A Correspondence Theory of Aesthetic Value?

As a follow-up to the previous post on the source of aesthetic value, I’m including an excerpt taken from an essay by T. J. Clark entitled “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art”. [In Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, Francis Frascina, ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1985.]

In the section included below, he calls into question an assumption, attributed to Greenberg, that art can have its own values and be understood and assessed exclusively in terms of those values. (Clark is responding, in particular, to the arguments contained in Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939 and “Towards a Newer Laocoon” of 1940.) In arguing against this claim concerning art’s autonomy, Clark invokes what I’m inclined to call a “correspondence theory of value”. (In fact, it’s not so much a theory as it is an assumption or, at best, an hypothesis.)

This characterization, which may amount to little more than a truism to the social historian, is borne out by Clark’s claim that qualities valued in certain forms and periods of art—flatness in the case of modern art in Europe—necessarily acquire their significance and meaning from non-art sources in the larger society.

Clark’s account is historical but based on substantial assumptions about psychological and sociological mechanisms needed to explain how values associated with individual pursuits and experiences, economic conditions, and political interests external to art correspond to, and somehow affect, the interest one takes in works of art, the qualities one values in those works, the judgments one forms about them, and what they represent to the viewer.

In the end, the connotation and significance ascribed to a particular characteristic of a work of art—what it comes to be seen as—is a representation which stands for a non-aesthetic quality of an object or event external to the work of art that is held in high esteem, explicitly or implicitly, by the viewer.

What would it be like, exactly, for art to possess its own values? Not just to have, in other words, a set of distinctive effects and procedures but to have them somehow be, or provide, the standards by which the effects and procedures are held to be of worth? I may as well say at once that there seem, on the face of it, some insuperable logical difficulties here, and they may well stand in the way of ever providing a coherent reply to the Wittgensteinian question. But I much prefer to give—or to sketch—a kind of historical answer to the question, in which the point of asking it in the first place might be made more clear.

Let us concede that Greenberg may be roughly right when he says in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” that “a fairly constant distinction” has been made by “the cultivated of mankind over the ages” “between those values only to be found in art and the values which can be found elsewhere” (“AK,” p. 42) [27]. But let us ask how that distinction was actually made—made and maintained, as an active opposition—in practice, in the first heyday of the art called avant-garde. For the sake of vividness, we might choose the case of the young speculator Dupuy, whom Camille Pissarro described in 1890 as “mon meilleur amateur” and who killed himself the same year, to Pissarro’s chagrin, because he believed he was faced with bankruptcy. One’s picture of such a patron is necessarily speculative in its turn, but what I want to suggest is nothing very debatable. It seems clear from the evidence that Dupuy was someone capable of savouring the separateness of art, its irreducible difficulties and appeal. That was what presumably won him Pissarro’s respect and led him to buy the most problematic art of his day. (This at a time, remember, when Pissarro’s regular patrons, and dealers, had quietly sloped off in search of something less odd.) But I would suggest that he also saw—and in some sense insisted on—a kind of consonance between the experience and value that art had to offer and those that belonged to his everyday life. The consonance did not need to be direct and, indeed, could not be. Dupuy was not in the market for animated pictures of the Stock Exchange—the kind he could have got from Jean Béraud—or even for scenes á la Degas in which he might have been offered back, dramatically, the shifts and upsets of life in the big city. He purchased landscapes instead and seems to have had a taste for those painted in the neo-impressionist manner—painted, that is, in a way which tried to be tight, discreet, and uniform, done with a disabused orderliness, seemingly scientific, certainly analytic. And all of these qualities, we might guess, he savoured and required as the signs of art’s detachment.

Yet surely we must also say that his openness to such qualities, his ability to understand them, was founded in a sense he had of some play between those qualities occurring in art and the same occurring in life—occurring in his life, not on the face of it a happy one, but one at the cutting edge of capitalism still. And when we remember what capitalism was in 1890, we are surely better able to understand why Dupuy invested in Georges Seurat. For this was a capital still confident in its powers, if shaken; and not merely confident, but scrupulous: still in active dialogue with science; still producing distinctive rhetorics and modes of appraising experience; still conscious of its own values—the tests of rationality, the power born of observation and control; still, if you wish, believing in the commodity as a (perplexing) form of freedom.

