Interviews

Is Arts Criticism Inherently Political: In Conversation with Sarah Rose Sharp

photo c/o Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a visual artist and writer based out of Detroit, MI. Her writing practice includes poetry and fiction, as well as arts criticism which has been featured in Hyperallergic, and Art in America. We discuss the role of subjectivity and cultural difference in arts criticism, as well as whether or not arts writing and politics are inseparable.

Do you view your work as an art critic as separate from your art practice, or as a part of it?

I have found that life is more fulfilling for me, in general, when I stop trying to dictate what is and is not a part of my art practice. There are times when I’m making lots of objects and working with physical materials, and times when I’m mostly reading, traveling, having conversations, looking at art, and of course, writing about it—those things are all part of a process that informs and contributes to my making process. I think it’s an immature or cliché view of “being an artist” to limit that experience to, like, wearing paint-spattered pants and being in the studio. I am an artist, so most of what I do is affected by and contributes to a creative spirit—sometimes that looks like discernible art objects, sometimes it looks like elaborate meal preparation, sometimes it looks like writing and reflecting on other people’s discernible art objects or processes.

That said, there are skills or frameworks that apply much more to arts writing than art making, and vice-versa—but I see a place later in this interview where we can talk about that.

Do you consider arts criticism to be inherently political in nature? Why?

Like, all arts criticism? No. A huge amount of art is in circulation as a commodity, and at least a fair bit of the writing about it is sort of hand-puppetry to add value based on loose or direct self-interest.

Further, not to be too semantic about it, but I don’t think there’s much that’s “inherently political in nature” besides perhaps voting, serving political office, and political protest. Even aside from linguistic pedantry, I think terming acts as “inherently political in nature” is sometimes a form of virtue signaling and self-aggrandization. It’s true, just to exist as a person of color, or female, or queer, or as a differently-abled body in certain spaces might be extremely disruptive and courageous—but I think our current habit of terming existence as “political” distracts from the fact that the country is governed by an actual political system that continues to be the purview of mostly rich, white, Christian, cis males. Being involved in (and hopefully changing) that system is inherently political. Arts writing is arts writing.

That said, if I were prone to the aforementioned type of self-aggrandization, I guess I might say that while art is pleasing to me personally because of its many beautiful and cathartic qualities, I view art as crucial to society because it is the most powerful mechanism for teaching critical thinking. There are no “right” answers in art; to engage with it is to commit to finding your own sense of resolution and value. Critical thinking is a powerful skill, because it enables us to question information—and a lot of politics today seems based in limiting, distorting, and destabilizing our access to information. So, I think some arts writing is especially concerned with building bridges between people and the art and artists that might help them to think more critically about the world, and is, in this respect, political.

photo c/o Sarah Rose Sharp

Arts criticism can often feel deeply entrenched in academia, using language that implicitly excludes certain audiences, reflecting the intersections of language, class, and privilege—“if it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical, nor revolutionary” Is accessibility of language and inclusivity of audience important to you as a writer?

Yes.

To some degree the art critic has historically been presented as an objective arbiter of taste, who remains neutral or unbiased by social constructs such as race, class, gender, culture. Within this context what are your thoughts on objectivity in arts criticism?

I touched on this earlier, when I spoke about different frameworks for arts writing and arts criticism, and I’ll elaborate here—when I’m writing about art, I really try to avoid, as much as possible, thinking about whether or not I like it. Liking something is highly subjective and, from my view, highly personal information that is not germane to what an artist is trying to do and how successful they are in doing it. In fact, I do some of my best writing about art that I don’t like, because it means I have to work harder to resolve my relationship with it. People who approach art outside of a critical framework have the luxury of just saying: I like it/I don’t like it. For myself, I tend to reserve those kind of value judgments for my own work as an artist. So when I’m looking at art as a critic, I might have sort of kneejerk immediate response (“Way too much blue!”), but I tend to file those away under information that’s more relevant for my own art-making decisions (“Use less blue!”) rather than critical response (“There is too much blue art and art should not be blue anymore.”)

