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.

Lebbeus Woods: From Objects to Fields

Princeton Architectural Press has just released a new book by Lebbeus Woods — The Storm and the Fall. The book, among other things, documents and provides a context for two installations by Woods, one at the Cooper Union gallery in NYC and the other at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, both in 2002.

In the text and at the lecture on Monday evening at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan, Woods has described his recent work as embodying a primary concern with the field rather than the object. This constitutes a shift in focus consistent with one of the defining features of his practice as an artist and architect, i.e. to experiment against the grain of established conventions in ways that open up a critical reconsideration of, and response to, the existing conditions for living.

The shift of focus I have made from objects to fields has not been made simply as a rejection of the politics of identity that buildings inevitably work to sustain; nor simply as a rejection of the illusions of authority conjured by buildings — especially innovative buildings, designed and built in the service of private or institutional power. It is a shift I have made in order to liberate, in the first case, myself. If I cannot free myself from the reassurance of the habitual, how can I speak of the experimental, which is nothing if not real risk, even loss? [The Storm and the Fall, 37]

In both installations, Lebbeus Woods has created fields of sensation that take one to a more basic and preconceptual apprehension of the event of “the storm” and “the fall”. And as a thinker he has made yet another contribution to what should be on ongoing debate about the very nature of architecture and its role in social action.

The Artist and the Critic

This month, Artforum published two short essays on the work of photographer Diane Arbus — one by the philosopher and cultural critic Judith Butler, the other by British artist Gillian Wearing. The articles are companion pieces, both visually (printed back-to-back) and performatively.

What struck me about these two responses to Arbus’ work was the contrast in sensibility. Butler argues that the “obdurate” and impermeable surface of the person in the photograph can be explained as both an assertion of the subject’s dignity in refusing to be invaded by the camera, as well as the camera’s refusal to go beneath the surface. She claims that this approach changes when the bodies being photographed are in motion or touching one another. The sensibility that Butler brings to these photos is that of the observer, the critic, the analyst who stays on the surface by taking the images as documents to be examined with the tools of interpretation and discourse.

Wearing comes to Arbus’ work with the eye of the artist and with an interest in what documentary images both conceal and (through concealment) reveal. Her take is more idiosyncratic, personal, viscerally engaged by the image, what one can do with it, and how this opens up new ways of thinking about her own practice as an artist. She confronts the image not simply as an image-maker, nor as one who transforms the image into text, but as one who thinks and responds visually.

None of this is intended to suggest a value judgment; it’s a way of questioning what it means to think visually. How does one engage with the visual world in a way that enhances the experience and the “symbolic imaginary”?

More on the John Currin Exhibition

Adam Gopnik has written the first (to my knowledge) negative review in the mainstream press of the John Currin exhibition at the Whitney Museum. It reads more as an “opinion” or “commentary” than a serious work of critical engagement and analysis. By that I mean he not only refuses to take Currin seriously as an artist, but adopts a position of high modernist righteous indignation from which to dogmatically dismiss Currin’s recent work as technically pretentious kitsch. Much of Gopnik’s outrage seems to be stimulated by Currin’s remarks in the catalog essays and in the feature article by Deborah Solomon (now in the NYTimes online archive).

I suggest we not take Currin’s testimony so seriously but try to understand the work and its reception by seeing it in a larger social and historical (not hysterical) context that includes the shopping mall paintings to which Gopnik refers as well as the various strands of American culture that inform them. Or look at the social network known as the “Artworld” (from Yale through Andrea Rosen and all those dinner parties to the Whitney) and map out the lines of influence that explain why Currin is in the limelight rather than “the thousands of other painters and illustrators with the same skills and attitudes and goals”. But perhaps that’s too much to ask of a journalist.

Elsewhere, Peter Plagens interviewed Currin for the recent issue of Newsweek. In that interview, Currin positions himself as a figurative formalist who’s not particularly concerned about social commentary in his work. I guess it follows that he’s not much concerned with narrative either. I suppose he won’t be taking my advice.

