Last month, critic Irving Sandler published a call-to-arms on the state of criticism, “Art Criticism Today” in the December-January issue of The Brooklyn Rail. (This follows a 2006 call-to-arms “A Call to Art Critics,” and response essays, which, already, does not bode well). Sandler believes that private interests are squelching the medium, using John Coplans’s firing from Artforum in 1978 as an example. He also believes criticism is unfocused, due to a lack of some clear art categories with which to build a case (“the growth of pluralism”). Sandler asks: “Who’s in charge here? Can anyone stop the player piano before it rolls us in the trough of a tidal wave? How did we get to be so many?”
I actually happen to think critics are doing alright. You’ve got weekly anti-market rants (Felix Salmon, Jerry Saltz), critics acting as activists (Ben Davis, Martha Schwendener), some pretty great quitting articles this year, constant rallying on Facebook, Twitter, and comment threads, rumor mills like How’s My Dealing?, and people like Hennessy Youngman making criticism relevant to over a million YouTube viewers. It’s not that criticism isn’t happening, it’s just that it has no bearing on the market. That’s been a problem since the seventies.
But for me, the single most limiting problem in contemporary criticism is the meaningless academic language which leaves everything ambiguous and prevents all but a few from making it past the first paragraph. So when many of the responses to Sandler’s piece start off with “the notion of dualism,” or 20th century French philosophy, or The History of Criticism, it’s not exactly a mystery that this conversation isn’t getting anywhere.
Since we’re talking about criticism, though, that conversation is going to be thorough. Sandler came up with fourteen questions about critical criteria, and so far, he’s got over twenty response essays up on the Rail. It took me a whole day, but I read them all. It was horrible. Here are the talking points:
“The Diagnostic Essay,” Alex Bacon
We need more diagnostic essays.
“Responses for Irving Sandler (A Later Seizure),” Bill Berkson
Berkson’s list of answers is at least straightforward.
“Q: Is there a crisis in criticism? A: The idea of a crisis exists only to sell print.”
“Re: Art Criticism Today,” Robert Berlind
Brass tacks: writers should sound like humans. “If the writing has no character, why would anyone bother to read it?”
“If Picasso Is So Sexy, Why Is No One On TV Talking About Art?” Christopher French
A twitter-friendly title and a light read. French advocates for critics re-infiltrating mass media. No strategies offered for how to do that, though.
“Irving:” Dave Hickey
All-caps response from Dave Hickey. Solid Gold.
“I AM A WRITER. I HAVE WRITTEN A LOT ABOUT ART. I NO LONGER DO BECAUSE THE ART WORLD IS TOO STUPID.”
“The Four Corners of Painting,” Richard Kalina
Sandler said we need some categories, so Kalina provides some for painting. Unfortunately, they’re basically abstract and representational, which doesn’t say much about the work.
“Three Crises,” Pepe Karmel
They are: Marginalization, Mourning the Avant-Garde, and Conventional Taste.
“Thanks for the Memory,” Barbara Rose
At least Rose’s damning market rant has some life in it. Artforum is a repugnant object, and MoMA, once a “temple of purity,” is now a suburban mall. DAMN. She leaves us with this: “…Rome was plundered and occupied by uncouth (may I say tasteless, uneducated?) barbarians.”
“Re: Art Criticism Today,” Karen Wilkin
Twitter is ruining criticism!
“Is there a crisis in criticism? Only if you believe that criticism should matter. Art gets along just fine without criticism, although artists, in my experience, almost always benefit from discussions of their work with people whose eyes they trust. The Internet and Twitter culture have made everyone’s opinion seem equally important, however ill-phrased or downright ungrammatical, essentially making the pronouncements of those of us who get paid (admittedly not very much) for having opinions in public beside the point. If this sounds elitist, so be it.”
It just sounds like a critic who doesn’t use tweetdeck. Wilkin continues that she hopes her writing will prompt people to go see the work. I like that.
“Quarterdeck Reflections,” Alexi Worth
Alexi Worth becomes the first person to reference criticism after 1980. I’m frankly shocked that no one’s mentioned Ben Davis yet. But more importantly: finally, someone acknowledges the sterling work of the world’s finest art blog. Us!
Worth writes that we need to consolidate, because there are a ton of great writers whose work isn’t getting its due on individual sites. “Who has time to track all the meaningful voices online and in print, to find out if Jack Bankowsky or David Cohen or Carroll Dunham or Jeffrey Kastner or Jonathan Neil or Barry Schwabsky or Sanford Schwartz or Katy Siegel or Trevor Winkfield or John Yau has a fascinating or infuriating piece, and where it is?”
DO NOT EVER READ THIS:
“Post-Critical,” Hal Foster
“How did we arrive at the point where critique is so broadly dismissed?” Hal Foster breaks it down, explaining how critical theorists like Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière revealed the essential contradictions of criticism and, thus, convinced everyone they didn’t want to read about art. Foster, in turn, points out the essential contradictions in Rancière’s position, so I guess we’re good now?