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Too Smart for Art
Post #1881 • November 25, 2020, 12:44 PM
I have been sitting on this post for a while on account that its thesis, that the art world is plagued by intellectual frauds, is insufficiently novel. I’m posting it because a new take on the issue occurred to me, prompted by a recent book, Great Art Critics (1750-2000): Emergence of a Profession in Permanent Crisis by Jesus-Pedro Lorente, Professor of Art History at the University of Zaragoza. Regard the cover illustration.
If I had to sum up what was wrong with contemporary art criticism in a single image, I could not formulate a more apt damnation than a frame with no picture being looked at by a man with no head. Also, the man seems to be dissolving. It conveys the sorry situation that not only are the art objects failing, but so are the viewers, and we’re left with the sense that both art and audience are foundering in a feedback loop of mutually driven collapse.
I know nothing about Professor Lorente or the contents of the book. It will be the subject of a French-language online discussion hosted by AICA International, if you’re curious and your French is up to the task (unlike mine). It may be a valuable tome. That said, I read its Amazon listing...
The art system has currently become the bone of contention of many a debate where, curiously enough, much is discussed about criticism though very little is said about art critics. Following on the footsteps of Lionello Venturi’s History of Art Criticism, this book provides an updated reassessment of the greatest art critics from the Enlightenment to the turn of the second millennium. Conceived as a didactic handbook, with recommended bibliography at the end of each chapter, this concise essay tells the history of a profession in permanent crisis, paying homage to its most influential practitioners in different cultural contexts.
...and thought, not the second millennium, the third. At any rate, this notion of crisis has been the theme of AICA conferences for a few years now. From 2020:
...this new era also provokes us to break our habits and generate ideas to create new possibilities. Although this period is a crisis it may be a sign of new opportunities and perhaps more effective new beginnings.
Art criticism: its duties—its crisis
With the theme “Art Criticism in Times of Populism and Nationalism,” this year‘s congress is dedicated to a critical examination of art as a socially embedded yet aesthetically free form of expression.
Populist tendencies, regardless of their colour, characterize the contemporary media landscape in many places, as well art and cultural criticism. Discussions about the removal of controversial works of art or the infiltration of the #metoo debate into the art discourse take their place in reporting. Ethical evaluation criteria are brought to the fore when artists consciously make provocative or seemingly naive cultural appropriations with their works and actions. But where and how does the border to the curtailment of artistic freedom of expression run?
The post-truth environment allows the media and messages to form an independent system that in turn affects the whole. The ubiquitous information convergence technology has produced a popular image of hyperreality that is political, social, commercial, and artistic. Although the sense of presence in the work is thin, it also makes the attitude of art intervention in society more pragmatic and transparent. How can an artist translate the pseudo-mime in virtual reality into real space through action or play? After the 21st century, the individualistic “self” and the post-truth environment are exposed in the artist’s creation? [sic]
On the other hand, democracy is undoubtedly the most widely-accepted system of government today. The democratization and liberation of the nation-state and its society, and thus how to change and even shape its art, is both aesthetic and social. However, with the help of cyberspace and the media, the phenomenon of democratic retreat has brought democracy into a crisis. How do artists intervene through action or play? In the process of democratization, transformational justice has also become the focus. How does art respond? In the transition period, how do we analyze and structure the relationship between art, conflict, and justice? How can art play a positive role in democratic freedom?
As Orwell so compellingly presented in 1984, an atmosphere of crisis must be maintained in order to support the sense of impelled history, that we’re not doing what we do in the way that we do it because we can, but because we must. It’s a powerful way of enforcing groupthink, a term hailing of course from the same novel.
One of the drawbacks of being connected to fine art is that we’re a debtor discipline—we influence nothing, and anything might influence us. I wrote about this in a post titled "Backwash" in 2007. (This was also the year of my early foray into phenomenology referenced recently in "Letter from the Third Realm." Leaving Miami was really good for my brain!) Also we tend to get the most dumbed-down version of the influence. “Backwash” addresses that too. The new insight that justifies this post is that art criticism is so intellectually impoverished that it is forced to steal from itself.
Becoming a debtor discipline correlates to the rise of the art bureaucracies. Institutions are bureaucratic by way of tautology. Too, it is in the nature of bureaucracies to metastasize. In business, such metastasis can be witnessed cutting into profit, and management replies with managerial knives. Not so the institutions, which are finally overcome by a cancer upon their organs of credibility. Our institutions are in Stage Four of that process now. Any sufficiently sickened bureaucracy is indistinguishable from a sheltered workshop. Display too fiery an intellect and the management may conclude that you really don’t belong there.
I once asked a painter who had a sideline in instructional design and talked as though she had easily aced the modest scholarly requirements of art school, “Are you too smart for art?” She had to think about it, because she is. We have the stupidest smart people of any field, and this is obvious to everyone in it who could have gone into math or law or medicine but didn’t on account of temperament. If you get a bunch of physics PhD’s together and they say, “That guy is really smart,” you know that guy is really smart. If a bunch of art people say it, chances of it being true are less than even. Most of our vaunted smart people are what Richard Feynman called dishonest fools.
There were a lot of fools at that conference—pompous fools—and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools—guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus—That, I cannot stand! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible! And that’s what I got at the conference, a bunch of pompous fools, and I got very upset.
Case in point, the introductory essay by Helen Molesworth for Joan Snyder’s show last month at Canada, which (the essay, not the show) I characterized at Delicious Line as “hilariously pretentious.” Here’s the opening paragraph:
What a curious thing it is to try and sort out the world and one’s place in it. Just this morning, as I was breaking down cardboard boxes, so they could better fit in the large city-issued blue recycling bin, I found myself thinking, “Consciousness, at the level of evolution, humans got too little too fast.” It struck me as a very 21st-century thought, prompted by my ethical dilemma. I had ordered things to be sent to the house. I was disgusted with myself for giving in to the convenience. And I also had the mild sense of smug self-satisfaction and control that comes with the menial tasks of home ownership (another ridiculous dream). I could cross “garbage” and “recycling” off my to-do list.