Looking into the Past – Guston at the Met

“Guston’s stubborn resistance to the modernist’s narrow range of experience is central to his existence as an artist.” [Dore Ashton, 1976]

The Philip Guston retrospective, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum, comes at an important moment in the history of western art. We’re living in a period variously described as one of “moral and intellectual exhaustion” [Harold Rosenberg] or (worse yet?) an epilogue after “the end of art” [Arthur Danto] and “the end of the history of art” [Hans Belting]. And if the received view of contemporary culture is accurate, we’re post-everything — condemned (or liberated, depending on your point of view) to being observers and producers of art “after Modernism”. Artists, we’re told, can only recycle the past, quoting but never re-inhabiting the sensibilities and urgencies of previous times and places. So, too, for the spectators who are dismissed as nostalgic if they attempt to bracket what they know of recent art history in hopes that they might achieve a fusion of horizons with Memling, Chardin, Malevich, or DeKooning. Must we accept this as true? Have the possibilities for experiencing art changed radically in the last forty years along with a shift in artistic production and critical reception?

A whole new generation of artists and scholars have come to maturity during a dramatic expansion in the size and scope of the “artworld” since the ’50s. Museums continue to be built, many new galleries have opened, more and more artists are being cranked out by MFA programs, and the writing on art shows no signs of slowing down. Painting continues to defy its premature obituaries, even though its periodic fragmentation masquerades as dissolution. The only generalization that one dares offer with regard to the contemporary art scene is so widely accepted that it appears self-evident: The art of today is pluralistic. There are no dominant tendencies or schools of painting against which one’s work must be measured.

The last truly imposing movement was abstract expressionism in the Fifties. Since that time and the strong reaction against the tyrannical rule of Clement Greenberg and his minions, young curators and critics have been loathe to talk about “quality”. A new, nonjudgmental impulse took root, particularly in American society where, among the general population, criticism of any sort is taken personally or avoided entirely. The conflation of critique with mean-spirited, ad hominem attack is reinforced in the moral imperative repeated to children throughout the country, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

But, in fact, the real conditions of individual, social, and cultural response are inconsistent with such imperatives. Critical judgments are being made all the time and always have been, particularly by artists who are most directly affected by the impact of those judgments. And while it may appear to be true that “anything goes”, there’s something for everyone, there’s a niche market for every style and taste, all we care about is what’s “interesting” and not what’s “good”, the situation “on the ground” feels very different and always has. In spite of the reigning ideology, people do make critical and aesthetic judgments about art. There’s even a sense today that we’re getting over our Greenberg complex. Discussions of “beauty” have re-emerged. In fact, it may even be that the so-called self-evident phenomenon of pluralism is attributable less to a shift in critical standards than to a change in scale due to an art market rapidly expanding and accompanied by an explosion of information and channels for its dissemination.

These were some of the thoughts in the back of my mind as I entered the Guston exhibition at the Met. After a one year, self-imposed leave of absence from the Chelsea art scene and the art journals, I’d been thinking a lot about recent painting shows including those by Thomas Nozkowski, Jonathan Lasker, Terry Winters, Shirazeh Houshiary, Howard Hodgkin, and Ross Bleckner. Some of the work I’d seen was unabashedly late modernist, some introspective and ironic, and others intriguing but aesthetically unappealing. Having been away for some time, I was a bit less cynical and willing to make a fresh start.

My first realization on entering the Guston show is that I’d forgotten how subtle and beautiful his paintings were in 1952 and how they’d grown out and away from the landscapes of the late Forties.

As you enter the second gallery, you walk directly toward Painting No. 5, a modest-sized work on the far wall, with White Painting I to the left and Painting No. 9 to the right — all done in 1952. What you don’t immediately notice are two small ink drawings that are also in the room behind you — Drawing No. 2 – Ischia and Ischia, 1949 — both from the late forties and hung just to the left of the entrance. The drawings and the paintings are positioned so that they are looking at one another, acknowledging their role in Guston’s transition from the precocious young figurative artist influenced by De Chirico, Benton, and Beckmann, to the mature, abstract expressionist. Drawing No. 2 is a highly abstract depiction of a small town on an island in the Bay of Naples. The image occupies the center of the picture plane and is made up of small lines and narrow shapes, barely discernible as a landscape. You can just barely make out the lines of buildings, stairs, stone walls, and walkways leading up to the small, remote village.

