Who qualifies for this vital role in 2021?
When one asks guitarists who is best qualified to make an archtop jazz guitar in 2021 the answer is clear: Robert Benedetto. He has been building the top guitars for artists as diverse as Frank Vignola, Howard Alden, and Pat Martino for the past 30 years. Nobody asks who is better, as the proof is in the product: If the instrument plays superlatively in the estimation of the best players in the world, then the person making it is a virtuoso at the same level as the artist. Are there others in the world that would like to rise to that level? Yes, and some are very nearly there, but no builder joins the elite without proven qualifications.
It isn’t hard to judge the abilities of people who make things at the highest levels of craftsmanship or technology, because unless the product passes muster with users, no one will purchase it. Moreover, the work of such masters is virtually priceless.
Unfortunately, at the level of cultural expertise, the question isn’t so clear-cut. Judgment seems to be heavily dependent on which side of the culture wars one is on. The New Criterion is a purportedly objective journal that publishes critical positions on the arts, many of which are slanted toward right-leaning political positions. October is an art journal that has for decades occupied the avant-garde edge of cultural studies, initially under the editorship of Rosalind Krauss. Continental, post-structuralist critics find a sympathetic platform in its pages.
On the architecture front there is Log, a journal published by Anyone Corporation of New York. It is funded partially by Peter Eisenman and has an A-list advisory board of American and European architects. Like most such journals, all the gatekeepers are on that list, leading to familiar positions that track with academic theories that strangle discourse rather than open it up. Occasionally an issue presents wider points of view, but only when a particular editor invites outsiders to contribute. Only those living in a well-defined silo are qualified to offer critical positions: Log calls them “protagonists.” The Classicist, a journal sponsored by the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art, is firmly rooted in a traditional mode of thinking, virtually the opposite pole. Subscriptions to these journals are small by standards used to track conventional print media, so it is unlikely that readers will leave their silos to read competing polemics.
Not surprisingly, the number of professional architectural critics has been declining steeply since 2000, and not only because publications requiring their services have waned.