Cultural Autocracy at the New York Times

In New York there is just one newspaper setting the tone of cultural opinion: The New York Times. No other publication has a fraction of its influence. There isn’t commensurate counter-voice that might blunt the The Times’ monopoly—not the New York Observer, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post nor USA Today, despite those newspapers outselling it (The Wall Street Journal is the largest in the US by circulation). This extraordinary situation positions The New York Times as an accidental cultural dictatorship that is at odds with the vibrant, multi-faceted city upon whose creative workers it casts value judgments. In terms of visual art coverage The Times’s dominion is particularly consolidated.

In contrast, Londoners have five major newspapers currently or formerly in broadsheet format, supporting a raft of responses to contemporary art. The Times (the 1785 original) employs Rachel Campbell Johnston, with Waldemar Januszczak at the Sunday Times; The Guardian/Observer has Adrian Searle and Jonathan Jones; Richard Dorment and Alastair Sooke are at The Telegraph, with Andrew Graham Dixon writing for the Sunday edition; the Financial Times has Jackie Wullschlager; and until a 2013 massacre of its arts coverage, The Independent had Charles Darwent. Additionally the London Evening Standard was the platform of controversial critic Brian Sewell until his death in 2015. The paper continues its art criticism with Ben Luke.

London newspapers are increasingly moving writers from staff to freelance positions—an important distinction—but there remains a democratized field of critics producing varied discourse, between rival newspapers and readerships. This permits discursive competition, and precludes the Stockholm Syndrome which afflicts New York readers with their fawning acceptance of whatever The Times says. Londoners don’t regard any single newspaper as an unquestionable authority. That wouldn’t be very British, and while The Telegraph enjoys the highest circulation, the general perception regarding art coverage is that no newspaper has the last word. 

The benefit to London-based, and British, artists is the breadth of intelligent coverage, and even public disagreement between newspaper critics; greater chances of being reputably reviewed; and no publication acting as omnipotent arbiter of what is worthy by lavishing—or withholding—its critical largess. 

Due to the lack of an alternative voice in New York there is a keen, if largely unspoken, awareness that there are artists who have been mentioned in The Times, and those who have not. That one has been acknowledged by The Times, is seen as irrefutable shorthand that one’s work mattered, regardless of quality. It is a terribly destructive precedent. It is similar to an artwork that’s shown at MoMA being considered important—that it must be by virtue of simply hanging in that museum.

The New York Times’ conclave of art critics are read by and beyond the art world, and therefore function as the preeminent channels through which the wider public comes to know art in the city. The current unchanging crop is headed by co-chiefs Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter. Smith has written about New York’s visual art world for almost three decades, principally at that newspaper. She is respected for having stayed out of the fray of art world scandals, resisting the celebrity that might extend from her position, and because she is a reliable and informative writer. Holland Cotter is an even more private figure, who although magnificently knowledgable is susceptible to unsubstantiated proclamations, and indulgent private anecdotes. Will Heinrich, Martha Schwendener, and Jason Farago—serviceable writers—round out The Times’ cadre, although they are mostly confined to short reviews in the “What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week” section.

But the quality of these writers is not the problem. It is the lack of influential critical positions in New York, that is at issue; and when those jobs are occupied oppressively and tenaciously by the same few nuclear-privileged names for decades then the disproportionate influence accorded them devolves into oppression, stagnation and tedium. Along with the Times’ co-chiefs, Peter Scheldahl at the New Yorker, and that nauseating buffoon of self-promotional stupidity, Jerry Saltz round out New York’s 4 very visible critical platforms. The suffocating presence of these writers is detrimental to fresh ideas and newer voices, and displays a fantastic disregard for the wellbeing and refreshment of New York’s art constituencies that they oversee.

In addition to Smith’s staggering duration, Cotter has been at The Times for almost 25 years, while Ken Johnson—who recently left the paper—was approaching two decades. Add to that their time at other publications and collectively these life members of the cultural one percent have been writing for close to a century, with generations of artists required to parade beneath their calcified and prejudiced regimes for a scrap, or a sentence of recognition. Political despots can only fantasize at such unchallenged rulership.

The art world today is one barely recognizable to that which these writers entered so long ago. Now the largest private galleries possess greater floor space than major museums, whose exhibition programming apparently follows in these galleries’ outsized footsteps; money inhibits creativity to a reckless degree; internet transactions and social media disseminate new art and discourse at breakneck speed as artists, fairs, and exhibitions, rise and fall on daily tsunamis of information. While constancy and experience can be desirable they are not enough to justify this continuum of exhausted and exhausting critical figureheads. Having settled permanently at the pinnacle of the apparatus that disseminates approval or disdain, worth or valuelessness, these critics have not expanded discourse, but reduced it.

Responsibility for these ills does not of course rest entirely upon the shoulders of a few critics, however powerful, but the development of the art scene they preside over does, in part. If there is to be vital dialog based on the truths, sicknesses and dynamism of art and society today; if we are to expect, as we must, that New York’s artists and their exhibitions are written about with variety; insight from lived relational experience; and revitalizing ideas born of revolving zeitgeists; then these writers must resign. It is for another article to suggest what the remedy might be to dismantle the Times stranglehold—guest writers each week? Five year limits on its critics’ employment? or preferably, other publications of equivalent import. But for now it is enough to suggest that they have had their say, and earned their retirements. Now they must make way for a diverse, new group of critics who can speak to the issues and art of the day, not by looking down at cultural shifts and the art made in response, but because they are affected by them, and can relate to them. Those are non-negotiable attributes that the current Times critics can no longer claim.

Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 10-12

Darren Jones is a Scottish art critic, artist and curator, based in the United States.

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