A Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice [everything is possible, nothing is real]

John Baldessari, I will not make any more boring art (Detail), from Le Case d’Arte, Milano 2011, from Art Tribune’s site.

Despite the fact that these critics occupy very different ideological positions, and that many of them don’t like, respect, or even intersect with each other, their complaints have a common underlying theme: the loss of the critic’s power to legitimate and legislate art. Or, roughly translated, “Why aren’t I Clement Greenberg?” (Katy Siegel, ‘Everyone’s a Critic’, from Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice).

And that is the problem.

When engaging with several of the essays in ‘Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice‘, this pithy, perhaps pissy, yet irrefuteable statement – or lamentation, even if made with her tongue firmly planted in cheek –by Siegel was damningly insistent in my mind.

Edited by Raphael Rubinstein, those offering their opinions on the ‘critical mess’ include James Elkins, Thomas McEvilley, Eleanour Heartney, Arthur C. Danto, the already cited Katy Seigel and (of course) recent Pulitzer Prize winner Jerry Saltz.

But Seigel’s words work very well, too, as a lens through which to explore why art criticism, if not dead, is surely narcoleptic. It’s also a good place from which to examine spaces and sites that eagerly aver that they ARE a return to criticism, or genuine or authentic or post colonial or post structural or whatever ‘power word’ (to quote Lessing) you employ here, with your blue pencil, are often just reheated cabbage. That’s not uncommon in self described ‘intellectual’ texts, as I remember being told by an Art History professor that we had no ideas and should only cite the ‘real’ ideas of other art historians. But being boring and painful to read is the more unforgivable sin. Take a moment to visit Momus or Canadian Art Magazine, if you doubt this (don’t feel obligated to finish anything there, as life is too short, too).

But let’s make it even worse, or more ‘authentic’, if I may muddy the waters – or urinate in the pool, if you will. “The false presumption you make is that anyone will read your essays. Scholarship has very little meaning in this hypebeast art world, and gallery catalogues even less so. It is honorable that you are invested in the power of the word and art history as a field, but you are ignoring that what passes as art criticism today is a boomer like Jerry Saltz puckering for the camera and posting crotch shots from Renaissance paintings. ” That caustic comment is from here. One of the authors in Critical Mess is, in fact, the aforementioned Saltz (or Morf Vandewalt, the caricature from Velvet Buzzsaw that seems based upon him, or a filmic distillation of his ‘essence’, if there’s one to be found). As a further sense of the mental space I occupy while offering some thoughts on Critical Mess, Velvet Buzzsaw was seminal to my ‘year end’ tangent, in a recent issue of The Sound, too.

First, a funny story: nearly a decade ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to an anthology about visual culture in Saskatchewan. I initially declined, as it threatened to be a heavily academic endeavour. The originating editor wanted my voice in this collection, however, as I had published not just with ‘proper’ art magazines but also was a regular contributor to a local paper and had a weekly podcast focused upon the visual arts. I acquiesed to her requests when I knew I was leaving Saskatoon (another story, that you can read about, in the piece itself, here): but that’s not the reason I mention this. When the entire anthology was going to several external editors, one of these decryed that someone like myself was even given such a voice, as my opinions were too anecdotal, too specific, and – perhaps worst of all – not ‘academic’, as though that’s some kind of test for authenticity or relevance. (I know, like a ‘bad critic’, I’m being ‘too subjective’ and talking of myself, anecdotally, as opposed to ‘factually’, whatever that is. Amusingly, I used to hear that from the acolytes of French Post-Stucturalism. If you know that theoretical sphere, you’ll appreciate the rank hypocrisy found in that comment….)

I did not respond well to that ‘criticism’: not soley as it felt intensely disrespectful and dismissive, but also as one of the reasons I’d initially declined participation in this anthology was that many of the writers commissioned were recent graduates of various Bachelor’s programs, and struck me as untested, untried voices. But I reminded myself that I was once them, and that they deserved an opportunity to speak, perhaps recklessly. I term it that way in deference, not disdain. A favourite line of mine is a request by Allen Ginsberg, saying he’s about to speak recklessly, so please listen in kind. I hoped they would bring a freshness, a different way of seeing, that might rejuvenate the proscribed academic rigor mortis.

I had the same hopes in reading Critical Mess. This was misplaced, and perhaps I should return to a favourite line from Theodor Adorno: when confronted with something genuinely different, truly pushing boundaries, “most fall back on the shamelessly modern assertion that they simply don’t understand” (from his Minima Moralia). The inverse is true: too often what is presented as ‘new’ is anything but, and like an art gallery that claims to be invested in diverse voices, but simply ghettoizes those artists in specific spaces, not as part of their main exhibition schedule, nothing has truly shifted.

