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there’s a crisis in art criticism, at least in the mass media. Full time critics are being shed from magazine after magazine, newspaper after newspaper. There may not be more than a dozen staff critics left across the United States. This isn’t just a crisis for those of us who’ve lost our jobs, or think we soon may. If art matters – as our culture still seems to think it does, given museum attendance and expansions – then the fate of popular criticism does as well, since most non-‐ specialists have no other source of substantial talk about art. But there’s one aspect of the crisis that’s not much commented on: We popular critics may deserve our fate. We’ve set ourselves such modest goals that the public doesn’t care if we achieve them – or disappear. As publishing budgets get tight, we have allowed ourselves to become a frill that can be cut without anyone complaining, or maybe even noticing. We can get to the source of this disregard by looking at quotes from art reviews by three major critics1: – “You miss the physical sensuousness of French painting. Sometimes you wish the Victorians had given freer rein to their brushwork and expressive impulses,” writes a reviewer of a show of late 19th-‐century British art. – “Five giant color photos of old mattresses … sullied with spreading stains of bodily fluids …. are genuinely beautiful pictures …. [The artist] plays aesthetic midwife, giving a new life of beauty to possessions otherwise too deeply caught up in the bump-‐and-‐grind of living to get much attention,” writes another, reviewing a contemporary artist named Carolyn White. – “Freud’s brush may nuzzle into the hollow of a hip or cradle the exact weight of a sagging breast … the action symbolically unites hand, eye, mind and sexual feeling .… Freud is less a painter than ‘the Painter,’ performing the rites of his medium in the sacristy of his studio … Standing close to [his paintings], sometime I have the odd sense of passing through a looking glass – or is it a time machine? – from the art world that I know into one marked by lusher, smokier satisfaction” – a passage, obviously, from a review of a Lucien Freud show. As I hope is clear from these examples, the problem we are facing is an addiction to cliché. It is an addiction to notions, for instance, that Gallic painting is naturally free and brushy and full of some mythic thing called “expressive impulses” (despite all the licked, inexpressive surfaces that dominated the Paris salons) while Anglo-‐Saxon painting, like a Limey’s upper lip, is stiff and emotion-‐free (despite Constable’s skies and Turner’s storms at sea). It is an addiction to notions that an artist’s job is to 1 I am not providing the authors of these or similar quotes – who might just include me – since the point of this essay is not to put down specific critics, but to diagnose a problem that’s ubiquitous in the field.
show us the beauty in the abject everyday (as critics have been saying at least since Rembrandt). And it’s an addiction to notions that painting is a Dionysian rite – “lush and smoky” – with the artist as its priest, oil paint as its sacrament and the transubstantiation of paint into flesh as its greatest miracle. Again and again, mass-‐ media art writers fall back on such hackneyed formulas for explaining what art is, what it does, and what might make it good or bad. What we rarely do is try to forge new, transformative accounts of the art we write about. Not only has there come to be a dearth of truly significant art criticism, but that doesn’t even seem to be set as a goal. In recent decades, popular art criticism has bought into what I think of as the “wall text” fallacy: That there are certain basic, “natural” things you’d want to say about any given work of art, and that once you’ve fed your reader those, you’ve done most of your job. The standard defense of critical cliché is that our average readers are so ignorant about art that just giving them some standard information and conventional interpretations still leaves them ahead of where they started out. But I believe that if that’s all you’ve done, you’ve in fact done almost nothing. Uttering clichés – saying the already-‐said – is in fact the equivalent of keeping silent, because clichés are not true communication. They pretend to narrate a real encounter with the world (in this case with art) but in fact they are just a rehash of other encounters that already took place. Or they’re barely even that, very often: At their worst, they merely rehash the forms of words used to describe past encounters. A paragraph or whole review goes down easy for the reader, and is easier to write, when we’ve heard what it has to say, and written what it pretends to think, a hundred times before. It doesn’t have to carry thoughts that make a reader do the hard work of understanding; it simply gives them words to digest. Clichés, you could say, are criticism’s carbon monoxide: they replace real thought the way carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen in our blood, quickly leading to brain death. The repetition of received ideas seem to me especially pernicious when it comes to art because it can actually limit what gets seen when we look at a picture. The great thing about any art that’s halfway decent is that there’s so much information in it that there’s always something new to see – so long as there’s a reason for looking. Clichés, however, can easily point readers to the same information again and again: Monet becomes the original Painter of Light, to the exclusion of anything else he might have been up to. Art-‐critical clichés keep you attending the same way every time you encounter a work. Clichés may reduce the real complexity of any good work of art to a few pat, received ideas about it, but that’s only part of their failing. They also get the nature of artistic excellence wrong. They imply that a work of art is valuable for the specific messages it sends, or the impacts it reliably has. A Rembrandt portrait of an old woman, for instance, is supposed to be admired for what it says about the so-‐called “human condition” and for the empathy it calls up in us. On this account, the work is just an instrument for putting certain fixed thoughts into our minds or reliably triggering the same set of sensations and emotions in our brains. The work of art
