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What is Art? Michael Kimmelman and Today’s Art Criticism

Michael Kimmelman Corcoran College Commencement Speaker

Michael Kimmelman, acclaimed author, critic, and columnist, will serve as the Corcoran College of Art + Design’s 2013 Commencement speaker. Kimmelman, who began his career as a freelance music critic, currently serves as The New York Times architecture critic and senior critic and was formerly the publication’s longtime chief art critic.

Interview by Corcoran College of Art + Design students Clary Estes (MA New Media Photojournalism) and Jane Pierce (BA Art Studies):

What is art exactly?

I ended up trying to answer this and the next question for a movie, and the results are on YouTube. Perhaps it’s best to let them speak for me:

Is there a wrong or right way to look at art? Create art?

See above.

What first drew you to the art world and art criticism?

I fell into art criticism by accident, when I had just arrived at The Times and the chief critic then, John Russell, was looking for help. Becoming an accidental critic may be best, since you come at things fresh, and I’ve since fallen out of the field, which I also think is healthy because it’s too easy to get stuck in one’s ways after many years, and the public deserves new thinking from time to time.

Becoming an accidental critic may be best, since you come at things fresh.

How has the role of the art critic changed over the years? Considering the rise of the curator in the ‘60s and ‘70s with iconic figures like Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps, what changes do you perceive for today’s careers in art?

Back in the 1940s and 50s, into the early 60s, modern art was still not widely embraced by the American public or art museums, and the New York art scene was much, much smaller than it is now, so it was possible for a critic to gain enormous influence and prominence by standing on the barricades, championing modernism, and also to know exactly who the best artists were. This gave critics back then great power and prominence.

The opportunities afforded Clement Greenberg were quite different than those available today to most critics.

Michael Kimmelman The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa

“‘The idea behind “The Accidental Masterpiece”… is that art provides us with clues about how to live our own lives more fully… about how creating, collecting and even just appreciating art can make life a daily masterpiece.'” (Kimmelman. “The Accidental Masterpiece,” 2005)

It was also a very different time in terms of newspapers, magazines and journals. They provided critics with space for serious ruminations and debate. But gradually the public and museums came around to modern art, and the critic’s role on the front line was greatly reduced, along with the critic’s influence in shaping the art world. Curators and collectors increasingly came to assume public roles, along with artists, and critics turned into ratifiers of a well-oiled system, or curmudgeons, questioning that system. This is not an irrelevant task, and it can be a highly intellectual and civic-minded job. It was always fine by me, but there is no question that opportunities afforded Clement Greenberg were quite different than those available today to most critics.

What dangers do you perceive in the art world right now?

The overwhelming and disastrous influence of money and fashion as ends in themselves. This is a perennial complaint over many decades, but there is no question that it’s worth now than ever. The task of a young artist now is to remain faithful to one’s beliefs and interests and passions and not succumb to what are very powerful attractions.

The overwhelming and disastrous influence of money and fashion as ends in themselves.

What about your work makes you get out of bed in the morning?

Fear of poverty. But also the hope that what I am now doing, writing about architecture and urbanism, may contribute in some tiny but progressive and productive way to the conversation about how we live and to promote a more equitable and humane society. (Read Kimmelman’s recent article Who Rules the Street in Cairo? The Residents Who Build It published by The New York Times.)

Kimmelman is scheduled to speak at the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, at 4 p.m. at DAR Constitution Hall. Additionally, he will receive an honorary degree from the College.