Who'd have thought art criticism was such a hot topic? The old-style stuff was moldy and dry, the new-style stuff is either glib and undemanding, or esoteric and niche. Interesting that so many of us (myself included) seem to care about it with some sort of passion. A few months ago this blog saw a glut of posts, spurred by a panel discussion in Toronto about whether or not criticism is irrelevant. A few days ago a really good post appeared at Iconoduel, a report on James Elkins' essay What Happened to Art Criticism? Iconoduel is a very interesting art blog from Chicago, written with insight and clarity by "Dan," who seems to have a cool and solid head on his shoulders. Read his post on Elkins (and then, like I'm thinking, you might not have to read Elkins!*).
" Ultimately, Elkins doesn't 'think it is necessarily a good idea to reform criticism: what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment, and the attraction of description' (that is the appeal of descriptive criticism, so prevalent now, as opposed to the fiery polemics of a century ago)."
*(I'm kidding but I'm not. Maybe part of the reason old guard art criticism has lost cachet is that we readers aren't sated by source material anymore. I rarely want to be absorbed into someone's rigid, worked-out thesis, I'd rather slide around in all the murky questions that rise off a work when others start to analyse and question it. It's partly an attention span thing, and a symptom of decadent culture-grazing, but it might also be a characteristic of rigorous post-modernism. One single point of view just doesn't cut it anymore.)

- sally mckay 7-15-2004 1:43 pm



"Read his post on Elkins (and then, like I'm thinking, you might not have to read Elkins!*)."

If you're wondering what is happening to art criticism you need look no further than this. What Happened to Art Criticism by James Elkins is a tiny paperback less than 85 pages reading. The "essay" on Iconoduel contains more of Elkin's quotations word for word than commentary by Dan himself! Why not read the Elkins? Or maybe it would take too much of a committment.

*You shouldn't kid with a kidder, you have to propose a point of view and argue it before people decide if it "cuts it anymore".
- J at simpleposie (guest) 7-15-2004 4:22 pm


"you have to propose a point of view and argue it before people decide if it 'cuts it anymore'" ...this coming from the question lady! I agree with you on this point, J.

- sally mckay 7-15-2004 4:47 pm


It is true that I am committed to asking questions.
- Jennifer at simpleposie (guest) 7-15-2004 4:58 pm


Me again.

I, for one am not surprised (especially in light of your great post a few months back that provoked so much passionate response from all kinds of people in the arts) by the heat around the topic of art criticism. I think people in the arts care deeply about the shape of the discourse surrounding their work. They have an investment in it. (I do. You do. We wouldn't be blogging on the subject if we didn't) So while I'm here I do have a couple of questions for you because I am interested in what you are saying and would also find some clarification useful:

What is the "old style stuff" that you describe as mouldy and dry? Also in your opinion,who are the writers of this new and esoteric criticism that is glib and undemanding as you put it? Is this the same dichotomy proposed by James Elkins? What do you mean when you say " Maybe part of the reason old guard art criticism has lost cachet is that we readers aren't sated by source material anymore."?
- Jennifer at simpleposie (guest) 7-15-2004 5:26 pm


Well I was just over-stating (in an attempt at light-heartedness) what seem to be the poles of opinion around art criticism. I'm not prepared to start naming names right here and now, but if you'd care to take issue with the statement I'd be very interested to hear your point of view. The second part, about source material not satisfying, is really extremely speculative, but there may be something to it. I spend a lot of time reading, and a lot of that reading is online, on blogs, pdfs, or chapters from here and there. There are a lot of others out there like me, who's education is a process, a sampling, a following-of-the-nose through a morass of ideas that pile on top of one another, rather than an organised academic course of study. Some of that is clearly due to time constraints, but some of it may be due to the added richness that the current culture of sampling has to offer. Personally, I like content mashed, so reading Iconoduel's take on Elkins is like a two-for-one deal - more brains for your buck.

