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It's hack job time again in America

Post #1342 • May 5, 2009, 12:05 PM

Tom Lehrer once remarked that satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. I had similar thoughts about art criticism when Holland Cotter became the first art critic since 1974 to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. (Looking up information on said 1974 winner, Emily Genauer, I discovered this gem:

In 1992 she recalled how the painter Clyfford Still, about whom she had written unfavorably, sent her a pair of rubber baby pants with a card. The card read: ''Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday affliction. With the compliments of Clyfford Still.''

Here's to braver art-making and less obeisance to art world poobahs. Go Clyfford.)

Cotter is prone to facile anti-capitalist sentiments and malapropisms that I suspect would be more numerous if not for his editors at the Times. But given the right milieu he can be useful, such as he was for his recent coverage of Sun Ra and his circle in Chicago. This is not the case for some of his admirers, such as Regina Hackett, who is now penning high-school-quality free verse in the name of art criticism. ("Had Hamlet lived longer, he'd have seen his flesh melt, like pudding under crust, then dust." I think that I shall never see another critic so abuse poesy.) Another bulb of similar wattage and hue, Blake Gopnik, for some reason felt compelled to comment on the upside of the economic downturn for the art world...

With less hope of easy sales, artists could refocus on making difficult, complex, less-marketable art. If you can't sell, you can't sell out. We might see fewer attractive paintings with a veneer of substance (Peter Doig might fade from view) and more works that directly address the substance of life (the films of Tacita Dean could take up the slack).

...thus reprising an execrable piece on the same subject written by Cotter back in February.

Will the art industry continue to cling to art's traditional analog status, to insist that the material, buyable object is the only truly legitimate form of art, which is what the painting revival of the last few years has really been about?

This, you may recall, was part of the essay in which he declared that it was "day-job time again in America, and that's O.K." I've already punched as many holes into that piece as I care to, and the perfect summation has been offered by Eric Gelber. Like any comfy socialist, Cotter finds the privation fascinating, unlikely as it is that he's going to experience it first-hand. Likewise Gopnik, who outlines, item by item, how the downturn could benefit artists, museum collections, museum exhibitions, contemporary art, and so on, without ever getting around to how it might benefit art critics at dead-tree publications. Let's say that the Wa-Po shuts down. What fresh, enticing opportunities would that present you, Blake? Or is this an experiment we're supposed to run exclusively on ourselves?

Permit me to suggest an alternate scenario: with less hope of easy sales, artists start making work that's easier to sell, perhaps attractive paintings with a veneer of substance. We might see critically tarted-up plagiarists fade from view while their sources flourish, or at least persist. Even better, we may see art critics who perpetuate the wretched state of the genre disappear from the landscape. One can hope.

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