The paintings take their cue from the drawings and extend the elegant and delicately placed marks further into abstract space. In Painting No. 5, the buildings and hills are no longer recognizable. We’re left, instead, with paint — strokes of muted ochre, warm white, a touch of red, yellow, and green. Quiet. Understated. With craftsmanship so deft and unpretentious as to go entirely unnoticed. Guston knew precisely what he was doing and loved it.

He came back from his stay in Italy with a new palette and signature style. One can sense in the restraint and beauty of these images, something coming into being in a new way. He had found painting and the “purity” he would disavow almost two decades later. It was another moment both for Guston and for us.

His work developed in scale and exuberance through the Fifties but, to my eye, grew academic and nondescript in the Sixties, looking as if they were paintings that could have been done by almost anyone. They lacked the refinement, color, and style of the early Fifties. The thrill and elegance were gone. Guston was restless, unhappy, and looking for something else.

He could not have gone back at that point in the Fifties for to do so would have entailed a kind of self-plagiarism — a failure of artistic will, imagination, and principle. But does that prohibition apply to the observer of these works today? Can we go back to them?

John Currin at the Whitney

The John Currin show opened at the Whitney Museum on Wednesday evening. Deborah Solomon’s feature article about Currin appeared in last Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine. Michael Kimmelman’s review is in today’s NYTimes.

This “mid-career” survey of Currin’s paintings range from portraits done in the late ’80s to more complex contemporary genre paintings with riffs on art historical subject matter and popular illustrations. The grand finale is the just-completed Thanksgiving, featured in Solomon’s article and varnished by Currin at the Whitney days before the show opened.

Because this is the retrospective of a 41 year-old artist, viewers can witness the development of a young painter from that awkward stage, just out of graduate school, when one is looking for a practice that will engage the issues that one feels closest to while striking out in an original way. In Currin’s case, we see him feeling his way out of late modernist abstraction and into a sardonic postmodern figurative style. The early portraits, in general, are stiff and austere; the technique flat-footed and cautious; the references one-dimensional. The compositions and subject matter become more intriguing and self-consciously transgressive in the mid-nineties, although here one senses that Currin is trying too hard to be clever, outrageous, and politically incorrect.

The rule of thumb in art school lore is that it takes about ten years after completing the MFA for an artist to mature. The Whitney exhibition is evidence for the truth of that claim. It’s not until the late ’90s that Currin achieves a reasonable measure of confidence in his abilities and command of his materials.

Most of what one reads in the reviews of Currin’s recent work is true. The visual references to Durer, Baldung, Cranach, Van Eyck, Pontormo, Norman Rockwell, etc. are all there along with symbolic play, surreal iconography, and implied narratives. But the real question is where all this is leading him. How can Currin take his work to another level?

There are two possibilities, one more risky but potentially a lot more exciting than the other. First of all, the artists cited as sources for his recent work all had a kind of ready-made subject matter. The pre-modern artists depicted biblical, classical, and mythological characters and scenes. Rockwell, of course, illustrated scenes from family, community, and everyday American life. That route is no longer open to the contemporary artist for all sorts of reasons. But Currin’s technical accomplishment as a figurative painter cannot be an end in itself. He needs the narrative to enrich the work and to “thicken the plot”.

So the first, admittedly more conservative and less intriguing, option is to take as your subject matter scenes from widely read contemporary novels. This gives you an enormous range of subjects to work with and provides sufficient grist for the critical mill. Disguised references, subtle comments, and playful subtexts could lead to a large body of work in many different mediums. Of course, you’d have to do some reading. But that should be a pleasure, right?

The other, more adventurous, option is to borrow powerful and significant scenes and figures from contemporary cinema. This may seem a strange suggestion given that the source material is already an image, and perhaps a powerful one at that. But it has the advantage of allowing one to play with the visual puns and levels of interpretation that arise from multiply embedded images. And if you combine the two approaches by taking images or characters from a movie which is itself based on a novel, the complexity and levels of analysis can be extended. Consider, for example, the subjects one might poach from The Hours. Not only do you have the background of the original story in the form of a novel to play with, but there are additional and deeper links to Mrs. Dalloway as a source for Michael Cunningham’s book, as well as the connections out from the actors (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, etc.) to the traces of the other characters they’ve played.