John Baldessari, I will not make any more boring art, Le Case d’Arte, Milano 2011, from Art Tribune’s site.

It seems appropriate to speak in collage again, though not from Critical Mess, but Barbara Bourland’s Fake Like Me, to augment my meandering argument: “Every artwork they discussed was an idea, a piece of an idea, a joke, a commentary, a repositioning of theoretical argument from twenty-five years ago, a reaction, an indictment, an impeachment f something else. It was like someone had taken the last two hundred years of culture, put it in a blender, pureed it into a sauce, and eaten it, only for this semiotic mash of ironic purposelessness to be then expelled back out again. I nodded along, laughing when I was supposed to laugh and shaking my head when I was supposed to be outraged, at the money someone had been paid for a joke that wasn’t that funny, or at how they hadn’t been hailed as geniuses, and we might as well have been discussing television, or politics, because all of it centred on our reactions, the infinite hall of mirrors echoing our responses to and over each other, to the arts that had become our entertainment.”

A further dangerous – as in irreverant – comment from Bourland’s artist in Fake Like Me: “I had stumbled, if unwittingly, onto one of the art world’s invisible rules: Make something people can talk about. ”

Returning to Seigel in Critical Mess, I’ll shamelessly quote several of her arguments:

“This ‘crisis’ [in criticism, or art writing, or whether one is not considered the new Greenberg] is really just an aspect of a larger crisis in culture. That is to say, it is part of the waning of the modernist structure of avant-garde art, private dealers, a clueless middle class public, prescient critics, and suddenly skyrocketing prices. “

“Similarily, Hall Foster, Bennett Simpson, and Lane Relyea have all called on the critic to “discipline” art, to be brave enough to pronounce that certain kinds of production (like installation or design-based work such as that of Jorge Pardo) may not be good art – and may not, in fact, even be art.”

“The issue in criticism is no longer the clash of madonna/whore, mind/body, disciplinarian/tipster, but rather the fading importance of all critics, and their failure to try to understand the social and historical conditions that they experience as the crisis of art criticism.”

“The unraveling of modernism has been dated to 1966, the year paintings no longer seemed capable of finishing within their frames.” (Lane Relyea, All Over and At Once, also from Critical Mess) This last one is notable – not just for not being the words of Seigel: when the artwork on the wall is less the essence of what is being ‘done’ and is only an inconvenience grounded in the physical to justify the conceptual, then what is ‘defined’ as art seems to have slipped through the fingers of any self critical gatekeeper (I would proffer a response I wrote to a curatorial venture – more light than heat – as a warning as to where this path will lead us).

It has also occurred to me (and you may have noticed, with my rampant and shameless quotations) that most of what I found useful, in this collection of essays, came from Seigel. This is perhaps, due to two factors that often inform my own position as an art critic. Having been educated in art history, as well as contemporary practices regarding writing, I have a less exclusive ‘view’ of history and art. To expand: a dangerous aspect of how places such as OCAD now have ‘critical writing’ programs is that codification is now the rule, and the result. It’s similar to how a journalist might only study journalism, instead of history, or politics, and thus is caught in a self referential loop that emits a further and further degraded ‘signal’, that is irrelevant to anyone outside the ‘loop’, and worse yet, is like noise interrupting any true conversation. Did someone mention Momus and Canadian Art, again?

I value Seigel’s words, perhas because I write this during Women’s History Month, and art history – like any history – is a site of contested narratives that often are more clearly illuminated by those whom (by choice or by force, ideological or repressive) are ‘outside.’ They see the whole, more clearly. As well, I cut my teeth on Ad Reinhardt‘s writings on art, when very young. His dismissal of the self congratulatory, almost masturbatory, ‘exceptionalism’ regarding American mid to late twentieth century abstraction, in light of his studies of Chinese and Islamic art, warned me against assuming what is declared to be truth. I want to listen recklessly, and Seigel offered some reckless words.

As a further warning, or a caveat, if you will, I’ve also been rereading Robert Hughes‘ excellent collection of essays Nothing If Not Critical. One of the more impressive pieces is his evisceration of Julian Schnabel. Looking back on that decades later, how insightful and grounded – in art history, though specific to the Western canon, and dancing between what is and what was, in art – his dismissal of Schabel’s cult of celebrity was, and is, still, is like a breathe of fresh air. Considering the ‘crisis’ of criticism, or the recent performative shenanigans regarding Maurizio Cattelan‘s Comedian, Hughes offers something more relevant – though from the 1980s – than most of the writers in Critical Mess: “But the American art world, despite its recent fixations on the idea of irony, does not have much sense of humour: too much is at stake to entertain the thought that the hero might be a buffoon.”

