15 Bytes | Visual Arts

A Critical Mess Reaches Critical Mass

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reviewed by Shawn Rossiter

In the March 2003 edition of Art in America, Raphael Rubinstein, a senior editor of the magazine as well as poet and art critic, lamented the state of contemporary art criticism in an article entitled “A Quiet Crisis.” In the 15 Bytes edition of that month, Rubinstein’s article served as a launching pad for my own short discussion of the position and problems of criticism in our community and in this publication. Some months later, I received an email from Rubinstein, who I imagine had googled his article to see what type of response it had engendered, thanking me for my attention to his thoughts.

I was not the only one who noticed the Art in America article, and now, three years later, Rubinstein has edited a new book entitled Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice published by Hard Press Editions, that brings together articles by thirteen art critics on the state of art criticism (the omission of my own response was surely a clerical error).

Though several of the contributors to this volume, including the editor himself, use the term “crisis” when discussing the state of criticism, Rubinstein chose the more inert “mess” for his title because, as he writes, “a crisis is a condition brought on by an act of will, by a decision taken. It is someone’s fault. A “mess,” on the other hand, just happens, mostly through inaction — no one is to blame.”

While no one may be to blame, Rubinstein does see the mess of art criticism as a reflection of “the mess that is contemporary art.” Others in this volume also speak disparingly of contemporary art, even while they make their practice in its sphere. Peter Plagens is pessimistic about the whole scene: “Contemporary art has abandoned its function as the visual wing of the house of poetry and has morphed into a fecklessly transgressive subdivision of the entertainment industry. It’s now commercial pop culture writ esoteric, whiney, and small.”

A common thread throughout many of these essays is the struggle in criticism between the house of poetry and the house of theory. The latter takes a good beating by many of the authors. Michael Duncan decries the thesis writers who churn out “trivial observations pumped by theory to masquerade as ideas.” Carter Ratcliffe believes the theorists have done damage to the culture of art by the audience they have created, one that is “adolescent, panting to keep up with new wrinkles in the orthodoxy, as if they were fads manufactured by the entertainment industry.” Nancy Princenthal dates the current crisis in art criticism to the emergence of Artforum and the development of theoretical art criticism that gets weighed down in jargon and too often does not directly engage the art which should be its subject

One of the few dissenting voices in this struggle of the houses is Thomas McEvilley, whose 1994 essay, “The Tomb of the Zombie,” is the sole essay not written within the past few years. A reconstruction of remarks made by the author at the Congress of the International Association of Art Critics in Stockholm in September 1994, the essay expresses McEvilly’s observation that art critics are almost completely ignored by other writers in the arena of cultural discourse. “It seems to me that there is an implication of a certain contempt for our profession in this cavalier treatment of our subject matter by these mighty intellectuals form outside the walls of our ghetto, and I think we deserve it.” McEvilley blames this sad situation on a modernist tradition of value judgment (the Kantian-Greenberg tradition of criticism). As a remedy, he urges an emphasis on analysis rather than appreciation, a postmodern (rather than anti-modern, which he says came immediately after modernism and merely replaced one orthodoxy with its evil twin) recognition of appreciation — that it is personal and conditioned and has nothing to do with absolutes — of art that stresses analysis so as to make the appreciation of art open to the public rather than confined to an initiated elite.

Lane Relyea, on the other hand, says a pox on both your houses. Modernists fail to connect what they “feel,” to the outside world, in his opinion, while the postmodernist tradition has become impotent in its tenured ease. “What’s left is a postmodernist view of the system that isn’t so much critical as conformist, and a modernist model of the self that’s too incapacitated and dim-witted to act,” Relyea writes.

Relyea’s vitriolic language is symptomatic of these essays, where it seems that critics, normally resigned to discussing art they like, give full literary vent to their pent up frustrations; so that if you’re looking for a perfectly keen turn of phrase to describe that recent trend in art or the art world that you just can’t stand, Critical Mess is a gold mine.

Another recurrent theme in these essays is the observation/lament that the critic simply no longer matters. Michael Duncan notes that no one reads anymore, that “all reviews are endorsements” where the buzz created by column width is more important than the comments in the column. James Elkins, whose “What Happened to Art Criticism” was published at the same time as Rubinstein’s article and is in accord with the latter’s contention that critics are avoiding value judgements, finds that criticism’s voice has “become very weak, and it is dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism.” The paradox of criticism, in Elkins words, is that “it’s dying, but it’s everywhere . . . Art criticism is massively produced and massively ignored.”

The dissipated cultural importance of criticism has affected the writers in the art world. JJ Charlesworth sees the malaise of contemporary art critics rooted in “the pessimistic uncertainty about the cultural purpose of evaluation,” and notes that art criticism has slipped into art writing, an enfeebled cousin that instead of debating one theoretical approach to another discusses the ethics of the relationship between artists and writer.

The essays here reveal that the mess is indeed real. To his credit, Rubinstein has gathered a series of intelligent and articulate voices, many of whom disagree with each other. In his introduction, Rubinstein recognizes that his collection is an extremely New York-centric selection, Michael Duncan’s essay being the only west coast example; and that he consciously restricted himself to the United States, though he can envision a global collection along the same lines. None of the essays is long and there is no lineage or order to follow so that the book can be enjoyed like a box of chocolates, choosing one essay at random each sitting; you may not like the coconut cream you end up with, but there is sure to be a raspberry filled gem to your liking.

Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice
Raphael Rubinstein
Publisher: Hard Press Editions
ISBN-10: 1889097675
Paperback: 125 pages

But it now at amazon.com

This article was published in January 2007 edition of 15 Bytes.

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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