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The Rotten Shark and the Decline of Art Criticism

Last Sunday's article in the L.A. Times laments over the decline of influence that art critics -- "once almighty arbiters of American taste" -- have in shaping American cultural life today. It's ironic that, with an ever-expanding audience for art and new museums popping up everywhere, newspaper's cultural coverage has declined, both in terms of the number of critics writing and the column inches devoted to the subject. The same goes for major news magazines. And if you came across any art coverage on TV recently, please let me know immediately.

On the heels of the L.A. Times article comes the news in today's N.Y. Times that the venerated Columbia University School of Journalism announced the closure of its prestigious National Arts Journalism Program, which lost its financial backers. I do feel sorry for the decline of influence and prestige of art criticism, but the problem, in my opinion, lies with critics trained mostly to speak impenetrably to each other rather than directly and passionately to their audience. How much patience would you expect from a theater producer before firing the performers who lose their audience?

As Mark Twain famously quipped, "Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated." The same goes for lamenting over the demise of art criticism; just check out the proliferation of art blogs online, in particular art.blogging.la and Modern Art Notes, two of my favorites. And tomorrow, I look forward to meeting number of colleagues at the International Art Critics Association's three-day conference, which this year takes place here in Los Angeles. Let's hope that the energy of the diverse and bustling art scene in L.A. will persuade art critics to abandon their favorite occupation -- naval gazing -- and instead fire up their pens (OK -- their laptops) to write eloquently and directly to the growing audience out there, in the real wide world.

For example, how about the follies of private collectors spending a fortune buying 'under-cooked' art from hot, young artists fresh out of art school? Or, what do you think about the severe over-supply of artists in today's market? I was told that every year American art schools graduate more artists than the entire population of the city of Florence during the Renaissance! It's naive to believe that an indefinite proliferation of museums, art schools and artists correlates with an increased output of creative genius. What such a proliferation brings is an increased amount of mediocrity. A museum show used to mean quite a lot in the career of an artist. Nowadays, young trendy artists can expect to have museum shows before the ink of their art school diplomas has completely dried out. With so many new museums built every year, what else do you expect? Or what do you think about Damien Hirst's infamous 14-foot tiger shark suspended in a gigantic tank of formaldehyde? It was once owned by Charles Saachi but last year he sold it back to the artist for a reported $1.5 million. And now, less than a year later, it was acquired by a billionaire collector for close to $12m in spite of the deteriorating condition of the shark that rots from the inside. Would you believe that this man intends on spending millions more on restoring the rotting creature instead of dumping the damn shark and substituting it with a new one?!

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