You see my point, I hope. I believe it was the interplay of these values and the values of art which made the distinction between them an active and possible one—made it a distinction at all, as opposed to a rigid and absolute disjunction. In the case of Dupuy, there was difference-yet-consonance between the values which made for the bourgeois’ sense of himself in practical life and those he required from avant-garde painting. The facts of art and the facts of capital were in active tension. They were still negotiating with each other, they could still, at moments, in particular cases like Dupuy’s, contrive to put each other’s categories in doubt.

This, it seems to me, is what is meant by “a fairly constant distinction [being] made between those values only to be found in art and the values which can be found elsewhere.” It is a negotiated distinction, with the critic of Diderot’s or Baudelaire’s or Felix Feneon’s type the active agent of the settlement. For critics like these, and in the art they typically address, it is true that the values a painting offers are discovered, time and again and with vehemence, as different and irreducible. And we understand the point of Feneon’s insistence; but we are the more impressed by it precisely because the values are found to be different as part of a real cultural dialectic, by which I mean that they are visibly under pressure, in the text, from the demands and valuations made by the ruling class in the business of ruling—the meanings it makes and disseminates, the kinds of order it proposes as its own. It is this pressure—and the way it is enacted in the patronage relation or in the artist’s imagining of his or her public—which keeps the values of art from becoming a merely academic canon.

I hope it is clear how this account of artistic standards—and particularly of the ways in which art’s separateness as a social practice is secured—would call into question Greenberg’s hope that art could become a provider of value in its own right. Yet I think I can call that belief in question more effectively simply by looking at one or another of the facts of art which Greenberg takes to have become a value, in some sense: let me look, for simplicity’s sake, at the notorious fact of “flatness.” Now it is certainly true that the literal flatness of the picture surface was recovered at regular intervals as a striking fact by painters after Courbet. But I think that the question we should ask in this case is why that simple, empirical presence went on being interesting for art. How could a fact of effect or procedure stand in for value in this way? What was it that made it vivid?

The answer is not far to seek. I think we can say that the fact of flatness was vivid and tractable—as it was in the art of Cézanne, for example, or that of Matisse—because it was made to stand for something: some particular and resistant set of qualities, taking its place in an articulated account of experience. The richness of the avant-garde, as a set of contexts for art in the years between 1860 and 1918, say, might thus be redescribed in terms of its ability to give flatness such complex and compatible values—values which necessarily derived from elsewhere than art. It could stand, that flatness, as an analogue of the “popular”—something therefore conceived as plain, workmanlike, and emphatic. Or it could signify “modernity,” with flatness meant to conjure up the mere two dimensions of posters, labels, fashion prints, and photographs. Equally, unbrokenness of surface could be seen—by Cézanne, for example—as standing for the truth of seeing, the actual form of our knowledge of things. And that very claim was repeatedly felt, by artist and audience, to be some kind of aggression on the latter: flatness appeared as a barrier to the ordinary bourgeois’ wish to enter a picture and dream, to have it be a space apart from life in which the mind would be free to make its own connections.

My point is simply that flatness in its heyday was these various meanings and valuations: they were its substance, so to speak: they were what it was seen as. Their particularity was what made it vivid—made it a matter to be painted over again. Flatness was therefore in play—as an irreducible, technical” fact” of painting—with all of these totalizations, all of these attempts to make it a metaphor. Of course in a sense it resisted the metaphors, and the painters we most admire insisted also on it as an awkward, empirical quiddity; but the “also” is the key word here: there was no fact without the metaphor, no medium without its being the vehicle of a complex act of meaning.