But then you’d have to read books and watch movies, which could take a lot of time, especially with a young child at home and all those dishes to wash and parties to attend.

[Thanks to Joe Salvatore for exploring the possibilities with me and adding to my hopelessly impoverished knowledge of literature.]

Laibach Lives

I’ve often talked with students and colleagues about the Slovenian “band” Laibach and Goran Gajic’s very intriguing documentary about them, Laibach: Victory Under the Sun (1988)

Not only is the band an interesting phenomenon in its own right, but the documentary adds to the pleasure (and perversity) by featuring Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on Laibach and NSK, the multi-media art movement they founded back in the ’80s.

They never received much attention in the US and have been keeping a low profile for the last seven or eight years. They surfaced in July with a new album, WAT (“We Are Time”) and this month in Artforum magazine.

In the former Yugoslavia, Laibach made use of a political strategy that Zizek frequently mentions as being particularly effective under Eastern European communism — being more politically correct than one’s own leaders. By following very strictly certain guidelines and policies of the dominant regime (to which, of course, no one is expected to pay more than lip service), one is able to force the complacent authorities to confront the very symptoms of their adopted ideology.

Could such a strategy work under current politico-economic and cultural conditions in the US? My first response would be the obvious and cynical one that the manifestations of such a strategy by artists would go through successive stages of being momentarily outrageous, puzzling, adopted in small circles by those who catch on and those who don’t, appropriated by the “merchants of cool”, and finally cleaned up for mass consumption, with the result that any remnants of political effectiveness would be neutralized. But perhaps it’s worth looking beyond this rather simple reasoning.

It will be interesting to see what form Laibach takes under the “new world order” and in the aftermath of the transitions in Eastern Europe. I suggest artists in the West pay very close attention.

Curtis White and Contemporary Art Discourse

A friend and respected colleague of mine recently gave me an essay written by Curtis White, “I Am an Artist; I Make Beautiful Things: A Credo of Sorts Concerning the New Beauty”. It’s an attempt to find a way to talk about aesthetic values and judgments in an artworld where such discussions have been out of fashion since the ’80s.

While I’m in general sympathy with White’s concerns about the loss of critical discourse and engagement in the arts, I find myself wincing frequently as I read through his essay. Part of my problem is with his use of descriptive metaphors and figures of speech that seem crude and never quite on the mark. Consider, for example, the following: “I can feel an apology rising up from out of a wounded organ that stretches from my intestines to a hinter region of my brain” and “The artists try to speak, to respond, but their voices sound like the high whine of a vacuum cleaner with a dust bunny clogging the hose, or a food processor working on unshelled walnuts”. I want to ask, “Which is it? The dust bunny or the walnuts? Each conjures up a very different image.”

At first I tried to ignore these awkward moments in the text assuming he was an artist working outside his medium. But White is a novelist and cultural critic! I’m more than willing to admit that my experience in literary criticism is limited and my exposure to literature generally impoverished. So perhaps I should attribute his blustery and insufficiently precise thinking to some form of post-beat, ’60s literary style which simply strikes me as out of place in an essay that argues for a more articulate discourse on critical issues in the arts.

But the problem persists, despite my attempt to attribute our differences to taste. Together with his cavalier and somewhat indulgent style is a litany of references to high-brow sources — Adorno, Althusser, Derrida, Barthes, Jauss, Jameson, Baudrillard, Laclau and Mouffe. References to these writers is not surprising in a text devoted to postmodern art and criticism. But White uses ideas and concepts attributed to these philosophers and social theorists with the same flip abandon that he applies to his figures of speech. This leads to his blurring of important conceptual distinctions. So, for example, when he correctly points out that “[a]rtists and critics…can’t simply assert the reality of Beauty as some sort of unearthly absolute (the Sublime)…”, he appears to conflate the concepts of beauty and the sublime that writers such as Longinus, Edmund Burke, Kant, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe have consistently distinguished from one another. The natural sublime, for example, is linked to a kind of pain that one experiences in response to an awesome manifestation of the power of nature that goes beyond human comprehension and control. Beauty, on the other hand, is associated with a pleasure one feels in the disinterested contemplation of an object. These kinds of distinctions and their implications for a theory of artistic evaluation are lost in White’s hasty rant.

