From the time that Diderot first began publishing his critiques of the salon rating the paintings exhibited, the job of art criticism was presumed to be to judge the relative quality of works of art. Baudelaire broadened the definition to being passionate and partisan in the defense of new art. When Donald Judd announced in the ’60s that art no longer needed to be good but only to be “interesting,” all this changed. With “interesting” as the definitive criterion, value in art was now dependent on how puzzling it might be to the viewer whose visual and kinetic perceptions were now the vehicle for aesthetic content.
By this time Judd had already written off painting as a relic of European illusionism. So painting needed to do something really new to gain attention. Enter “Bad Painting,” the title of the influential show curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum, which preempted any critical dismissal on the grounds that the work was, well, actually bad. (In fact, the show was memorable because it included one good painter—Neil Jenney.) With the division between good and bad gone, criticism was left with only one final distinction: flat or not flat. Generations of critics argued and are still arguing among themselves about how fully acknowledged flatness is. I say among themselves because no one else really cares.
Unless you are living on another planet, surely you realize that in today’s multidisciplinary, multimedia, multicultural, and corporate global culture, art criticism is as relevant as cuneiform. True, it can be adapted to merchandising and marketing objectives, but in the end, culture is so fragmented there is no longer any authority to give judgment any power to change or impose taste, especially since taste in this context is defined as subjective and consequently irrelevant.
Given this situation, you are right to ask why there is a burgeoning number of programs in art criticism and art writing. Why, given that Walmart employees earn more than art critics, are so many young people drawn to such an idle pursuit? Could it be because their parents have so much money they can afford to let their entitled offspring pursue the vie de bohème? This does not mean, of course, that there is no serious writing about contemporary art, but it is rare. There are a number of capable art journalists whose descriptions may be vivid enough to evoke the desire to actually see the work in question but they often choose as subjects art that is easy to write about. They may even have (horribile dictu) taste. Personally I find Holland Cotter reliable and Barry Schwabsky capable of making a good argument, one way or another. I particularly enjoyed his review of Gerhard Richter’s recent Strip Paintings. After quoting extensively from the gallery’s press release—which is where most contemporary criticism begins and ends—Schwabsky defines Richter’s objective as creating a technological sublime, which sounds right to me. He then goes on to reveal how Richter is incapable of achieving his intention because the paintings “do not engage the senses sufficiently to expose to the imagination the senses’ inadequacy. The paintings—if they’re paintings—are missing something.” To me, defining the artists’ intentions, then judging if they are fulfilled, and ultimately judging the worth or importance, emotionally or aesthetically, of these intentions seems to be something criticism can still do that is worth doing.
Personally, I think Richter has slid into mannerism, formula, repetition, and mass production. However, a recent movie on Richter has made him visible to an audience that sees not art but art prices and Richter’s are zooming into the stratosphere even though the work is going sharply downhill. (Yes, I know, I know, those awful antideluvian value judgments again.) Thus far, however, this is not noticeable to the art market. Bloomberg Businessweek, in an economic analysis of Damien Hirst—which is about the only analysis the work can support—contrasts Hirst’s nosediving market with Richter’s record breaking prices. Especially notable was the fact that Eric Clapton sold a Richter for $34 million at auction in October, a record for a living artist.
I bring up the tawdry subject of the art market because the market gets prime space in newspapers, magazines, and the art press, along with news about forgeries and art thefts. Because art, and especially contemporary art, is of little interest except to the happy few, coverage of art exhibitions is steadily declining to the point that soon it will exist only in unedited tidbits in the blogosphere, where actually from time to time there are some interesting discussions but no dialogue since tweets are not really a form of dialogue. As far as old fashioned hard copy is concerned, the context of art criticism has become so compromised that Artforum, once considered the journal of record, has become a repugnant object somewhere between People magazine and a Sears Roebuck sales catalogue.
Perhaps the devolution of the role of art criticism is inevitable in a declining culture where propaganda, branding, and marketing have replaced measured analysis and discourse and the Museum of Modern Art, once the temple of purity, now resembles nothing so much as a suburban mall. But how could it be otherwise since museums today are run like corporations and the law is that the corporation must grow or die? How it grows, on the other hand, is another matter.
Historical memory, itself in decline, however, reminds us that literacy and aesthetic discrimination, along with artistic skills were lost simultaneously when ancient Rome was plundered and occupied by uncouth (may I say tasteless, uneducated?) barbarians.
BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator of international exhibitions. She has previously served as contributing editor to Art International, Arts, Art in America and Artforum. She twice received the C.A.A. Mather award for distinguished art criticism.