“Critics Taste Better”


Artists rarely write letters to the editor in response to reviews of their exhibitions. Then again, the letter format precludes most artists from responding in their chosen medium. It’s a pity, since many opportunities for exchange are lost: Critics never get critique, while artists never get to participate in a truly interactive public dialogue.

“Critics Taste Better” offered a corrective by pairing seven Berlin-based artists with as many critics, some living in the city and some beyond: Jonathan Meese with Thomas Groetz, Elke Marhöfer with Raimar Stange, Andreas Zybach with Dan Fox, Maureen Jeram with Hans-Jürgen Hafner, Myriam Holme with Aurélie Voltz, Egil Sæbjörnsson with Power Ekroth, and Kerstin Cmelka with Emily Speers Mears. Although the title implied that critics’ “superior” tastes can make them at once cannibalistic and edible, the show offered a gentler form of feedback: Each critic saw one artwork and wrote a comment on it, to which the artist replied with yet another work (or by altering the piece under critique). No originals were on display; instead, this dialogue was captured with a triptych of digital prints, like reproductions of an art magazine. The golden frames around the lowly paper copies and the red carpet running through the space portrayed the review as the ultimate exhibition site for an artist’s work.

I’ve never attended such a quiet opening: Viewers, transformed into readers, stood rapt in front of the texts and studiously compared the works, before and after critique. Marhöfer made a minor adjustment to her initial effort, while Cmelka, Zybach, Jeram, and Holme responded with new works. If anything, this exercise showed that print can hold our attention longer than images. Meese and Sæbjörnsson, who used text in their replies, understood that the critics’ interventions would introduce a slower, more detailed way of looking. Yet Meese’s response to Groetz’s inquiry about his use of Christian symbols—a handwritten twenty-three-page tract, reduced to an A2 page—illustrated what is lost in reproductions. This illegible facsimile also suggested that a critic’s taste is less significant than her direct “eyes-on” experience of the works, which not only clarifies a reproduction’s missing details but also may uphold the aura of the original, its artificial scarcity and high market price.

From this perspective, Fox and Voltz, who wrote about seeing their assigned works as reproductions, may have “failed” as critics, but they intelligently captured the way that most people see an artwork for the first time (and thereafter): on a digital camera or a computer screen, in a gallery artist file or on a magazine page such as this one. If earlier critics dealt in firsthand opinions that might be verified or refuted by other viewer-critics who saw the same show, a globalized art world in which no two people can see all the same biennials has turned that sense of shared experience into a vanishing ideal. Critics still stick to serving up opinions, although their reviews may double as travel literature, as previews for collectors—or as the exhibition itself.

An exhibition-as-magazine, “Critics Taste Better” hinted at other predicaments, like Frieze magazine’s art fair, which lumps together aesthetic and economic evaluations. The curator-critic is another dubious figure: Writing about artists in an international magazine, only to curate their works later, guarantees the international visibility of the exhibition, if not its success. If some of these issues were openly addressed, then criticism might taste better—or at least be easier to swallow.

Jennifer Allen