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 , 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.