- sally mckay 7-15-2004 6:42 pm


For those following this thread, there's more good stuff on Elkins, etc. over at Iconoduel with links to Timothy Quigley and Marja-Leena Rathje. I'm resposting below a comment I just made there, because it gets close to articulating my nerdishly extreme interest in all of this:

Thank you thank you for all this analysis. I recently read with interest the "art tussell" thread you linked to earlier regarding John Link's somewhat bitter essay on 'novelty art.' It seems that there is a plaintive (though often misdirected) call for criteria these days... people fed up with the anything-goes-style fallout of postmodernism, looking for a basis on which to form judgements again. (Or, more irritating, bemoaning the fact that others don't form judgements.) But, as everyone seems to be pointing out, we can't travel back in time and re-adopt the art criteria of yore. So we're stuck with muddling around together in a somewhat egalitarian stew, looking for direction. I am an art writer of the descriptive variety, on the Pauline Kael end of the scale. But I still read and need art theory, art history, art criticism because that's how I know that I am participating in culture, and not just spewing out random, quizzical thoughts. Descriptive criticism can key into current theory, in a way that is faster, more participatory and less self-conscious than constructing a platform from which to pass judgement. But that doesn't mean that rigour is tossed out, nor communal trends, nor careful use of language, nor aspirations for cultural meaning beyond the moment of descriptive gratification. Its a very very interesting time, as we are finally growing out of the nihilistic aspects of postmodernism. I'd venture that we curmudgeonly art mavens are picking up the new types of analytic tool we've all been constructing this past 20 years, and looking at how to really start putting them to use.

- sally mckay 7-17-2004 1:40 pm


I ordered the Elkins book and I'm curious to read his rundown on the different approaches to critiquin'. These whither criticism? discussions drive me crazy, though (Dan's in addition to your 75-commenter) because people don't get specific. What's on the table here? What are we mad about? Is this a discussion about whether YBAs are pseudo-artists? About the validity of the Quest for the Adolescent as an organizing principle in the 2004 Whitney Biennial? About whether technological change is making "gallery art" (and Elkins' arguments) quaint? In the 75-comment thread I contrasted a glib Dave Hickey Cezanne comment with some well written Greenberg process-explication (out of which a theory about the "pleasures of ambiguity" emerged) and was told it was "apples and oranges." By all means let's get back to generalities. Which is better, theory or description?
- tom moody 7-21-2004 2:50 pm


sorry bout the apples 'n' oranges thing, Tom. that was me. Also sorry to Jennifer for getting hot under the collar above. my emotions run high on this topic as it all hits a bit close to home. Am off now to read The Crisis of Criticism. Will report back, maybe even with some specifics.

- sally mckay 7-21-2004 8:49 pm


I 'get' that frustration with lack of specificity, especially when participants in the discussion are rigorous, specific critics like Tom who work very hard to articulate with insight and no bullshit. BUT I think the questions about of the role of art criticism remain unspecific for a reason, because they are evidence of a culture taking stock. The process requires stepping back and positing unresolvable and false polarities. I've made a new post today that goes on more about my own investment in the topic. But maybe in this thread we can try to get into more focussed analyses of some particular writing.


Here is Tom's suggestion from the 75-comment behemoth thread back in February..."we've got an opportunity here, since this thread is about quotes, to compare two different responses to an artist's work." ... The two quotes are posited below:

Dave Hickey: So, I wanted to have a chat with Cezanne, as I stood before his painting in the National Gallery."Paul", I wanted to say, "about this picture plane thing...uh...I know it's there. So, couldn't we both just sorta agree that it's there and fucking get on with it?"

Dave Hickey, "This Mortal Magic" in Air Guitar, Essays on Art and Democracy, Art Issues Press, 1997, pp 184.

...first posted by Jennifer McMackon of Simpleposie
Clement Greenburg: CÚzanne did try to shade, much more than the Impressionists did, but with "natural" frank colour; yet the very freshness and warmth of this colour tended to negate its purpose. It was supposed to show planes that receded, but light, bright, or "warm" colours give the effect of coming forward. CÚzanne tried to counteract this and resolve the contradiction by digging around the contours of objects - which represent their furthest points of recession from the eye - with deep blue lines, blue being a "cool" or receding colour. But the contradiction, or ambiguity, was only heightened thereby - happily, I feel, for this ambiguity is precisely one of the largest sources of pleasure in art.?

Clement Greenburg, "CÚzanne: Gateway to Contemporary Painting" in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3, John O'Brian ed., The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1995, p. 117.

...first posted by Steve Armstrong of wegway

- sally mckay 7-22-2004 2:16 pm


I realize it's not a fair comparison. Stacked against that sweet, conscientious Greenberg quote, the Hickey isn't defensible on any level (other than adolescent acting out).
- tom moody 7-23-2004 2:22 am