But I mean, listen, here’s a dirty secret: everything is subjective. Art is subjective. Lived experience is subjective. Journalism is subjective. Storytelling is subjective. Every piece of information you choose to include or exclude based on your assessment of its importance, is a choice, and one that affects the viewer or the reader. You can choose to edit this interview in a way that utterly distorts the things I’m saying (I hope you don’t!) That’s why critical thinking is important—it’s not just about unpacking information, it’s about unpacking the source of the information.

But as far as being an arbiter of taste, that’s a really easy foil to avoid, and I can say with relative certainty that I avoid it. There is nothing more subjective than taste. Consider it in literal terms: we are eating pad Thai, and you say, “Ugh, this is too spicy for me!” and I say, “Listen, it’s really best for food to be spicy. All the most important food is spicy. Thai food is often spicy, and if you can’t appreciate spicy food, you are unsophisticated.”

You might be able to force yourself to ingest it, so you look cool to your fellow diners, but that’s really not going to change how it tastes to you. Why would I want to force people to eat something just because that’s how I like it? Get some satay instead!

‘Art’ itself as a term isn’t universal, but rather in flux across time and space, meaning different things to different cultures. With regards to cultural relativism, can/should art critics critique work from cultures separate from their own?

I am not super into placing limitations on what people should and shouldn’t do, aside from those acts that are malignant to other people, sentient creatures, and environments. I am sensitive to the role of critics, in terms of having an impact on the success of a given artist, but I also think that an art ecosystem is literally incomplete without criticism. This is because art critics—at least ethical ones—exist outside of the art market. We are not paid by institutions, galleries, or artists. We are independently employed (rather tenuously, I might add) to reflect upon art. Perhaps I will hazard to say that we shouldn’t have an agenda in doing that (but realistically, we probably do).

But can we critique work from cultures separate from our own? I guess that depends on how separate we’re talking. I am not in the habit of, like, kicking in a kindergarten classroom door during art time and wandering around taking notes. I am not parachuting into the middle of the rainforest to find someone weaving a basket and professionally evaluating how that gels with the history of vessel-making (although it sounds like something fun to do in my spare time). I have taken great joy in going to visit artisans—people who make alebrijes in Oaxaca, or tile-makers in Marrakesh—but do not consider that to be a place where I am acting as a critic (though it may inform my thinking about work I encounter, going forward!) Frankly, though I love to visit museums, I rarely write about art history, because I see it as a pretty separate field, one already saturated with writers that have a much greater depth of scholarship and experience than I.

However, if an artist from a separate culture (however we might define that) chooses to put work on display as art in an art environment, well…then they are a part of art-culture, and as I am a part of art-culture as well, I feel I can critique that work. It is a highly romantic (and, in my opinion, destructive) notion that artists are somehow accidentally discovered and inadvertently end up in the spotlight. Artists who show their work in galleries hustle like hell to get there. Artists who receive fame and critical attention most certainly court it. It would be patronizing in the extreme for me to treat art presented in an art environment as somehow needing special handling, based on the cultural identity of the artist. If I don’t understand something, I make a good faith effort to do independent research and talk to people who can provide context for me—including the artist, when possible. I consider it my charge to go above and beyond the average viewer in an effort to meet the art. If someone doesn’t want their art to be subject to critique, they shouldn’t place it in the public sphere—I promise, I am not going to come into their studio and critique their work by force.

All that said, I also try to avoid talking out my neck about things I don’t know anything about. But that’s a good habit for most people to cultivate, I think, including artists, who sometimes “research” things for a hot minute and then decide to make art from a place of supposed authority about it. We live in a global society, and honestly, we always have. Cultural dissemination has always been a part of humanity—sometimes under extreme duress, it’s true, but artists and critics, in my experience, are grasping to make the most of shared culture and not usually seeking to exploit it. Nobody knows everything, especially when it comes to the lived experiences of other people, but making an effort to understand is a good start. Art can be a beautiful attempt to bridge those experiences, move them outside our individual minds and bodies and into a shared place where they can be examined, critiqued, affirmed, or misunderstood—even across thousands of miles and hundreds of years. To me, this is the pinnacle of human existence, and I would never seek to broadly limit the scope of criticism, or who can be a critic.

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