But too often Hughes was a Cassandra. He passed in 2012. But recently, when faced with an exhibition that was a failure, in many senses, I found reading his clear and informed voice helped me to appropriately speak to this failed ‘gesture’ of a show (you can read that here, if you like). But it does raise the issue, again, of the irrelevance and questionable value of art writing, when I was told by one of the finest curators I know that I’d be investing more mental and emotional effort, and discipline, in my critique than the artists or curators did, in the ‘artwork.’ ( ‘Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining’, I steal with irony, and perhaps requiring a fainting couch and a bit of laudanum, ahem, from Vandewalt / Saltz in Velvet Buzzsaw….)

In reading Critical Mess, two questions intersected for me. Do any of the voices here, a cacophony of conflicting ideas and positions, offer a way forward, for myself as an art critic, or for others who also can smell the rotting cadavers in that field? Alternately – and this is more personal, but also not – does this collection of texts compare in any way to Jeremy Tanner’s A Sociology of Art: A Reader, which is also a vibrant and varied collection of voices talking about what the role of the arts writer has been / has not, can and can’t be, and perhaps might be? Tanner’s book is much more self reflective and self critical. I heard Doris Lessing’s voice again: ‘Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind’ (The Golden Notebook).

Many of the authors in Critical Mess seem to be talking to themselves, or a closed circle. As perhaps the ideal audience (with my own straddling of published articles both populist and academic), to listen in on these soliloquies, I found myself alternately bored, disdainful and sometimes angry. It is truly a critical mess.

Is this not without value, though? After all, I’ve written some of my better articles (in the words of my readers) when faced with failed gestures, as sometimes determining what is NOT art is a more relevant – and useful, to someone other than the writer – endeavour. After all, ‘we’ live in a ‘critical’ writing milieau where someone can self designate as a ‘scholar’ and attempt to build a ‘career’ on poorly written, historically ignorant and vapid self regard as a ‘painter’ to ‘publish’ a shrill dismissal of Duchamp, whose shadow – good or bad, perhaps both – still stretches over art, as we know it in 2020. This shallowness is still educational, like prying a pearl of truth from Pravda by noting the gaps in the tangent, the baseless assertions used to cover up problematic assumptions. When I heard the aforementioned ‘scholar’ speak, I asked for a model of how to proceed, if Duchamp and the institutional frameworks that proliferated around him were to be dismantled: I got nothing, other than more confused self praise, and now this person paints butterflies, so cast not your pearls before swine, I say.

Critical Mess is a critical mess: but that’s perhaps a good thing, as more voices are a good thing, if those voices are informed, and cognizant. But as always, it’s up to the reader to determine if these critics – and frankly, anyone who assumes that mantle, even if in drag or disguise – are offering knowledge like a cheque drawn on a bank account, where the balance is knowledge and understanding (which need not be ‘uniform’ across the board, as contested narratives are inevitable).

In many ways, this book had less of an impact upon me than Boris GroysThe Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, as it more rigorously and in a more embedded manner critiqued the critics: but I still would suggest Critical Mess, but with the caveat that you should consume what nourishes you, and feel free to return any servings that seem stale or overdone to the cook, as it won’t provide the necessary sustenance.

I began this article with a reference to Clement Greenberg, and he’s still the giant upon whose shoulders many critics stand, looking forwards or backwards, or perhaps at our navels. So, I’ll end with one of his most important assertions, from Towards a Newer Laocoön : …but I do not maintain that they are the only valid standards through eternity. I find them simply the most valid ones at this given moment. I have no doubt that they will be replaced in the future by other standards, which will be perhaps more inclusive than any possible now.

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All images in this article are from Art Tribune, as the passing of John Baldessari this year has been a ‘big death’, with echoes, in the larger art world, and his ironic assertions re: boring art have also been in my mind for the past few months. His artwork was in many ways ironic and an indictment, and could be seen as an ‘acid test’ for many arts writers, so it is appropriate to have it here as part of this article.

Many thanks to Tony Calzetta and Gabrielle de Montmollin for lending me their copy of Critical Mess. This article was produced during my 2020 Writing Residency at AIH Studios in Welland, ON, and I would like to thank AIH for their generosity and support.