Art and Social Change

Dan at Iconoduel and Miguel at Modern Kicks have been looking at the possible connections between the arguments in Greenberg’s early and important essay from 1939, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch“, and Lyotard’s in The Postmodern Condition. This weekend I re-read the Greenberg essay and the exchange between T. J. Clark and Michael Fried focused (among other things) on “Greenberg’s Modernism”, an exchange published by Critical Inquiry in September 1982. I’ll set to one side, for the time being, Lyotard’s views on modernism, aesthetics, and the sublime. Its relevance to the arguments contained in A-G&K are not immediately obvious to me, but perhaps I need to re-read that work, as well. For now, I’ll start with some thoughts on the debate surrounding Greenberg’s early work.

Every time I read A-G&K, I’m struck not only by the clarity with which it lays out the foundation of Greenberg’s approach to art, but also with his insight into the historical conditions that have shaped and constrained artistic practice in advanced capitalist societies. One can argue with his historical account of the emergence of kitsch, the role of 20th century popular culture, and the precise nature of the relation of the avant-garde to the bourgeoisie. But that he puts his finger on one of the chief obstacles to progressive artistic engagement today — the extraordinary difficulty of finding a secure economic and political position from which to practice one’s art and from which to effectively engage and critique the “dominant culture” — is, it seems to me, beyond dispute.

Greenberg argues that when cultural forms lose the power to embody and express what’s at stake in a society, the standard artistic response is to rigidify (by means of “academicism”) the fine points of style and form, theme and variation. Beginning with the emergence of the avant-garde in 19th century France, however, Greenberg finds a more critical and progressive response to the crisis of traditional bourgeois art as modern artists struggled to create an art that would critique the values and contradictions found in their rapidly industrializing society. The nascent avant-garde, according to Greenberg, ultimately disengaged with society, eventually rejecting its political foundation in favor of a cultural goal — to move art “forward” on its own terms as “art for art’s sake”. This involved a belief in, and search for, “absolutes” beyond content.

Thus, Greenberg’s claim is that artistic practices in the modern world inevitably became reflexive — focused on the medium itself. Cutoff from the social world, art was to be justified in its own terms. In this way, art became the subject matter of art. Ironically, art for art’s sake itself often led to a kind of academicism. But the difference between the avant-garde and the degenerate academic forms of art is that the avant-garde “moves” (makes progress?) while the academic (or “Alexandrian”) stands still. In this sense, avant-garde method is vindicated.

Also, paradoxically, the avant-garde “belongs” to the dominant culture or ruling class. Culture requires support and, thus, the avant-garde maintains its connection (its “umbilical cord of gold”, to borrow a phrase from Marx) to the dominant culture. And since this “elite” audience was shrinking, the future of the avant-garde was endangered.

It seems to me the issue here is not so much, as Miguel suggests, in the opposition of realism and abstraction, but in the question of what gives rise to meaning and value in art. It’s obvious that modern artists gave unprecedented attention to the mediums in which they worked. In the 19th century, this constituted a radical move away from the tradition and conventions of the time. In challenging the standards for representation of the visual world and introducing spatial incongruities, abandonment of local color, dramatic emphasis on surface features and two dimensionality, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Derain, Kandinsky, and others rejected the decadent art of the bourgeoisie, disrupting the comfort associated with it.

So the question here is how and why particular art works, or the qualities common to a number of influential works, acquire significance and value. What did flatness, to use the most obvious example, represent and why did it have such compelling attraction for artists and critics in the 20th century? Or, to consider a related question, what was so important about “purity” in art? Why were so many drawn to it as a concept around which to organize a practice or interpretive approach to a body of work? And — here’s the question distinguishing Greenberg from Fried from Meyer Schapiro from T. J. Clark, etc. — with reference to what can these questions be answered?

These are some of the questions one must face when confronting the issue of art, agency, and social change — questions requiring the tools of the social scientist more than the philosopher, artist, or art critic.

Critical Engagement

Dan Hopewell raises questions in response to the previous post that are too good to be buried in the comments section.

