of Pittsburgh’s art criticism comes down to is this: despite the fact that the art community has managed to sustain itself and develop, if Pittsburgh’s art criticism does not work to get its act together, its arts community will become stagnant and, ultimately, obsolete. An arts community cannot continue without discourse, as Pittsburgh will inevitably discover. The current state of art criticism can be attributed to a number of causes and the future state of art criticism can be salvaged to a variety of solutions. At this point, a single individual has the power to completely revitalize Pittsburgh and its art criticism, a unique and important opportunity that would be in the best interest of the entire Pittsburgh arts community not to ignore.
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