Post #949 • January 31, 2007, 2:20 PM • 29 Comments
It seems like a sign. Within the space of two months, five major art critics have come out against, at least partially, the commericialism pervading the contemporary art market. One more apparently has taken issue with the state of art criticism, including this newfangled blogging thing. (Rounded up yesterday, for those just joining.) Two questions occur to me: First, what does it all mean? Second, who do they think they're kidding?
Art has only one inherent function: to serve as a repository for visual quality. You can disagree with this, but your doing so makes you responsible in part for the art world's commercialism. Regarding ancillary functions of art as central, or conferring upon art a blank function that one can marshall to any purpose, sows confusion about how to assign value to art objects. The confusion, in turn, engenders a critical free-for-all in which participants can regard an object as successful by virtue of the fact that it, or its maker, conveys any kind of experience whatsoever, or lack thereof. This is not a democracy of tastes so much as their Special Olympics.
As I recently argued, a robust field has healthy internal mechanisms for assigning value. In topology, your set equations have to add up. If they don't, no financial force in the world will buy their acceptance. In a field in which one assigns value by taste, those mechanisms often have to make concessions to financial force; one can easily imagine an orchestra that wants to put on Schoenberg but has to put on Gershwin or it will pay for it with its life. Defeat those internal mechanisms for assigning value, and you have a situation in which financial force can run roughshod over every aspect of the original project. You have, in fact, the contemporary art market.
And who bears responsiblity for defeating those internal mechanisms? In light of this question, the disconnect evinced by the above writers takes on mountainous proportions. I largely except Jed Perl, whose tastes often baffle me, but who can and will take a stand for art as art. But not Charlie Finch, whose lecherousness in the line of duty has become not just legend, but policy, and yet notes:
Greed is good. But art suffers in this context, because it functions solely as an economic and social marker, always subject to immediate obsolescence, should economic realities change.
Holland Cotter, in the space of a couple of weeks, came out against the "myths and clichés that sell art and artists today, " then bemoaned contemporary art's lack of revolutionary esprit with a doozy:
The mostly dense paintings, drawings and collages in ["Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle"] make visual sense in New York today. Updated versions of their type have flooded galleries in the last few years. Yet the throwaway, amateur-proud spirit that propelled the older work is largely absent in the new. It belongs to another time and place, with a different set of possibilities and necessities, to a small imploded star, now far, far away, called Underground.
Need I go on? Let's look at Plagens and end this. He has a different complaint, but examination reveals a similar disconnect about his status as part of the problem:
More and more people in the audience for contemporary art would rather read Tyler Green snark somebody in his blog, Modern Art Notes, than ponder the considered judgment of Michael Kimmelman on a MoMA retrospective.
Tyler and I traded a couple of e-mails about this, and we agree that if "snark" is a verb, and it may not be, it's definitely not a transitive one. The misuse of the cant matters, because it marks Plagens as a mere non-member rather than a credible critic of the group. Plagens, who recently polished the legacy of Jasper Johns with his tongue, is writing about the shrinking audience for art criticism for a magazine with a static, one-page website featuring mis-typed art-speak. "Kiki Smith - a traveling exhibition samples Smith's manifold provocations and confirms her surpassingability [sic] to express the vagaries of physical experience". Among other things, Pogo comes to mind.