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.

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.

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”?

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