It's Settled: Dallas Needs Better Arts Criticism

After last week's hastily organized arts discussion with Mayor Mike, there was much to sift through: Do white men have the answers? Are artists, as the Mayor put it, really just "human capital"? How do we get artists to move here and stay here, and which ones do we thrown money at? There were moments of clarity on the panel, but no real radical ideas, and no real focus on the various art communities in Dallas.

See also: How to Improve the Arts in Dallas: The Best Lessons from Mayor Rawlings' Symposium

One topic that merits revisiting, however, is the need for more criticism. It was tackled last week at CentralTrak, by KERA's Jerome Weeks; former Observer writer Charles Dee Mitchell; D Magazine's Peter Simek; Charissa Terranova, Assistant Professor of Aesthetic Studies at UTD; and Frances Colpitt, the Deedie Potter Rose Chair of Art History at TCU. Together, they attempted to answer a more specific question: What is art criticism in Texas, and do we need it?

Weeks initiated the discussion by referencing a piece written by The Brooklyn Rail art critic and editor Irving Sandler, who produced a list of 14 questions for art critics to consider, and which provided a launchpad for the panel.

Mitchell pointed to our complicated past with criticism -- "For 20 years, a bad review in Dallas went off like a bomb" -- which brought up the issue of geography, the isolation of old Dallas, where you were allowed to fail and, as a result, artists rallied around each other. There was the issue of voice and audience.

Weeks: "Every act of reviewing is an act of persuasion."

Colpitt: "The idea of insight; tell me something new ... Think bigger, not just local."

Simek: "What is lacking in Dallas is someone who, every week, is going to everything, from the galleries to the grassroots."

Weeks commented on the prevalence of snark, which brought up the topic of negative reviews. Terranova remarked she doesn't want to "waste time writing about bad stuff. I don't want to create negative energy." That remark was met with a chorus of heavy sighs and audible eye rolls from the crowd.

Is it a waste of time to critique the "bad stuff"? Is there not merit in the honest appraisal of work, in hopes that a constructive critique might make that artist better, or, as Colpitt said, tell the reader something new? Do communities only thrive on positive affirmation? The arts scenes in New York and L.A. were mentioned quite a bit, but if Dallas wants to compete with those scenes, why would we not need a critical class that also competes?

When asked by an audience member if we need art critics, Terranova said, "We have alternatives now." When asked to name the publications that are contributing to the dialogue locally, she ticked off a few names, then essentially negated the past hour and a half of dialogue with a line that I at first assumed was a joke:

"I'm not going to tell you what I really think."

Last summer, Richard Brody wrote a piece on negative criticism for the New Yorker. I was reminded of it after last night's discussion:

"Art is a place of maximal danger; it endangers the soul of the artist no less than the soul of the reader or viewer or listener. Exaltation comes at a price; sublimity, after all, involves a type of terror. Critics don't need to be nice ... but they do need to know where they stand."