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Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice

ed. Raphael Rubinstein

300 pages
Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 0.5 in.
Publisher: Hard Press Editions, Aug 2006
ISBN: 1889097675
Paperback, $24.95

Nancy Princenthal, senior editor of Art in America, calls it "an orphan practice." James Elkins, professor at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and author of several books on art and perception, maintains that it is in these days "writing without readers... massively produced, and massively ignored." Why read it? Why write it? What is it? Why, art criticism, of course. Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice presents thirteen short essays by professionals within the field of art criticism, from freelance writers to art magazine editors to professors, debating its status and failings in the art world of the twenty-first century. Primary among their findings is that as the art market expands and grows, critics and criticism seem to be diminishing in influence, interest, and relevance. How and why?

The answers range widely, and nearly all the authors touch on several at a time. Some identify the problem as being with the art and the artists who make it, primarily, a lack of good artistic content, product of the "fatigue" of the twentieth century finally being felt, the emergence of "twentysomethings fresh from art school who look at painting as something to do between shopping trips to Prada." In his essay "At the Crossroads", Peter Plagens finds that contemporary art "has abandoned its function as the visual wing of the house of poetry and has morphed... into a subdivision of the entertainment industry," losing, correspondingly, its impact and depth of statement. Other contributors declare the crisis to be the result of deep tectonic plate shifts in the art market, as well as in the "power structures" of the art world. On the one hand the market continues to globalize and become more and more intensely infused with big-business interests. On the other, the critical voice is no longer the authoritative arbiter of taste in the art world; increasingly, curators and museums received greater predominance as authorities on what is noteworthy, while at the same time the commercialization of art, its transformation into a 'consumable' rather than an expression of culture, bypasses the critic and makes its appeals directly to the public. Adding to this, venues for art criticism are scant; Eleanor Heartney notes that most 'Arts and Entertainment' sections in newspapers are given over to 'entertainment,' with only a brief nod to art.

Further problems are internal to the discipline of critics and criticism. Chief among these is the relinquishment of any need to pass judgment. The "art critic", whose title implies a measure of discriminating appraisal as to whether the work under consideration actually has value, is, in other words, 'good art', has diminished into the "art writer", whose role is mainly descriptive, and often subjective. That unwillingness or even refusal to be judgmental is fallout from American academia of the 1960s, when judgment, and its counterpart critical thinking, were tossed out of the curriculum of a liberal education. It was deemed more important to be democratic, for 'everyone's' opinion to be equally valid. Judgement was no longer necessary, nor was it politically correct -- everything was relative. In the art world there was no longer any 'good art' or 'bad art', there was only 'art'.

Nearly every author in Critical Mess holds an opinion on the proper place of judgment in art criticism, providing one of the liveliest commonalities to be found in the essays taken as a whole. James Elkins favors "ambitious judgment" in comparing the work against other work, and against, as well, what other writers have written about the work. Elkins maintains that art writing should serve not only as an assessment of the art, but as "a forum for the concept and operation of judgment" itself. Thomas McEvilley maintains that without judgment, art criticism is completely subjective, "about as interesting as the critic telling us his favorite flavor of ice cream." Jerry Saltz in "Seeing Out Loud" decries "no-risk non-criticism", arguing that it is impossible to write and not be expressing some kind of judgment, even a tacit one. Raphael Rubinstein, essayist as well as editor in this compendium, notes painter Alex Katz as commenting that democracy in painting and the pursuit of novelty has made everything level and thereby, meaningless. Arthur C. Danto is one of the sole writers to maintain that the personal judgment of the critic is not all that important, that others have already judged its value by bringing the work to the walls of galleries or museums. Danto holds that what is more important is to be descriptive; his example is an analogy to comparing wines. J.J. Charlesworth notes that as a culture, we have downplayed criticism in any role, not just in art. He cites "low-octane ethics" and quotes Michael Archer, also an art critic, as denying there is anything wrong with art today and that art criticism should lower its expectations.

Illuminating as they are in their many facets and flashes that touch on problems in art and art writing, there is the persistent feel in this essay collection that the authors need to expand their gaze upward and outward to find the real underlying cause, of which their discussions represent only the symptoms. It is not just art criticism that is being less read in the 21st century; it is all writing, particularly that which invokes any need to think and understand. In his book The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster: 1988), University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom put a finger on the enervation and de-culturalization of America, of which disinterest in art reviews is merely a single symptom. In the eighteenth century the Philosophes, intellectuals of the Enlightenment, believed that common man given time and leisure would spend it in study of art and music, would enrich himself. The reality, as we have found out particularly in the West, is that a stable, prosperous society turns ever more inward to gratifying its craving for fashion and novelty, especially in a consumer culture where the very model of commerce is founded on developing and catering to such needs. Critical Mess's essays identify a constellation of symptoms: lack of venue; lack of authority; "Why am I not Clement Greenberg?", i.e., why am I not a taste-maker?; lack of judgment, of saying 'this is good and this is not'; lack of art inspiring critical response. But barely touched on is lack of literacy -- cultural literacy, in this sense, although bare-minimum literacy in reading might be implied as well.