In rejecting Danto’s notion of a pluralistic, posthistorical mode, what do you see as the implications for contemporary criticism? Is it still resigned to cast about in the wake of Western Art’s post-grad growing pains, or should it be capable of a greater agency in working through it? Or is the stagnation of criticism more fundamental to the very “problem” itself? […]

These are, indeed, “the big questions”. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, but I don’t honestly think we’re in a position to answer them, i.e. to provide sufficient explanation and understanding of the current situation to enable us to overcome their hold on us and their demand for immediate attention. That we feel their claim on us suggests, of course, that criticism matters, that it plays a valuable role in our social and cultural lives, that it gives back more than it takes from us in time, nerve, and effort.

For example, I’ve always thought that artists have a responsibility to one another to respond to work honestly, thoughtfully, and spontaneously. Too often one visits another’s studio and immediately the talk turns to anything but one’s honest reaction to, and assessment of, the work itself — that level of engagement takes honesty, care, and a willingness to risk misunderstanding and, in extreme sitations, even the relationship itself. There are a lot of feelings that come into play at such moments. Anyone who’s been through a decent art school critique learns at an early age that exposure and critical attention puts the artist in a sensitive and vulnerable position. It’s difficult for everyone involved. But if the people for whom it matters most avoid this sustained confrontation with another’s work and refuse to speak honestly about what they see, there’s very little likelihood that anyone will.

It’s too often the case that grad school is the last time an artist can expect to get an honest and helpful response to their work. As Sarah Hromack makes clear in her witty send up of art school poseurs, it’s easy, often self-protective, and perversely satisfying to simply write others off as lacking in seriousness and purpose. That, in itself, is based on a complex critical assessment that should also be clearly articulated and “shared” with the artist — would-be or otherwise — who lacks the self-awareness necessary to discern how fatuous and dishonest their connection to art has become. That’s what it means to take someone seriously and it’s what’s required of anyone who cares deeply about the endeavor. Whether the other person deserves one’s sincerity is another matter.

Critics, by definition, should be held to the same standard. They owe it to the artist to be honest and to engage in an exchange over the meaning and significance of the work, as well as its role in a larger critical and historical context. The vulnerability and consequences may change depending on whether the discussion takes place in the studio or in a public forum, but the responsibility should be accepted.

The value of criticism goes beyond the ethics of engagement. If that were all that were at stake we would be dealing with little more than abstract moralizing. But surely it’s the effects that matter since the one who is critiqued is able to see more clearly how the work is actually being received. Nor is that process itself straightforward and direct. Understanding the response of the critic itself entails interpretation and assessment. So everyone involved is caught up in a delicate exchange involving perception, response, articulation, and (yes…) judgment. This enables all involved to sharpen their wits and refine their practice, whether it be expression through an artistic medium or engagement and understanding through the medium of ordinary language.

This is the very first step we must take in order for there to be any hope of creating a lively and productive critical environment. But it’s not sufficient. There are too many other obstacles in place that must also be examined and dismantled.

Re-Thinking the Present

Over the course of the last several years, the artistic and critical practices of the Sixties have been getting a lot of attention. Thanks to a number of recent publications and exhibitions devoted to individual artists (Rosenquist, Smithson at LAMoCA and the Whitney) and “movements” (minimalism, conceptual art, earthworks) the complex nature of this transitional period of cultural production can be more fully understood and appreciated.

Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974, Amy Newman’s history of the early years of Artforum, fills in part of the rich critical background of the period. By relying almost exclusively on interviews, she shows how the most influential art magazine in the 20th century was shaped by the very specific, and sometimes idiosyncratic, ambitions, ideas, and personal networks of writers and artists in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Last August, in a series of posts, Miguel Sánchez at Modern Kicks commented on Newman’s book, drawing attention to the subjective and occasionally inconsistent chronicle which needs more careful editing. He raises some good points about the prevalence of a moral discourse in art and the contentious relations among principle players such as Philip Leider, Max Kozloff, John Coplans, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, to name a few.

David Cohen, who reviewed the book for the Art Bulletin, begins with Hilton Kramer’s claim that the early Artforum functioned as “a kind of Bible”. Playing out the trope, Cohen characterizes Newman’s book as a Talmudic accompaniment to the Bible which “weaves around the original texts new layers of meaning through a disconcerting but richly rewarding synthesis of legend and lore, philosophical speculation, social analysis, anecdote, telling contradiction, and dialectic.”