becomes the paper a telegraph is printed on, useful only for the stable information it carries. Whereas I prefer a much more active model where the work gets value from the process of decipherment it launches – it’s a model where the virtue of art lies in a drawn-‐out process it sets off, in which we struggle to come to grips with its meanings. The moment when we settle on a single meaning and move on is closer to a moment of failure, of giving up, than to a moment of success and completion. This account, at least, rings most true to my own best moments of looking at art, where page after page of my notebook fills up with ideas and interpretations that hadn’t come to mind before, and that may even be mutually exclusive. The most notable thing about great artists such as Titian or Cézanne is that their works seem to exceed even the most brilliant single readings that have been attached to them. And if even the finest readings can never seem quite final, then they can never boil down to cliché, since they always beg to be completed or even replaced. At least some great works of art, that is, have built into them a kind of internal polemic against received ideas, by letting us know how inadequate every reading of them is. I like to think of art objects as machines for thinking, rather than as transmitters of finished thoughts. Criticism’s most basic duty may be to communicate that larger notion, rather than to transmit single readings of single works. In other words, a good review, or a good critic’s career, ought to model art’s conceptual fertility. It ought to convey the generative ability of art in general, rather than the specific fruits of any one work of art. A good piece of critical writing needs to communicate the critic’s search (even his failure) as much as what’s come out of the searching. And if that’s right, it’s yet another argument against critical clichés, since they imply a fixed store of stable thoughts that need to be transmitted about art, and retransmitted time after time. Clichés cannot talk about art’s vastly productive flux because they don’t believe in it. When works of art are reduced to their clichés, there’s a sense that they become surplus goods. Who needs the artifact itself, if its virtues can be encapsulated in a set of fixed ideas? Just putting an object into a museum and declaring it to be art denies it any kind of normal function. That object is of even less use once it can be replaced by a wall text or by a few standard reactions and ideas we already know that it is supposed to trigger. If you’ve absorbed the fact (or cliché) that Monet’s art is all about optical play and its capture by a speedy brush, there isn’t much reason for attending yet again to the pictures that prove and re-‐prove that dimension. Novel readings, on the other hand, can reanimate a work as something worth re-‐attending to, since it turns out to be entirely un-‐exhausted by the established takes on it. Even if one new interpretation is rejected as wrong or implausible or unhelpful, it invites an audience to replace it with a new one that is a better fit. That is, it suggests that works of art demand and repay active reading, rather than a passive acceptance of what’s already known and written about them. New interpretations, and the act of interpreting they advertise, give us new reasons for attending to actual works. That’s as great a service to art and its audience as there ever could be.
Now it’s important that “attending to actual works” not boil down to the ur-‐cliché of art criticism – to the notion that a critic can simply look very hard, with an aesthete’s eagle-‐sharp eyes, and winkle out the truth about a piece. “Understanding is not the way we get the world. It’s through experience,” said one senior critic a few years ago, but that probably gets “getting” wrong. Even babies, psychologists tell us, build their world-‐view by making mental arguments about the nature of reality and then testing them to see if they work. There is no transparent experience to which they have direct access without conducting those thought experiments. Critics can’t do any better. The critic isn’t just a tuning fork that vibrates in brilliant sympathy with certain works, allowing him to arrive at their essences. That model, it seems to me, turns the critic into a guaranteed cliché-‐generator, since the vibration is almost certain to happen according to accepted ideas of what those essences are. (The very idea of “directly accessible essences” may invoke the kinds of stable readings that I see as indistinguishable from clichés.) Accounts that pretend to be “just” responding to the picture itself seem most prone to cliché and least able to generate new ideas about it. “What stuck in the viewer's mind were [the painter’s] … mappings of the troublesome weather-‐systems that cross an uncertain artist's soul as he works alone, towards an unknown future, in his studio,” wrote one senior critic, apparently “responding” directly to a picture, but in the process piling up clichés about the troubled, soulful artist as existentialist hero. Even a writer as great as John Updike seems to fall into cliché when he’s “just describing” what he sees in Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning: “The dawn … arrives stealthily, while the windows still sleep, and we think of the inhabitants behind those curtains, dreaming or groggily stirring as the day, like an ambitious merchant, is already setting up shop.” It’s not the writing or the metaphor itself that strikes me as notably weak, here. It’s the hackneyed structure of the argument, whereby the picture is billed as a trigger for a kind of imaginary divagation through its scene. No critical discussion of art is a direct, unmediated, “natural” account of an object or our reactions to it. If you study the historiography of art, there was always a first moment when someone suggested attending to art in one particular way. All accounts of art (quite possibly like all accounts of the world) are built around a constructed argument about what features and reactions matter, and in what ways. The question, then, is whether critics want to use someone else’s received constructions or take the risk of building something of their own. “One is, after all, always at fault,” says the theorist Irit Rogoff, “since every year we become aware of a new and hitherto unrealized perspective.”2 In science, the fact that cannonballs and apples fall at the same speed stays true and important over many centuries. Whereas in art criticism, the moment that a claim 2 “What Is A Theorist”, The State of Art Criticism, ed. James Elkins and Michael Newman (Routledge: New York and London, 2008), 100. Rogoff goes further, insisting that the need to rethink our readings has a political edge.
