This fall, in its continuing effort to enlighten us about the wonders and complexities of American art, the Public Education Department at the Whitney Museum of American Art sponsored a series of three panel discussions entitled “Sundays at Six: Issues in Contemporary Art.” Subsidized in part by a grant from the Mnuchin Foundation, each of the biweekly sessions ran for about an hour and a half. The first two installments, “The Coming Fin de Siècle” and “The Neo-futurist Moment: Art and Technology,” swelled the Whitney’s modest downstairs public space to overflowing with well over a hundred people in attendance; the third, “The Critic in the Mirror,” was less popular, but still managed to fill a good two thirds of the chairs set out for the event.

It must be said at the outset, however, that the title “Sundays at Six: Issues in Contemporary Art” was something of a misnomer. For while the sessions did indeed convene Sundays at six p.m., the “issues” discussed were rarely the issues to be found in contemporary art. What one heard at the Whitney those several Sundays was mostly the rehearsal of various clichés abroad in the contemporary art world, which of course is a different thing entirely. What one was treated to, in other words, was the elaboration of a filigree—or perhaps one should say a haze—of fashionable “ideas” and attitudes that have for some time proliferated in the vicinity of contemporary art, enshrouding, occluding, or—as it sometimes seems—replacing it altogether. Nevertheless, though it tends to proceed from a common set of assumptions about art and culture, this filigree or haze comes in a variety of colors, as it were, and each of the Whitney’s “Sundays at Six” displayed its own distinctive palette. Taken together, they made up a veritable color wheel of contemporary attitudinizing about art.

The moderator of the first session, “The Coming Fin de Siècle,” was the poet and critic David Shapiro. The panel included the artist Lynda Bengfis, the critic Maurice Berger, the artist and critic Jeremy Gilbert-Roffe, and the artist, writer, and editor Lucio Pozzi. Mr. Shapiro began by announcing his “rage against false labels,” among which he identified the label fin de siècle itself. In fact, most participants in this first session had hardly anything to say about the coming fin de siècle—just as well, perhaps, since their comments did nothing to suggest they would have been reliable prophets.

Mr. Pozzi spoke first. Noting the need for artistic renewal, he called for an emancipation from artistic conformism. In our time, he went on to say, when the gestures of the avant-garde have become the dominant ethos of the art world, this emancipation must include above all distancing oneself from the conventions of the avant-garde: its cult of novelty, habit of overturning traditional forms, and so on. Accordingly, he urged artists and critics to “transgress the forms of transgression” in their search for genuine artistic “regeneration.” There were a few potentially amusing moments, as when Mr. Pozzi suggested that this new artistic drive could “help us mutate into the next biological cycle of life” (what choice mystifications must lurk behind that comment!). But by and large Mr. Pozzi confined himself to dispensing edifying commonplaces. Lynda Benglis—the one artist on the panel who was not also a writer—sounded a much quieter note. She offered some very brief remarks about her own work, told us she was interested in art that “depended on technology,” and made some cryptic comments about art and science both being engaged in an attempt to “redesign nature.”

Mr. Berger presented us with a more-or-less standard Marxist lecture on the situation of contemporary culture. In one of the session’s few references to the fin de siècle, past or future, he drew an analogy between fin de siècle Vienna and our own time, criticizing both for being apolitical and ahistorical. The Sixties, according to Mr. Berger, were an exception to this “political complacency”; they were an oasis of activism in a desert of reaction. In what degenerated into a somewhat rambling discourse, Mr. Berger also found occasion to criticize the “bias and partisanship” of modernism—which, because of its interest in the formal qualities of art, was likewise said to be “ahistorical”—and to urge artists, collectors, dealers, and critics to enlist themselves on the side of historically aware, socially activist art. “True radicalism” is the goal of art, Mr. Berger assured us, and concluded by citing the plight of the homeless as evidence of our short-sightedness. Of course, he never specified just what the homeless might have to do with art—how could he have done so, since they have nothing at all to do with art?—but for those susceptible to such pious invocations a mention of the homeless undoubtedly contributed something to the aura of virtue with which Mr. Berger was attempting to surround himself.

There was none of this call to the ramparts in Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe’s contribution. In a remarkable smorgasbord of chic literary theory, he began by telling us that he wanted to mount “a mild attack on periodicity in general”—which meant an attack on the cogency of notions like fin de siècle in particular. Among other things, Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe informed us that we “fetishize the concept of conclusion,” and called accordingly for “an end to endings,” an end to “Euro-centered art,” an end to the “Christocentric” world view we still find ourselves imprisoned by. In this context, he also urged us to get beyond what he described as “the tribal history of the West,” and to dispense with “the idea of relevance,” apparently long since discredited.