She blathers this apropos nothing except to note that she’s procrastinating writing the rest of the essay. None of these remarks pays off at the end, unless her final reference to Snyder’s “diaristic paintings” is supposed to call back to this wholly unconvincing slice of life in the opening. That would hold, for Molesworth strikes me as the kind of person who would confabulate to her own diary to make herself seem more interesting to future scholars. Someone who goes around thinking about how 21st-century her thoughts are, when said thoughts, rendered into language, are gibberish, has styled herself into a mannered creature that could only become more outlandish by resorting to greasepaint.
Similarly, one of the PhD-holding panelists on a discussion hosted by AICA-USA back in September described herself as “fascinated by non-Western contemporary art.” Fascinated by the contemporary art of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East? Absolutely, go forth and enjoy. “Fascinated by non-Western contemporary art”? Can you imagine someone saying that she is fascinated by contemporary art that is not made in France? Or not made in California? Or not made in the greater Houston metroplex? It prompts two questions: What are you talking about, and what the hell is wrong with you? (Imagine further, if you dare, the response to someone saying that they are fascinated by non-Eastern art.)
Then there is the broad politics of the art world, which is consistently of the lowest quality. I’m not talking about its progressivism, which I think is largely mistaken but nevertheless has some erudite and reflective adherents. I’m talking about its utter banality and tribalism. As one art writer was heard to say just this morning:
The clash between Donald Trump’s nascent fascism and America’s liberal traditions, brought to a head by the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, made the 2020 election the most important one since Abraham Lincoln prevailed in 1860. In this meanest of election seasons – its poisonous tone set by an abject liar and demagogue who is now fortunately a lame duck – political disengagement became morally impracticable, as shown by record turnout. Painters have heeded the political imperative, mobilizing with notable intensity and aplomb in a roughly four-square-block section of Chelsea.
A section that would seem to comprise the whole of the author’s intellectual universe. But oh my, just look at all that impelled history.
A fascist worth his salt would have crushed the riots with military force and haughty disdain for legal priors, and instituted draconian lockdowns to combat the pandemic. An ongoing joke among the conservatives is that if Trump is such a dictator, why can’t he shut down just one goddamn newspaper? On the contrary, Trump has evinced the least taste for military adventure since Carter—certainly less than his successor’s former boss in the White House. The DeVos Department of Education has advised the country’s universities to comport themselves with our liberal traditions, in guidance that Biden has promised to reverse. Trump is indeed an abject liar. More accurately he is an unparalleled purveyor of what Harry Frankfurt politely termed humbug. (This is in contrast to Hillary Clinton, who even from a Frankfurtian standpoint is an abject liar.) But if the media were reporting on me with such mendacity as we have seen over the last five years, in alliance with my enemies, I too would feed them a steady diet of farcical claims. From a game theory standpoint there aren’t other good options. I wouldn’t relish it, though, which is why you won’t see me running for office.
At any rate, I have a politics, while the author quoted overhead has a primitive pseudoreligion. As in any naive faith he looks out at the world for affirmation of its veracity and cannot fail to find it, and thus the art review proceeds accordingly as most art criticism does these days. This kind of Crusader’s creed even comes with a form of antinomianism, in which the lofty aspirations of social justice countenance, among other things, burning down a Wendy’s.
Conversely, as Feynman found, art people who don’t think of themselves as intellectuals are usually just fine. In general I prefer artists who have taken many lovers over those who have read many books. With sufficient appetite one can accomplish both, of course. Celia Paul, a magnificent painter with a recent autobiography out, gave an online talk sponsored by a bookstore in Park Slope. Therein she alluded to a period of art school marked by orgies, heroin, and begetting a child by her teacher, namely Lucian Freud. She is also well-read and possesses a keen religious consciousness. (I’m concerned that anyone of her vitality of that age now is going to get crushed by the peculiar Puritanism of our times. Is this you? Reach out to me. We will skip the part about making a baby and just talk about how to get by.)
A few artists have approached me as a critic, sheepishly, asking for recommendations of what they might read to understand Theory better. You can hear the capital T in their voices. I say, please forget that all of that stuff exists and just keep working. Making art is the only teacher. If some idea catches your attention, pursue it, and follow that intellectual road as long as the scenery is good. If it ends suddenly, step back into the unmapped wilderness where you belong. If critics never take notice of you because of your lack of engagement with the ideas of the time, regard it as the same blessing that assassins never take notice of you either. Following that path, whether on my recommendation or because they had no other way to be in the world, many of the artists end up with more insights to offer than the credentialed bureaucrats. This stands to reason. Who would you rather have sex with, an astute and curious sex worker, or a blinkered and tendentious sex historian? Particularly one who goes around (or purports to go around) thinking about how 21st-century her thoughts are?
I conclude that if art or art criticism is in a crisis, it’s akin to the one that caused the wildfires on the West Coast this year: decades of terrible policy bent on preserving the status quo while pandering to unworkable ideals has lead to a ground covered with deadwood for which the correct solution is an enormous fire.
What to do, then? Glenn Loury recently spoke with John McWhorter about how to deal with frauds like Ibram X. Kendi. (Actually, the epithets were quite a bit more severe than “fraud.” Check it out, they are amusing and nothing I can repeat here.) Loury says that it will all sort itself out in the end, and in the meantime we should “stick to our knitting,” as he put it. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. I also think we should make peace with the possibility that “sorting itself out” means a forest full of burnt trees and a deep layer of ashes. That’s how the new growth comes up.