Hysterical Blindness: Critical Mess and the Limits of Vision

In the December 2006/January 2007 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, Irving Sandler published his “Call to Art Critics,” which posed some pointed questions and landed a few well-aimed kidney punches. In sum, he wanted critics to consider the extent to which their efficacy had been “eclipsed by the activities of dealers, collectors, and curators,” their analytical authority had been eroded by pluralism, and their integrity compromised by corruption and cronyism. He ended with a demand for self-empowerment and straight talk, “We must speak up. We have nothing to lose but our irrelevance.”

Around the same time, Raphael Rubinstein published an anthology called Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice. Its thirteen essays, eight of which had been previously published, are by James Elkins, Thomas McEvilley, Jerry Saltz, Katy Siegel, Lane Relyea, Arthur C. Danto, JJ Carlsworth, Nancy Princenthal, Carter Ratcliff, Eleanor Heartney, Michael Duncan, Peter Plagens, and Rubenstein himself, whose 2003 Art in America article, “A Quiet Crisis,” got the ball rolling for the book.

In his introduction, Rubinstein acknowledges that art criticism’s “mess … is, in large part, a reflection of the mess that is contemporary art.” But the rest of the book mirrors Sandler’s characterization of criticism’s malaise as an internal affair, since the contributors seem to take as much glee in lacing into one another (with Rubinstein, who had invited them to the party, providing a particularly rich target) as they do in eviscerating whatever artists they happen to loathe.

One of the book’s major dust-ups, which provides the reader with the spectacle of two sharp minds talking past each other, is between Rubinstein and Danto, who square off over the relative merits of Joan Mitchell and Brice Marden, with “relative” being the operative word. For Rubinstein, painting is painting; if two works fall within a certain style—that is, within a reasonably compatible aesthetic philosophy—their comparison is both logical and inevitable. The quality he wishes to elucidate through this exercise is “visual engagement,” as in “looking at a painting made in 2002 by Brice Marden and asking how it stands up in terms of visual engagement against a canvas painted in 1952 by Joan Mitchell. Even more, I’m talking about Marden asking himself such a question.” While, to Rubinstein, Mitchell displays “painterly virtuosity and elusive gestalt,” Marden is dismissed as a purveyor of “empty complexities.”

As Arthur C. Danto points out in his rebuttal, the two paintings that Rubinstein has chosen were made a half-century apart. Yet his argument is not historical but relative:

I have the most vivid memory of having been knocked off my horse by Mitchell’s Hemlock, when I first saw it in the late ‘50s. Marden would not have had that impact on me at any stage of my life. His is a quieter, more ruminative form of achievement. But that is a contrast, not a comparison. Hemlock overwhelmed me when I came upon it in Martha Jackson’s gallery. I cannot remember when I first saw Brice Marden’s work, but I was by then a very different person, and I wonder what would have had to be different about me if I tried to imagine being overwhelmed by it the way I had been with Hemlock maybe twenty years later. To compare the two paintings would in effect be to compare two stages of my life.

The point each writer is making is really self-evident. “Visual engagement” is, or at least should be, the sine qua non of anything that presents itself as a work of art. Forceful examples from the past inform the creation of the new as a matter of course. And it is a commonplace of criticism, and of cultural communion in general, that one’s reception of a particular work is influenced by a web of subjective influences—the most obvious being age, experience, education and predilections of taste. What is truly curious is that neither critic touches on the most self-evident fact of all—that in the time between the creation of these two unspecified paintings, the world had changed to an unrecognizable degree. And, inescapably, so had art in general and the meaning of abstraction in particular.

Mitchell rode the unbridled potential of her time to claim a prominence previously unattainable for an American and a woman. Marden, by contrast, was handed painting’s death certificate at the outset of his career, yet he endeavored to create a supple and tragic form out of what was for all intents and purposes a blind alley. Once he reached an end point, rather than churn out a branded product, he risked failure time and again until he burst into such wondrous expressions as “The Muses” of 1991-1993. Of course Mitchell’s paintings possess more plastic vitality: she was a believer and Marden is a skeptic. This is not a value judgment. It just is what it is.

A lack of engagement with the real world, rather than the history of art or the confines of aesthetic, cultural and anthropological studies, is a form of myopia infecting virtually every writer in this book. The same sources are cited throughout: Adorno, Buchloh, Krauss, Foster, Schjeldahl and Greenberg, Greenberg, Greenberg. Benjamin Buchloh bears the distinction of having the same remark—“you don’t need criticism for an investment structure, you need experts”—quoted by two authors, Rubinstein and Nancy Princenthal. Only Eleanor Heartney displays the cheek to quote at length a pop culture figure like Norman Lear, while Michael Duncan possesses the wherewithal to reach back to Ezra Pound, whose unforgivable taste in dictators has overshadowed his crystalline critical acuity, for a revivifying corrective:

It is about as useless to search for a definition of “great art” as it is to search for a scientific definition of life … One means something more or less proportionate to one’s experience. One means something quite different at different periods of one’s life. It is for some such reason that all criticism should be professedly personal criticism. In the end the critic can only say “I like it” or “I am moved” or something of that sort. When he has shown us himself we are able to understand him.

Despite the earnestness and even passion with which these writers ponder their craft, reading their incessant evocations of a crisis in art (its superficiality/relativism/commercialism—take your pick) conjures the unavoidable sensation of listening to a fiddle reel while flames lick the sky. Aesthetic theory and debate has never seemed more beside the point, while the spontaneous freedom of an unmediated art in response to the absurdity and surrealism of our moment has never been more vital. Can anyone think of a more meaningless pursuit than the one described by Katy Siegel in her essay, “Everyone’s a Critic,” in which academicians and curators like Hal Foster, Bennett Simpson and Lane Relyea call for “the critic to ‘discipline’ art, to be brave enough to pronounce that certain types of production (like installation or design-based work such as that of Jorge Pardo) may not be good art—and may not, in fact, even be art.” One can only imagine how that would have gone over at the Cedar Tavern, yet the continued critical obsession with the Abstract Expressionist epoch, compounded by a morbid fascination with the power of its explicator and kingmaker Clement Greenberg, is itself a bottomless well of irony. That flowering of American modernism (fueled in large part by immigrants) sprung almost entirely from the act of doing. Pollock’s improvisational physicality was the essence of an essential impulse, which is probably why we can’t stop talking about him even though he’s now been dead longer than he was alive.

In his famous dicta on poetry and music, Pound decreed that poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music, and music atrophies when it gets too far from dance. The body is the core; the interaction of the body with other bodies and with external reality (think of the blown-pigment handprints on the cave walls of Chauvet) is the font of art. The philosophical, aesthetic, religious, political and mercantile encrustations that have accrued over the millennia will supply those who care about history and culture with an endless source of study, reflection and debate; strip away all that and you’re left with a naked body in a hostile world.

Carter Ratcliff’s essay in this volume, “Ion’s Tears,” makes a compelling case for the notion that “the best art critics are poets” because they have the ability to set aside the rational and to plunge “into those zones of feeling and intuition … where meanings are myriad and there are no criteria for choosing any one of them over any other—in other words, no hope of truth and no reason to seek it.” This maddeningly ambiguous passage is perhaps the most salient advice for anyone attempting an interpretative approach to art. Criticism may be in crisis, and it may be due in part to the “mess that is contemporary art.” But that mess is an accurate reflection of the political, social, environmental and economic crack-up directly below the academy’s windows—an untamable hydra rearing its thousand heads. The inability of theory-based criticism to come to terms with it is nothing to lose sleep over.


Thomas Micchelli