There was more—obligatory nods to Jacques Derrida’s contention that thought is primarily about “difference” and so on—but in truth Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe was much more impressive for his style than his substance. In many respects, he must be counted the evening’s star performer. His arch, world-weary sophistication provided an entertaining spectacle, and he knew how to brandish his cigarettes and his English accent to achieve the best effect before an American audience. He was aggressively, alarmingly articulate— almost Faustian, one is tempted to say—and provided “The Coming Fin de Siècle” with its only moments of verbal drama.

Mr. Berger challenged Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe’s criticism of “periodicity in general,” claiming that the marking off of historical periods is sometimes legitimate for political reasons. For example, he said, it is worth thinking of the Sixties as a distinct historical period because it was marked by a “compassion for the poor” and because the “academic Right” has consistently castigated the Sixties as a period of decadence and cultural degradation. Adopting a term from Michel Foucault, he alluded again and again to the Sixties as an “archive” of political and cultural wisdom that could be used as “a weapon against the Right.” In case it had escaped notice, he also testified that for him the issue of social responsibility is “never irrelevant,” and mentioned—presumably as an example of socially responsible behavior—that he would soon be organizing an exhibition of the art of the Vietnam War. Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe retorted that he wanted a “more sophisticated response” to the Right. It is not that he disagreed with Mr. Berger’s political sentiments, exactly, but he was against introducing politics into the “gallery context” because it distracts from the “political context.” In his view, the “political art” of someone like Hans Haacke—most of whose “works” are indistinguishable from political sloganeering—is neither art nor politics but a species of self-righteous moralizing whose chief function is to congratulate the audience on sentiments they already share.[1] I found it difficult to disagree with him on this last point, though I didn’t really sec that viewing art as “an aspect of linguistic practice,” as Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe proposed, provided a much more compelling alternative.

At times, the exchange between Messrs. Berger and Gilbert-Rolfe became almost heated—at least Mr. Berger warmed noticeably; Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe merely got more chillingly wry. Their exchange seemed at moments like a parody of the dispute between Naphta and Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, though of course it lacked the definitive conclusion Mann provided for that debate. And it also had the virtue of illustrating two distinct species of a common genus in contemporary cultural life. For where Mr. Berger epitomized the garden-variety academic Marxist, the Marxist who looks for the social utility of art and still dreams of being politically engagé, Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe is a specimen of what we might call the Higher Marxism, a Marxism that has replaced engagement with cynicism and revolution with opportunism, a Marxism so thoroughly skeptical that it often dispenses with the tag “Marxism” altogether. But a rose is a rose by any name, and though the Higher Marxism may eschew the name, Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe bore adequate witness that it preserves the habits of thought and basic world view of Marxism intact.

The remarks from the audience pretty much followed the same course. There were statements about the foreign and domestic policies of the United States, a question about the desirability of using art as a “tool of the class struggle,” and so on. In a last, tired effort, Mr. Berger stated his desire to champion the art of “disenfranchised people,” and even went so far as to suggest that art is good if it comes from such “disenfranchised people,” among whose numbers he included the denizens of the East Village and Cuba. After that, even an audience comment to the effect that serious art “embeds politics within as a metaphor” seemed a relief. Time was running out, however. Mr. Shapiro ended the session by telling us that he hoped that the participants had avoided descending to clichés—a statement one could only assume he had written out beforehand and had not had the leisure to emend.

The second installment of the Whitney’s “Sundays at Six,” “The Neofuturist Moment: Art and Technology,” was a signal illustration of the adage plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The moderator was Hal Foster, a writer and senior editor of Art in America, and the panel included the artist Gretchen Bender, the “artist, theorist” Peter Halley, and Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, both critics and two of the editors of the new and widely noted periodical Zone. Mr. Foster introduced the program with a thumbnail sketch—a tale of ever increasing woe, really—of the cultural and economic history of capitalism from the nineteenth century through the present day.

Unfortunately, technology is one of those subjects that, because of its large and complex history, tends to inspire the utterest nonsense. Thus one was not surprised to hear Mr. Foster celebrating such alternative thinkers as Marshall McLuhan or speaking about the desirability of overcoming such inherited dichotomies as body/not body, natural/not natural, life/death: the subject of technology does that to people, especially if their knowledge of science and technology is confined to a few political catchphrases. The truth is, technology presents a great problem for contemporary, theoretically inclined Marxists. For while Marx himself was something of a technocrat—believing as he did that technology was an instrument of emancipation—our own bourgeois society is so obviously dependent on advanced technology that one cannot help being suspicious of an agent so indiscriminate in its allegiances. The way out is to see technology as a thoroughly political phenomenon, one that has been perverted in contemporary Western society. And this seemed to be Mr. Foster’s basic message. As he put it in the introduction to his influential anthology, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, the critics in the volume “take for granted that we are never outside representation—or rather, never outside politics.” From there, it was only a small step to his conclusion: “in the face of a culture of reaction on all sides, a practice of resistance is needed.”

