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Writing Wrongs

Art criticism is no longer dominated by history and theory. Does this create space for curiosity and openness, or leave writers ill-equipped to describe the complexities of the present?

Jerry Saltz

Jerry Saltz is Senior Art Critic for the Village Voice and was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism in 2001. He is the author of Seeing Out Loud: Village Voice Art Columns 1998–2003 and currently teaches at Columbia University, the School of Visual Arts, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He hates it when art critics demean their profession by saying snotty things like ‘I don’t know why anyone would want to write criticism’. He can be reached at Jsaltz@Villagevoice.com.

When frieze asked me to write about the ‘de-skilling’ of art criticism and our ‘post-critical era’, I fretted that I was the kind of ‘de-skilled’ art critic they were referring to. I have no degrees, started out as an artist, stopped painting, became a long-distance lorry driver (my C.B. handle was ‘The Jewish Cowboy’; Shalom, partner) and didn’t start writing criticism until I was over 35.

Also, I wasn’t sure what ‘de-skilled’ meant. It sounded vaguely bad. But to me ‘de-skilled’ means unlearning other people’s ideas of what skill is and inventing your own. All great artists (schooled or not) are essentially self-taught and are ‘de-skilling’ like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy and something visionary. Skill only means technical proficiency. Real skill has to do with being flexible and creative. John Currin is always lauded for his skill. Currin is a capable painter. What makes his paintings interesting, however, is not his skill but the high level of specificity in his work, his ability to engage wide audiences and the original way he uses photographic sources while shunning photographic space.

I’m interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or re-imagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks. If skill equalled greatness, 19th-century academics would be the apex of painting and Odd Nerdrum would be our greatest living painter. How much skill did it take to sign a urinal? Who had less natural skill than Jackson Pollock? I look for the same things in contemporary criticism that I look for in contemporary art. But also an eye. Having an eye in criticism is as important as having an ear in music. It means discerning the original from the derivative, the inspired from the smart, and the visionary from the common; of not looking at art in narrow, academic, or ‘objective’ ways, but engaging uncertainty and contingency, suspending disbelief, and trying to create a place for doubt, unpredictability, curiosity and openness. Since everything you see is in the present, all art is contemporary art – from cave painting to the Turner Prize. Seeing as much as you can is how you learn to see. Listening very carefully to how you see, gauging the levels of perception, perplexity, conjecture, emotional response, and psychic effect is how you learn to see better. I see more than 30 shows a week and often visit exhibitions I’m writing about more than a dozen times. Like everyone in the art world, I’m still learning on the job.

To me, being a critic is a very specific thing. Dave Hickey is a great writer who often knocks my socks off but I don’t look to him for his eye in cutting-edge contemporary art. Hickey is more of a philosopher/rock star/cowboy of art, our Ralph Waldo Emerson by way of Johnny Cash and Joe Cocker. Dishearteningly, many critics have ideas but no eye. Most are merely validators of the inevitable or aficionados of mediocrity. They never work outside their comfort zone and are always trying to rein art in or turn it into a seminar. They use art as illustrations for ideas (usually those of other people) and write cerebral, unreadable texts on bad work. There’s nothing wrong with writing about weak art. You just have to acknowledge the work’s shortcomings.

Most of these writers treat the juiciest part of criticism, judgement, as if it were tainted or beneath them. I’m only interested in critics who make their opinions known. Yet in most reviews there’s no way of knowing what the writer thinks; you have to scrutinize the second-to-last paragraph for one negative adjective to discern that the critic may have a problem with the work. This is no-risk non-criticism. Being ‘post-critical’ isn’t possible. We’re all judging all the time. Any critic who tells you they’re not judging is lying or delusional. Being critical of art is a way of showing it respect. Yet people regularly say, ‘You shouldn’t write on things you don’t like.’ This breaks my heart. No one says this to theatre critics, film reviewers, restaurant critics or even sports writers. No one says, ‘Just write all the food was good.’ Nowadays too many see criticism mainly as PR and reviews as sales tools. This allows the market rather than artists to set the discourse. Adding to the problem, most critics enthuse over everything they see. This is sad and sells everyone short, especially when people report not liking almost 90% of the shows they see.

