15 Bytes | Visual Arts

Criticism in the Moment

by Geoff Wichert

Art Czar, a recent biography of the dominant critic of modern American art, is sub-titled “The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg.” I take pleasure in these words, and particularly in the word fall. Every critic dies, every critic is diminished by subsequent discourse; but not every critic can be said to fall. Yet I was born the year Greenberg broke through with his assertion of the importance of Jackson Pollock, who still sits atop the heap of American painters, and he has shadowed my entire life. And while Greenberg remains an insightful critic and, like another discredited “great,” — Sigmund Freud — a wonderful writer, I am gratified to have outlived his inhibiting impact on the practice of art. And while we’re celebrating (if you choose to join in, that is) let’s add another dominating source of critical smoke-and-mirrors. Whether you think of it as French, New, or Post-structuralist Criticism, the same sorting of baby from bath water now characterizing the reading of Greenberg can also be applied to the tsunami of contrarian criticism that reached America twenty years after Greenberg began his rise. This isn’t the place for a systematic critique of either of the critical hegemonies that, with their deliberately opaque technical prose, have dominated the art world for six decades, let alone to propose comprehensive alternatives. But it might be a good time to at least glance at recent criticism and see how things are changing.

Over the winter break I drove out to Los Angeles to immerse myself in one of the characteristic ironies of Modernism: the conflict between art that is respected by specialists and ignored or reviled by the public versus that which is loathed by specialists and adored by the public. For as long as there have been civilizations they have made art as a social activity, but the original impulse to make art comes from individuals responding to indwelling qualities of human experience. Thus there have always been popular arts as distinguished from those of a culture’s dominant class. The bas-reliefs on Roman tombstones were stylistically distinct from how official history was told on triumphal arches. Official Egyptian religious images are as cold and forbidding as the personal artifacts found in tombs are warm and charming. Yet those who saw these works when they were new were apparently “bilingual” in such conflicting styles, and able to appreciate the preferred version on public display even as they enjoyed the popular style at home. If so, the trick appears to have been lost. Few laypersons and even fewer critics today are able to bridge the gap between genuinely popular art and the stuff that ends up in galleries and museums. Even when they try to appeal to the mass audience, most artists end up alienating the larger public. As for those who succeed in capturing the affection of the public, critics of their output are likely to bypass the systematic discrimination of quality and just deny that what they do is art at all.

Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (Los Angeles County Museum of Art until March 4, 2007) attempts to insert the Belgian dissident painter into mainstream twentieth century art by focusing on ways he influenced less popular artists who happen to have more solid critical status. While the proffered influences are genuine, I found it impossible to escape the feeling that juxtaposing Magritte with John Baldessari, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol constituted special pleading for the legitimacy of an artist whose broad popularity and influence beyond the hermetic art scene inverted the whole enterprise. Given that their works were there to shore up Magritte’s sagging prestige, it was fascinating to watch viewers who had paid $18 apiece cluster in front of his often familiar images, then hurry past the intervening works by today’s lions in order to reach the next authentic Magritte.

The irony is that Magritte is one of only a handful of modern painters whose signature strategy—using the most conventional vehicle to convey startlingly improbable narratives—has diffused into mass culture until his style is better known even than his name. Magritte and Contemporary Art makes a tepid effort to invoke this irony by displaying a few music albums whose covers are blatant Magritte rip-offs, but mostly it ignores (as perhaps it must) such commonplace references to an artist who is perhaps second only to Escher in sheer number of quotations and paraphrases.

One may well come away from this show questioning the central tenet on which Clement Greenberg’s theory of art hangs. The belief that “mainstream” art has one — and only one — central current that carries history forward in unbroken progress is indispensable to Greenberg’s argument that all arts intuitively seek their essential natures. If painting always moves toward identifying and fulfilling its unique nature, then how explain this sporadic and non-linear diffusion of ideas from the periphery to the center? Jasper Johns has said that when he paints a flag he is painting an actual flag, not a picture of one. He probably learned the distinction from Magritte’s most famous image: that of a tobacco pipe labeled, “This is not a pipe.” But Magritte’s masterpiece most certainly is a painting of a pipe. Good luck inserting that inconvenient fact between, say, Kandinsky’s breakthrough to Abstraction and Johns’ unleashing of Pop Art.

