In the December/January issue, the Brooklyn Rail published “A Call to Art Critics” by Irving Sandler in the open column Railing Opinion. Sandler’s challenge provoked a number of responses from artists, critics and observers, among them John Perreault, Alan Brilliant and Eric Fischl, which have been published in subsequent issues. This month, David Markus offers a response to Sandler’s series of questions. The pertinent lines from the original article are reprinted in italics at the opening of each section. —The ARTSEEN Editors
Crisis of Relevance
Is there justification in the widespread feeling among us that art criticism is irrelevant, eclipsed by the activities of dealers, collectors, and curators, and consequently that there is a crisis in art criticism? If so, how can art criticism be made more relevant?
There is a “crisis in art criticism” today only insofar as there is a crisis in that tired old straw man of critical discourse: “late capitalist society.” If art criticism has lost relevance on the “market” front, it has nonetheless become more influential with regard to what artists do. The relocation of critical “relevance” from the identification and maintenance of 20th century “movements”—each of which dissolved, as such false cultural-historical constructions do, into the normative order it had sought to subvert—to the studio itself is not something to be so demonstratively mourned. That art criticism no longer seems to be “relevant” to a limited cultural sphere that has neglected and/or obviated it is not the measure of its importance. Critical discourse in the visual arts is as rich and varied today as its counterparts in corresponding fields.
Function and integrity
How does the current structure of the art world and the roles of dealers, collectors, and curators, usurp the functions of art critics and threaten the integrity and impact of criticism, if indeed they do?
If “cool indifference” (an aesthetic imperative attributable to Kant) once stood as an elusive ideal to the critic contemplating a work of art, undue concern over the predominant role of dealers and collectors would suggest that such a model has since been sacrificed to a bidding game over the same dubious cultural consensus the critic now cyclically condemns. What do we mean by impact? Are we concerned primarily with making artists more (or less) famous? With swaying public interest? With affirming our own authority as arbiters of taste, judgment, trend? “Integrity” can only exist in criticism to the extent that it distances itself as much as possible from the gloria of this sort of “impact.”
How do “spin” mechanisms engaged in by art institutions affect art criticism?
There is a word for the tautological chatter that finds its way into the columns of our “respectable” newspapers: journalism. Art criticism, if it aspires to a self-defense more convincing than the sour bleating of nostalgic hearts, should apply this term more liberally to its imitators. This means, also, jettisoning all ideas of effect and status; exiling the parasitic notion that art criticism has a duty to anything but itself. One cannot be more assured that the journalists will be happy to pick up the slack.
This expurgatory procedure requires first rejecting the notion that art criticism can speak of art “as such,” i.e. dissociated from the entanglements it falsely deems antipodal. If this appears counterintuitive, it is because we have already (falsely) imagined that to “reclaim” art from the same world we seek to “reclaim” criticism, we need to discountenance the commercial system that has transformed it into a commodity of (“late capitalist”) exchange. However, it is only after art criticism has scorned its impossible claims to “direct engagement” with art qua art, that it can maintain the integrity of a critique of the market mechanism that it has yet to excise itself from, and thus genuinely “impact” positive change in the manner in which art is produced, received, and commercially exchanged. Acknowledging itself as a sovereign discipline is only half the struggle. One cannot simply “reclaim” the object; the skin of the system (its callus) is too thick for that; rather it must be coaxed from the body that has buried it within itself—like a splinter.
Are we too timid in dealing with the power structures in the art world? If so, how can we overcome our timidity?
For art criticism to ask itself these questions implies that it already has the impulse to elevate itself beyond tautology; the only thing anchoring it to the world it tentatively despises is—itself. The boldness to defeat one’s own cowardliness is a thing required in walks of life far less reactionary than the art world; it should not elude us here.
Do we dare name names?
Does Nietzsche name Wagner? Let’s be more vulgar still: does Rosalind Krauss name Clement Greenberg? Witch-hunts are unnecessary in the face of vigorous debate, which, unless I am mistaken, is still tolerated in democratic countries. False indignation is a dose of poison in the cure. It reeks of ideologues posing as moral advisors. Here are names: Joe McCarthy, Ollie North, Donald Rummy. That “criticism” should have to question the repercussions of performing the desideratum of its trade implies that the sanctum of the classroom, the city hall, the small-circulation press, has been exiled to the bath house. Speak in a low voice only to those who share your opinions—isn’t this how “criticism” has traditionally existed under totalitarianism?
Above all: Is what Jerry Saltz described as the “art fair frenzy, auction madness, money lust, and market hype” influencing what we write and more important, what artists create in their studios and in our graduate programs? Must we not analyze the art world and its practices? If we don’t, who will?
If art were not influenced by, or able to comment on, the ruling themes of our epoch (“money, lust, and market hype”), it would cease to hold even the marginal, second stage relevance it currently possesses vis-à-vis culture as a whole. Ignoring these themes is only another “position” i.e. in relation to them. A better question might be: why is Kanye West more compelling than most Deitch Projects exhibits?
What ethical lapses or compromises have we found that we have to tolerate? What is cronyism in the art world and what can we do about it?
The only ethical lapses to which art criticism should address itself are internal. Cronyism in the art world may produce good or bad results—the art world has no better chance of cleansing its meretricious heart than any other market-chastened sphere of contemporary culture. Nostalgic lamentations and the indulging of one another’s grievances, on the other hand, can only be neutral in the most malevolent sense.
