Discussions of art criticism never seem to go very well. Perhaps that’s because there is no general agreement on what art criticism really is. For those of us who criticize art for a living, as distinct from those who practice art criticism for the university audience, we rather like it that way.
For the past few years, I have written a column for this magazine called the “gallery chronicle.” The word “chronicle” shares its etymology with the word “chonology”; both come to us from the word khronos, meaning time. Art critics are the publicizers of a typically private journey through time. The gallery chronicle has been my public record of private thoughts that develop in the hours I have to look at art each month, outside of my editorial duties for this magazine, and in the short time before the next copy deadline.
The business of art criticism is a great deal more practical than you might imagine. This is one of its great appeals for me. Art criticism is less Immanual Kant and more should I bring an umbrella. The discovery of far-off corners of the city, and a day on foot in New York, often excites me as much as, upon arrival, the art I see on the gallery walls.
Art critics are the publicizers of a typically private journey through time.
In New York, the good gallery critic is set apart from the bad by how efficiently he steers a course from Chelsea to Fifty-seventh Street to the Upper East Side with a stopover in Williamsburg. How he finds shows to write about. How he calculates (as in my case) a way to feature exhibitions, with a three- or four- or five-week run time, that will still be open once the magazine comes out.
The days on your feet. The camaraderie of the galleries. The athleticism of aestheticism. A fellow art critic recently told me the story of an important figure who, in important tones, once asked him to explain how he goes about criticizing art. Well, the critic replied, I see art … and I write about it! The response, he reports, was met with bewilderment.
A world of difference separates those who criticize art from those who seek to know about how art criticism is done, because art criticism is done by doing it. To ask after the details beyond the most practical ones is already a step in the wrong direction. Art critics who make the “criticism of art criticism” their business do not stay in the business of art criticism for long.
The 1960s generation of art critics, who did focus on the criticism of criticism, proved this to be the case. For a moment in the late 1960s, they invigorated Artforum magazine with a certain form of criticism—my colleague Hilton Kramer famously remarked at the time, “The more minimal the art, the more maximum the explanation.” Yet the 1960s generation departed from their one commercial enterprise after less than a decade. In 1976, Rosalind Krauss, along with the editor Annette Michelson, left Artforum to found a hermetic quarterly journal called October.
In need of a power base, not to mention a livelihood, Krauss’s generation also took to the universities—Krauss herself to the City University of New York, then to Columbia University—where it set about seeding and gaining control of an entire network of art history departments. Krauss became famous for her letters of negative recommendation against dissident thinkers. Her severe legacy is still felt in the universities, even if much of the art being produced today has departed from the minimalist and conceptualist formulations with which she and others once held sway, writing for Artforum those many years ago.
Art critics who make the “criticism of art criticism” their business do not stay in the business of art criticism for long.
If Krauss’s journey sounds distant from the practice of art criticism I first mentioned above, of writing about art in the galleries or museums for a daily, weekly, or monthly publication—it is. Yet Krauss has profoundly affected the way modern art history, art criticism, and art are taught.
An academic-based, anti-modern ideology now repudiates and replaces the high-modernist judgment of Clement Greenberg. October describes its editorial mission as “examining relationships between the arts and their critical and social contexts.” Put in simplest terms, Greenberg judged art, for which he was praised by one generation and vilified by the next. Krauss judges the judgment of art. In an article for Art in America in 1974 called “Changing the Work of David Smith,” Krauss even charged Greenberg with over-stepping his bounds of judgment in his maintenance of the David Smith estate—the critic’s judgment was put in judgment by a former disciple.
In the public sphere of art criticism, Greenberg continues to be more in line than Krauss with the way most critics work. Even those critics who do not share Greenberg’s particular faith in the project of high modernism share his basic practice as a public and mainly non-academic writer.
The opposite might be said of the universities, where art academics now mainly share Krauss’s sensibility for chastened self-reflection, but not necessarily her arch anti-modernism.
The New Criterion is a modernist magazine. I, too, consider myself a modernist art critic. In New York, when I think of the “relationships between the arts and their critical and social contexts,” to take a cue from October, rare is the case that the legacy of modernism and the New York School does not serve as the foundation for the art I see. Where it does, the connection is ineluctable. Where it doesn’t, it seems a missed opportunity. As I recently wrote in a review of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Henri Matisse, a painter who greatly influenced the New York School, Matisse’s style of modern art was not fundamentally radical, but rather radically fundamental. This is the enduring sensibility of modern art that I find repeatedly in New York. Sometimes I come upon it as one who kicked up his most treasured possession from the dust.
That a New Criterion critic, a modernist, might be invited to speak in a school’s art history and art criticism program could demonstrate a renewed spirit of tolerance in the academy, and perhaps even an interest in widening the field of debate. Yet an invitation might just as easily signal a different sort of academic marginalization from the ideals of this magazine: The New Criterion may simply no longer pose a threat to the central figures in academic art history.
Such were my considerations when I received an invitation, several months ago, to participate in a symposium on art criticism that took place in October at the Art Institute of Chicago.
