The Diagnostic Essay

The difficulty an art critic has addressing the full complexity of his or her present moment is manifested in part by the fact that, historically at least, the best art criticism has most often had to do with the art of a critic’s recent past, rather than of his or her immediate present. For example, to think of a giant like Clement Greenberg, his early championing of Jackson Pollock may have launched his career, but his legacy was made not on the basis of these often cursory reviews, but rather on his synthesis and contextualization of Pollock’s significance in later essays such as “‘American-Type’ Painting” and “After Abstract Expressionism” that rely on a certain degree of historical distance from their subjects, however slight. It makes sense, then, that the major art critics of the 1960s entered the academy, where they legitimized the study of contemporary art as a branch of art history.

How then to deal with contemporary art while it is still fresh and unprocessed? At stake are a necessarily different set of conditions and methodologies from the essentially art historical ones we discover in those synthesizing texts of the recent past that make up much of the canon of American art criticism. I have in mind those moments in essays like Greenberg’s “After Abstract Expressionism” where an attempt is made at a diagnosis of what in the current situation seems to have significantly shifted the terms of the conversation. “After Abstract Expressionism” itself reveals the kind of gamble inherent in this type of analysis, as its accuracy, success, and relevance can only be born out with time, and so it is that we can now see that the Color Field painting Greenberg championed at the end of “After Abstract Expressionism” did not ultimately prove to be the most fecund avenue of new artistic production in the ’60s. Perhaps inevitably, something similar seems to be happening now with regard to the proclamations made in the 1980s about postmodernism, out of which we now increasingly regard only a select few artists, such as Cindy Sherman, and ideas—such as the critique of the author and originality—as still relevant today.

A text that is almost entirely, rather than only momentarily, diagnostic in orientation is Barbara Rose’s excellent, and unfortunately little remembered, “The Value of Didactic Art” of 1967, which ambitiously lays out the terms of a particular shift where works of art—those inheritors of the precedent of Duchamp’s unassisted readymade—began to derive their value and significance from visually presenting a particular argument, rather than by engaging the viewer in primarily aesthetic terms, which this didactic art rendered at best marginal or incidental. The beauty of Rose’s essay is that she is able to see beyond the obvious examples in Conceptual Art to the broader systemic and structural manifestations and implications of this didactic turn, equally present in Jasper Johns’s flag paintings, Robert Morris’s gray plywood constructions, and Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls. Further, in doing so Rose suggests how we might begin to analyze such work (on the basis of the quality of its argument, rather than of its form) so that other critics might amend their methodologies, which is why the text still feels relevant (if historically) today.

What we need are more diagnostically-oriented essays like Rose’s in order to reshuffle and expand the deck of cards that make up our array of possible methodologies, such that we can continue to try to bridge the gap between art critical writing and its ever-elusive subjects. A significant step in this direction has recently appeared in the form of David Joselit’s book After Art (Princeton University Press, 2012), and its piercing arguments about how art’s present situation is conditioned by a global circulation of capital that has rendered art a form of currency that generates an impact to the degree that it creates “buzz” based on its active manifestation and intervention in the various physical and virtual forums of its distribution and reception. There is something exciting about Joselit’s suggestion that this lends art the potential for a greater and more perceptible impact than ever before, if only those systems of circulation can be actively and explicitly capitalized upon, a perspective which entails artists working within, rather than outside of, contemporary society and culture’s established sites of power.

What is left open by Joselit’s brief and polemical text is how we might best use this diagnosis of the present possibilities and limitations for artistic production to analyze works of art themselves for, if After Art has a limitation of its own, it is in putting these provocative but abstract ideas in the service of contemporary art, rather than simply having the former represented or narrativized by the latter. Surely the issue lies more with the art Joselit chooses to speak about than with his ideas, as one must question the relevance of any work of art the significance or interest of which can be completely exhausted by the application of this or that theory. The implicit mandate going forward, then, is for critics to advance the structural and systemic implications of Joselit’s diagnosis in such a way that will allow for the identification of those works of art that go beyond simply manifesting aspects of contemporary society, such as the systems and logics of digital transmission, as such work can only ever be symptomatic rather than transformative.


Alex Bacon

ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.