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Is Criticism of Art Criticism Sufficiently Negative?
Art criticism requires universalism, and recovering the former requires recovery of the latter.
I still remember the look that Karen Wilkin shot me when I told her that I was producing an art magazine that published 1,000-character art reviews of current exhibitions. This was Delicious Line, which ran from 2017 to 2021 and published 500 reviews in all. I don’t blame Karen for the reaction. She is one of the last of her kind as a professional critic, professional in the sense that she has a profession. Most of the rest of us are gigging. Delicious Line never got anyone’s rent paid, least of all mine.
Yesterday I learned of Manhattan Art Review. Delicious Line was deliberately a little under-designed; Manhattan Art Review is updated as needed by adding ever more content to a single page of HTML with mostly default styling, except for some long-form pieces that are linked manually to internal pages that look even worse than the main one. Delicious Line reviews were two or three paragraphs; Manhattan Art Review reviews are often two or three sentences. Delicious Line allowed one and only one image of work under discussion per review; Manhattan Art Review has none. Delicious Line was entirely reader-supported through a 501c(3) designation; Manhattan Art Review has a Patreon. Let it not be said that I failed to spot the key trends of art criticism in our era.
Manhattan Art Review came to my attention because an essay by its author was picked up byand a reaction to it by Ben Davis coincidentally appeared in ArtsJournal. “Negative Criticism: A sentimental education” by Sean Tatol appeared last month in The Point. His personal recollections of acquiring taste are sensitively described. His observations, that financial incentives hardly suffer negative art criticism to exist, that criticism is a demonstration of taste more than a normative imposition thereof, that criticism of high art and criticism of low art differ less than is sometimes thought, that subjective experience cannot account entirely for the critical one, and that expectations of support of progressive causes are antithetical to the critical exercise, sound, well, familiar.
Over nigh thirty years of writing I’ve made a lot of remarks that I thought might be somewhat original only to find that they had been stated prior and better by Clement Greenberg, Hilton Kramer, or someone else. I’m not accusing Tatol of anything, even unoriginality, and certainly not plagiarism. I’m suggesting instead that a lot of these observations are available to anyone who has sufficient honesty to admit them and the intelligence to contemplate them, and the current art world is painfully deficient of honesty and intelligence. I read Tatol and thought, okay, let’s see if it sticks when you say it. I hope it does. God bless you and your 1999-ass web page.
But I insist that we’re in the postcritical era. Any criticism going forward is going to be written in a self-conscious state that survived art’s total financialization in 2002 and its total politicization in 2020. I’ll add that I expect that postcriticality will damage criticism far worse and for far longer than it damages art, which artists will continue to make anyway out of irrational drive. Criticism is an ancillary entertainment. It depends on the health of the primary one.
I’ll add further that art criticism as a serious, productive cultural enterprise will stay off the table so long as the Western art canon remains in the doghouse. If the universal value of the Western art canon was at some point in history assumed too readily, the correction at this point is unalloyed barbarism. It’s too pale, male, stale, so the experts say. It’s exclusionary when it doesn’t account for other cultures but appropriating when it does. It is the product of slavery. Its masterpieces are a side effect of white supremacy. And so on.
The Western art canon has no particular claim to universality, though it might contain realizations that relate particularly to us Westerners and those who want to join our liberal order of tolerance, equality, individual rights, and markets. But neither does it have a deficit of universality relative to other canons. Nor is it uniquely tainted by the evils perpetrated by its makers.
Somehow the Western art canon is the only one in dire need of expansion and redefinition. It is as if its native universality of value was wrongly assumed, but such value could be established through an increase of representation of all those who don’t see themselves in it. Once plainly described, the notion sounds insane and would be obviously objectionable if applied to any other culture, but that belief is normative in visual art now.
Downstream from that belief is the idea that we don’t share enough common humanity for a statement about art to be true in any general sense. Art criticism as a literary genre is a Western form. If the Western art canon is particularly lacking in universality, so is the discourse that attaches to it most closely. If it too is deemed unrepresentative and morally wanting, then it too has to be remediated into relevance via the mechanisms being visited on the host genre. And indeed, critics themselves have been moaning to that effect for quite a while. Typical is Elizabeth Méndez Berry’s complaint from 2019:
While some white critics write thoughtfully about non-white aesthetics, too many enforce white aesthetic supremacy. The notion that only works emerging from European traditions are worthy of contemplation and celebration still shapes what is covered, what is held up as exceptional, and what is rendered invisible.