What emerges from these “new layers of meaning” is a much clearer sense of the critical dynamics underpinning what, in hindsight, appears to be a dramatic shift in artistic sensibility. Arthur Danto has argued that the transition occurring at this time amounts to “the end of art” — a culminating moment at which art fails to achieve the modernist philosophical goal of self-definition. Through this “failure” comes the realization that anything can be a work of art, an epiphany experienced by Danto in 1964 when reflecting on an exhibition of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. The result is that art, in a profoundly Hegelian gesture, abandons the task of defining art, leaving to philosophy an exercise that properly falls within its domain. Danto claims that art, from this moment on, can longer be subject to a dominant and guiding theme or raison d’être. From here on art will be pluralistic — something for everyone with no constraints on what one ought to do as an artist or critic. The “moral component” referred to above drops out of the picture entirely.

My view is precisely the opposite of Danto’s. While I agree with the claim that a certain kind of modernist practice goes through a radical transition in the early Sixties, I see this not as the end but as the beginning of art. A rough analogy might be that with the culmination of abstraction and formalism at mid-century, western art had, in a sense, earned its MFA and was able finally to set out on its own. The time frames are different, but the pattern may be the same. It is typical of the early postgraduate phase of an artistic career to be a period of exploration and re-examination. (It used to be a rule of thumb that it took ten years after the MFA for an artist to mature. It’s a mark of our commerically reconfigured artworld that one is often preparing for their first retrospective by that time!) The pluralism prevailing since the Sixties may simply be western art’s first attempts at “finding its way”.

While I hestitate to push the analogy too far, I would certainly argue that the recent work on minimalism, conceptualism, pop, and earthworks — all focused on the critical period of the Sixties — provides an opportunity to scavenge through the remains of modernism for the concepts and tools needed to re-think the present.

Potentially Yours

Sarah Hromack, in a typically thoughtful (no rush-to-the-press) reflection on the continuing value and influence of those “seminal” Artforum issues published forty years ago, asks, “Is it crazy to suggest…that blogs and the community of people who maintain them, have potential similar to that of the earliest Artforum contributers?” Potential indeed. But how to actualize that potential, in what form, in response to what aspects of the current scene, etc. is not so easily determined.

There’s a suggestive remark in Challenging Art made by Nancy Holt as she looks back on that period.

I read Artforum and I certainly was around a lot of those discussions [about minimal and conceptual art, earthworks, formalism, art and politics, etc.] Some of it related to me. The Greenbergian battle was interesting, but I didn’t feel directly connected to it. I could see that the Greenbergian kind of thinking was too restrictive and we had to break it down. We had to open up the art world to other kinds of thinking and other influences from outside. The art world was very limited in scope and it was very entrenched. It had to be taken on aggressively. I don’t know how it ever got so entrenched. I wasn’t around when it was entrenching itself. But by the time I arrived on the scene it was constricting anyone who wanted to do something different.

I find it fascinating that the situation she describes is precisely the opposite of the one we’re in today. The artists and critics — Holt, Serra, Bochner, Judd, Smithson, Krauss, Fried, Kozloff, Rose, Baldessari, etc. — were coming out of a period dominated by Abstract Expressionism. In the ’50s, all new work was measured against it. The critical paradigms were either Greenberg’s formalism or Rosenberg’s existentialism. Then in the early ’60s Pop Art emerged as, among other things, a rejection of the purity and angst of Ab Ex and its defenders. This opened things up considerably with minimalism, conceptual art, and earthworks contributing to the options for young artists and grist for the critics.

It’s hard to imagine how small and constricted the art scene was in the ’60s. Even with the proliferation of new practices and assumptions among intelligent and aggressive artists and critics, they still felt the weight of formalism and the long arm of Greenberg extending his reach through Michael Fried, Hilton Kramer, and Thomas Hess. The Artforum crowd was still looking for ways to open things up to other influences.

