GUESTCRITIC

Vocabulary of the Possible

These sentences, to sugar, or to gall, 

Being strong on both sides, are equivocal: 

But words are words; I never yet did hear 

That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.

—William Shakespeare, Othello

Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void.

—Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of
the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968)

Portrait of Christopher French. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Words tricked Othello into killing his beloved. Robert Smithson used them to imagine grandiose hypotheticals that he then constructed as landscape interventions. Ten years ago words were used to fabricate a pretext to invade Iraq; a decade later, I heard Harold Rosenberg’s 1948 essay “The Herd of Independent Minds” cited on the radio as a concise way of expressing the caustic consequences of the groupthink conformity that precipitated the war in Iraq. For the first time in a long time, I was hearing art criticism used to address something exponentially larger than what the other great American postwar art critic, Clement Greenberg, described as “formal culture, with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension.”2 For the radio commentator it may have been nothing more than a tossed-off catch-phrase reference, but for me it was as if a door had opened and art criticism had been let out of the room where children are sent to eat their dinner, so they could say hello to the adults before going off to bed.

Words as art; words as artifice: hearing Rosenberg's essay described as a means of parsing critical events in human history and rereading his essays got me thinking about the passing last year of the two major popularizing, polemicizing art critics of my generation: Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer. Love them or hate them, both viewed art as a gateway to understanding and shaping the complexities of life, with criticism as the key to the gate. Here’s a quote by Hughes that, almost in spite of its Apollonian phrasing, places him in kinship with Rosenberg’s insistence on understanding art through life, and vice versa:

Only by demonstrating that he is on the side of History—aware of the laws of its unfolding, able to reconcile the art he likes with those laws—can a critic rise to seriousness, for otherwise criticism is merely the expression of subjective taste, and can claim no binding force.

—Robert Hughes, “The Medium Inquisitor”

This stands in sharp contrast to David Antin’s observation, which I think Rosenberg would have embraced, that “we tend to underestimate the elusiveness of language in the hands of both artists and critics.” But whether Apollonian or quotidian in their phrasing, both statements are reminders that even as the world of art has expanded exponentially, the world of criticism has shrunk, becoming the literary equivalent of an artist so focused on the horizon line that she cannot remember the landscape from which that line is derived.

From the vantage point of 65 years, Rosenberg’s essay is notable for emphasizing the body politic as much as the body aesthetic; like his nemesis and sparring partner Clement Greenberg, Rosenberg’s allusions are to literary or cinematic creators as often as they are to painters and sculptors. His genius lies in his ability to generate systemic conclusions from seemingly simple, even elemental specifics; relating groupthink in both mass and elite culture to the self-enforcing strictures of gang behavior, he struggles to formulate an alternative that will justify his belief that “only the individual can communicate experience, and only another individual can receive such a communication.” I found the bridge to the gulf between what Rosenberg outlined in 1948 and the current diminished stature of art criticism by revisiting “Criticism and Its Premises,” from his 1975 Art on the Edge. Three points, distilled from the essay, chart a path toward criticality that reconciles the particulars of individual points of view with the realities of the larger world.

- Criticism, like art, creates its values through particular instances rather than rules formulated in advance. The critic sees history backwards, from the painting he is studying to works that anteceded it.

- The critic’s role is one of influence, not power. She is essentially a translator who responds with a trained rhetoric to the pantomime of artists.

- The value of art criticism must be to reintroduce art into the framework of humanly serious concerns.

As an artist whose writing has paralleled my studio practice for 30 years, I am constantly reminded of the intimate linkage between words and the actions that result in art. As president of the United States Chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-USA), I am extremely conscious of the diminished stature of cultural commentary within today’s infotainment matrix. AICA International, like Rosenberg’s essay, was conceived in 1948, through a series of congresses held at the headquarters of another postwar invention, UNESCO. The international roster of prominent artists, critics, and historians in attendance had as their goal nothing less than the revival of networks of cultural communication that were severely disrupted by the Second World War. Their founding documents birthed an organization that has grown to include 4,600 writers from 63 member nations. Our 2012 Congress, “Writing With an Accent,” concerned itself with authorial strategies across national boundaries. They ranged from Rifky Effendy’s emphasis on the importance of vernacular to inject subtleties into a national language incapable of satisfying a polyglot culture of more than 150 subgroups, to Indian critic Aveek Sen’s assertion that his audience was none other than the artist herself, with all other readers invited to eavesdrop. But the sense of urgency lacking in an artworld gone a bit flabby from too much market churn was provided by Egyptian writer Aida Eltorie, who described how a mélange of critics and artists collaborated, through actions and critique, to act as a “salad of provocation” during the critical 18 days of protests at Tahir square that culminated in the 2011 downfall of the Mubarek regime.

As guest editor for ARTSEEN I have invited writers with opinions about how art and words can reinforce and enlarge each other to satisfy the one-to-one communication that Rosenberg saw as the only solution to alienated mass culture. Michael Duncan proposes Sister Corita Kent as the exemplar of an artist who altered words and reformed their meanings to bridge the schisms between art and activism, faith and pop culture. Noah Becker imagines what Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life might have been like with access to the immediacy of media-at-your-fingertips culture. Pac Pobric links the current inability of critics to speak to larger issues to the end of utopian visions in both art and politics, while Christina Schmid offers perspectives on how and why critics increasingly abdicate their point of view. David Carrier and Darren Jones describe how critical leverage, whether from one voice or many, is capable of shifting everything, from museum attitudes and practices to the course of human events.

Contributor

Christopher French

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