Okay, so what’s his analysis of the contemporary plight of art in the age of pluralism and the eclipse of critical discourse? The two big problems, according to White, are anti-essentialism and political correctness. White’s account of anti-essentialism is both brief and inadequate. While his analysis of political correctness is more fully developed, it’s unfortunately littered with the kind of unsupported judgments and dogmatic dismissals that one associates with late Greenberg. (White asks, “Does feel-good equal good? Does the fact of AIDS make a tedious melodrama like Longtime Companion important cinema? Is the solemn Safe by Todd Haynes ‘good’ because he’s [politically] correct…? Any Tan a serious novelist…why?” The answers to these questions are assumed to be too obvious to state.) White does have an important point to make, viz. that the distinction between aesthetic and political values and judgments is often ignored by artists and critics on the Left. There are a number of issues here that deserve attention. But let’s put that discussion to one side, for the time being, and consider what may be a general, equally insidious, and rarely discussed practice of contemporary writers and intellectuals such as White.

White offers the following characterization:

Anti-essentialism was the conclusion of a complicated logic found by American critics primarily in the work of Jacques Derrida. Derrida argued (and argues) against ‘the metaphysics of presence,’ and ‘transcendental signifieds,’ and ‘the purveyors of Truth.’ Thus, it has seemed easy to conclude that notions like ‘Beauty’ or the ‘Artist’ appeal to a Romantic, ideologically bourgeois and always and everywhere complicit (and therefore culpable) philosophies [sic] of the Real.

Ignoring for a moment the awkward form of White’s statement, notice how many terms he uses but how little he offers by way of argument, definition, or context. What (briefly, please) is the “Metaphysics of Presence” or a “transcendental signifier”? What judgment is signified by “Truth” with a capital “t”? Is the fact that Derrida formulated his critique of the metaphysics of presence in response to the early phenomenological investigations of Edmund Husserl and not as part of the “deconstruction” of a theory of beauty relevant to this discussion?

Having raised these questions, I don’t want to suggest that White should fully explore elaborate philosophical details in an essay directed toward a larger, non-academic audience. Rather, I would simply like to point out how White’s gestural reference to heavily weighted concepts instantiates a more fundamental problem undermining contemporary critical discourse — what Wittgenstein referred to as “language on a holiday”.

It is easy for readers, students, artists, etc. to pick up on the nomenclature used by philosophers and cultural critics. With relatively little exposure, one can begin using terms such as “essentialism”, “metaphysics of presence”, “deconstruction”, and “transcendental signifier”, just to name a few of the more obvious examples. One encounters them in college classrooms, galleries, and art journals all the time. But the ratio of understanding to use is low. Why is that the case?

One of the reasons is that there’s not enough attention paid to making these concepts clear to one’s readers or students. For example, in classrooms across the country, students are often thrown into deep conceptual and linguistic waters before learning how to swim. Too many teachers assume that sloshing around in the writings of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Adorno, and others will provide a sufficient starting point for the novice reader. By immersing themselves in primary texts, students will learn how to forge their own understandings and critical responses.

I claim this approach is misguided and irresponsible. Without both a larger frame of reference and familiarity with an ongoing discourse, including the philosophical background that has shaped the discourse and made certain problems salient, the curious but relatively naive reader of such texts will, at best, acquire a superficial grasp of only the most basic concerns and, at worst, simply add a few more items to their collection of fashionable linguistic accessories. If intellectuals and educators took a bit more time to define concepts and to review, if only briefly, the central arguments in support of, and in opposition to, the theoretical positions encountered in contemporary criticism, readers and students would be much better informed and prepared to use the conceptual and theoretical tools necessary for critical engagement with the cultural world around them.

This is only one of the factors contributing to the impoverishment of criticality in the contemporary art discourse and beyond. Writers who are committed to improving and rehabilitating cultural discourse, such as Curtis White, undermine their own objectives when they ignore it.

Interviews and other links for Curtis White

Center for Book Culture
The Write Stuff