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Philip Guston and the Impossibility of Art Criticism

Post #1915 • May 3, 2022, 3:28 PM • 1 Comment

[Image: Philip Guston, Dial, 1956. Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

Philip Guston, Dial, 1956. Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

After a long delay, although not as long as was threatened by the associated museums, "Philip Guston Now" has arrived at the MFA and I have reviewed it for the Arts Fuse.

This was a painful thing to write. It went through many drafts even before I filed it. Then it endured more revisions to get its biliousness down to a responsible level. Seeing it up is less cathartic than I hoped it would be.

The review contains links to two essays that I recommend for further study. One of them is The End of Progressive Intellectual Life by Michael Lind:

If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star. That’s because, in the third decade of the 21st-century, intellectual life on the American center-left is dead. Debate has been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned: Black Lives Matter, Green Transition, Trans Women Are Women, 1619, Defund the Police. The space to the left-of-center that was once filled with magazines and organizations devoted to what Diana Trilling called the “life of significant contention” is now filled by the ritualized gobbledygook of foundation-funded single-issue nonprofits like a pond choked by weeds.

I am neither young nor a progressive but that could have been written about art criticism generally. The other essay is Critical Race Theory and the ‘Hyper-White’ Jew by Pamela Paresky:

Jews, who have never been seen as white by those for whom being white is a moral good, are now seen as white by those for whom whiteness is an unmitigated evil. This reflects the nature of antisemitism: No matter the grievance or the identity of the aggrieved, Jews are held responsible. Critical race theory does not merely make it easy to demonize Jews using the language of social justice; it makes it difficult not to.

These essays and ones like them helped me to put words around the visceral rage I felt when the museums announced the Guston cancellation in late 2020. I still feel the rage. I wanted to scream in Matthew Teitelbaum's face when he showed up for a few moments at the beginning of the "Philip Guston Now" press preview last Wednesday. I didn't, because I'm an adult, and I was on assignment for a publication whose reputation I didn't want to damage. Besides, I doubt that he realizes just how deep into conformity and bigotry that he and so many others in the art world have sunk. There's nothing productive for me to do except to find some way to stop hating them.

Back in 2019, Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang penned an editorial in the New York Times that suggested,

Old-school white critics ought to step aside and make room for the emerging and the fully emerged writers of color who have been holding court in small publications and online for years, who are fluent in the Metropolitan Opera and the rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

At the time I still had a sense of humor about it. I don't anymore. Before the Guston cancellation that sounded like a throwaway dig at Whitey from two people who listened to neither opera nor rap. After the Guston cancellation it sounds like malevolent plans years in the making are coming to fruition. Back then I still harbored hopes for art and art criticism. Now I see what "Philip Guston Now" did to Guston as a Jewish man, and what it did to Hilton Kramer as Jewish man, and I know what the future holds for me.



Douglas Bowker

May 3, 2022, 11:48 AM

Well done, and with a thorough set of contexts. It's been too long since I've visited the MFA; this might be a good reason to make the trip.



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