As I wrote at the time, this describes no white critics whatsoever. She names none; there are none to name. But this view is widely taken to be accurate.
The chief problem is that it’s not clear that such expansion and redefinition is creating new audiences faster than it’s tanking the existing ones. At the beginning of this month, the New York Times ran a storyabout the arrival of $30 ticket prices at the art museums.
Audience sizes just aren’t what they used to be at the Guggenheim Museum, where membership — once a dependable source of income — has declined by nearly 16 percent since 2019, and attendance in June slumped by 26 percent, from 89,600 to 65,900, over the same time frame.
This is going on everywhere. At the Art Institute of Chicago, “Attendance remains depressed at 25 percent lower than its prepandemic rates.” Furthermore,
A recent survey by the nonprofit American Alliance of Museums… found that only one-third of museums have rebounded to prepandemic attendance levels, with two-thirds experiencing reduced attendance closer to 70 percent.
All blame the pandemic and ensuing economic chaos, but there are two reasons to question that. One is that it’s not apparent that it was necessary or even helpful to shut down civilization in order to mitigate the pandemic. What is being attributed to “the pandemic” would be more correctly pinned on “the federal and state response to the pandemic.” Second, another significant turn of events took place during 2020, namely 220 violent riots connected to the killing of George Floyd, followed by pledges from every art institution in the country to rededicate itself to racial justice and related progressive causes. The director of the Mellon Foundation announced that “There won't be a a penny that is going out the door that is not contributing to a more fair, more just, more beautiful society.” The Ford Foundation reoriented similarly and began leaning on their beneficiaries. It is partly Ford’s fault that the Philip Guston exhibition that finally appeared at the MFA Boston was such a calamity.
Worth asking is whether the riots and even some of the vauntedly peaceful protests altered urban life in manner that impacted museumgoing, and whether the programmatic turn in the museums is failing simultaneously to draw new viewers and retain old ones. I was recently in Salem, MA, following an assignment to cover the Hopper exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester.As is my habit, I looked around for an additional show to review. On view at the Peabody Essex Museum is “Gio Swaby: Fresh Up,” featuring “a multidisciplinary artist exploring the intersections of Blackness and womanhood.”
Swaby creates portraits of women from her own tight social circle using a range of textile-based techniques. The portraits are anchored in the artist’s desire to represent and celebrate the complex ways women style themselves.
Also on view is “Gu Wenda: United Nations.” PEM describes Gu as “among the most significant artists to emerge from China in the last 50 years,” and the show features a series in which the artist “works with human hair and other bodily materials.” I regard the Swaby exhibition as an attempt to feed the bottomless appetite of progressive white women for pictures of black people, and the description of the Gu show just makes me feel concern about how the exhibition smells. I met up with a college friend instead of visiting the museum, and mind you, as press I can get in for free. This is only a personal anecdote, but I can’t believe that I’m the only one with whom the PEM is failing to connect. The friends who put me up for the night are Salem residents. As such they can attend for free as well, and neither had been there since 2017. Why should they, when the big shows are this art school stuff…
…and another that obliges the viewer to wonder how much heavy lifting is being done by the phrase “other bodily materials”?
As I’ve written elsewhere, it may in fact not be terribly important for the museum to get people through the doors so long as the donor money keeps rolling in. But hardly any such philanthropy is being directed at art criticism, and if doubt grows about art criticism’s ability to say anything of note about a topic of diminishing relevance to anyone, art criticism is going to feel it. In late June, Black Sparrow Press published John Yau’s Please Wait by the Coatroom: Reconsidering Race and Identity in American Art. It has blurbs from Publishers Weekly, the LA Review of Books, Counterpunch, Helen Molesworth, and more. It also has, as of this writing, zero customer reviews at Amazon. Aside from a handful of specialists there is no discourse about this book at all. Again, an anecdote, but how does not a single purchaser of a volume for which “a generation has impatiently waited” (says the blurb from artist Kim Anno) feel inclined to remark about it two months after its release? If this happens to Darby’s book I’ll be mortified.