James Elkins, my host, is a young and prolific professor of art history, theory, and criticism at the Art Institute, as well as Head of History of Art at the University College Cork, Ireland. His invitation to The New Criterion came in this way: “an unusual event on the subject of art criticism … two days … multiple seminars taped, transcribed, edited, and published as a book… . The discursive field of art criticism seems especially interesting at the moment, given the way it is hemmed in by poststructural theorizing and by a kind of conservative polemic.”
Elkins had been contracted to organize several “public roundtable discussions” around the “worldwide crisis” of art criticism, to be published in book form by Routledge. Were these books intended to be money-makers, it might seem that such conferences were designed to have others do the work while Elkins retains the book rights. But undoubtedly I overestimate the worldwide interest in the worldwide crisis.
Here is how Elkins described this crisis, in his pamphlet published by Prickly Paradigm Press called What Happened to Art Criticism?:
[Art criticism’s] voice has become very weak, and it is dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism. But the decay is not the ordinary last faint push of a practice that has run its course, because at the very same time, art criticism is also healthier than ever… . [A]rt criticism is flourishing, but invisibly, out of sight of contemporary intellectual debates. So it’s dying, but it’s everywhere. It’s ignored, and yet it has the market behind it.
A flood of “pre-circulated” papers soon came in from Elkins and other participants. In addition to these, I received: the transcript from a conference on art criticism conducted by (none other than) October from Spring 2002, called “The Present Conditions of Art Criticism”; the transcript from another conference on the “States of Art Criticism,” this one organized by Elkins in June 2005; and a seventy-page survey from the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University called “The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General- Interest News Publications in America.” All this was required reading about a job I had been doing fine on my own up until then.
But gliding along like the scanner in a photocopy machine, he deals with only the facsimile of passion and emotion in art.
In the days leading up to the conference, which I joined on October 10 and 11, 2005, Elkins announced that the “centerpiece of the program” and “potentially a very important event” would be a roundtable discussion on the “States of Art Criticism” featuring a “couple of poststructuralist types [the professors Michael Newman and Steve Melville, and the Dia curator Lynne Cooke] but also a journalist [Ariella Budick of New York Newsday], a conservative voice [that would be me], and an unclassifiable element [Dave Hickey, a curator and writer for Vanity Fair and Artforum, and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.] It will be interesting to see if they can even talk to one another. For me, this follows in a great tradition at [the school] of unlimited inclusivity.”
Inclusivity is indeed what I found upon my arrival in Chicago, mixed with the more haunting specter of October’s over-arching hold on the university. In a glossy pamphlet designed to advertise the event, the school promoted our symposium by asking,
What is specific to criticism, and how is it distinguished from art history and art theory? How is criticism affected by the demands of its different contexts and the possibilities of media? We will be looking at the ways in which criticism might reopen public space, combat the moralization of politics and imperialist domination, engage with the pressures and possibilities of a rapidly changing globalized world, and maybe even return to the exigencies of judgment.
This sounded like October boilerplate, and indeed it was. Just what state of art criticism, precisely, is able to “combat the moralization of politics and imperialist domination”? There isn’t one. Fortunately, this is something the panelists all agreed upon quite quickly in a closed-door warmup session before the event. We also spoke on the relevance of October, with the “poststructuralist types” saying yes, the practicing critics saying no, and James Elkins saying something like his opinion was not relevant. It was then that I began to see a future for art criticism and art theory in the personalities of two of my fellow panelists.
With a pencil-thin mustache, a frenetic production schedule, and a raffish, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. appearance, James Elkins cuts a fresh figure in the university. Images are his currency—“visual studies.” He glides over the high and the low in equal measure, from the world of images to the world of ideas, all the while maintaining a keen sensitivity to the academic marketplace and just what he will be able to acquire for himself. His concern for the “worldwide crisis” of art criticism might be mistaken for an appeal to a modernist sense of judgment, or just as equally for the rigorous self-examination of October. Yet he wants to inhabit both sides of the debate and agree with neither, taming the entire field of art criticism into an academic discipline. Elkins’s “worldwide crisis” is that art criticism, aside from the writers of October, operates outside of the university and its controls.
Elkins’s books, such as Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, play to an uncertain academic moment—the post-October moment. But gliding along like the scanner in a photocopy machine, he deals with only the facsimile of passion and emotion in art. This is perhaps why Library Journal wrote of Pictures and Tears: “Admitting that he himself has never cried in front of a painting, Elkins fails to get to the heart of the matter… . [R]ambling and often obtuse style makes this already rather intangible topic even more slippery.”
Art is in worldwide crisis—a worldwide identity crisis.
On the flip side of Elkins is the insider’s outsider—or is that the outsider’s insider?—the critic Dave Hickey. His persona of a desert-highway dandy and Las Vegas wrangler allows him to occupy both states without contradiction. Friendliness is a part of his deal, too. In a 1995 edition of Artforum, Peter Schjeldahl called Hickley “the Walter Pater of the Southwest,” and also wrote, “to do Vegas with Dave is like having John Ruskin along on a tour of Venice.” I don’t doubt it.