starts to seem patently true – that it gels into cliché – is just the moment when we may want to abandon it as limiting our field of view. When Leonardo da Vinci argues for the notion that important art should be as realistic as possible in about 1500, it’s a productive model for both artists and audiences. And now of course it is one of the rare claims that is such an obvious cliché that almost no one dares advance it. (I look forward to the day when notions of “self-‐expression” suffer a similar fate.) Clement Greenberg’s claim, in the 1950s, that an art work must address the “natural” values of its medium – flatness for painting, space for sculpture, narrative for the novel – was equally productive and is now equally hackneyed and untenable. That, I believe, is the good and proper fate of almost every significant claim about art: It starts as insight, degenerates into cliché and eventually passes away. The last thing we ought to want is for it to keep passing as timelessly true, and to keep being repeated in reviews and wall texts. It ought to seem strange that an activity like artmaking, that seems to have at its heart a commitment to rethinking stale forms and ideas, should so often be approached using stale critical forms and ideas. If nothing else, you’d think art criticism would be inspired to be inventive by the inventive objects and creators it covers. My model bills the critic as something close to a Shakespearean director, whose job is to open up the plays in new ways, rather than to illustrate, once again, that Hamlet is an indecisive procrastinator or that Othello’s got possessiveness issues. In the 21st century, we seem more likely to value a director who provides unlikely but stimulating readings (even failed ones) than one who repeats such old chestnuts. We should hold art critics to the same standards. -‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐ I’m hoping that my screed against clichés is holding together, at least in the very general terms I’ve been using. Things get more complicated, however, when it comes to the actual matter of writing reviews in the popular press. A full-‐time newspaper or magazine critic is likely to be writing at least two pieces a week. Given that workload, and subjects that range from the pyramids to performance art, how is it possible to function without recourse to received ideas? Can critics be expected to find brand new things to say 100 times every year, on topics they may know close to nothing about? Don’t they need the crutch of cliché just to get the job done? I say they can throw away that crutch because there’s a much better one at hand. Working critics can get the support they need from academic art history. After all, art historians are, in theory at least, paid to come up with brilliant new thoughts on their subjects and are given the time and resources to do it. The best of their work is, or ought to be, a cliché-‐free well of ideas for art critics to draw on. Of course it’s true that most art history is tired or obscure or pedantic, as is most scholarship in all fields. But that still leaves a small percentage of publications – more than any single art critic could keep up with – that manages to shed genuinely new light on works of art from entirely new directions.
