Are Art Critics Too Smart to be Journalists?

By Jack Limpert

An earlier post, “Some Writers You Don’t Edit,” was about the challenge in editing a Washingtonian story by Robert Hughes, the esteemed art critic, about the Phillips Collection, an art museum in Washington, D.C. What caused a debate among editors was this: “And yet the Phillips has never lost its aedicular quality, its gift of intimacy and unhurried ease in the presence of serious art.”

As an editor, I resisted publishing words that 99 percent of our readers would have to look up, and aedicular seemed in that category. I suggested it be changed, but Howard Means, the editor working with Hughes, pointed out that Hughes “was very large for an art critic and prone to operatic moments.” We left aedicular as Hughes wrote it. (When you look up aedicula, it means a niche or small shrine.)

Now here is art critic Philip Kennicott writing on July 3 about DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in the Washington Post:  “He [Superior Court Judge Robert Okun] will decide whether culture is autochthonous and organically related to the community, or merely a fiction our supposed stewards of culture use to hide their real ambition: to acquire more things, more land, more status and more influence.”

Autochthonous? How many Post readers had to look that up?

The dictionary definition is “formed or originating in the place where found.”



  1. A friend and I send each other writing we encounter where, we suspect, the author suffered an unfortunate collision with a thesaurus (entries for “indigenous”, perhaps, in this case). Thanks for this article!

    Who do you think came up with this complete phrase: “…whether culture is autochthonous and organically related to the community.” Writer or editor?

    This seems redundant and saying the same thing to me — or a way to explain “autochthonous” without deleting it. (How “organically related” improves on plain old “related” can be the subject of a future post.)

  2. Writer or editor? A good question. Autochthonous had to come from Kennicott and a good guess would be an editor questioned the word and insisted that the reader be given some help and the writer reluctantly agreed to make it clearer.

  3. Sounds like a compromise worse than either pure path. Stick with AUTOCHTHONOUS — the reader skips it or looks it up and learns a new word — or go with INDIGENOUS or even ORGANICALLY RELATED. You did not add a synonym to AEDICULAR. (Heck, I had to look up “organic” and in this sentence it seems to mean really really related.)

  4. Big_Eater says

    Use of anachronisms is just a symptom of their underlying problem. The real issue with critics is that they write from an “insider” perspective with the presumption that the ideas and topics they write about are logical, externally valid, and are true just because they sound so eloquent.
    If they were covering city hall or the cops, their lazy habit of taking things at face value, and fear of calling “BS” on the many preposterous ideas coming out of the art world would get them sent back to the obit desk.

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