It seems to me that there are at least three crises in contemporary art criticism: first, a perceived marginalization; second, a loss of intellectual moorings following on the disappearance of the avant-garde; third, a dawning recognition of the inadequacy of conventional taste.
It’s a familiar cliché that critics ruled the art world of the 1950s, succeeded by curators in the 1960s, and collectors after 1980. The cliché should be updated to note that art dealers—particularly mega-galleries like Gagosian and Pace—have dominated the art world of the 21st century. However, works of art have no inherent worth: their value lies solely in what people think about them. Dealers and collectors still need critics to certify that the art they sell and buy is genuinely “important.”
Why, then, do we critics feel so marginalized? My own theory is that it is because we are so badly paid. The growing income inequality of American society is even more pronounced in the art world. Relatively few artists share in the bonanza of the art market, but even fewer critics. It’s hard to feel important when so many of the people you work with make vastly more money than you do. Art critics should go on strike until the dealers and publishers agree to triple their fees. We are, alas, unlikely to do this.
Mourning the Avant-Garde
For a hundred years, beginning in 1870, modern artists invented a series of new ways to make pictures and sculptures. This process came to an end around 1970. Since then, new technologies have been conscripted into the service of art, but work in the new media generally borrows the formal strategies of older media. In sum, there hasn’t been an avant-garde in 40 years. This is a problem for criticism, because the concept of the avant-garde still provides our yardstick of artistic value.
The cottage industry of “critical theory” exists largely to sustain the illusion of an avant-garde. Compensating for the absence of formal innovation, critical theory allows critics to categorize works of art as “new” because they bear witness to hidden, gnostic truths. This would be a useful activity if only most “critical theory” were not so strikingly uncritical. Art writers cite Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière as if their writings were gospel. Alas, most of the theories associated with these authors fall into the category of what Paul Krugman calls “zombie” ideas: theories that have been rejected by an overwhelming majority of scholars in their discipline of origin, but that continue to attract adherents in other fields.
I don’t mean that critics should retreat to the neo-conservative belief that there is such a thing as purely “aesthetic” quality. Art cannot be understood apart from the ideas and realities it engages. However, if we are going to analyze the content of contemporary art, we should make use of substantive scholarship rather than “critical theory”: Garry Wills instead of Michel Foucault, Alison Gopnik instead of Jacques Lacan, Trevor Levere instead of Bruno Latour. Art critics need to be better educated if they are going to say anything useful.
The taste of most contemporary art critics has been shaped by a postmodern canon: Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, Cindy Sherman. We are accustomed to an art of found imagery, based on photographs, maps, and diagrams, not an art of personal observation or imaginative description. We delight in randomness and repetition; we abhor dynamism and asymmetry. As writers, we put the id on a pedestal, but live inside the prison of the superego. Irony is our natural state of mind; emotion, an embarrassment. Individuality—the larger-than-life personality that animates the work of Oskar Kokoschka, Pablo Picasso, or Willem de Kooning—is anathema.
This state of mind is an impediment to useful criticism. It dictates, a priori, that most of the art being made today is not worthy of serious critical consideration. You won’t read about this ignored art in “serious” art magazines, but it’s easy to find. Just look at the ads printed in between the articles: they’re full of gestural abstraction, expressive distortion, and pensive beauties. Such art is never, ever reviewed in the magazines where the ads appear. To the eye of the jaundiced critic (myself included) the works in the ads look minor and old-fashioned. But what if this assessment is mistaken? The history of taste suggests that posterity will dismiss many of the artists we value highly, and that some of the great artists of the early 21st century will turn out to be people whose names we don’t know. Critics need to look for value in a greater range of art.
The problem of our narrow critical canon becomes even more acute if you consider the phenomenon of global art. Some of the art being made in Latin America, East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and Australia conforms to North American taste, but much of it doesn’t. The New York art world has no problem digesting Walid Raad, who evokes the experience of Middle Eastern history in an understated language of pseudo-documentation. We have a harder time with Ravinder Reddy, who updates Hindu iconography in polychrome statues that seem crude and garish to eyes trained on Minimalism. There is a lot more non-Western art that looks like Reddy than like Raad. Such work often appears unsophisticated, sentimental, or derivative. But what if such reactions demonstrate our own provincialism? The global art scene of the 21st century requires a profound rethinking of our critical standards.
PEPE KARMEL writes extensively on modern and contemporary art. He teaches in the Department of Art History at New York University.