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The aesthetic World's Fair of our time

Post #1099 • December 10, 2007, 11:05 AM • 29 Comments

The managing editor of The Smart Set wrote in over the weekend to identify himself as an reader and direct my attention the site's Art Basel/Miami Beach coverage. Morgan Meis's (1, 2, 3) four-part ABMB series, completed this morning, captures the tawdry excitement of the week with great aplomb. I needed no reminder, but the desperate atmosphere, the tensions between aesthetic enjoyment and greed, the relief one feels when inspiration punctuates the miasma of mediocrity, all come through the prose with evocative force, cementing the certainty of my decision to skip my first Basel for the sake of peace of mind.

Arguing with Greenberg in his head all the while, he reaches equlibrium by acquiescing to the commercial nature of the fairs (yes, on a churning ocean, drowning is a kind of equilibrium), and he ends up going home with a souvenir mistaken for an art purchase. Sadly, not even a PhD in Philosophy (which Mies holds from the New School) provides a deep enough keel to keep sporting judgment, the old college try to go out and look a bunch of stuff, from capsizing into mere enthrallment. (Note to CM: Your fondness for the "But is it art?" issue, as you call it, doesn't differ much structurally from the fondness of the implied Christian message enjoyed by aficionados of Thomas Kinkade. I appreciate the inclusion of my work all the same. Sort of a converse of the old saw that sculpture is something you back into when you're looking at painting, but a confirmation of the old saw that there's no such thing as bad publicity.) But I forgive him on the grounds that he writes well. Have a look.




December 10, 2007, 3:29 PM

Franklin, as I'm sure you realize, no academic degree of any kind in anything can get the job done when it comes to art unless the person has the requisite eye. Apparently, not all that many people have it; being able to talk a good game is far more common.



December 10, 2007, 4:30 PM

OK, so now I've read the columns referenced above, all 4 parts. I suppose the approach and tone are reasonably suited to the subject, which hardly deserves much better. It's all tolerably amusing, if a bit laboriously so, and no doubt the writer is pleased with his insouciant wit, or the attempt thereunto.

These lines stood out:

I do not believe that there is such a faculty as aesthetic judgment at all.

Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York.

The big crazy market. You're either wandering about in its corridors or you're nowhere at all.

That will do for me. No further questions.



December 10, 2007, 4:47 PM

I know, Jack. Juvenile stuff. Trying to arm wrestle with Greenberg, and telling us we've got to "fuck with art". The usual hip muddling. He needs to put his eye in, get some experience, and then write about it when he's ready, not before.


Marc Country

December 10, 2007, 6:02 PM

Gosh. The writer makes a heck of a case...I just can't decide who understood art better... Greenberg, or some pretentious twat's aunt Lou.... hmmm... better think on that one some more, before I comment further.



December 10, 2007, 6:02 PM

Make that self-consciously hip cutesy-pie muddling. Well, I expect there's a market for it; there's one for everything else.



December 10, 2007, 6:51 PM

And by the way, Franklin, you're too kind. Or too diplomatic.



December 10, 2007, 7:55 PM

It's Ok , Jack. It's his blog. He has to be tactful. Besides, he knows what the dogs will do when he throws them a bone.



December 10, 2007, 8:08 PM

The author says Greenberg turned his back to art so that he could turn and look when he was good and ready ... maybe so. But in my company he never did this unless the art was being moved or adjusted. He said he did not want to look while the art was being handled. Otherwise he just looked like everyone else.

Donald Kuspit, on the other hand, once said in a public forum that he liked to turn his back on the work and then make statements that did not necessarily have anything to do with the art. Good art, he said, could "stand up" to such treatment and would not suffer from the lack of relevance.

Which of the two "turnings of the back" make the most sense?



December 10, 2007, 8:23 PM

Have you ever made it all the way through a Kuspit essay or book? I haven't. Kuspit includes too much Psychology 101 terminology in his art writing. Greenberg had a much better eye and was a much better writer.



December 10, 2007, 8:42 PM

Eric, people can only sell what they've got, and all too many people in the art game have no eye, so they have to peddle something else. Critics or commentators who can't see are of little if any use to me, but they're so much more common than those who can that they're taken for the norm, as in normal or customary, so they survive and even thrive. Their audience, of course, is perforce made up of those who see no better, so they can "validate" each other quite nicely.