Alternative histories and even theories of art do get published, of course, though it’s part of the power of any unitary theory that it is all or nothing. Either you accept it or you reject it, with no middle ground. Rosalind Krauss may have had this daunting challenge in mind when she composed a complete alternative history of Modern sculpture. Her more recent efforts, arguably along with those of Art Danto, Dave Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl, and others, have been focused on a more traditional task: dismantling the scaffolding of late Modernism with care so as not to inadvertently cause its complete collapse. Another metaphor may help see why this is necessary. The need to be out in front, to be “avant-garde,” hasn’t only been felt by artists. The high-end of the market has held in common the conviction that to be new is the only way to be valid. The money, attention, and prestige this narrow segment of the audience for art has poured into the art scene has contributed to the gap that now exists between the culture as a whole and its self-anointed arbiters of artistic merit. Think of a plant that has been over-fed and encouraged to grow taller and more rapidly than it can sustain. The problem now is to prune it back without doing any fatal injury.

Why is this necessary? The obvious answer is that taste, as Marcel Duchamp pointed out, is only a habit. And so, just as nothing has been more certain for the last century than the rapid overturning of taste, so even the hunger for the new is itself a taste that must eventually change. Does anyone doubt that the sought-for triumph of fundamentalist Christianity in American politics, should it actually come to pass, would mean an end to the avant-garde’s favorite pastime, shocking the bourgeoisie? Nor is a fed-up public the only conceivable end to the current state of affairs. Most significant periods in art history come to an end when artists and the public together find something they like better. Imagine a twenty-first century Caravaggio sprung on today’s hungry audience, or Van Gogh with the blessings of modern marketing. With a few years of each painter’s arrival, painters everywhere were painting in a new way.

Another danger comes from the well-known public delight in watching some sense get knocked into someone else. Art has been a spectacle too long for some rationally biased viewers, including critics Frederick Crews and Thomas McEvilley, who both come from academic backgrounds, one in English and the other Classics. Crews’ recent collection, Follies of the Wise, is subtitled “Dissenting Essays,” and McEvilley is known for Art and Discontent, so neither is happy with the current state of discourse. And while their critiques evidently take volumes to elucidate, one quality insisted on by both can be quickly identified: common sense.

For example, Crews urges us to consider how often we attribute some mysterious quality of art (or any activity) to the operations of the “Unconscious?” How else are we to explain uncanny events, including our sense of connection with knowledge beyond our experience? Others may prefer Jung’s alternative to Freud’s great subject: the Collective Unconscious. Yet neither organ can be demonstrated to exist, and as Crews ably demonstrates, the only real question is which idea is less irrational. Do we prefer to believe that there is an organ, located in the brain but undetectable to neurologists, that harbors forgotten bad experiences and secretly controls our choices? For that matter, does anyone even believe that our minds prefer to forget bad experiences while recalling or inventing positive memories to replace them? (That person apparently never went to high school, had a blind date, or went home for a holiday dinner.) But at least the Unconscious, if it could be shown to exist, would be found inside us where it could conceivably work this unwelcome magic. The Collective Unconscious, on the other hand, an entirely immaterial Internet, unfortunately lacks any credible mechanism of operation whatsoever.

If accepted theories of where art comes from are useless, how can we understand how art takes shape in human society? McEvilley applies the same kind of rational sense to art theory with similarly dramatic results. His chapter, “Heads It’s Form, Tails It’s Not Content,” demolishes twentieth century criticism’s fixation on only one half of the dichotomy of being. It does so in part by quoting examples of the Formalist scriptures and letting their arbitrariness be seen for what it is. Then he identifies not form and content so much as the preference for one or the other as ideological preferences, akin to political or religious scruples. Eventually he uncovers widespread and deeply rooted reasons why a society might prefer to believe in the gospel of formalism: reasons not unrelated to the often-proposed role of art as a substitute for religion in modern life.

If there is an argument in common between Crews and McEvilley it is this: just because we want to believe something doesn’t make it true. The desire to see art in a particular way is only natural, like the desire for happiness or to believe one’s behavior is right. But the belief that we have correctly identified what art is and how it operates today clashes with most of our experiences. I know this because when I go to look at art I don’t just interact with the work; I also talk to the people who surround the art. I talk to the woman in the wheelchair who noticed where Magritte borrowed from Picasso. I talk to the woman behind the counter in the gift shop at the Huntington who long ago accepted that the enormous pleasure she derives from art is somehow wrong. I encourage them to trust their common sense. And I’m happy there are finally a few credible critics who have the facts to back me up.

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

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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