Today, after a generation and a half of pluralism, driven by increasingly diversifying market forces, it’s difficult to even generalize in a convincing way about the works we see, let alone formulate assumptions that justify one’s critical judgments. The problem now, it seems to me, is not breaking out, but breaking in new critical tools, forms of creative expression, ways of writing, and concepts to help us both see what’s at stake in the current state of affairs and respond to it. The virtue of the web and, by extension, the art blog, is that here, if you’re fortunate enough to have the time, resources, and imagination, you can experiment without answering directly to economic and social pressures or conforming to conventional ways of thinking. The opportunity may not last for long.

The Artforum That Was

Thanks to Sara Hromack over at Forward Retreat for coaxing out of Dan and others a list of recent posts on the function of blogs. Her concerns about taking full advantage of the non-commercial critical space opened up by blogs raise important issues. The most intriguing, it seems to me, is the possibility of using our position of “relative autonomy” to reinvigorate a critical practice which is increasingly overwhelmed by market demands. I stress the relative aspect of autonomy because the foothold one gains from an independent, unaffiliated (what in other contexts one might call “volunteer”, or “amateur”) practice of writing about the arts is both unstable and uncertain. The fact that one has no institutional support or funding is not, in itself, a virtue. Nor does it guarantee a “pure” and uncompromised perspective, let alone thoughtful and provocative remarks worth reading. To make a contribution one needs an ongoing interaction with other creative, intelligent, clever, and well-informed artists and writers who care deeply about what they’re doing.

I’ve been reading Amy Newman’s book, Challenging Art, in preparation for a course I’m teaching this spring called The End of Art: Postwar Culture and Criticism in the U.S. Her book is a history of Artforum from 1962 to 1974 structured as a chronicle built out of interviews with people such as Philip Leider, John Coplans, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Rose, and others responsible for its profound influence during that period. There were a lot of factors contributing to Artforum’s success during those years — some serendipitous, some reprehensible. But I was struck by something that, on reflection, is probably not all that surprising for someone who’s been involved with art publications and institutions for a number of years.

In the first year or two of its existence, no one was paid for the articles published in Artforum. No one. Apparently Phil Leider, the editor, kept meticulous accounts with the intention of paying everyone as soon as the magazine was on its feet. But that simply never happened. Many people were willing to contribute just to see their names in print for the first time with the hope that it would lead to something more substantial. Others were willing to forego payment to help get an exciting new publication on its feet.

What strikes me as relevant and suggestive about the development of the magazine is the way that an informal network of writers, artists, and art historians was brought together through a common desire to refashion the critical practice of the ’60s away from both the moribund “belle lettristic” style associated with French criticism on the one hand and the existentialist ruminations of Harold Rosenberg and his minions on the other, toward a more empirical emphasis on actual works of art and their place in the history of art. Although his activity as a writer was already in decline, the model for critical practice during this period was Clement Greenberg.

It’s hard to imagine the way a small, alternative rag of a publication coming out of the West Coast in the early ’60s was able to exert such a profound influence on the art discourse. Times change, as we all know. Gains made in one period are easily squandered in another. And critical tools productive at one moment may or may not be appropriate 40 years later. But for those of us concerned about the “actual function” and value of art blogs, there’s an important lesson to be learned from Amy Newman’s analysis and the experience of those critics in the ’60s.

Why I’m Not Opposed to the MoMA Admission Policy

As everyone knows by now, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has re-opened on 53rd St. in Manhattan in a new building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. One of the most shocking revelations, in addition to the overwhelming interior spaciousness of the central atrium and some of the galleries, is the $20 entry fee for individuals. I can’t think of anyone outside the MoMA management who has defended the record setting price of museum admission.

Robert Rosenblum, quoted over at Forward Retreat, makes the point that the stiff ticket price “disenfranchises” the majority of the population. Setting aside the fact that we’re not talking about voting but visiting an art museum, there is a legitimate concern here about putting obstacles in the way of those who would benefit from exposure to an extraordinary collection of art held “in the public trust”. (Sarah Hromack at Forward Retreat shares Rosenblum’s sentiments. But Tyler Green, as he’s wont to do, wildly simplifies and exaggerates her post by suggesting it’s simply about the money.)

