The Public Review grew out of many conversations about writing, editing, and reading art criticism. These conversations were almost always marked by a shared dissatisfaction with much of the criticism being published by leading outlets. This feeling stemmed in large part from the shift in criticism from an argumentative practice to what has come to be called “art writing”: short, descriptive reports and personal musings that lack close or critical engagement with their objects. Few arguments are made in these texts, and the opinions or judgements a reader might expect from a genre that implies position-taking are also rare. It’s a form of noncommittal criticism that tends to function most immediately as an addendum to a press release—a product that serves advertisers and institutional stakeholders before any public readership.
The Public Review is a digital publication that attempts a different model, one that aims to cultivate a measured and incisive practice of criticism. It brings together a group of art historians and critics similarly invested in art criticism, and the texts we publish will be long-form reviews of art, film, literature, music, performance, and related scholarship, as well as thematic essays. As the name suggests, a public spirit is at the publication’s core. This manifests not only in how we fund The Public Review—through our readers and public sources—but also in the institutions with which we engage, namely those that claim service to the public in their missions and that produce public history and knowledge. These include museums, project spaces, Kunstvereine, and other non-commercial forums.
We recognize, though, that these institutions are often inevitably engaged in practices that conflict with their responsibilities to the public. In the United States in particular, the tax exemptions that nonprofit institutions are granted for providing a public service have been revealed to benefit their executive stakeholders at the cost of their publics. In the art sector, an increasing number of sources—artworks, books, and public controversies over museum governance and labor practices—have testified to this contradictory dynamic, exposing direct lines between institutions and the social and economic forces at odds with their missions. Art journalism has played a crucial role in excavating these links, publishing investigative reports, open letters, and op-eds that have put pressure on institutions and attempted to hold them accountable to their publics, informing public consensus in the process. Rather than abandon institutions or make them adversaries, this work has demonstrated the art system’s deep commitment to its institutions, insisting that they follow through on their obligations to their publics.
In founding a publication for art criticism with an express focus on the mediation of art for the public, we hope to contribute to and extend this work, to be in dialogue with these institutions and the practices they exhibit, and engage them closely and critically. Part of this endeavor is, then, an investigation of the nature of publicness in its specific relationship to art and in an increasingly privatized political context.
Against that privatization, another dimension of The Public Review’s public spirit is its partial situation in the public university. Several of the critics involved in The Public Review are PhD students at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in the Department of Art History and Criticism, one of few graduate programs in art history that includes criticism explicitly in its name. This institutional formalization elevates criticism to a discipline in its own right, one intimately tied to art history’s pursuits and at home in the intensity and rigor of academic scholarship. Criticism often lacks vital institutional infrastructure to cultivate its form and sustain it professionally. The Public Review hopes to be a forum where criticism-as-a-discipline can be exercised in practice, creating an infrastructure that might nourish a new, robust field of working critics.
In doing so, The Public Review picks up a dormant tradition in Stony Brook’s department. In 1979, Lawrence Alloway and Donald B. Kuspit, who both taught in the department, founded the journal Art Criticism. In the first issue, Alloway and Kuspit introduce the quarterly publication as “the outcome of the editors’ dissatisfaction with published criticism.”1 This sentiment obviously resonates with the present editors, forty-four years later. However, in their moment, Alloway and Kuspit felt reviews of exhibitions to be “very well covered” and instead proposed the journal’s task and its understanding of art criticism as “an index of the ideas of writers working on subjects of their own choice.”2 Throughout Art Criticism’s twenty-two-year run, it published an impressive breadth of long-form essays by working critics, art historians, and graduate students alike.
The Public Review is an attempt to revive Art Criticism. Unlike our predecessor, our publication did not develop solely at Stony Brook; it was conceived and founded independently, and its direction is determined by an editorial board composed of critics and scholars from a variety of institutions. In the spirit of Art Criticism, we seek to publish independent criticism that fills a gap—and, ideally, challenges—the existing criticism of our time. While, today, there are countless reviews of innumerable exhibitions published by many outlets dedicated to producing such content, we do not find the review to be an exhausted or “very well covered” form. Thus, reviews will be our primary output, a genre we aim to expand and push toward broader criticism, taking up current debates and contemporary issues in line with Art Criticism’s vision.
Another departure from this predecessor, an involuntary one, is that we are not funded by the university. Whether the contemporary public university is still willing to invest in a non-revenue-generating project in the humanities remains to be seen. The economics of art criticism, the conditions under which it is produced, were another impetus for founding The Public Review. With staff-writing positions for critics practically nonexistent, criticism is necessarily a freelance trade. Low rates for texts of any length make criticism financially nonviable as a profession. A working critic must earn the bulk of their cost of living elsewhere, limiting the time and energy that can be invested in quality writing projects, or they sustain themselves through independent financial resources. Both of these accommodations risk introducing conflicts of interest.
This financial precarity and unsustainability might account, at least partially, for art criticism’s dissatisfying form. Art publishing might be a notoriously unlucrative industry, but if the corporate publications whose pages, physical and digital, are overrun by advertisements cannot afford—or are unwilling—to compensate authors at rates commensurate with the time and labor expended on writing, art criticism will continue to devolve into a press machine, its texts becoming subsumed completely by market logic. Part of The Public Review’s solution is a temperate publishing schedule. Recognizing that there already exist more texts than can be read, we intend to publish reviews at regular intervals, monthly or bimonthly, determined by the pace at which a text is ready for the public rather than by fixed deadlines. This will also allow us to pay our authors fairer rates, following professional industry standards, for texts that we hope our readers find worth their time and attention, and perhaps even worth supporting monetarily.
Returning to Alloway and Kuspit’s first editorial, we find further resonances of our own intentions. They write, “If Art Criticism meets some of its editors’ hopes for it, we shall be able to claim the appearance of some art criticism, with subjects arising from the writers’ or editors’ decisions, rather than the art market’s.” With The Public Review, we hope to publish public-minded art criticism that finds an eager readership and, in the best case, stimulates discussion and debate beyond itself.