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`I'm no artist but...'

The Critical Condition; In the third part of our week-long series on the culture of criticism, we look at what it means to be an art critic. Who qualifies to eke words out of images? How are exhibitions chosen? And do art critics have any real influence anyway? By Tom Lubbock
So what do you do, then?And you can guess how pleased I am at having this chance to talk for the equivalent of about 10 minutes, uninterrupted, on the subject of my job. Actually, when the question comes, I quite often don't say "art critic". I say "commercial illustrator". That was once my living. It sounds a decent, banausic sort of trade. It causes no trouble. Whereas "art critic" - well, it's one of the very worst classes of person.

What is wrong with art critics? They are as bad as other critics; vindictive, frustrated parasites, and then some. However, there are two main, extra negatives. First of all, the gap between art criticism and what it purports to criticise, seems especially wide: the visual and the verbal, and all that. So the art critic who spins words off images by the yard falls under the grave suspicion of simply faking it. (You may say that music criticism is trickier still, but the music critic somehow isn't such a folkloric figure.)

Second factor: Modernism in the visual arts has been more prominently bizarre than elsewhere. So it's always an art critic who - in the fable - rhapsodises the exquisite modernity of something that turns out later to be the work of a monkey. Indeed, for people who think modern art is a con, it is not the artists (honest nutters) but the critics (pretentious impostors) who are usually the real villains.

But if I've come clean, and if the conversation doesn't stick on those points, then there are a few questions that frequently get asked, and I thought I should note them down.

Most asked question: do you get to choose the shows you write about? Curious one: an oddly practical inquiry. Like saying: do you art critics always get free catalogues? And we do, incidentally, always - or we make the most dreadful fuss. In fact, accumulating large glossy art-books for free is one of the real perks of the profession. I mean, what do the theatre critics get to show for it? Free programmes!

But what this choosing question means, I'm never quite sure. Is it a way of asking whether there's an "agenda" - some general tacit policy, agreed between the media and the art world, about what shows are going to to be covered? Or is it a way of saying: I can see your job must be quite a doss, but if you also chose the shows yourself, it would hardly be a job at all? As to an agenda, there is one. The process happens like this. The paper's arts editor will say to the arts critic: you are going to review X, aren't you? Critic: Oh God, do I have to, nothing to say about it at all. Arts ed: No, I think it's quite major - readers will be aware of it, and want to hear a view. And what makes some show "major" is the usual rolling, self-reinforcing process of established fame, fresh publicity and coverage.

Of course, the whole process gets internalised, all down the line. These conversations don't usually happen. I don't need to be told which shows are major. I know it very well. And the straight answer to the question is that these major shows are pretty compulsory. Others are optional. Some weeks nothing presses and you're free to write about any show you want. Not that I wouldn't want to write about most of the compulsory ones anyway, and not that making people write about what they'd rather not is such a bad thing. For example, I didn't choose this present assignment, and thought it a little bit silly, but I seem to have got some true things said.

As to the charge of idleness, I can only say that for the perfect fusion of work and leisure, the TV critics must surely take the prize. And we art critics do at least see the work under real conditions. We often go in normal public opening hours, unlike film critics who are stuck in small, underground screening cinemas, exclusively in their own company. But I suppose that only makes the art critic's job sound nicer. Yes, it's a good job, no doubt about it.

So another question: what qualification do you have to be an art critic? And again: how do you define what makes one work better than another? These are the sort of questions that are called good questions - i.e. straight answers are impossible, and the right answers sound boring. After all, what qualification could there conceivably be? You can only describe how you came to have the job and how you made some particular judgement, and it can get quite dull.

Besides, these are really general critic queries. And the rest - who's your top artist ever? What about Hirsty, or Ofili, or Saatchi? - are really general party talk. If you wanted to get the best out of your art critic interlocutor, I'd suggest another area of questioning. Think about how art critics both lack an important power and acquire a strange authority.

All critics, like all advertisers, tend to boast about how little effect they have, and really this is a question for proper research. But art critics must be conscious that, with contemporary art at least, there's one clear limit on their influence: bums on seats is not a factor.

No art show closes for bad houses. Runs are fixed, though very occasionally extended. No artistic reputation is made through popular acclaim. The important business of contemporary art isn't done at public exhibitions. It's done in private galleries which the public are hardly encouraged to visit; at any rate, it's done between a small number of dealers, curators and rich people. So however persuasively art critics may speak, they're in a sort of limbo. Most of those they speak to are themselves without influence. Those who have influence don't need the papers for advice. Though possibly the rudest, art critics can never be very ruinous.

True, a good notice and a good crowd are always welcome, and may make a little difference. But if Sensation last year had been a big flop, rather than a big hit, I wonder how much it would have affected the careers of the artists shown. Or put it like this: Sensation was a gamble - a gamble on new art having a wide appeal. And it paid off. But there was no obligation to make the gamble in the first place.

We're talking economics. We're talking about an audience of non-patrons; a public who don't pay the piper or call the tune. This is partly why mainstream contemporary art can carry on in avant-garde mode, whereas mainstream theatre or cinema employ nearly traditional forms. But it also puts art's audience at a distance from the art. They know that the power of choice is elsewhere, and that they are, so to speak, only in attendance, only paying court. And this rarefying distance makes for mystery, and so gives art critics their odd authority.

Expert is the annoying, indicating word. Nobody gets called a book expert, and only a few get called cinema or music experts - and they're not the critics. But art critics easily get called art experts, as if privy to arcana. Or think about arts TV: nine-times-out-of-ten it is visual art that receives the living guide-book treatment; the personal introduction to the mysterious but glorious world of art. It's not just that art looks nice on telly. There's a felt need for these helpful ciceroni - Wendy Beckett, Waldemar Januszczak - to appreciate art on our behalf. Nobody feels the same need to be told how to watch films or listen to music.

Personally, this "let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of culture" approach makes me puke. I want everyone to be grown ups. I don't think art is inherently an arch mystery. I don't especially blame the poverty of visual education, either; I never had any myself. I blame the psychology of economics. It applies to new and old.

Visual art is this sacred mystery because it's out of our hands. It's never made the transition from a feudal to a market economy. It's still run by princes - rich individuals and public functionaries. It stands a thing apart; a treasure. No outrageous profanity by contemporary artists can dent its aura, and the so-called "age of mechanical reproduction" has made not the slightest difference. Nor can art critics, even when they try, easily slough off the role of mystagogue.

Sorry to moan. That's what I do, anyway. But as with most doings, it isn't wholly I that does it.

Tomorrow: Paul Taylor on theatre criticism

Flipbutt (the famous young art critic): `What's this pencil sketch I've found on the easel!'

Our artist: `Oh it's by Flumpkin - the Impressionist all you chaps are so enthusiastic about. Clever isn't it!'

Flipbutt: `Clever! Why it's divine! Such freshness, such naivete! Such a splendid scorn of conventional technique! Such a...'

Our artist: `A thousand pardons! That's the wrong thing you've got hold of! That's just a scribble by this little scamp of a grandson of mine. Not very promising, I fear; but he's only four!' `Punch', 7 July 1894