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critical condition

Post #61 • July 15, 2003, 4:56 PM

I finally got around to reading Joel Weinstein’s piece in Art Papers (not available on their website) entitled “Critical Condition: How dire, really, is art criticism’s plight?”. In it he makes a few useful points; one that stuck with me is that while people down here (self included) have always complained about the lack of critical voices,

I realized that south Florida is a veritable fertile crescent of arts writers. Elisa Turner, the critic at the Herald, alone accounts for at least one major feature each week, usually accompanied by large, full-color graphics above the fold, rubbing the noses of the city’s populace – at least the literate part of it – in the arcane odors of the art world. ...Miami gets an extraordinary amount of coverage for a city its size, far from the artistic centers like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

True enough – the entertainment weekly in San Diego, from where I just returned, weighs in at a whopping 224 pages and features critics of all the cultural products (including books, which is more than you can say about the New Times and Street), but has no art critic. At least not the week I was there. And they’re in mid-season.

According to Weinstein, the bigger problem is the lack of collector support for the local museums:

...the parties who could best nourish them, the impressively wealthy and acquisitive collectors, tend to behave with egos foremost. If the top collectors have had anything public to say about the msueums, it is generally peevish and divisive. In this respect, Miami … is the anti-Dallas, a sad thing to say about any locale.

Locals will recognize the reference to the Museum Park backlash organized by Martin Margulies and supported by the De La Cruzes.

I take issue with this, though:

Everywhere tongues are wagging, and, better yet, visual art seems finally to be joining the Entertainment State, just like movies and arena football.

No, this isn’t good at all. This is one of the reasons arts writing is so un-Greenbergian these days: lacking in force, devoid of authority, and timid. The goals of contemporary art have been reduced to pop-song levels of mere amusement, and criticism has sunk with it, content to report that something exists, and was kind of interesting. If art in general is joining the Entertainment State, the best art is going secede from the union. This is my central problem as an arts writer – whether to evaluate work based on the the local standards, the contemporary (Entertainment State) standards, or the highest standards. Elisa Turner tends to the first; Alfredo Triff (New Times) and Damarys Ocaña (Street) usually go with the second. My instincts and principles tend to choose the last, and the results are often damning.

What Weinstein hears – those complaints about not having enough voices – is actually a euphemism. What people meant by that by that circa 2000 (the beginning of the Miami Art Exchange) is that there was no alternative to Elisa Turner in the Miami Herald, and people were justifiably weary of her writing: she’s an awkward stylist, and her literary background often disserves her when looking at art. (Let me say here that she has the unenviable job of combining two irreconcilable roles – reporter and critic –for an editor who seems to have no idea what she’s talking about, at a newspaper produced at a fourth-grade reading level. I have problems with her writing, but I get clammy just thinking about working under those kinds of limitations. Frankly, she’s doing a decent job.) Triff didn’t count; he was more philosophical than aesthetic back then (his work over the last year indicates a turnaround) and only showed up every two or three weeks anyway, with long breaks during the summer.

What they mean now is that there is a lack of voices with authority. This was the crux of the Raphael Rubenstein article in Art in America to which Weinstein responded in “Critical Condition.” People thanked me for things I wrote during my three-article stint at the New Times. Again, I can be damning. It’s not just me – Triff’s recent rant got a letter of approval from local artist Leyden Rodriguez. (Weinstein wrote in to express his consternation about Triff’s vague negativity.) It’s not that there need to be more voices per se; rather, it is hoped that more voices will result in one of them coming out and saying something with cojones. People are longing for it. If art criticism is going to be anything worthwhile, its writers are going to have to make truthful observations, bold judgements, apt comparisons to art history, and clear sentences. That’s the only thing that will dispell the ghost of Clement Greenberg that appears whenever we have a conversation about arts writing.

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