Catalogues vs. Criticism
Has criticism been upstaged by lavish gallery catalogues? There is nothing corrupt in this. The galleries choose critics they know admire the work of artists they show and the critics honestly reveal their admiration. But how does this affect art criticism? Does not a lavish catalogue upstage anything that will appear in art magazines?
Concerning oneself over “lavish gallery catalogues” upstaging art criticism is tantamount to pondering whether the Oscars are in danger of upstaging ‘well-meaning’ film critics. When self-asserted intellectual sovereignty slackens, “critical success” becomes just another tool for marketing executives. The ever-weakening distinction is that film critics are ipso facto, and usually complacently, consigned to the realm (of “money, lust, market hype”) from which art criticism wishes itself exempt. As a buyer I’ll take Charles Saatchi’s advice over Arthur Danto’s any day. This is not a dilemma to which art criticism can produce a direct ameliorant. All it can do is continue to seek out works worthy of being explained. Positive transformation of discourse demands the relinquishing of what has so far passed as “critical resistance”—the sort of crisis mentality exemplified by the Democratic National Committee. There are places in the world that still hold the power to cast light on a darkening planet, “wherever the just exchange their messages.” The Brooklyn Rail has the opportunity to be such a place. If we are confined to speaking in the bath house, then we should be that much more careful to prevent such a venue from devolving into a massage parlor.
Is it the primary function of criticism to tell good from bad? If so, what are our criteria for quality?
One hundred-plus years of thought on aesthetics and morality have denigrated the tidy oppositional character of these terms to an extent that to consider them in a context so self-consciously rife with contradiction that one can speak today of “bad painting” in a purely descriptive sense is profoundly absurd. The material or metaphysical quality—e.g. the painterliness—of a work is the only “quality” criticism can speak of without ironically choking on its own tail. “Rubbish,” as a categorical term, on the other hand, ought to be more readily employed.
How should we be dealing with the impact of politics and social issues on contemporary art and our criticism?
The process is again one of location, as in recherche de la vérité. The most effective “political” and “social” art has no agenda but to its own truthfulness. Sadly, even then it often fails. Utmost caution should be taken approaching any work that endeavors to convey a political “message,” event, or even so much as an irony. Works can be political without harnessing the furniture of the political landscape, most of which has long been relegated to the realm of kitsch. It is better to be “barbarically” critical of political work than to lessen one’s aesthetic standards for the sake of good liberal intentions. “A for effort” is a castrative procedure—and the Law needs no help in neutering its subjects.
As for the question that most interests me: Is contemporary art in a pluralist situation? If everything goes, what counts? Is there a need for art critics to specify what is relevant or significant in art and what is not?
Out of a sea of mediocrity arises—contemporary Western culture. What can we pursue, in such an instance, but a “science of the subject.” Critical consensus? a movement?—what is this pale nostalgia?
We must speak up. We have nothing to lose but our irrelevance. And we must be specific and avoid blowing off steam, grandstanding, or using glittering generalities, what Thomas Hess labeled “glidge.” Opinions must be backed up by fact.
To speak of the need for opinions to be “backed by fact” in the current discussion is to relegate discourse to the realm of the economist’s faulty pragmatism. Let art criticism run itself into ruin before we begin considering measures to bolster its “relevance,” before we submit to intellectual bankruptcy protection. “Facts,” in our culture, are contingencies employed with the help of the media to drum up support for the invasion of foreign countries. Persuasiveness is a far more accurate term—particularly for a discipline that has traditionally dealt in such ethereal “truths” as beauty, expression, and style.
It is, indeed, disheartening that there should be so much discontent among the sages of the tribal society known as the art world. What one must, on the other hand, object to, is talk of “kids these days” unqualified by the acknowledgment that each generation fashions the world for its grandchildren. If what we are dealing with is not generational, but ideological, we must ask, “what would be preferred?” The push to disengage from contemporary socio-economic and political “ideology” reflects a long-dusty utopianism. Exposing the mechanism is not enough; we must not enact the grievances we thematize; lobbying tired hymns to an obsequious choir is a losing proposition.
If criticism has a function today, it is to locate those works that harness the inertia of the turbine and direct it against itself—those works that punch a hole in the fabric. The only film worth watching is the anti-film. In a sense this is a more compelling circumstance because, in film at least, there is still an institution worthy of plausible critique. There is still the monolithic counterweight of Hollywood to run up against, even after the notion of “independent cinema” has been swallowed by the system. In literature, the conservative insipidity of “American narrative fiction” is the rule—“literary” is a genre; “experimental” is a niche market. In a sense, the art world faces a far more “advanced,” far “later” catastrophe: it has never ceased to place a premium on inventiveness, on subversion, and so it has more thoroughly disrupted the hierarchical scale of “classical” taste—exposed its provisional quality, its “constructedness,” for what it always was.
Self-assurance is required, and a commitment to the belief that works of art will continue to arise that bring the mechanism, however fleetingly, to a halt; not for the sake of “subversion” as such, but so that we may glimpse an irreducible space beyond the system—not some vague notion of transcendence, but the reality of death, of love, of human invention and insight. Nothing but the miasma expressed in the questions here considered suggests we should abandon such self-assurance.
DAVID MARKUS is last child of Generation X. A disaffected critic and belle-lettrist, he resides in NYC.