December 10, 2007, 9:04 PM

Jack could you provide us with a list of art writers who you feel had or have a good eye, or can see as you put it? I have read too much art criticism through the years and I wonder who you like.



December 10, 2007, 9:10 PM

Eric, I've read Kuspit's book on Greenberg and in fact discssed it with Clem. Neither Clem nor I could figure out where Kuspit ever got the idea of the "preconscious intention" that he devoted a whole chapter to. Clem said that he once used the phrase in an essay but never elborated on it. Kuspit sure did, though.

All in all, I think Clem was not that unhappy that Kuspit had written the book. Ink, after all, is better than no-ink. It was a better book than the "bios" that have come out recently, for sure.

Kuspit also once published an article in which he said Clem was one of only four "authentic" critics. Kuspit himself was one of the other three, I can't remember the other two.

They parted company when Clem declined to be included in an anthology Kuspit was putting together for the University of Michigan Press. Clem showed me the correspondence, which was dated clearly. Shortly after that, Kuspit used a review of a Bannard exhibition at Knoedler's to attack Clem. Eight sentences which, except for a reference to "meretricous color", had nothing to do with Bannard's work (some of his colors were bright, which is not the same thing as meretricious, but at least the remark had something to do with what could be seen in the pictures) and everything to do with putting negative labels on Clem. Pin the tail on the donkey, I called it.

Kuspit face to face is a pleasant, mild-mannered man. He gets along with people rather well.



December 10, 2007, 9:24 PM

Thank you for sharing the anecdotal material catfish. I was commenting on Kuspit's writing only. I never met him. I find the writing to be so tangential to the visual art he is allegedly writing about that I eventually or quickly lose interest. As soon as the first psychological term appears the review or essay usually goes downhill rather quickly. His psychologizing of the art and artist is ludicrous, a real stretch, and as a reader you end up forgetting what he was writing about. He presumes an awful lot about the artist's motives. This is unforgivable.



December 11, 2007, 3:14 AM

You re right about the back--turning, Catfish. He did not turn when he was good and ready but when the art was good and ready.

Eric your take is accurate on Kuspit (and others you have mentioned) but then you have to ask yourself why bother suffering through that kind of thing. Also your comment about presuming artist's motives - I couldn't agree more.


jordan massengale

December 11, 2007, 5:02 AM

What you all missed (toungue and cheek) was a bunch of materialistic women done up and on the hunt for the next new thing - blingism !



December 11, 2007, 5:47 AM

opie you are right about reading unreadable material. Unfortunately I was a bit of an ascetic when I was an undergraduate and I refused to give up on a book until I was done with it.



December 11, 2007, 6:48 AM

One of the objections I have had to recent "trends" in graduate education for artists is the incessant inquiry about "what have you been reading lately". The assumption is that young artists must read unreadable authors. The more unreadable - especially when irrelevant to visual things - the more important they are ranked.

I don't find it "unforgivable" though. It is a part of the art business that everyone, young and old, must cope with.

The only time I really upset Clem was the day I told him he should not have quit writing. Maybe I was out of line but I didn't think so. What we needed then (the 80s) was what we still need now - someone who can write clearly about the good stuff. Even Clem, towards the end of his active writing, devoted more ink to taking shots at the bad than illuminating the good - a temptation that I fall for all the time myself.

But shooting down bad art isn't important in the long run. What works in the showdown between bad and good is writing that casts light on the good. Clem was the only one left who could do that and all he would say was that Olitski was the best living painter (end of statement), and that tidbit almost exclusively in conversation or lecture. He did make generalized contributions, but he refused to show the art public the thoughts that went with his great eye, even about just the one artist that he found to be the best. That seemed to contradict his otherwise extremely generous nature.

Well he is gone. If someone wants to help criticism save itself, what is needed is 1), a great eye, and 2), the capacity to put it to work on the good stuff. Clarity is necessary too, but elegant wordsmithing may not be required.



December 11, 2007, 6:58 AM

Besides Karen Wilkin, do we like any living art writers around here? Roberta Smith? Jerry Saltz? Ken Johnson? Mario Naves? Peter Schjeldahl? Adrian Searle? Jonathon Jones? Dave Hickey? Christopher Knight? Tyler Green?



December 11, 2007, 7:12 AM

Eric when you bring up Karen Wilkin it reminds me that I did not mention the need for fire in the little list I posted above for saving criticism. She does not seem to have it. (So I'm not that positive even on Wilkin.)