Tatol directs this comment at Holland Cotter:
The problem is not political art or “wokeness” as such, but rather with the way that treating activist slogans as sufficient criteria for good art—and any artist who peddles those slogans as an adequately accomplished artist—dismantles the function of art: the struggle toward expression, to eloquently articulate qualities that are beautiful, emotive or otherwise engaging. The problem is with a way of seeing that reduces art to a resolved formula, when in fact it is precisely the opposite.
This he aptly calls “literal-minded sloganeering.” Jed Perl of course is way ahead of him on that observation, but it doesn’t make it any less astute. However, it raises a question: If Cotter somehow recovered his ability to pass genuinely aesthetic judgments, does the art world generally believe that the relevance of his remarks extends beyond his identity cohort, as an elderly white man, even if a homosexual progressive? In the current climate I think it’s an open question. (I’m excepting myself and a lot of other people who feel similarly on this point: I think Cotter is entitled to make universalist judgments, he just happens to be wrong about them much of the time.)
Tatol makes another important point about what he calls “subjective absolutism”:
[T]o treat art as completely subjective represses the role that thinking plays in our subjective experience, and in particular the process of judgment (which is part of our experience). Once we make any judgment at all we are aspiring to be objective, or at least correct, to the best of our knowledge. This objectivity may not be fully achievable, but if we are to think critically, or at all, the attempt is necessary…. [C]ulturally speaking, the arts have been demoted to the level of “media,” recreational content intended for unreflective consumption.
Because we are Westerners, the effort to denigrate the universality of the value of the Western art canon has resulted in doubt about the universality of value of any art at all. If we can take no pleasure in our own cultural heritage as if all whom share the heritage can share the pleasure and vice-versa, which is not to say that all must, then pleasure can only be had as a passive, atomic consumer. The Times piece quotes another expert:
“Museums are really struggling” in part because the internet has taught younger generations that culture should be cheap, if not free, [museum veteran Harry] Philbrick said. “If you are used to getting music basically for free on your phone, why pay for art?” he said. “The museum format is antithetical to how some people are used to getting culture.”
That’s certainly salient in light of those $30 entry tickets, but it’s missing a perhaps more important aspect of phone-based culture acquisition: its algorithmic curation. Employed actively, this is extremely useful: from listening to Azalea Banks, whom I already know, Spotify just suggested Cartel Madras, whom I didn’t. But a lot of listeners are just setting Spotify to “dance-able hip-hop” or whatever and letting the music roll, without learning any of the artist’s names, until their mood shifts. This not only takes less money, but less energy, and no courage at all.
So we can’t connect to our common heritage. Can we belong to all of humanity? Hannah Arendt says probably not. But even if we might try, who is standing in the way but the very people denigrating the Western art canon, accusing us of “colorblindness” and “not seeing race” and other supposed crimes of equality. The Western art canon needs to be fixed, it is supposed, but westerners who indulge too deeply in other cultures that don’t need fixing are appropriators.
That leaves us with exhibitions like Swaby’s, which indulges white voyeurism regarding emotional connection among black women to which the whites presumably have no access,and criticism like Cotter’s, which essentially restates the contemporary premises of the Mellon and Ford foundations for the benefit of compliant New York Times readers.
The site of contemporary art criticism is a toxic waste dump.
We need a reset. That reset must begin with a rescue of universalism. Universalism is what prevents individualism from devolving into atomic solipsism, and why individualism should not be abandoned for the ruins of collectivism. It provides us with the basis to appreciate art, not only as a private pleasure, but a pleasure made significant because it might arise in anyone. The Western art canon is as much a source of that pleasure as any other canon. The people who produced it are as good as any other people. Universalism indicates the possibility that unlike peoples may bond over beauty and love, and explains why they often do. Universalism makes it possible for a statement about art to be true for anyone besides the speaker.
We start over with that, or we end.
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During the week of September 11 we will begin an Asynchronous Studio Book Club reading of Totality: Abstraction and Meaning in the Art of Barnett Newman by Michael Schreyach. Obtain your copy soon.
Say what you will about the outdated technology stack at Manhattan Art Review, at least it appears correctly in Chromium-based browsers, which is more than can be said for Artnet News.
My Hopper review is slated for the October print issue of The New Criterion.
Not even the courage to admit publicly that one may be the only white male fan of Cartel Madras over the age of 50.
It is not apparent to me why Swaby’s “tight social circle” is of more significance than my barber’s.