“Because most of us lack confidence in our ability to simply look at and feel art, in the same way that we can listen to and feel music, there exists a vast business of interpretation.” (Michael Findlay, The Value of Art) When I read this statement, I was, I confess, a little taken aback. If Findlay was correct, then what of art history, a discipline to which I have devoted a great deal of attention, a field, indeed, to which I have myself contributed? Then, it happened, a memory of reading from some decades ago came back to me. In the preface to his Nicolas Poussin (1967), Anthony Blunt writes: “I hope that at some time I shall write a book—a much shorter book in which … Poussin’s supreme merits as a painter can be made the principal theme.” This statement may seem obviously paradoxical, for how can his big book not be about Poussin “as a painter?” But, as Blunt explains, in order to appreciate Poussin as a painter, you need “to understand the intellectual climate in which he worked and the ideas—in which he believed and which affected his method of work as well as his paintings.” Someone could, he is saying, read his Nicolas Poussin cover to cover and ask: but what of the merits of Poussin as a painter? I should know, for it is arguable that my own book, Poussin’s Paintings: A Study in Art-Historical Methodology (1993), leaves unanswered the same question. You could read everything I have to say about Poussin and ask: “Is he a great painter?”
Joachim Pissarro is spot on to note that theorizing about art has recently become less important. When I started publishing art criticism around 1980, the models provided by Clement Greenberg and his follower Michael Fried were still extremely important, and the analysis of Greenberg’s wayward disciple, Rosalind Krauss and her fellow Octoberists attracted great attention. Greenberg was read as providing the sketch, at least, of a theory of modernism, and certainly his followers worked out such an account in academic detail. Compare three recent surveys of contemporary art: Kelly Grovier, 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age (2013); Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks (2011), by eight curators; and Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting (2011), with selections by 77 critics and curators. These very different books do not offer a comprehensive theory. Indeed, if you look at the variety of art they describe, then it’s very obvious that no interesting theory could suit all of the art they describe. What single theory could encompass David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer, Chris Ofili, Janny Saville, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—to name just five of the artists who interest Grovier?
Art Since 1900 (2004) by Hal Foster, Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, was wildly controversial because of its judgments of taste, which many commentators thought extremely eccentric (less because of its inclusions than for the omissions) and, also, because of its abandonment of a traditional narrative framework in favor of year-by-year commentaries, which self-consciously refuse to constitute a synthesis. Introducing four methodologies which “cannot easily be reconciled,” the result, the authors note, are “tensions not masked by an unbroken story unified by a single voice.” From our present perspective, however, it is apparent that Art Since 1900 was a compromise between the older unified narratives and the recent surveys. And where Foster, Krauss, Bois, and Buchloh have a certain shared identity because they are associated with the journal October, which often has an adversarial relationship with the larger art world, right now only a critic like Grovier, who has very catholic tastes, or a group of figures, like the authors of Defining Contemporary Art or Vitamin P2, can produce a satisfying survey.
And yet, Pissarro is right to note, also, that concern with theorizing has not disappeared. What we have now, however, is not an all-encompassing theory, like Greenberg’s (and Fried’s) analysis of modernism, or October’s description of postmodernism. Rather, we have a variety of theories adapted to individual artists. I would describe this pluralistic situation with reference to my personal experience. The contemporary artist who has most engaged me over the past 30-some years is Sean Scully, and so my monograph Sean Scully (2004) offers a theory of his abstractions, an analysis very much developed in collaboration with him. Arguing that the rhythms of his paintings draw upon both the structure of the contemporary city, and also upon the popular music which inspired him when he was young, we trace his development in close detail. What’s interesting, then, for our present purposes, is that this theory doesn’t provide any way of understanding his abstractionist peers, let alone any other artists: it’s an analysis just of Scully’s painting. Some years ago a publisher who knew Sean Scully asked me to do an ambitious survey, Abstract Art Since 1948. The project was fascinating indeed, but in the end I failed because I was unable to come up with a satisfying theory of the very varied abstract paintings and sculptures which had to be described. Perhaps some other smarter writer will succeed where I failed, but maybe Findlay is right: it is possible to appreciate contemporary art without, also, being able to interpret it convincingly.
David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.