December 11, 2007, 7:22 AM

Eric, Greenberg and Karen Wilkin come to mind, but I expect the pickings have never been rich, and they're obviously not so now. I'm not a critic junkie, anyway, and I prefer to spend my limited time dealing with art myself. I've pretty much given up completely on the art mags, and I have absolutely no patience for overblown theorists. Everyone should be or become his own critic; I'm certainly mine. Art is far more about looking than reading.

There's also the fact that even the best critics are never infallible, and it's always ultimately up to each of us to figure out when a critic is right and when he's wrong. Ruskin, for instance, was right about Turner but quite wrongheaded about other matters, though he certainly wrote very well. That's another thing--having a great eye is rare enough, so having that plus being an outstanding writer or communicator is even rarer. No wonder there are so many critics who are so unsatisfactory.



December 11, 2007, 7:30 AM

Understood Jack. I don't read the NYTs Friday art section any more and I have never subscribed to any of the glossies. I used to love reading Clem, Rosenberg, Steinberg, Read, Stokes, Baudelaire, Ruskin, Berger, Rose, Ashton, and Foster. I prefer to read books but I haven't read a book of art criticism in quite some time. catfish what exactly do you mean by 'fire'?



December 11, 2007, 8:25 AM

Eric, I don't exactly know what I mean by "fire", rather I know it when I see it. Schjeldahl has it but no eye, same on both counts for Peter Plagens.



December 11, 2007, 8:27 AM

Having an eye is absolutely essential. Without it there is no point even trying. Unfortunately it is very rare. I wonder sometimes how the good stuff survives. Maybe it won't in the future; who knows.

I used to have that gotta-finish-it complusion too Eric. One must learn to be impatient. Don't waste your time with nonsense.



December 11, 2007, 8:34 AM

Perhaps it is a kind of spit-in-your-eye assertiveness or confidence, evidence that you know damn well what you are talking about and don't care if anyone likes it or not.

I think a lot of the animosity Clem generated was because behind all his meticulus phrasing and balance the writing just came down like a hammer.

Fire or no fire, Karen is the only one writing regularly who seems to know the difference and is willing to say it.



December 11, 2007, 8:41 AM

Yeah, writing with fire and coming down like a hammer are the same thing. It is strange to experience in Schjeldahl and Plagens, because it is combined with not being able to see.



December 11, 2007, 9:17 AM

Catfish, misguided zeal is not at all rare.


Marc Country

December 12, 2007, 9:37 AM

"I'll merely ask you to examine your own experience. If there is a shift, even a tiny little shift in your perception when you think of yourself as a buyer versus when you think of yourself as merely a looker, then a giant wedge has been thrust into Greenberg's gap and it is a wedge that I think foils any firm conception of aesthetic judgment."

So, that's the crux of the argument, as I can see it. Hilarious. The writer suggests that, instead of thinking "of yourself as merely a looker", ie. focusing on the relational experience between the art and oneself, you could "think of yourself as a buyer", ie. focus on your relation to economic considerations, focusing on prices, commodifying the artwork. What on earth would that have to do with aesthetic judgment? That's financial judgment, silly! Different topic, entirely. That doesn't "foil" so much as a baked potato. 'The Smart Set', indeed...

While we're at it, I suppose we could think of ourselves as powerful half-elven wizards. Shoot for the moon, I say. But, why are we talking about thinking of ourselves, anyway? Shouldn't we be thinking (and writing) about the art, instead?



December 12, 2007, 10:52 AM

Yes, I noticed that too, Marc.

"Ahem. Now, how should I think of myself when I look at this work..."

Usually half way through Basel I think of myself as the Great Destroyer of Bad Art. I never act on it. That would really foil my potato, I suppose. But, one of these days...

Thinking what you would choose to take home does tend to make one pay more attention. But it doesn't exactly "drive a wedge into Greenberg's gap."

Greenberg's Gap? Sounds like a resort in Eastern Pennsylvania. We should have a Formalist convention there every summer.



December 12, 2007, 5:34 PM

Marc, I sympathize, but I imagine the whole business was largely deliberate glibness meant to have a certain effect, calculated to appeal to a certain crowd, presumably the crowd known to follow "The Smart Set." It's certainly possible the writer wanted to have his cake and eat it, too, but that's a dicey proposition even in the best hands, though it helps to aim at a susceptible audience. Obviously, is not such an audience, but I seriously doubt we were the intended target.



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