Eight months later, I’ve never been busier. That’s a profound blessing, given how many people have lost their livelihoods. But it also signals significant changes to how criticism has been transformed by the crisis, and why it may never be the same.
The pandemic, and the social fissures it has exacerbated, including stark divides along class and racial lines, has scrambled the usual categories of American life, including those that once governed the arts. Old rules have fallen by the wayside, in some cases because there were urgent needs that outweighed the value of tradition, and often because the familiar rules no longer seemed to make sense. The pandemic has helped tip the balance of some of our most painful and persistent conversations, upending the usual rules.
After decades of anguish and argument over monuments to people who used their power and privilege not for the public good, but in service to white supremacy, suddenly those statues started coming down in cities like Richmond, where they were once thought too historic, or somehow too sacred, to touch. Symphony orchestras, late to the game in almost every way when it comes to social change, were no longer gatekeepers when it came to defending the old “canon” against music by women, people of color and composers outside the Western tradition.
Critics were also freed from some of their old habits, which no longer seemed particularly helpful. Schedules weren’t dictated by major arts institutions, and with no shows happening anywhere “in real life,” it was just as easy to write about accessing art virtually from across the world as it used to be to cover a show across town.
Freed from the obligation of keeping up with a regular calendar of exhibition openings, or a concert schedule or a weekly march of theatrical premieres, critics have written more about the personal experience of art rather than the specific content of art in particular. Perhaps the pandemic made people, including arts writers, more raw to art as well, more aware of the intellectual and emotional processes that help us make sense of it, and better able to describe them.
This more reflective, more personal moment in arts criticism may widen the audience for arts writing. Because critics deal with art on a daily basis, they sometimes fail to communicate something more fundamental: the daily, lived experience of having art in one’s life, the “why it matters” that keeps you coming back, again and again, year after year. A year ago, my daily reading was largely determined by what curators considered to be important and relevant, catalogue essays and scholarly articles related to upcoming exhibitions. Now, I follow my passions, and it’s always easier to communicate one’s own passions than those of other people.
Networks have been disrupted, too. There is a strong social dimension to criticism which, from the outside, may look indistinguishable from herd thinking. From the inside, it feels more like a constant scramble to keep up with a common language, to be up-to-date with an evolving list of names and topics — who is everyone watching and what do we care about?
It isn’t entirely cynical, because many social networks function in similar ways. But with critics dispersed, galleries closed, artists working in isolation and the social apparatus that ordinarily serves as the common ether of the arts world now on hiatus, I feel far more free to like things without permission, without even a hint of strategy or calculation. If I stay off Twitter, it’s almost as if everything I used to hate about the dark side of the arts world doesn’t even exist anymore.
The pandemic has also made it clear that artists exist in categories quite different from what we might have imagined. The common conception of artists before the shutdown — a view that wasn’t particularly accurate and was largely determined by stereotypes left over from the “culture wars” of the past century — is that they belong to the so-called coastal elites. They were perceived as having more in common with knowledge workers in Brooklyn or technocrats in Silicon Valley, than, say, people who perform the necessary duties of a service economy in small communities all across the country.
The devastation of the arts economy, the personal privation of artists, performers, small entrepreneurs who run galleries and nonprofit leaders struggling to keep community arts groups afloat, has unraveled the old stereotypes. Artists may be wildly more creative than many of the people who are routinely lumped into that tired old category — the creative class — but they have suffered far more from this enforced period of disconnection than people who spend most of their days moving data on screens.
What is obvious now should have been obvious before: the geographical dispersion of the arts and the economic vulnerability of so many people in the arts field. These facts will make it more difficult — more egregiously shameful — to vilify the arts as elite, out of touch or apart from the mainstream of American life.
One of the more rigorous of the old rules that is falling away is the church-state division between artists and critics, a red line that made them often seem to be antagonists. This is a sensitive subject, and, to some extent, the old independence must be respected if critics are to be fair-minded. But as the pandemic has freed critics from their usual patterns, the arts world seems larger, richer and wider. And the more there is to write about, the less bitter the old battles and disputes become. A critic can follow his or her own whim, from thing to thing, enthusiasm to enthusiasm, no longer obliged to pass judgment on things that aren’t of interest. A Russian figurative painter working in charcoal and water color? A conceptual artist who exists entirely outside of the academic or gallery system? Never heard of them? Who cares? Why not?
I find that, since the pandemic began, the arts seem more desperately important than they ever have, and that I don’t have time for anything that doesn’t matter. I pick the books I read with more care and read them more slowly. And I find myself disciplining my mind the way teachers sometimes do wayward students: If you’re not going to pay attention, then do something else. Perhaps this is most apparent to me in my social life, greatly circumscribed and radically transformed. It’s not just that I see fewer people and for less time. But when I do see people, we don’t waste time. Conversations get more quickly to the essence, feel less performative and ritualized.
For critics who are fortunate enough to have jobs and access to audiences after the pandemic, perhaps that will be the essence of after-pandemic criticism. More personal, more to the point, more empathetic, more open and less formulaic. If critics still want to clash swords and hold people to higher standards, it will be to demand the same authenticity from the institutions that once determined so much of our cultural life.