Obviously, critics can’t just hysterically ‘love’ this or ‘hate’ that. They have to connect their opinions to a larger set of circumstances, show how work does or doesn’t seem relevant, why it is or isn’t derivative, or why an artist is or isn’t growing. As Herman Melville said about art, criticism should have ‘Humility – yet pride and scorn / Instinct and study; love and hate / Audacity and reverence.’ Good criticism should be vulnerable but also chancy and nervy. It should give permission, have attitude, maybe a touch of true rebellion and never be sanctimonious or dull. A good critic should be willing to go on intuition and be unafraid to write from parts of themselves they don’t really know they have. All this should be done in a distinctive voice and in a readable way. Too much art criticism is written in a dreary hip metaphysical jargon that no one understands except other dreary hip metaphysicians who speak this dead language. Lately these critics have taken pot shots at me on panels and in print, always wanting to know what my ‘criterion for judging art is’, as if there were a formula. When I asked one critic what he was talking about, he mumbled something about ‘standards’ and Clement Greenberg. After another spanking in Flash Art, I asked his editor what he was on about and she didn’t understand either but said, ‘he seems to really like Greenberg and Colour Field painting’.

These critics are like the guy who sews up his cat in order to stop it from fouling the couch: they solve the problem but kill the cat in the process. They think there are rules and regulations to art. They don’t get that while art can be political, philosophical, scientific or psychological it isn’t politics, philosophy, science or psychology; it’s something else. This something else makes a lot of critics nervous. They don’t grasp that art tells you things that you don’t know you need to know until you know them, that there’s no way to know beforehand what might strike you, and that art isn’t about understanding, it’s about experience.

Katy Siegel

Katy Siegel is an associate professor at Hunter College, CUNY, and currently a Luce Fellow at Brandeis University. Her most recent publications include catalogue essays on Takashi Murakami and Richard Tuttle.

Walking past my neighbourhood bar in Brooklyn this July, I saw two post-collegiate young women preparing for a Bastille Day celebration by merrily decorating the sidewalk with blue and yellow fleurs-de-lis. When my husband tried to explain that they were chalking a monarchist symbol on a revolutionary holiday, they regarded him blankly at first, quickly moving on to annoyance as he persisted in explaining. They had no idea what or when the French Revolution was, or what its relationship was to the occasion. I don’t know what comes after history and after farce, but I worry.

And yet I myself seem to have drifted along with a larger social turn away from history. I belong to a generation of art historians for whom criticism, not a procession of monuments, is central to what we do. Our teachers belong to the generation that discovered French post-Structuralism and other kinds of writing that emphasize interpretation, looking to psychoanalysis and semiotics rather than formalism or histories of style – the art-historical methods they had learned in darkened seminar rooms, gazing for hours at the Wölfflinian coupling of masterworks. (Someday it will have to be told how ‘anti-formalism’, which started out more or less as ‘the social history of art’, turned into theory and thereby cleared the way for what was to come.) These historians also in particular adored or reviled Clement Greenberg, from near or far, and adopted some version of his subjective yet authoritative voice. We, their students, wrote dissertations that focused on art criticism and sought out opportunities to write about contemporary art.

With the expansion of art as an investment hobby and a central social institution, art historians, once masters of a minor academic specialism connected to the past, have found themselves faced with the enticing possibilities of currency (social, financial and temporal). The move towards theory was a first step away from history, a way to adapt to market conditions by peddling oneself as the arbiter of ‘criticality’ (the Postmodern version of ‘avant-garde’). More generally, art history’s focus on criticism is, of course, symptomatic of academia’s importance to the art world, with art schools serving as research and development centres, and the professionalization of art criticism and curating in various quasi-vocational graduate programmes. For years galleries and museums and magazines were refuges for shamefaced eternal students; now they are the goal. And so graduate scholars in art history often cannot pass their exams and, moreover, do not see why they should have to. In other words, even as ‘working critics’ have spent the past few decades battling the invasion of fusty academics, the colonizing professors have been busy going native.

All these developments are facets of the intense synchronicity of our historical moment. This is not the end of history, as in Francis Fukuyama’s idiotic rendition of Georg Hegel: nothing has ended. Postmodernism was a temporary solution to the disappearance of belief in progressive history, deeply satisfying in its nihilistic definitiveness. But we have to learn to separate ideology from reality: Modernism and Postmodernism were simply ways of thinking about history. Current conditions are not the degraded leftovers of the crisis of Modernism but a further development of the same social history of which the phenomena conceptualized as Modernism were once a part. The whimsical landscape paintings currently on offer are as embedded in history as the constructions of Aleksandr Rodchenko or the photographs of Sherrie Levine. But there is now no obvious model for writing that history, no sanctioned ideological structure.

Why don’t those Brooklyn girls know about the French Revolution? It could be a parable about the degradation of politics as spectacle; it could be the failure of public education or their hip professors. But it could also be that 1789 doesn’t mean much to their lives: less than reproductive rights or Middle East policy or the adoption of working-class style that announces the proletarianization of the professional. The historical narratives we have relied on – of breaks and endings, grand projects and failures – don’t explain the complexities of the present. And if history doesn’t do that, it’s just a hobby, nothing more than a habit.

Issue 94

First published in Issue 94

October 2005
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