Rosenblum may not be a card-carrying socialist, but as a knee-jerk Marxist with an aversion to joining groups, I’m about as close as you can get to being one. In spite of my commitment to the redistribution of resources so that everyone’s basic needs are met, I’m not opposed to MoMA’s admission policy.

Let me start with the pedestrian pragmatic aspects of the matter. Twenty dollars is a lot to pay to get into any museum. But if access to the collection means that much to you and you live in, or a reasonable distance from, Manhattan, I would assume it’s not unlikely that you’d visit every 3 months or so. Given that membership for individuals is only $75 (completely tax-deductible), you would end up paying less than $20, get 10-20% discounts on books, catalogs, etc., and you’d have at least 4 free admissions to screenings of both historic and contemporary films projected under the best viewing conditions in Manhattan. (Anyone who pays $10.25 and suffers the out-of-focus images at the Angelika viewed from uncomfortable seats with poor views of the screen and subway trains rumbling underneath every 10 minutes can more than appreciate the difference.)

Keep in mind that children 16 or younger get in free if they’re accompanied by an adult. Students pay only $12. And it’s still free to everyone on Fridays from 4:00 – 8:00 PM.

MoMA has a discounted membership rate of $60 for those living more than 150 miles outside NYC, and $50 memberships for students. Both of these are listed on the website. What’s not listed is the $20 membership for artists. (I’ve heard about this from friends but have not yet confirmed it.)

I don’t know what the policy is for school groups, but I would certainly advocate free admission for students accompanied by a teacher.

I know that sounds like a commercial. No…I don’t nor have I ever worked for MoMA or any of its affiliates. Actually, my reasons for not objecting to the admissions policy go well beyond the ticket price. Here comes the politically incorrect side of my argument. If the $20 admission fee results in only modest attendance, that’s fine with me. I’ve argued repeatedly (and much to the surprise of my colleagues) against what I take to be an uncritical and simplistic application of “democracy” with respect to art. The jingoism of public broadcasting and fund raisers who claim “the arts are for everyone” misses an important (and unpopular) point.

A real encounter and meaningful engagement with art is not a trivial matter. It takes preparation, care, thoughtfulness, and experience. To get anything out of it, you have to “take it seriously”, and that takes time and space.

So I claim the arts are for everyone willing to invest what it takes to have their everyday assumptions and expectations challenged and changed. Those who are simply looking for a comfortable and carefree way to spend an afternoon are better off spending their time and money at the mall.

Lee Bontecou at MoMA

I’ve been thinking about the Bontecou show off and on for the last couple of weeks and went back the other day to have another look. The early work, from the late ’50s through the ’60s, conveys the angst and anger of that traumatic period. Some of the first works in the exhibition from 1959-60, done after a sojourn in Italy, are exploratory and tentative combining roughly welded black metal frames with distressed reinforced canvas stretched over the openings and held fast with small twisted wires. Dark circular openings of various sizes invite one to move closer and peer into an opaque black interior space. Most of these objects are somber, somewhat delicate, increasingly web-like and organic, but not threatening. They have an arte povera emphasis on found materials assembled in a visceral and experimental way. (A selection of the images from the show can be found here.)

One of the works, a freestanding pod-like wire and canvas object with multiple round openings, is small enough to hold in your hands. It’s an anomaly of sorts, representing a naturalistic path not taken by the artist (or, at least, not included in this exhibition). Rather than pursuing intimate and organic abstraction, Bontecou increased the scale, complexity, and artificiality of the wall-mounted reliefs. Somewhere between 1960 and 1961 the mysterious and lyrical webs of brown canvas took on a dark and menacing power as they replicated and mutated, expanding into shards of frayed grey cloth with grommets. Straps from military equipment appear along with ropes and pipe fittings. Numerous gaping holes suggest vents; others look more like orifices with saw-blade teeth that grimace at the viewer through these monstrous and distressed objects, trapped against the wall, as threatened as they are threatening.

