January 7, 2009

Art criticism: Alive and well

Village Voice critic Martha Schwendener, in a good piece on the state of art writing and criticism, suggests that, despite the bad economy, things are pretty good right now. "The big narrative in the art world over the last decade has been the market. Money, as you may have heard, changes everything. But now that the market is marching in lockstep with the global recession, the big question for those involved with art is: How's it affecting you? One population, ironically, has been less affected than others, and that's art writers: We're at the low end of the art economy either way....The days of power critics like Clement Greenberg or Harold Rosenberg ended decades ago; writers have been eclipsed by globe-trotting curators, mega-dealers—even, in recent years, collectors. Roundtables and panel discussions have been devoted to the 'crisis in criticism;' recent books include titles like Critical Mess and What Happened to Art Criticism?

"But at the same moment that the old guard has been decrying the sorry state of 'criticism' (a contested term that's come to mean everything from academic papers to exhibition reviews), something has been happening in art writing. While James Elkins, author of the doomsaying What Happened to Art Criticism?, claims that art criticism is 'dying, but everywhere . . . massively produced and massively ignored,' writers are pushing out in new directions, trying hybrid forms, and blurring the distinction between art writing and art making. And then there are the critical writings of artists themselves. These have ranged over the decades from the prickly formalist criticism of Donald Judd to the wacky manifestos of Ad Reinhardt to Agnes Martin's poetic texts. Writing was also important for two artists whose work has set the parameters for many contemporary artists: Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson. Warhol's obsessive cataloging in the diaries and his genre-bending and sleight-of-hand banalities in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975) feel intimately linked to Kraus's writing, as well as to Wayne Koestenbaum's Hotel Theory (2007) and Andy Warhol (2001) biography for the Penguin Lives series, and to the novel Reena Spaulings (2005) by the artist-collective Bernadette Corporation. Seth Price, who combines a visual art practice with writing, is perhaps the most self-conscious heir to Smithson's delirious sci-fi-and-George-Kubler-influenced writing..." Read more.

7 comments:

Wow, I think it's more incredible that people are still reading the Village Voice for art criticism.

People always hark back to Greenberg and Rosenberg as a model of what art criticism should look like, but even within their life times the art world underwent enormous changes.

Both the kinds of works and the institutions available for presenting them have diversified so much, criticism as it was, has splintered into various specializations. If you're looking for critics/criticism like Greenberg or Clive Bell or Michel Seuphor, etc - that world has gone. That kind of criticism is just not appropriate.

The issues now are so far beyond even Smithson or Warhol, that even recognising an 'avant-garde' has become virtually impossible (avant-garde of what?)

'Art theory' drives issues into culture and sociology, while 'reviews' are happy to do little more than map market positions. Art criticism - as discussion of preference or excellence continues only in various isolated pockets. Recognising them is the key to choosing among them.

Btw, my comment was meant to be snarky...just wanted to add some levity to the post :)

The reason anybody "still" reads the VV for art criticism is that the art world, especially including viewers, is not the insular, secretive, and ultra-specialized tribe that hr_g envisions. Pretty close, though.

Actually my comment should have been more general but since it is an art blog I focused on art and I kept it snarky to be fun.

The VV has for the last decade gutted its arts criticism to the point that its dance coverage and other arts writing doesn't feel a central focus anymore of it's "product." I think it's great that they still have a good art critic but part of me wonders how long that is going to last. I hope I'm proven wrong.

Right you are, sorry to be so indignant

The "crisis in criticism" is the same crisis inflicting the art world in general. Insular groups of "experts" (dealers, collectors, gallery managers, museum curators, academics) who benefit through making art & art writing esoteric & unattainable, except for the wealthy and knowledgeable. Power, influence, greed have ruled the art world. Warhol captured the nature of contemporary art best: "Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." The economic crisis may be the best thing that has happened in the art world in 60 years.
As for cultural criticism, new technologies may have lowered barriers and enhanced dialogue, but not changed its basic nature. Aristotle defined criticism as the standard of "judging well." The legitimate aim of criticism is to direct attention to the excellent--the bad will eventually fall away in history's judgment.