Zak Smith’s Tips For Art Critics

Yesterday infamous painter Zak Smith went on a bit of a Twitter rant outlying 67 tips for art critics. Zak is good people, a great artist and has some really interesting thoughts on art and art criticism. He’s a successful fine artist and I’m sure he has an MFA from Yale so if you care about that sort of thing you might think he’s not completely talking out of his ass. As someone who’s love of art was destroyed by a combination of art school and disgust at the contemporary art scene I really enjoyed reading his Twitter manifesto. Here are Zak’s points in their entirety. Some of the Tweets have been edited for better organization, but not for content. Let me know what you think.

Tips For Art Critics:

1. Assume any young artist you _don’t_ write about will die of starvation tomorrow. (They won’t, but their art might.)

2. In the time it takes you to go to an art opening, you could have seen hundreds, maybe thousands of artworks online. Go to the opening, drink their beer, then go home and look at art.

3. Stop using Events as reasons to write about artists. That just privileges the ones lucky or rich enough to be having events.


5. DeviantArt

6. Stop asking for artist’s statements. If the statement makes you like the art more, it sucks and so do you.

7. Go to art fairs. MOVE FAST. Talk to no-one. When you find good art, demand to be alone with it for an hour.

8. Interview artists. Ask questions _about the art_ not about where they grew up or what they named their dog.

9. If Andy Warhol could have made it, do not write about it

10. Look at things that are just there for free: teatrays, pickles, pigeons. If the art is like that, don’t write about it.

11. Given a choice between “What the artist I like said is crazy” or “What the artist I like said is over my head” assume the latter & ask

12. Realize that if you can’t say a thing in clear English, you don’t understand it. Do not write in IAE.

13. Never say an artist “undermines” anything that you didn’t even believe when you walked into the show.

14. Never reward an artist for broadcasting stuff _you already knew_ to a bunch of other gallery-goers.

15. If you need context, it sucks.

16. If the artist hired someone to make their art for them, go find THAT kid and make THEM famous.

17. Interview art students & assistants to find out who is pretending to make their own art but doesn’t. Out them. Destroy them.


19. Realize that the subject of a work of art is easy to write about & the style isn’t. Don’t waste time writing about the subject.

20. If reality TV, Netflix documentaries, Vice, Youtube or anybody else are already doing what the art does better, don’t write about it.

21. Never waste column inches saying something obvious from the picture accompanying the column.

22. Realize the best & most honest way to talk about the art is to reproduce it. Demand your editor include lots of pictures, good ones.

23. Do not go and take a shitty snapshot. The gallery and artist have really good pictures, ask for them.

24. You see wonderful art:but,fuck,it has no story Do NOT build a story Close your eyes. You are Baudelaire. Rebuild the experience in words.

25. If all the art does is show rich old people things in a gallery poor young people already knew outside the gallery, don’t write about it.

26. Great artists can be born, ignored all their lives, and die. That can happen. Realize that does happen. Moby Dick was a failure.

27. If you’re writing about an artist, you’re doing PR for them if you want to or not. Your loyalty should be to the truth.

28. Ask installation artists where the money to put their show together came from.

29. Do not reward art just for being big. More generally: do not reward artists just for being rich or beloved by the rich.

30. Start a band or do some music journalism. It will free you of the obligation to try to meet people to sleep with at art openings.

31. Sometimes students make the best art. Sometimes 17 year olds who can’t afford art school make the best art Galleries won’t tell you this

32. Realize all group shows are bullshit. Use them for what they are: mercenary opportunities to get the folks you like in front of people.

33. Don’t pretend your opinion is fact. Instead: if you want authority, state your prejudices upfront. Like so.

34. Read David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film (that’s how you describe people).

35. Read Borges “Collected Nonfictions” & David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present” & Orwell’s “Politics & the English Language”.

36. Read Lolita. This is the best & most extended work of art criticism in the world. Humbert is the critic, Lolita is the art. Be careful.

37. When in the presence of beauty or talent, be humbled by the realization that it is unknowable & bigger than you OR the artist.

38. If all the kids like it and all the grown-ups don’t, the kids are right.

39. You can chip away, but you can’t know it all. Mathematicians admit there might always be another solution.

40. Don’t look for messages or meaning. Everything has tremendous meaning. Look at art like food: it’s tasty–find out how it got that way.

41. Read Susan Sontag “Against Interpretation” & at least one essay by Sarah Horrocks on some comic book you never heard of.