Our roundtable discussion began where the October panel on “The Present Conditions of Art Criticism” left off—with an attack on the star of this symposium, Dave Hickey. Mr. Hickey may not be a household name. But at the Art Institute of Chicago, before an overflow crowd of aspiring artists, he stood to be a powerful idol. His books The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty and Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy can seem to be an incoherent ramble through “The Second Continental Congress,” “Cardinal Farnese and Titian on ‘Entertainment Tonight,’” the “thighs of my sixth grade teacher at Santa Monica Elementary, Ms. Veronica Chavez,” and “the beaux-arts vision of love’s enduring virtue.” To many young artists on the inside, however, his books also contain a magical power.
I began my discussion at the public symposium by noting, to Dave Hickey, that, “In the October roundtable, Benjamin Buchloh calls you a “critical placebo,” and elsewhere Hal Foster says you’ve developed a kind of “pop-libertarian aesthetic.”
They all work for the Man: Yve-Alain Bois and I write about many of the same artists, and I have perfectly cordial relations with him. The rest of them are interested in a narrow part of the early twentieth century, in the “crisis of high modernism,” and I’m not really interested in that. I do envy them for their ability to scoop the foam off the top of assignments, because I am a professional writer. I have written about Ed Ruscha for forty years, and then Benjamin Buchloh does the big piece about the Venice Biennale. I’m envious of the assignments, but that’s about all. We write about art. Most of the people in October write about criticism; it is a meta-critical project, and they are interested in controlling the forms and shapes of criticism, and the manner of address, and the rhetorical mode—I don’t talk about criticism. I talk about things that are green.
Later on, Michael Newman, one of the “poststructural types,” said: “The attendance for these events is quite flabbergasting. That suggests there is a resurgence of interest in art criticism. I started writing art criticism in 1977… . The thought at that time was, ‘Art criticism is at its last gasp, and will continue as a kind of market legitimation.’ Criticism was to be replaced by theory.”
To which Hickey replied:
You said that there are so many people here signifies a new interest in criticism. No, I don’t think it does. I quote George Bernard Shaw: “when everybody gets really interested in something, and everybody says it’s the new thing, then it’s not: it’s ‘the last of the old thing.’” This roundtable is a death-knell for art criticism: it marks a level of self-consciousness and narcissistic introspection that really can’t be sustained by the practice. Every critic writes against his taste. Eventually you learn the kind of bullshit that you like, and so I am a lot more reliable as a critic when I’m writing out of the area of bullshit that I like. But also, I think that the privilege of judgment is one I pay for by not working for the Man. I don’t work for the publication, and so when I speak it’s just Dave Who Lives on the Street. It’s not like I’m speaking through some kind of august institution, and I regard that as the price you pay to be candid, to be honest. The times I have worked at newspapers I have really not liked it.
To this I suggested that “Dave, we all work for the Man. You write for Vanity Fair. Si Newhouse is a Man.”
Hickey, again: “As a hired gun, I do not feel I bear the power of the institution, as Peter Schjeldahl does: he is The New Yorker, and he is The New Yorker talking. If I write for The New Yorker, it’s just Dave.”
Just Dave had an answer for everything.
So what did I get out of this back and forth? I recognized how modernism has, perhaps, reached an ebb. Among academics like Elkins, the battles of modernism are now two wars past. As for Hickey, the glossy mirror-image of Elkins, the critical moment is not found in modernism or anti-modernism but in what I call pre-modernism. Like Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, Hickey finds succor in the style of Beaux-Arts. He argues for the same eclecticism in the galleries that Elkins wants to a bring to the university. When asked to name his influences, Hickey responded to our panel: “I have an eccentric practice that goes back to Baudelaire, Wilde, Shaw, Hazlitt, and De Quincey.” Take out Communism and you have it: Hickey’s twenty-first century picks up where the nineteenth century leaves off.
Art is in worldwide crisis—a worldwide identity crisis. October did not merely attack modernism for its “conservative impulse.” More significantly it opened the floodgates that had kept critics, academics, and artists separate and dry. From the activity of making art, young artists are now invited to listen to the debates of their own practice. “Theory weary,” yes, but Elkins’s conferences, so well attended at a school designated for artists, attest to the trend.
In the evening after our panel discussion, Dave Hickey gave a talk of his own in the 300-seat Fullerton Auditorium at the Museum of the Art Institute. A line of students stretched down Michigan Avenue—an overflow crowd. Hickey’s speech, entitled “Art after Criticism,” ranged from his desert highway aphorisms to a screed against Nixon for tripling the size of the National Endowment for the Arts. It was fun, but I don’t think it was criticism. Hickey’s talk was rather a work of art, part of the “theater of democratic public life, in which we are all, simultaneously, actors and critics,” as he wrote in a 2000 essay called “Beyond Dark Glasses.” By positioning art over criticism, even undermining the critical structure of his own writing to make way for a form of art, Dave Hickey comes off as an ironic corrective for those artists who are encouraged, through these symposiums, to follow the lead of critics.
Just as art becomes an art of criticism, criticism becomes an art. Perhaps “art after criticism” necessarily follows “criticism after art.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 4, on page 16
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