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  • Rainey Knudson

Ruth Reichl, David Pagel, and Negative Criticism (355 words)

The food critic Ruth Reichl recently said about her time writing restaurant reviews:

I kept a photograph of a young couple on my bulletin board... I imagined they were people who didn't have very much money, and they saved up all year to go out for one great meal on their anniversary. And every time I was tempted to hedge my bets and say something nicer than I really felt about a restaurant, I would look at them and think, 'they're going to go there because you said that.' And they kept me honest.*

I like this notion. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with art. Art critics never think, "my readers are going to buy a mediocre work of art because I wrote that." Critics don't have that kind of power. Most people, even if they're broke, will treat themselves to a restaurant once in a while. But very few people buy art made by working artists.

Over the past few years I took a bit of a break from art, and am now getting back into looking at it regularly. I am realizing how much better I am at looking at art than I was 25 years ago, when I started writing about art professionally. Getting good at looking at art is the work of a lifetime.

Like most critics, I always found that about 80-90% of the art I saw is not that great. I still find this to be true. But even as I get both choosier and more expansive—quicker to weed out the so-so and better at confidently recognizing the good—I am increasingly disinclined to write negative reviews. It's needlessly demoralizing for artists, and it has no effect on the art market.

No, these days I'm excited to write about things that I'm excited about. The LA critic David Pagel once said that he just wanted to "make the world safe" for the art he liked. I feel the same way.

* Reichl (pronounced RYE-shul) was interviewed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the wonderful podcast Wiser Than Me, a series of conversations with older women, mostly in their 70s and 80s.


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