Post #1456 • February 16, 2010, 9:12 AM • 143 Comments
Art criticism only ever hemorrhages efficacy as time goes on. You might upbraid Clement Greenberg's ghost for holding the art world in his iron grip for a spell; you would do so fallaciously, but would find yourself in sizable, and by some metrics estimable, company. But who would you accuse of such a thing now? The art world grinds on heedless of its critics. However, one efficacy remains within the powers of art criticism, at least as a side effect: the burnishing of the writer's own credentials. By turning the right phrases, a sufficiently well-placed critic can imply to his readership that his opinions embody true taste, which said readership disputes at risk of relegation to the class of unwashed chumps.
But even this efficacy may be eroding. A couple of well-placed critics recently decided against mere implication, and made their threats explicit. Jerry Saltz on Tino Sehgal:
I was suspended in some weird nonspace. I felt variously shook up, spaced out, turned on, told off, intimidated, ashamed, thrilled, and shocked. ... If you want, you can see it in five minutes, not say a word, and view it as a sophomoric recapitulation of sixties performance art, or just phony-baloney b.s. I have no doubt that some visitors leave the Guggenheim never knowing they walked through This Progress.
Or, without the thin veiling, you can fail to have the profound art experience that Saltz had at the Guggenheim thanks to his extraordinary sensitivities. ("It was a lesson in how vulnerable art can be," opined the critic. Did you not learn this lesson yourself from Tino Sehgal? So much for your vulnerability.) Meanwhile, Peter Schjeldahl rent all veiling entirely:
You will enjoy your visit to the Tino Sehgal whatchamacallit at the Guggenheim—“show” doesn’t fill the bill—or else expose yourself as a hopeless grouch.
So much for earning the reader's assent through the craft of argument.
Perhaps we're seeing the first signs of regime change - the old guard resorting to coercion as blandishments become unpersuasive. I'd like to think so. In a much-discussed article for the Times this weekend, Roberta Smith threw her hands up:
The current exhibition of Gabriel Orozco at the Museum of Modern Art along with the recent ones of Roni Horn at the Whitney Museum and of Urs Fischer at the New Museum have generated a lot of comment pro and con. So has the Tino Sehgal performance exhibition now on view in an otherwise emptied-out Guggenheim rotunda. But regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.
For starters, I wish I could fine her ten cents a day for the decade that this realization is overdue. Secondly, thereafter she recommended shows that might, at best, pull art back to the equally safe haven of Pop, surrealism, and combined variants thereof. But she rightly scolded the museum world for overlooking David Park and Larry Poons. And she ended with a passage I'd like to inscribe into the flesh of certain members of the curatorial illuminati:
[Museum curators] have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.
These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.
Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.
Contemporary museums have no reason to exist if they're not going to reflect what's going on in the art world in its entirety. Instead, they have largely become the enforcement arm of a historical narrative that regards Duchamp as Jesus, Greenberg as Satan, and Beuys, Kosuth, Warhol, and Bourgeois as the Gospels. I'm not arguing for a different pantheon, but for no pantheon, and each work of art and each essay measured on merit, not pedigree.
On his Facebook page, Saltz huzzahed at his wife's perspicacity, saying that he agreed with every word, as if he never penned that self-aggrandizing Sehgal review. The decline of criticism's powers of influence and the fickleness of some of its practitioners make me hesitate to regard Smith's article as a watershed event. It won't surprise me if we go back to business as usual next week, with some critic fawning over another nigh empty room and scolding the unconvinced for failing to slaver properly. But I have never witnessed this level of protest in the Times's art section, even accounting for Holland Cotter's feckless anti-capitalist tirades. I note it with guarded optimism.
Nashville Critical preserved an informative outburst that Saltz directed at a Facebook reader. I think it gives us a better sense of the man than his paid writing in recent years, and displays exasperation with the profession of art criticism commensurate with Smith's frustration with the museums. This adds to my optimism. The time has arrived to provide the alternatives. Let's get hustling. Maybe we'll win some efficacy back.