“Resistance,” as it happened, was a word that one was to hear again and again that evening. Gretchen Bender, whose work typically incorporates technological images and gestures, sensibly advised that artists attempt to learn as much as possible about technology and its language; but then she went on to warn that “we are in a time when fascism achieves a democratic face through technology.” In her view, art was valuable primarily as an instrument of resistance against the domination of technological fascism. Messrs. Halley and Crary chimed in with more of the same. Sitting there on that chilly night in the Whitney’s warm, well-lighted hall, their voices being taped and broadcast to the audience through loudspeakers, they retailed the depredations of modern technology. Mr. Crary warned us of the “totalizing” and dehumanizing tendencies of technology, while Mr. Halley told us that “technology has created a ghostly world where there is no life or death.”

But it was Sanford Kwinter who provided the session’s most perfect example of critical obscurantism. Indeed, as a co-editor of Zone, which (to judge from its recently published inaugural issue) specializes in the new breed of hermetic criticism, he is a conspicuous practitioner of it. His presentation began with a measure of coherence, even, at times, of brilliance; but by the time he came to elaborate his position, it was clear that he was maneuvering through a sea of knowledge-fragments and half-digested theories, bound together by an astonishing capacity for historical simplification. He moved, for example, from Luddism to “Reagan’s Star Wars,” from the development of the loudspeaker to Hitler and Mussolini, in the twinkling of an eye.

In all this, Mr. Kwinter attained to a kind of secular glossolalia, with radical politics standing in for the Holy Spirit. At times (to step from the ridiculous to the sublime), Mr. Kwinter’s disquisition reminded one of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, for whom language had disintegrated to the edge of unintelligibility. “My case, in short, is this,” Hofmannsthal’s character wrote in his famous letter: “I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently .... Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back —whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.” The difference, of course, is that for Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos this frightening disintegration of language led to an epiphany of a reality beyond language; for Mr. Kwinter it seemed to have become an end in itself.

Not that Mr. Kwinter—or any of the other participants, for that matter—were obtuse or unintelligent; indeed, one of the most disturbing things about all this sort of “theory” is that its pronouncements manage to exhibit interpretative sophistication with just enough truth—trace amounts, as the chemists say—that they cannot be summarily dismissed. Thus Mr. Kwinter may be quite right in distinguishing—as Heidegger had done before him—technological “hardware” from the underlying world view that a commitment to modern science and technology presupposes. And there is something to be said, too, for his identification of the development of double-entry bookkeeping, one-point perspective, and the experimental method in the Renaissance as crucial achievements that stand behind our modern technological orientation. But Mr. Kwinter takes all these enormously complex phenomena, blends them with a dash of politics, and produces a disorienting mixture of truth and falsity.

The panel’s presentations went on a bit long that evening, and so the discussion period was curtailed. But there was time for one question to be repeated two or three times: Where, in this entire discussion of “The Neofuturist Moment: Art and Technology,” could one find art? The panelists responded with plenty of talk—mostly, of course, about art as a tool of resistance—but nothing they said resembled a reply. For the truth was, they had completely lost sight of art.

The final episode of “Sundays at Six”— “The Critic in the Mirror”—was devoted to a discussion of the theory, practice, and logistics of contemporary art criticism. The art critic Roberta Smith served as moderator on a panel that included Christopher Knight, the art critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and the free-lance critics Kate Linker, Robert Storr, and Paul Taylor. Miss Smith began by noting the “incredible diversification” in art criticism today, the best of which, in her view, was “energized” by psychoanalytic and feminist criticism. She proceeded to touch on most of the themes that would be mooted later in the evening, distinguishing, for example, between art theory, which is recondite and “philosophical,” and art writing, which describes the discussion of art in popular magazines and newspapers. In between the two she located traditional art criticism, which she seemed to favor by dubbing it “the bottom line.” She even told us that “at its best” art criticism was “equal to art.” Miss Smith also gave the “practical” side of writing art criticism its due, noting that she had considered using “Meeting Deadlines, Meeting with Editors, and Meeting the Rent” as an alternative title for the session.

