Follow-up on the Crisis in Criticism

Having just finished Elkins’, What Happened to Art Criticism?, I have a better sense for what gave rise to Dan’s frustration. Elkins’ text is in the grand tradition of the essay — timely, informed, opinionated, and sans bibliographic references and notes. It raises many questions and offers numerous taxonomies of existing practices and approaches. In the end [80], he does not urge reform, proposing instead that we pursue a hermeneutics of contemporary critical practice (“what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment”), or perhaps an explanatory approach to the question, “Why do the vast majority of today’s critics prefer description over ‘ambitious’, ‘reflective’ criticism that ‘is important enough to count as history’?” [84f].

Elkins essay embodies his typically staggering familiarity with a wide range of sources. However, it’s unfortunate that he makes no reference whatsoever to insights contained in an extremely thoughtful essay by Michael Brenson, former NYTimes art critic, entitled “Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis of Journalistic Criticism”. (The essay was also included in Maurice Berger’s anthology The Crisis of Criticism, NY: The New Press, 1998.)

Michael Brenson is one of those few critics who has not shied away from positions, judgments, and a willingness to consider art that may be inaccessible on first viewing. In “Resisting the Dangerous Journey”, he argues that “journalistic art criticism” has a special role to play in shaping social and cultural life. For that reason, it imposes greater ethical demands on the critic.

This is the one field of criticism that belongs to everyone and touches personally a broad cross section of curious and interested people. It also sets the tone for the way America thinks about art. Yet largely because of its identification with the impersonal and mysteriously powerful news media institutions in which it appears, it is also the one field of criticism that seems essentially untouchable and unaccountable. Its enormous influence is taken for granted, particularly among artists, curators and dealers in New York, yet general discussions about it rarely take place, and within the academic world only the most generous scholars treat it with respect…. I believe that art criticism is failing miserably to meet the challenges of this time, and that art and artists, and indeed the artistic culture of this country, are suffering as a result. American art, artists and art institutions are struggling, and because so few critics have been willing to participate in this struggle and examine their role in its development and outcome, art criticism, as a whole, is in trouble.

Anyone interested in the contemporary state of art criticism would benefit from a close reading of Brenson’s essay and attention to his critical practice.

What Happened to Art Criticism?

Dan Hopewell over at Iconoduel has a review of James Elkins’ book, What Happened to Art Criticism?. Elkins surveys the contemporary state of art criticism and examines the prospects for developing a new approach. If I read the review correctly, it sounds as if he dismisses any attempts to build on past critical traditions as hopelessly “nostalgic”. If that’s the case, it’s an unfortunate and untenable position.

The only way to get beyond the impasse confronted by critics, artists, philosophers, etc. — the only way there ever has been — is to work one’s way out through the past and into a practice that’s adequate to one’s contemporary experience. To admire and value past accomplishments is not necessarily to fall prey to a static and unproductive nostalgia if one approaches those accomplishments critically and with a sense for their historical relevance.

The present and future come from somewhere. Setting aside (here comes my bias) transcendental intervention and creative genius, our only hope is to understand the forces that have constructed the present and to find the concepts, methods, and techniques that we need to confront, challenge, critique, and refine the cultural production of today.

The present state of critical discourse is strongly influenced by the long reign — nearly two generations — of pluralism in the artworld. If you add to that the dismissal of the “high/low” distinction, you find that it’s difficult for anyone to take value judgments seriously. Hence, the “official policy” of either limiting oneself to “descriptive criticism”, or offering modest critical judgments with the implicit disclaimer that “it’s only my opinion”. This policy is, of course, rarely adhered to in one’s personal life where all sorts of judgments are made.

One finds such abnegation of judgment not only in criticism, but in art school pedagogy, as well. Crits are no longer occasions in which the artist is expected to talk intelligently about their influences, interests, and intentions, and to face tough questions about whether the work embodies them. The result is that we’re educating yet another generation of artists in a relatively uncritical environment. That’s a fact that must be faced and factored into our attempt to understand the nature and limits of contemporary art practice and criticism.

Lebbeus Woods Exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art

I’ve received a number of responses to the posting on Lebbeus Woods’ new book. Interested readers should also know that a large exhibition of his work is opening at the Carnegie Museum of Art on July 31 and running through the summer.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Widely considered one of the most innovative experimental architects working today, Lebbeus Woods (American, b. 1940) combines an extraordinary mastery of drawing with a penetrating analysis of architectural and urban form and social and political conditions that is nourished by his wide knowledge of fields ranging from philosophy to cybernetics. Like many architects engaged in speculation, he has produced no permanent bricks-and-mortar edifices. For Woods, however, the act of articulating ideas graphically or through the medium of the model — of releasing those ideas from the realm of the mind into the real world — is as constitutive of building as is the act of physical construction. Woods is similarly unbound by conventional principles governing architectural form, function, and space, arguing that world conditions and rapidly changing contemporary life demand the invention of wholly new approaches to architectural space. Through hundreds of architectural projects and installations, solo and group exhibitions, publications, and seminars, workshops, and teaching positions, Woods has passionately and imaginatively advocated forms that defy tectonic expectation and spaces whose uses are indeterminate. This exhibition, which will be the largest ever on Woods in the United States, will include in-depth representation of a selected group of projects shown through drawings, models, and human-scaled photographic blow-ups to create an engulfing spatial experience. Designed by Woods, the exhibition will also feature a site-specific installation that he describes as a drawing in space. Lebbeus Woods: Experimental Architecture is organized by the Heinz Architectural Center and will be accompanied by a catalogue.

Fields and Vito Acconci

Thanks to Alan for the comment on the Lebbeus Woods post and his reference to Vito Acconci. Barbara Gladstone had a large exhibition of Acconci’s early works (Diary of a Body 1969-73) in April. The catalog documenting this period will be published by Charta in the fall. The exhibition was (as one might expect) text-heavy. The catalog will be a welcome relief to the legs and allow the viewer to think more productively about this important body of work.

P.S. [5 July 04] There was an informative interview with Acconci in Sculpture magazine (September 2002). In it he talks about his origins as a writer, the notion of the page as a field of action, and how this insight has shaped his practice over the years. Another interview, with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, can be found here.