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Who Is Donald Kuspit?

Who Is Donald Kuspit?

Everyone’s a critic, but Donald Kuspit truly is. 

He has a unique art world perspective with a background combining philosophy, art history, and psychology. His appreciation for the history of artistic expression and the human experience is insightful. 

Kuspit really has us intrigued, so we decided to dig into his life a bit more. 

Let’s jump in! 

The Story of Donald Kuspit

Born in 1935, Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most esteemed art critics. His prolific career includes several distinguished teaching positions, plus numerous fellowships and grants.

Kuspit’s alma maters include Columbia College and Yale University. In addition, he has not one but two PhDs. His first is in philosophy from Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. Kuspit achieved a second degree in art history eleven years later from the University of Michigan. Throughout his career, he’s received four honorary doctorates.

An accomplished scholar and skilled theorist, it was not until Kuspit was in his fifties that he became more vocal as an art critic. He began to psychologically evaluate the status and future of modern and postmodern art. 

Kuspit married psychologist Judith Price in 1962. We can only imagine their deep conversations. 

What Is Art Criticism?

We often coin an old cliché that says beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art criticism is the discussion and evaluation of visual art. Critics try to criticize or appraise an artwork based on the context of aesthetics or the theory of beauty. It can be as subjective as the emotion it evokes from the viewer. 

It’s a rough relationship between the artist and the critic. Artists thrive on the positive feedback received from their audiences. Often, the critic views the work from a wholly different perspective. 

Art theory is nearly as old as art itself. The Greek philosopher Plato regarded art as an inferior form of knowledge or an illusion. A critical tradition emerged in the Renaissance when Giovanni, Matteo, and Villani produced Cronica. In it, they relate to painting as a liberal art and a celebration of civilization. 

The artistic criticism we know today began as a genre of writing in the 18th century. Jonathan Richardson tried to create an objective scoring system to rank works of art. It included categories for drawing, composition, invention, and coloring. 

In modern times, with the various artistic movements, criticism branched into different disciplines. The most common divisions are historical, as a part of art history, and contemporary, addressing works by living artists. 

How Does Donald Kuspit Describe Art Criticism?

From a scholarly and learned understanding, Donald Kuspit approaches his critical view of art by combining philosophy, art history, and psychoanalysis. 

He writes in White Hot Magazine, “No one can be a responsible art critic—let alone properly responsive to a work of art–without knowledge of the history of ideas, the history of art and culture, and some understanding of human psychology. For one cannot fully understand the wish to make art, and the effort involved in doing so, without understanding the fantasies and feelings, often unconscious, as well as the cognitions and cultural assumptions that consciously inform it, and one’s response to it.” 

Kuspit finds that contemporary art criticism faces hurdles in the information glut of websites and blogs (guilty!). Moreover, sensationalism and market demands often constrain the critic to gear toward those with money. He finds many people value art more for its economically rather than its intrinsic nature. 

In his 87 years, Kuspit advances art criticism with a thoughtful and wise view of the world. He appreciates the human spirit and is open to new ideas. He’s a careful and astute critic, recognizing an artist’s social, cultural, and emotional significance in their work. He’s concerned that critical consciousness is on the verge of being stamped out by economics. 

What Is the Frank Jewett Mather Award? 

The Frank Jewett Mather Award honors the art critic, teacher, and scholar affiliated with Princeton University. Mather was the first “modernist” (i.e., post-classicist) professor at the Department of Art and Archaeology. However, the award itself is for significant published art criticism in a publication. 

In 1983, Donald Kuspit received the Frank Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association. 

selective focus photo of thick books
Photo by Jens Mahnke on

Has Donald Kuspit Written Books?

Kuspit is a prolific writer whose works include at least thirty books written or co-authored. He’s a judge of human nature as well as the intricacies of expression. This doesn’t count the hundreds of critiques, opinions, articles, and scholarly papers written during his extensive career. 

We focused on two books reflecting Kuspit’s concerns about the intrinsic need to create art and the decadence associated with today’s society. 

In “The End of Art,” Kuspit argues art is over because it has lost its inherent meaning. In a somewhat nostalgic yet academic position, he finds postmodern art lacks the aesthetic experience of creativity. The future, he postulates, lies in returning to the human unconscious expression revealed by the old masters. 

In “The Dialectic of Decadence: Between Advance and Decline in Art,” Kuspit examines modern art’s apparent discontentment as necessary to create. He rejects this misconception. 

On a basic level, Kuspit finds a dichotomy between artists who accuse others of being decadent. In that declaration, the accusers are the most decadent. They rank themselves and their craft above others to elevate their authenticity. Inherently, this results from discontentment and loss of faith in history’s ability to tell a story. 

Conversely, Kuspit finds those accused of decadence to be the true purveyors of artistic continuity with the past. They attempt to maintain a living connection with the past through personal expression. This, Kuspit finds, is true art. These artists are or will be those who are happy. 

Making Us Into More Thoughtful Beings

Donald Kuspit has a thoughtful, responsible approach to his art criticism. He embraces the artistic need to express the universal human unconscious mind. Future visual arts will re-engage creativity with a greater appreciation for historical pursuits. 

The one takeaway we have from Kuspit is to ask ourselves, are we happy with our artful expressions? Yes, we are. Taking to heart Kuspit’s criticism of today’s banal practices, we are more thoughtful. 

What have you learned from Donald Kuspit? Tell us about it in the comments.

Outside Folk Gallery

You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. 

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