Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is There a Crisis in Art Criticism?


This has been another episode of "Concise Answers to Obvious Questions."

But to avoid being a total asshole, I'll elaborate. For criticism to have a purpose, it must help readers identify and understand significant art. Practically speaking, critics should collectively be part of the larger group of people who decide what is good art. This is not an act of Olympian judgment (necessarily). It's just that for a given artist or a given work, the opinions of other artists, of curators, of gallery owners, and of collectors somehow coalesce into a vague consensus. Critics should be part of that consensus-making apparatus. A big part. But at this moment in history, critics are pretty much irrelevant to the process. (By the way, when I write "consensus," I mean that a situation in which broad disagreements can exist--even opposing camps. In such cases, there is nonetheless an agreement that a certain artist is worth having an opinion about. Most artists don't ever get that far.)

The view on the irrelevance of art criticism is expressed by two non-critics pretty forcefully--the economist Don Thompson in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark and sociologist Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World. A good book where critics address the crisis of criticism is Critical Mess, edited by Raphael Rubinstein.

Rubenstein wrote an essay on the failures of criticism in 2003. Around the same time, James Elkins published a similar short book (excerpted here). Rubenstein also includes an edited speech by Thomas McEvilley from 1994 that seems to anticipate many of the issues discussed, including the big one, the issue of judgment. Rubenstein basically portrays the argument (and it is an argument with basically two sides) as one between whether critics should offer judgment on art or not. McEvilley, a thorough-going postmodernist, basically says no--that's not the main purpose anymore, even though, of course, some judgment can hardly be avoided. Others disagree. The book hardly settles the issue, and many of the positions are quite nuanced (Arthur Danto and McEvilley especially).

Not surprisingly, what is interesting in a book like this is not the main argument, but all the little side arguments and observations. I've complained of my own tendency to be a "booster." Rubenstein in his introduction writes that this is a common attitude--given the relatively indifferent or hostile environment in which art (especially contemporary art) exists, art critics around the country feel obliged to be boosters--to talk art up. Rubenstein imagines an earlier, less pandering age. But, he writes:
It seems that the booster critic is central to modern art. Making the rounds in Chelsea not long ago I ran into Irving Sandler, who has been a tireless critic and chronicler of the New York art world for fifty years. [...] Sandler said something that surprised me: that in the '50s criticism in New York's Abstract-Expressionist milieu was almost wholly positive because critics like him felt they had to argue the case for what the artists were doing, to promote the cause of modern art in the face of a philistine or conservative audience. The image of the evangelical '50s critic was at odds with my picture of a more honest, judgmental critical practice, back when artists and critics were slugging it out at the Cedar Bar.
Elsewhere, contributors write about how intellectuals and academics (art historians, for example) don't take art criticism seriously--and Rubenstein's anecdote suggests one reason why.

Mentioned several times in the book is a round-table discussion put on by October (the journal founded by renegade, theory-steeped Artforum critics). One of the big arguments was against the notion of "bellelettristic" writing--essentially the fight between the theorists and the poets. Nancy Princenthal writes:
The problem with the contrast between defensible, systematic analysis and unapologetically writerly subjectivity is [...] a specious opposition. On one hand, there is no self-evident reason to make the linkages between art and theory that have been argued over the past twenty years, productive and often fascinating though they have been. Semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxist economic theory, structural anthropology--these are all fascinating fields, but they have no more compelling claims as explanatory systems for art criticism than do theology, mathematics, or the physics of color (to name a few heuristic precedents). 
On the other hand [...] good fiction and poetry can be every bit as lean, incisive and informative about actual experience in the real world, as any cultural or political theory.
Princenthal is writing about this roundtable, but her descriptions of the arguments allow her to make her own points. She discusses Marxist criticism and institutional critique, the province of one of a the roundtable participants, Benjamin Buchloh. As interesting as this kind of criticism can be (and Buchloh is definitely an interesting critic), there are multiple problems with it.
And since, as everybody knows, the great majority of art critics makes very little money writing art criticism, there is the danger that a kind of sanctimony can creep into the practice. Disinterestedness is actually, in some ways, a handicap. [...] At the same time, money is not the only register of power. In response to Buchloh [, Robert] Storr eventually responded, 'I find it curious that those currently engaged in critical activities (such as "institutional critique") seem to think everything is fair game except the academy. It is a dubious exception.'
Is it any wonder that many people resent the blithe Marxism of academics? This is not to say that Marxism isn't an interesting analytical tool, but I think there is a problem when almost all economic analysis of art or art institutions comes from that place. At this stage in my reading life, I would rather read The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark--a non-Marxist economic analysis--than another puritanical critique of art as commerce.

Princenthal is not the greatest writer, but she is a good thinker about critical writing and is capable of great pith. For example, "In critical writing, clarity is close to an ethical imperative. It enfranchises readers." This is one reason I have always preferred McEvilley over all the other theory slingers.

Carter Ratcliff's essay starkly defines the conflict as being between poets and theorists, and comes down firmly on the poet's side. He even gives us a little history. ARTNews had historically been the home of poet-critics--Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, etc. Artforum was formed in response to ARTNews, and it was where the theorists wrote. While the Artforum guys excoriate Clement Greenberg, Ratcliff accuses them of wanting to be Greenberg in the sense that thier work would have "rigor." But he criticisizes them for their potted theory, which for the most part takes bits and pieces from earlier writers (Walter Benjamin, for example), and decontextualizes them in service of this new rigorous theoretical criticism. In short, Ratcliff inverts the judgment argument, saying that it is not the poets and belleletrists who are imposing Olympian judgments, it is the theorists with their pretensions of quasi-scientific analysis. Ratliff knows that when he makes a judgment, it is inherently conditional. "Artworks are fictive, so is any account of the true nature of art. The best criticism feels at home with this uncertainty, or at one with it, and wants to illuminate it."

There is much more in this book worth reading, and all sides represent themselves pretty well. The essays are (surprisingly) readable, as if they each took Nancy Princenthal's admonition to heart. Personally, I found the book useful. It will probably have an effect on my own writing--not the least of which is to make me more self-conscious.

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