For too long, perhaps, we art critics have chastised ourselves, honoring the great achievements of the past only to discount the present state of our beleaguered practice. There are many good reasons for this attitude, many high marks of understanding, prescience, influence, and revelation that we can compare to subsequent moments of diminished powers. Today, however, we can take all these realistic assessments as simply the ground, the starting line from which we must move forward. And, let’s not ignore the fact that although art criticism has endured its successive crises, its self-demolition, its continual fracturing, stubbornly it continues to exist as a discourse, as a necessary tool, as an avocation. Like painting, the medium alongside which it largely developed, art criticism has outlived countless obituaries written by those who would perhaps be more comfortable with its demise.
There are times when as a critic you feel like you are working on an assembly line: new artworks, new artists, new art fairs, and biennials come at you relentlessly, and as each one whizzes past, already you have to start preparing for the next. Under such conditions it is impossible to produce a thoughtful response to more than a tiny fraction of art being created. The rest of the work that you have glimpsed but never processed rattles around your brain, occasionally sparking an interesting idea but more often just getting in the way of clarity. What to do about this? One thing is not let your agenda be set by galleries and museums, that is, don’t limit the subjects of your writing to what is being shown at any given moment. (This is one of the main reasons I started my blog The Silo.)
Some of the best art criticism I’ve encountered recently has been in the form of artworks, in particular Dennis Adams’s brilliant, harrowing, hilarious video Malraux’s Shoes (2012), shown this fall at Kent Fine Art, and Michael Krebber’s covertly artful, intellectually agile show of blog-inspired text paintings C-A-N-V-A-S, Uhutrust, Jerry Magoo and guardian.co.uk Painting seen in the fall of 2011 at Greene Naftali.
Another source of renewable energy for criticism is to be found in literary writing, in poetry and fiction. I still believe, for instance, that the best writing about Jean-Michel Basquiat is to be found in Kevin Young’s poetry collection To Repel Ghosts, and that Mary Jo Bang’s book of ekphrastic poems The Eye Like a Strange Balloon is an inspiring guide to contemporary art. Lately I’ve been stimulated by Don Delillo’s Gerhard Richter-inspired story “Baader-Meinhof,” and speculative passages by W.G. Sebald and French novelist Claude Simon on the Italian painter Gastone Novelli. And I continue to productively reread favorite poems on art by Wallace Stevens, Francis Ponge, Frank O’Hara, and Jim Brodey.
Criticism was in continual “crisis” for many decades. Surprisingly, this sense of embattlement and ideological conflict seemed to have lessened in the last few years. Is it because the theory wars are over? Could it be an effect of profound changes in the media landscape as print monopolies are displaced by online multiverses? Or does it reflect the emergence of a new generation of artists and writers whose attitude toward the role and practice of criticism is fundamentally different? Perhaps as it is relieved from claims to authority, from expectations of power, from the (so-often frustrated) will to impose itself, criticism will flow into new areas of culture, mutate into some as yet unpredictable forms.
RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN is a New York-based critic and poet, and Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art.