Looking at the 11th-‐century baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, with its very medieval white and green stripes, art historians Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood have shown how, through a complicated process of productive anachronism, the building “counted as” a Roman temple for Renaissance viewers. The great architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Giorgio Vasari could “look through the eleventh-‐ and twelfth-‐century buildings of Florence to the true meaning hiding behind them, namely, the normativity of the ancient Roman building manner,” write the two scholars.3 When Alexander Nemerov, a scholar at Yale, looks at the abstract veils and stripes that Morris Louis painted in the early 1960s, he doesn’t find only a formal game with color and line, and the playing out of the period’s Greenbergian ideas about art. He detects a whole social and cultural nexus that links those paintings to the Camelot moment in Washington under John F. Kennedy and to the liberal values of Kennedy’s Brain Trust. 4 These are the kinds of “live” claims about art that pop critics can and should be channeling, since they give new life to the works their readers encounter. Nemerov has said that he hopes his interpretations “will go off as a trigger, as an illumination,” making viewers see the work “as though they’ve never seen it before.”5 At the very least, by borrowing from the latest art history, critics give their readers access to ideas they haven’t encountered before, even if those readers end up rejecting them. Whereas when writers rely on the old critical chestnuts, they are simply confirming the thoughts their readers have already had, as well as their prejudices. Mass-‐media critics, unencumbered by new ideas in art history, are likely to build their discussions around issues that don’t have much life left in them. One senior critic, discussing a project by the British artist Jeremy Deller called “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq'', wrote that “Deller has included a visually compelling element: the crumpled, rusty remains of a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomber's attack in Baghdad. It has terrific sculptural presence, but it's not an artwork; it's an artifact and a conversation piece.” That critic is willing to invoke the old and almost pointless – and thoroughly clichéd – debate about what might or might not be art, whereas an art historian would be likely to move on from there to ask the much more potent, culturally relevant question of how Deller’s car wreck, presented as a work of art that is “visually compelling … with terrific sculptural presence,” manages to bring meaning to its viewers. Good art history, less weighed 3Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (Zone Books: New York, 2010), 136. 4 Alexander Nemerov, “Morris Louis: Court Painter of the Kennedy Era”, in Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited (High Museum of Art: Atlanta, 2006). 5 Quoted in Blake Gopnik, “Edward Hopper and the Rising Tide of War”, The Washington Post, November 18, 2007, M8.
down than criticism by a need to give thumbs-‐up or thumbs-‐down, is more likely to feel compelled to find stimulating readings of whatever works get put in its path. Asking art critics to channel the best of art history may seem too ambitious a demand, given the time pressures of newspaper and magazine work. But in fact I want to push them – us – even further. It’s not enough for art critics to parrot specific art historical findings, like a Coles Notes version of the latest scholarly texts. (Although that could nevertheless be useful, filtering the often turgid prose and thought of art history through “the particular clarity and openness that has always been the hallmark of great critical writing”.6) I see such parroting as just a good start for the critic’s profession. My ideal model for art criticism has it taking principles enunciated in art history – the novel ways of thinking that structure a new body of art-‐historical thought – and applying them “live” (don’t try this at home, kids) to the many different works and shows encountered over the course of a year on the art beat. Art criticism should be to art history what clinical psychology is to experimental psych: The place where the latest discoveries and approaches come most fully into contact with the world. I hope that, on a few occasions at least, I’ve managed to put this model into practice. Let me dwell for a bit on the two examples I’ve already cited – on Alexander Nagel’s ideas about a “flexible classicism” in Renaissance art and on Nemerov’s use of expanded social contexts for understanding modern pictures. Nagel’s arguments became useful to me a few years back when I was reviewing a show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York about the contacts between Venetian and Ottoman cultures in the 15th and 16th centuries.7 The exhibition simply surveyed works from east and west, underlining the borrowings back and forth and the cultural and political realities that let those borrowings happen. What I tried to do in my review of the Met show was to deny that “borrowing” was the right way of thinking about what was going on – to deny that Venetians were necessarily thinking about 16th-‐century Ottomans when they took from their art and culture. Instead, following Nagel’s lead, I claimed that when a Venetian artist included Ottoman features in a work, they were meant to point to the classical world of Christ’s era. A painting by the Venetian Giovanni Mansueti, from about 1518 and showing Saint Mark baptizing the pagan Anianus in Alexandria, has an urban setting that would traditionally be read as a naïve and anachronistic pastiche of Renaissance buildings from northern Italy, with their trademark round arches and decorative marbles. The turbaned Egyptians that Mansueti placed in those buildings would normally be seen as a generically exotic, orientalizing borrowing from the Ottoman empire with which the Venetians had such close and vexed contact. The standard idea is that the painter’s historically naïve culture left him stuck talking 6 Stephen Melville, “Criticism in the University,” in The State of Art Criticism, eds. James Elkins and Michael Newman (Routledge: New York and London, 2008), 118. 7 Blake Gopnik, “When Venice Looked Eastward; Renaissance Artists Borrowed from Islam to Evoke Classical Culture,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2007, N6.