In the mid-’60s the works get larger but also softer, smoother, lighter and more aerodynamic as they sail further out into the viewer’s space, freeing themselves from the wall. The sooty canvas and industrial machine parts give way to leather, chamois, sanded epoxy and fiberglass. “Naturalistic” light brown colors with traces of ochre, red, and white become dominant. A window has been opened; fresh air and sunlight fills the work.

And then, in the late ’60s, the work takes a dramatic turn toward more explicit representation of free-standing natural forms in semi-transparent molded plastic. Fish, flowers, and other forms emerge. Biological forms replace the anxious industrial objects of the previous decade. An exhibition of the new work at Castelli’s in 1971 is not well-received by the critics. Bontecou moves to the country, beginning a long, self-imposed, relatively unbroken leave of absence from the New York art scene. And for most of us, that’s the last we would hear of Bontecou until word that a retrospective was being organized that would include the work she’s been doing for the past two decades.

Bontecou has described her subsequent practice in the following way:

I’ve just kept working, really, the way I did before. Partly through dreams, even daydreams, partly through imagination. I used to go to museums a lot, the Museum of Natural History, and the Met. And galleries, some. But I’d still rather take from what’s around me. On the street, or on the seashore. Like when you walk down the beach and the shadow hits the sand. The ripple of sand is hit by the light, and there you have your darks and lights. [From Eleanor C. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, 386. Included in the MoMA brochure, Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective.]

It was at precisely this time that another “former New Yorker”, Willem de Kooning, who had moved to the East Hamptons in the ’60s, said, “There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good…it is the source where most of my painting comes from.” [Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Marla Prather, ed., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994, 198.] For both of these artists, moving out of their lower east side studios and away from the city had a profound and direct impact on their work.

In Bontecou’s case, elaborate biomorphic forms retain a surrealist feel not unrelated to those found in Tanguy, Miro, and others. Disembodied eyes peer out silently from a tangled web of antennae, fractured wings, and sails. Delicate, suspended creatures from another world protect themselves by constant surveillance, rotating gently from side to side as they hang from slender threads. One senses a benign, inquisitive, alien intelligence emanating from them.

I’m intrigued by these objects and not entirely sure what to think about them. They are surreal but without the anxiety of the caged canvas monsters. The drawings (e.g. 1989, 1997 and others) that accompany these sculptures don’t have the same depth of character. They are illustrative, self-evident representations of eyes, veins, shells, and waves. In many ways they diminish the sense of mystery created by the sculptures displayed in the cases and suspended from the ceiling, suggesting a more superficial and naïve fascination with science and spirituality. While I never second-guess the earlier work, I find myself wondering if it’s merely the complexity and the obsessive attention to detail that give the recent sculptures their appeal.

Lee Bontecou

People living in New York take smug satisfaction in the “privileges” of being in the cultural capital of the world. It’s not uncommon to hear that most major cultural productions — shows, films, art exhibits, musical events, etc. — either originate in or pass through New York at some time or other. New York has Broadway, Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Kitchen, uptown, midtown and downtown art galleries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Whitney. Oh, right…and the Guggenheim. But this time around, New Yorkers are the last in line (or, in Gotham patois, “online”) to see the Lee Bontecou exhibition which opened this week at MoMA QNS.

There has been widespread enthusiasm for the show with no serious questions or criticisms of the work raised in the major reviews (Plagens, Sussman, Cooper). The metaphors have ranged from the celebratory to the biblical, with resurrective (Lazarus) and redemptive (prodigal daughter) narratives embedded in largely descriptive answers to the question, “What has she been doing in isolation over the last 30 years while in exile from the New York artworld?” That seems to be the question to which Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective is the answer. Now, at the museum in exile, New Yorkers have the luxury of judging for themselves (and with hindsight) whether the critical response to the LA and Chicago exhibitions is all there is to say about this substantive body of work. Michael Kimmelman weighs in with this review.

(To be continued…)

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.