Ideas & Trends; The Jabberwocky of Art Criticism
Published: October 23, 1994

The last time Thomas Sokolowski, director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery, remembers tingling over an article in an art magazine was when Thomas McEvilley panned an exhibition of primitivist art at the Museum of Modern Art, triggering an impassioned, eloquent response from William Rubin, the museum's director of painting and sculpture, that crackled in the pages of Artforum. That was 10 years ago.

"It was very engaged, opinionated criticism," said Mr. Sokolowski. "And since then, I can't think of a single interchange that's been as interesting or as riveting."

An informal survey of museum directors, curators and academics -- the primary audience of art magazines -- suggested that Mr. Sokolowski is not alone. Asked about the state of criticism, many bemoaned a drift from clarity to impenetrability, from sharp, cleanly delivered opinions to muddy neutrality.

Unlike newspapers and general interest magazines, periodicals specializing in art are free of the demand to be accessible to a mass audience and are typically published after shows close. So, theoretically, they could venture deeper, into more incisive criticism. Instead, the reviews these professionals could be expected to depend upon have become little more than signals that a specific artist had been recognized, they said.

"Don't read the review, just measure it," said Manuel Gonzales, executive director of Chase Manhattan's 13,200-piece art collection, quoting the art dealer Sidney Janis. Speaking privately, several curators and academics said they had long since stopped following the reviews.

Little Heat, Less Light

Has art criticism sunk into paralysis? Consider these snippets on gallery shows from a recent batch of art glossies:

"Younger artists like David Row and Shirley Kaneda have also begun to investigate the possibilities of painting in a post-Kantian context, without giving up their works' traditional epistemological character in favor of a verbal model of production." (International Flash Art, Summer 1994.)

"Perhaps we've seen too many sculptures dealing with the human body in the last few years, or perhaps the impressive artisanry (by expert tailors) overwhelmed the metaphoric possibilities of the work, or perhaps the metaphor itself (weight as content) was simply too obvious." (Art In America, September 1994.)

Jack Benkowsky, editor of Artforum, says he worries that criticism that can't be understood without painstaking rereading, and criticism that forsakes judgment for description may be destined for irrelevance. He traces the trend toward obfuscation in popular magazines to the highly analytical criticism found in academic journals, which, he says, are poorly mimicked by "second-string writers" in a kind of intellectual trickle-down effect.

Some say the problems with criticism lie deeper, reflecting contemporary art's obsession with itself. The 1980's are remembered as a decade of hype and high finances at galleries, not as a time of brilliant flowering in the arts. For the first time, many galleries could afford to use expensive marketing strategies to promote artists. This effectively dealt the critic out of the high-stakes game of art marketing, said Jonathan Crary, a professor of art history at Columbia University.

As art has increasingly become the product of an ongoing exchange about art itself, these discussions have developed their own abstracted vocabulary and obscure frames of reference, which have become a lingua franca among gallery owners, academics and critics alike. The insular nature of the conversation can leave casual readers clueless, and serious readers uncertain. Bourgeois Baggage

In explaining the works, critics risk losing the distance necessary to judge an artist. Thus a review in International Flash Art last summer of Sherrie Levine's installation, "Newborn," at the Marian Goodman Gallery begins with the critic, Dike Blair, confessing irritation at the artist, who had arranged six grand pianos, each one holding a glass reproduction of a Brancusi sculpture called "Newborn."

"Is it the combination of her tasteful and seductive presentation, open metaphors and almost shameless lack of labor?" Mr. Blair asks. "Is it the pretentious and sly appropriation of images by artists who have suffered and toiled and who are probably much more significant than she is?" A promising start, certainly. But by the end, the critic has come to doubt his own "latent bourgeois and puritanical prejudices" and pronounced Ms. Levine's work a shining success in uncovering her critics' bourgeois baggage.

The more art becomes a product of this hermetic dialogue, the more it has to explain itself. Tom Wolfe, in "The Painted Word," argued nearly 20 years ago that concept and theory had become more important than the art itself, and were used to justify art in which he found little merit.

Lurking behind the declining willingness to pronounce judgment is a dirty secret whispered by experts who do not want to be named: that much of the art that critics write about is simply not very interesting. "Mediocre art makes for tepid criticism," said one curator. Doubts about the quality of art were apparently so common that they were described in a form of shorthand, as, "the old question: Is the emperor wearing any clothes?"

There is another uncomfortable subject that is often avoided: the question of the art magazines' hybrid role as industry booster and consumer guide. The first four feature stories in the summer edition of Modern Painters, a British glossy, were on artists whose galleries or publishers had taken at least one full-page color ad each. Other magazines may see no need to alienate artists and gallery owners with negative reviews, and may publish reviews only of works that critics actually liked. The September issue of Art in America, for example, revealed critics struggling for kind words to camouflage doubt.

A review of the artist Millie Wilson's show on the case of Aileen Wuornos, a Florida prostitute who killed seven men who, she said, had attacked her, offered this nugget of ambiguity, the closest the review comes to an evaluation of Wilson's show: "Though her work largely avoids personal emotion and conviction, Wilson's irreverent, sensationalistic, avowedly 'queer' humor yielded a show that was quintessentially of the 90s." Irrelevance Is Not Inevitable

Does art's insular nature force critics into irrelevance? Not necessarily. "A smart writer can deal with that notion," said Mr. Sokolowski. "What does it say about art that it's become so self-referential in a time that's more multi-cultural, more discursive, than ever before? What does it say that art is closing itself off more and more at a time when people are hungering to open up?"

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he finds criticism easiest when the artist has been dead a long time. The critic, like the artist, is building on the work of other critics, and a base of common knowledge.

"If you're writing about Michelangelo, there's a whole body of opinion you can read on him," he said. "If you're writing on a 22-year-old kid in the studio, he's on his own, and as a critic, you're on your own."


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