about his own times, even when his painting’s subject dated to another era. Following Nagel’s model, however, I argued that those “Renaissance” buildings would have been seen as fully neo-‐classical, and therefore as an accurate depiction of the Roman Near East of the New Testament. (Let’s not forget that our own standard, white-‐marble vision of classical antiquity is equally flawed, given all the color that would originally have been applied to those marbles.) I also argued that the turbaned figures placed in Mansueti’s structures, with every detail of their “Ottoman” costumes accurately recorded, would have been seen as a best-‐guess approximation of Saint Mark’s original audience – not as Ottomans at all, but as the “Gentiles” of the Bible. Mansueti, that is, was acting rather like the anthropologist who extrapolates from the culture of today’s Kalahari bushmen to get at how early humans might have lived. Nagel’s research hadn’t addressed the particular objects in the Met show, but by applying his principles I hope I allowed my readers to recast Mansueti’s naïve anachronism as sophisticated historical thinking. My use of Alexander Nemerov’s research happened at an even greater remove from the specifics of that scholar’s work. Nemerov is well known for interpreting art objects in terms of a wide range of cultural analogues of their era. His “Camelot” reading of the work of Morris Louis brought in evidence from the space program and a pro-‐Kennedy poem by Robert Frost and the purchasing habits of the Democrat James Mitchener. His reading of Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting titled “Groundswell”, showing a nice little sailboat at sea, invoked Hitler’s invasion of Poland, a vintage Atwater Kent Radio (such as news of war might have been heard on) and a wartime poem by W.H. Auden, all to suggest that the picture, cheery-‐ seeming at first, in fact was channeling a larger mood of looming dread in the culture. The Nemerov method opens up works of art by looking at them in the very broadest cultural contexts. It brings to bear evidence from material and political culture, rather than just from the period texts that actually talk about the pictures in question; it invokes things we can’t see in a painting to explain things we can – or more importantly, to make us aware of what the picture leaves out. This is the model I used in an analysis of the nature photographs of Ansel Adams, which I don’t believe Nemerov has ever discussed.8 In my Nemerovian exercise, I argued that those pictures of the pristine wilds of America are in fact about the technological and automotive culture they were bathing in. Adams’s legendary “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” was the product of a cross-‐country drive in the Pontiac station wagon that Adams dwells on in his account of getting the shot at 4:49 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1941, by the side of Highway 84. (Note how his account is built around the technology of clocks and calendars and maps.) The darkroom tricks that Adams used in making his exquisite prints of the scene are technophilic in the extreme, closer to what goes on in a science lab than in the traditional artist’s studio; that technique is part of the image’s appeal to modern eyes, making it closer to a gleaming Bauhaus picture of gears than to a Turner night 8 Blake Gopnik, “The Viewfinder: For Ansel Adams, Nature and Technology Met at the Horizon,” The Washington Post, Sept. 15, 2007, C1.
scene. In a classically American move, Adams has transferred a machine aesthetic out of the big city and into the continent’s outback. Similarly, Adams’s famous pictures of a pristine Yosemite came out of new access that the automobile gave to that “wilderness”, not just for Adams, with his stacks of high-‐tech camera equipment, but for the urban nature-‐lovers who made up his audience and whom Adams used to lead to the park in automotive cavalcades. I was even able to find a stash of commercial photographs that Adams shot advertising the great American car in the great American wilds. Those pictures merely made explicit the culture of technology that, I argued, is there as a ghost in all the Adams’s photos where the car is so notably absent. As Nemerov said about Hopper’s painting, “Its autonomy is always bound up with, or commenting on, the world it so beautifully excludes.”9 My version of that claim was that the absence of technology in Adams’s photos is as much a part of their content as their very present, machine-‐free landscapes are. And I could make that claim – that unclichéd claim, I hope – because I’d taken on an art historian’s new model for thinking about pictures. There’s even a chance that, because of the relative freedom of newspaper writing – no peer-‐review to cope with, no looming sense that your words will be passed down to future generations of thinkers – I had room to experiment with new ideas and examples and on-‐the-‐fly readings that some scholars might not risk. Pop criticism’s reliance on cliché and received ideas is all the more shocking because in fact it is one place where few people mind if you stray. Most of your readers, and even your editors, come to you with so few ideas about art, and so little investment in established views, that you can head in new directions without anyone knowing you’ve done it. People say that newspapers are the “first draft of history”. I’d like to turn that cliché into actual thought by suggesting that art criticism could be the first draft of art history. But for it to do that, it has to leave its favorite bromides behind.
9 Quoted in Blake Gopnik, “Edward Hopper and the Rising Tide of War”, The Washington Post, November 18, 2007, M8.
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