Art critic Philip Kennicott wins Pulitzer
Wining a Pulitzer is a testament to your success as a writer. It’s not a confirmation of one’s fame or command of language, but an award that recognises achievements across all forms of the written word.
It was recently revealed that the Washington Post’s art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott had been awarded won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, an accolade that many in the industry will agree is fitting.
Explaining their reason for awarding Mr Kennicott with the prestigious honour, the judges said it was “for his eloquent and passionate essays on art and the social forces that underlie it, a critic who always strives to make his topics and targets relevant to readers”.
For a long time now he has been offering wonderful, engaging and thoughtful insights into all things artistic. He has, for example, served as a classical music and cultural critic, expounding all subjects as far and wide as urban planning, documentaries and museums.
Three works in particular from the 47-year-old have been applauded for their exceptional calibre of style and substance: an article on a photographic exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery, an essay on graphic and violent images, and a piece on Kevin Roche’s architectural legacy.
Modest as ever, Mr Kennicott said that he was surprised to have picked up the award, especially at a time when art criticism is not doing well. This isn’t an attack on the “art of criticism” itself, which continues to deliver fantastic, polemic and enlightening bounties of prose, but the narrowing of its reach.
As an example of his writing, this excerpt assessing his thoughts on the American artist Taryn Simon, whose work was show at Corcoran (A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII), is indicative of his innate ability to offer something that is cleverly intellectually philosophical.
“Simon’s work lies on the antipodal dark side of the planet from National Geographic,” he wrote last year.
“Her portraits show people decontextualised, not in their homes or going about their business, but sitting on a stool, against a generic background, and often wearing almost expressionless faces. People reduced to data points.
“What is at the heart of this project? Is it about human misery? Or about the way photographs are used to document that misery? Or is there something perversely “artistic” underneath the whole thing, a game, a bit of performance art, an artistic imitation and critique of the documentary impulse, as if Simon is a one-woman representative of the juridical wing of the Dada movement?”
He asks original questions, scholarly and journalistic ones, which help to make his work accessible to a wider audience. There’s none of the convoluted International Art English – a term coined by David Levine and Alix Rule in their observant essay in Triple Canopy – just loaded sentences that nicely capture interesting ideas.
A joy to win no doubt, the realisation that he had secured one of the top prizes in journalism happened on a dark day. On the April 15th two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 170.
“People asked if it was strange to win on such an awful day,” he wrote on his blog. Yes, it was very strange, and I have family in Boston (who are all safe). But it was a thing of wonder to see the newsroom with all hands on deck, to see it do what it does best.
“Arts critics survive in newspapers not because we help the bottom line, but because enlightened editors and publishers see art as an essential part of the picture of the world that newspapers deliver every day.”
Nevertheless, as he concluded, if the world is to survive, art and its discussion must endure. More needs to be done to elevate it in the eyes of the world. Why? Because “creation is the opposite of destruction”.
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