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Art criticism has been said to be in crisis for decades, and that crisis has inevitably also affected one of the practice’s mainstays: the review. Both quantitative and qualitative evidence suggest that the genre is in trouble. The number of art reviews published by legacy media has been in continuous decline. An archival survey of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s arts and culture section, for example, reveals that the paper ran an average of over 600 exhibition reviews per year in the 1990s; in the years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, that number had gone down to just below 400. And in qualitative terms, we find that discussions of works of art – unlike, say, theater reviews – often eschew contentious or controversial judgments, a development that is no doubt in partly due to the increasingly precarious circumstances in which freelance art critics live and work. They don’t want to get on the wrong side of potential clients; future dinner invitations are on the line, and perhaps also lucrative commissions to write catalogue essays.

In art magazines and other periodicals for which reviews are part of their core business, the volume of criticism hasn’t declined as it has on the pages of newspapers. Yet the structural changes of the past 30 years are palpable here, too: carefully argued critical objections have increasingly yielded to affirmative descriptions. TEXTE ZUR KUNST examined this shift previously in its issue dedicated to the “Verriss” or hatchet job, which came out two decades ago, and more recently by shedding light on debates over art-critical methodology in which the questionable nature of universal value judgments has been a point of contention. The observation of critical timidity, of overcaution in judgment, has only become more pronounced since then, at least with regard to the criticism of art exhibitions: in their apologetic-descriptive style, many reviews more closely resemble the exhibition booklets or press releases available by the gallery door. The genre distinctions between review, catalogue essay, and artist’s portrait are rapidly being blurred.

Yet a purely functionalist perspective on the role of art criticism cannot fully explain this insight: it disregards both the instruments of art criticism and the variable and changing maneuvering room within which the review as a journalistic format operates. The transformation of the media landscape in recent years is yet another factor that must be taken into account. With the move from offline to online media, reviews are now more widely and easily accessible, and so professional critics have additional reason to exercise caution before rendering negative or controversial verdicts – not only because they work under economic constraints but also because they fear being cancelled, triggering a shitstorm, or losing their reputation. In the comment sections of social media and on blogs, meanwhile, we observe that rapid-fire evaluation threatens to supersede informed criticism. Polarizing professions of opinion not tempered by theoretical ambitions of any kind thus stand in contrast with a methodologically well-founded criticism that appears to have lost its capacity to initiate and engage in debate.

In light of the review’s precarious situation, the present issue is intended to make the case for this historically specific genre and take a closer look at the various parameters that define it. What are the characteristics of a review? What can and should it accomplish, and which methods and language games does it rely on? Most basically speaking, reviews are articulations of critical contemplation that introduce, examine, appraise, and contextualize a publicly accessible cultural object.

How their value-generating potential has shifted, in no small part due to the rise of new digital media, is the question of a roundtable conversation between Claire Bishop, Jarrett Earnest, Eva Hayward, Christian Liclair, and Eric Otieno Sumba. Acknowledging the current threats to the form as well as its entanglements in the art market, the participants nonetheless underscore the productive influence that less fast-paced publishing processes, the demand for certain word limits, and the presence of a (paid) editorial team can have on reviewers’ critical thinking. Moreover, by keeping its distance from clickbait and polarizing thumbs-up/thumbs-down rhetoric, (professional) reviewing provides a space in which prevailing standards of value, questionable aesthetic conventions, and dated art-theoretical paradigms can be subjected to scrutiny. Last but not least, criticism can establish a lasting archive of those creative practices that the conventional historiography of art tends to overlook or marginalize.

Peter Geimer’s contribution likewise underscores how writing reviews for publications can be productive for a writer’s critical thinking. Each art magazine, he argues, implicitly comes with its own specific audience – which may compel writers to chart an unfamiliar approach to a familiar object. Assumptions about readership can also be an incentive to rethink methods or basic premises that are thought of as generally accepted. For example, Geimer claims that a reader of TEXTE ZUR KUNST expects reviews to proffer a theoretically informed discourse that zooms out from the works to inquire into the institutional, ideological, or economic frameworks in which they’re embedded. Yet the review itself, as the contributions to this issue demonstrate, is also entangled in the actions of the art market, and not only because economic considerations often preexist the object under discussion and allow it to become visible in the public sphere in the first place. More saliently, the review helps propel the generation of value: it creates a symbolic worth that, in the right circumstances, can be converted into market value.

To point up the potentials of the review as a literary form, this issue of TEXTE ZUR KUNST mostly consists of examples of the genre. But we encouraged authors to use the opportunity to reflect on the status of the review, the methods they employ, and their own role as critics. On the one hand, this brings out the rich stylistic diversity of the review. On the other hand, several writers explicitly note the specific qualities that make the form so vital to (art) criticism.

Ultimately, this issue is intended as a tribute to criticism. Reviews do not only contribute significantly to the formation of the cultural and monetary value of works of art. They also set intellectual standards for conversations within the art world and provide a platform for experimentation with theoretical perspectives, writing practices, and methodological approaches.

Sabeth Buchmann, Isabelle Graw, Antonia Kölbl, Christian Liclair, Anna Sinofzik, and Beate Söntgen

Translation: Gerrit Jackson