Bloom commented that his students knew less and less of classical reading and classical music. He noted that the trend for 'liberality' in a university setting eventually consisted of waiving such requirements. To add to Bloom's comments of the 1980s, and especially intensified as a problem by the new supremacy of the Internet, there is a lack of interest in reading at all. Even at the time of Bloom's writing, he found that his students had little conception of why books, classics and reading were important to their lives. Television and the Internet have further indoctrinated both adults and children that to sit and watch the screen is pleasurable. Why read at all? And why think? The screen is paramount; pleasure is paramount; reality programs and celebrity interests captivate with their endless possibilities for distraction. The result is that the landscape of the typical individual is arid, sterile, its conceptions of delight limited and small. Our high-water markers of culture are exceedingly low for a civilized nation, and among them, the concept of art as a necessary enrichment to life is almost completely absent.

But what of the individual with a genuine interest, who wants to read art criticism? A look at two of the nation's major art magazines, Art in America and artNEWS (from whose ranks several of the contributors of Critical Mess hail), reveals that art criticism as played out in real life can be less than encouraging even to those who purposely seek it out. Both are national, full-color glossy magazines; both are primary players in the world of art periodicals, selected here for examination because of their immediate newsstand availability to the interested individual. Examining an issue of each, the longer, multi-page features varied in depth and interest, some meaty with subject matter, others seeming to be trying to spin much out of little. It was the sections which would be expected to infuse the greatest sense of lively panorama in current artistic vision turn out to be the greatest offenders: the short reviews. If there was an argument for judgment in art criticism, it was here. After the first five or ten one hungered for just one reviewer to make a critical comment, to point out a flaw, a weakness, to even say something was an inferior work (with, hopefully, an analysis of why). But these thirty or forty caption articles on art-about-town were uniformly edited and uniformly congratulatory, and spoke evenly of the works they covered, whether the accompanying visual looked rewarding, or appeared to be the ultimate silliness. In these generally descriptive pieces, little was said as to why the art might be important, or given over to how and why it 'worked', that an individual might take to the exhibition. One came to the table expecting a rich banquet, an introduction to an array of flavors, those founded on tradition as well as the newly compelling. One found prepackaged offerings, as evenly flavorless as supermarket food. Perhaps this, then, is the nucleus of the crisis in art criticism: for those who are open to be infused with understanding, passion, enthusiasm, an illuminating analysis of what's going on in the works, in other words, even for those who want it -- rewarding criticism can be hard to find.

Is art criticism necessary? Is judgment vital? Is art still relevant in the twenty-first century? Yes, yes, and yes. Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice delivers a variety of arguments as to the 'crisis' in art criticism, as observed by critics, art editors and professors. The thirteen essays in Critical Mess raise more questions than they answer, but correspondingly, inspire agreement and disagreement, thought and discussion as to the place of, and potential fate of, art's mediators between the artist's work, and the interested public.

Essayists in Critical Mess include J.J. Charlesworth, curator and writer; Arthur C. Danto, professor at Columbia University in New York City; Michael Duncan, critic and independent curator; James Elkins, author and professor at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago; Eleanor Heartney, contributing editor to Art in America and Artpress; Thomas McEvilley, contributing editor of Artforum and founding director of the MFA in Art Criticism and Writing Program at New York's School of Visual Arts; Peter Plagens, art critic and senior writer for Newsweek from 1989-2003; Nancy Princenthal, senior editor at Art in America; Carter Ratcliff, poet and art critic; Lane Relyea, Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University; Raphael Rubinstein, senior editor at Art in America; Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for the Village Voice; and Katy Siegel, associate professor of art history and criticism at Hunter College-CUNY. A few of the essays in Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice are excerpted from previously published material.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice, The Closing of the American Mind, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.

A few of the authors included in Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice have been previously reviewed by ArtScope.net. Arthur C. Danto's The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World (Farrar Straus Giroux: July 2000) was reviewed in August 2000 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/DANTO0800-1.shtml). (The book is currently available in reprint (University of California Press: Sept 2001).) Eleanor Heartney's Defending Complexity: Art, Politics and the New World Order (Hard Press Editions: June 2005) was reviewed in April 2006 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/defendingcomplexity0406.shtml).



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