Kate Linker spoke first, providing a somewhat brazen account of the distinction between art criticism and what goes under the name of art theory today. The former occupies itself with questions of meaning and value, the latter with what she described as questions of the production of meaning and value. The function of the art critic—an occupation that she denied having an interest in or talent for—is to bring the viewer closer to the work: to bring the meaning of the work to light. In this sense, criticism “tends to look at the work as a bounded object.” Art theory, on the other hand, looks not to the work but to the practice of making the work. It is interested not so much in artworks but in the institutions and social practices within which they are produced and exhibited. In other words, art “theory” in Miss Linker’s sense views art as “fundamentally ideological and political”; it focuses on the economic, political, and sexual ideas that provide the context for works of art. By her own account, art theory in this sense was a “lugubrious” activity. Given so candid and pellucid an appraisal, one can only wonder how it has come about that art itself should have so little claim on the attention of such “theorists.”

Mr. Storr iterated several of Miss Linker’s points about the distinction between criticism and “theory,” but announced himself “wary” of theory precisely because it tended to obfuscate the work of art. His comments were not particularly enlightening, though in the context of the Whitney’s series any suggestion that the meaning of a work of visual art might be nonverbal had the air of novelty. For his part, Mr. Knight quoted Hans Hofmann to the effect that art is a perpetual struggle against blindness, and cautioned critics to be aware of their own blindness. He also spoke of the “common misconception” that the function of art criticism is the “education” of the audience, a proposition that he rejected “categorically.” Such a notion was bankrupt, he told us, because it presumes a “hierarchy,” presumes, that is to say, that the critic knows more about art than his readers; this presumption Mr. Knight found totally unacceptable, and he identified his own responsibility as a critic first “to myself as a writer” and secondarily to his audience, not as students of art but “as readers.”

Now there is a great deal that one might say about Mr. Knight’s dismissal of the educative function of criticism; it is indeed, as he acknowledged, a common idea, so common that it has been held by virtually every critic from Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin down to our own day. T. S. Eliot, to take but one example, speculated that “no exponent of criticism . . . has, I presume, ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity.” The function of criticism, he insisted, was “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” But leaving T. S. Eliot to one side, one has to wonder what Mr. Knight’s editors at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and his readers in California think of his attitude: are they content with a “critic” who refuses on principle to make value judgments, who discounts the educative role of criticism, who treats his readers as little more than an audience in search of entertainment? One hesitates to admit that things have degenerated so far, even in California.

Unhappily, Mr. Taylor demonstrated that the East Coast is no more immune to such antics than the West. Describing his earlier career in Australia as being a “nuisance,” he alluded to Cyril Connolly’s mot about the artist wanting to make mud pies that last: he, Mr. Taylor told us, wanted to make mud pies to throw. Thus he liked to think of his writing as a “microwave oven” that “spoils” the objects it treats. But unlike some of the more politically minded critics in his midst, what he is after is not “subversion” but “entertainment.” Mr. Taylor began his remarks by mentioning that he feels a pang of embarrassment whenever his writing comes out in print; what is surprising is that he has managed to salvage the capacity for so decorous an emotion.

The discussion period that evening ranged over a number of topics, but settled mostly on the mechanics of writing criticism and the financial difficulties that beset critics. The “real problem,” according to Miss Smith, is that one cannot make a living writing art criticism. But I couldn’t help thinking that, since Mr. Knight is one of the rare exceptions to this rule, it may be all to the good that writing criticism is as poorly remunerated as it is.

Critically, the Whitney’s “Sundays at Six” amounted to no more than what one would have predicted. For the most part, the sessions vacillated between the mildly outrageous doggerel of Mr. Taylor, the political campaigning of Mr. Berger, and the various species of politically charged theoretical obscurantism espoused by Messrs. Gilbert-Rolfe, Foster, and Kwinter. Anyone interested in art or art criticism would have had to content himself with the few crumbs dispensed along the way by the artists on the panels and, occasionally, by Miss Smith. But what gives one pause is the thought that this sort of thing, almost totally in thrall to the latest fashions in art-world drivel, can take place under the auspices of the public-education department of a major American museum. Apparently, the Whitney has gone along with Mr. Knight in abdicating any responsibility for upholding critical standards—though at least Mr. Knight has the excuse, however unconvincing, that if he had wanted to teach he “would have become a teacher.” The public-education department of a cultural institution, by nature cast in the role of teacher, cannot avail itself of even that response. And of course the Whitney’s “Sundays at Six” are hardly uncommon events; indeed, what is most disquieting about the entire performance is the fact that it is being repeated, the same play with a different cast, at museums and universities across the country. What it tokens is the unabashed politicization of art and utter debasement of critical standards.

 

  1. Whether Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe intended this remark as a pre-emptive critique of the Hans Haacke exhibition that opened at the New Museum of Contemporary Art several weeks later—entitled "Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business"—was unclear. But it was an observation that certainly seemed to serve as a sufficient review of that event. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 5, on page 83
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