42. Read David Sedaris’ 12 Moments In the Life Of The Artist. Use it as a gut check: am I one of these assholes? Why not?

43. The artist’s goals and intentions don’t matter in evaluating the art any more than the baker’s in evaluating a cake.

44. The wall text is there for people who hate art but feel class anxiety telling them they shouldn’t. Ignore it.

45. If it tastes good, it IS good as far as you will ever know. If it tastes bad, it IS bad as far as you will ever know.

46. Once you read 12 Moments in the life… read Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. You write about Veblen goods. Don’t forget.

47. If you are interested in the artist:go be interested, write a book But it won’t tell you if the art’s good or bad.

48. Abstract art had a very short heyday because critics had a hard time writing about it: no subjects to grab on to. Be better than them.

49. Go to the little church in Rome where they keep The Ecstasy of St Teresa. If it isn’t at least that good, don’t write about it.

50. If you don’t know, don’t _guess_. Ask. You are, after all, a journalist.

51. “Important” just means “influential” which just means “easy to copy”. None of those words mean “good”.

52. Never ascribe to simultaneous spontaneous mystical agreement what can be explained by capitalism.

53. Vasari started a tradition of art criticism where the Renaissance was a sort of TSA gate you had to go through to get to “real” art. For 100 years, hard-working art historians have been trying to correct that mistake. Listen to them. If you don’t know who Bihzad is, learn.

54. Once a year read a major article in that month’s Artforum. Then ask everyone you meet in the art world if they read it. (they didn’t read it, but it’ll give you a sense of proportion to realize they didn’t)

55. Remember the art isn’t just competing with other art, it’s competing with everything else you could do that day. It must win anyway.

56. Remember the current critical consensus was formed by people who are so high they still like jazz. Drugs make boring things interesting.

57. Never trust an artist, critic, or curator who says they are “interested in problems…” that they aren’t actually trying to solve.

58. The gallery business survives by claiming they found a genius once a month. The excuse is “Well they might be…test of time” (There is no test of time)

59. ..and even if there was: a world where it’s in nobody powerful’s interest for art to ever depreciate short circuits any test of time.

60. When there is corruption or injustice artists & dealers cannot afford to name names. Not even Banksy names names. You can. Do it.

61. Right now some would-be great artist is exhausted from just spending 12 hours making an elf ear for some tv show. Realize that happens.

62. Arthut Danto said The Polish Rider was deeper and more searching than a random agglomeration of paint that happened to look  exactly like The Polish Rider. And he _still had a job_ afterwards. So: the bar’s pretty low.

63. Don’t say “we” unless you’ve read a lot of neuroscience.

64. If it looks like a prop or film still from a movie the artist wishes they’d made but didn’t, don’t write about it.

65. This is Roy LichtensteinThis is Jack Kirby. This is what class warfare looks like.

66. It’s 2013 so everyone gets to be told what artists have been told since the ’60s. Your ability to get noticed is not just more important than your job, it IS your job. You enjoying that? Is it making your work better?

67. Anything can ignite debate with a high enough ratio of how loud you are to how boring it is.


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Comments (5)


  1. November 4th, 2013 | 1:46 pm

    As a critic in one art form (cuisine) and a creator in two others (music and writing)….and an art fan, to boot….I was ready to roll my eyes at this, but I found that I fervidly agree with almost every point on this list. It applies to all realms of reporting and criticism, not just art.

    Jim Leff
    Founder, Chowhound
    For Those Who Live to Eat

  2. November 4th, 2013 | 1:51 pm

    PS –

    “Realize that the subject of a work of art is easy to write about & the style isn’t. Don’t waste time writing about the subject”

    Oh, they know this. Believe me…they know it. The point should be this:

    “The subject of a work of art is easy to write about & the style isn’t. Don’t be a lazy hack; apply creativity and effort to being pertinent rather than waste time writing about the subject.

  3. Jim leff
    November 5th, 2013 | 6:52 am

    Why invite comments when you’re just going to delete polite, on-topic ones? Are you deliberately trying to waste your readers’ time?

  4. November 5th, 2013 | 12:35 pm

    Hey Jim thanks for the comment! Sorry, I just didn’t have the chance to approve it yet. Was very busy yesterday!

  5. November 8th, 2013 | 1:07 pm

    My fault, Igor! I was seeing a chached page and it looked like you’d nuked the unmoderated comments.

    Hey, feel free to delete this exchange (except, of course, for the first 2)!


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