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02 September 2020

Criticism, publicity and problems of conscience

Criticism, among many other things, is also advertising. To write about something (for better, for worse or for regulation) is to highlight it: the realization that, for the critic, it deserves (at least) a moment’s attention.

Choosing what to write about is a more laborious task than one might imagine. It is not simply a matter of choosing something that we find interesting or abhorrent, but of taking into account a whole series of variables, which depend both on the modus operandi of the critic in question and on the medium that is going to publish it. The editorial mechanisms in which professional criticism moves impose a series of conditioning factors that the critic must take into account. Having recently written about an exhibition in the same gallery or museum, having recently worked with one of the agents involved in an exhibition, questions of over-representation, under-representation of any kind or the particular trend of the medium have a greater influence than our readers might think.

I do not have the space to discuss in detail the validity of these criteria. In general, they seem sensible to me and I prefer media that send you a code of ethics when “signing up” than those that do not. In any case, I would like to emphasize how many of these are purely ideological or moral criteria. You don’t keep your distance from a museum where you gave a lecture last month because it exhibits uninteresting work. In other words, a friend might make the most memorable exhibition I have seen in a while, and even then I won’t write about it. In the same way, if I have to choose between an exhibition by an established artist and one by a debutant, I will devote my time to the latter, as I will try not to spend a semester writing about middle-aged, white, male artists.

Criticism is not simply an expert opinion, but each critic affirms every time he writes where he thinks the focus should be. That’s why I’m concerned that, among the many things we ponder, we haven’t yet considered the kind of business we advertise. Let me explain: do we feel comfortable advertising galleries or institutions that we know mistreat their workers? Do we not mind praising the discursive commitment of such a site to “good practices”, criticism of colonialism, inclusion (etc.), knowing that half of its staff are false self-employed? And it is not worth playing crazy: our habitat is too small for these things to go unnoticed.

The truth is that this is an issue that raises doubts in my mind. I don’t know if the critics should take these problems into account or, if they did, they would be out of their jurisdiction. I know that it causes me problems of conscience, so I have decided to dispatch myself in this column, to see if some illustrious colleague will help me to clarify my ideas.


Joaquín Jesús Sánchez (Seville, 1990) is an art critic, writer and freelance curator. A graduate in Philosophy and holder of an MA in the History of Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, he contributes to prestigious publications, both in Spain and abroad, and in other lesser known sources. Besides researching compelling and complex subjects, he devotes much of his time to trying to memorise Borges’s oeuvre and is fascinated by gastronomic literature.

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