Friends concerned at my ignorance just lent me The Crisis of Criticism a book of essays published in 1998. I found art critic Michael Brenson's "Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis in Journalistic Criticism" to be touching and affecting. The essay is available online here through the Warhol Foundation.

Brenson's essay was written in 1994-5, around the time that I first started writing about art in Toronto, and around the time that we started plotting to publish a brash and chatty local art magazine. This quote from Brenson reflects exactly the frustration that some of us were feeling here at the time:
"I am sick of people saying in private what they will not say in public, or saying in private the opposite of what they say in public. Part of what I admire in the writings of a public intellectual like Henry Louis Gates Jr. is that there seems to be no real split between what he will say privately and publicly. The institutionalization of private outrage and public silence -- not just regarding criticism but also with regard to so much that matters to art and culture, including the now all-but-official hostility to art and demonization of the artist in America -- has historical associations that are very disturbing to me. So much public silence in the face of so much private unhappiness throughout the art world is a sign of a crisis of moral imagination that is one of the underlying themes of this presentation."
Now, almost ten years later, our sassy little art mag is defunct, the YBA Sensation show has come and gone, and this thing we call post-modernism is no longer a distressing novelty but an entrenched frame of reference. At the same time art-types have adopted the internet, brilliant writers of many ilks are publishing criticism hither and yon, and there is more good art criticism by more different types of people than ever before. Yet there seems to be a generalised eruption of sadness and dismay at the loss of a formal art criticism that passes judgement. My question is Huh? wha?... has that criticism actually been lost? Has it not just been added to? It seems to me that judgement is alive and well, that rigour is alive and well, that discourse and guidance and depth of intellectual investigation is fuller and richer than its ever been, with more avenues of accessibility to a broader range of reader. So why the moaning? Sane intelligent people, (Philip Monk, Lane Relyea, Jennifer McMackon?--is this how you feel, J?--and others) clearly are experiencing some sort of loss. It bothers me -- perhaps because I feel complicit in the late nineties shakedown of authority and expertise in artwriting -- that I don't yet understand "what is on the table" (as Tom Moody recently suggested in the comments to an earlier post). What am I missing? Is there something important slipping away, and I'm just too biased to grasp the loss? Nevertheless, irked as I am, I am also determined that the value of criticism is located in attention rather than authority. Brenson makes a beautiful and inspiring call to journalistic critics to take on the "life and death" issues that can arise from art, and I'll end this post with it cause it cheers me up enormously:
"The one response that is impermissible on the network news is doubt; permission to doubt is one of the great gifts of modernism to 20th-century culture. Critics must be willing from time to time not only to wiggle their toes in issues that threaten them, or for which they have no answer, but to plunge into them and learn to swim there. It is impossible at any time for critics who write regularly to avoid mistakes. Making them and being attacked for them mean little or nothing in themselves. What matters is the way critics deal with these mistakes and attacks. What matters is the quality of curiosity, the quality of attentiveness, the quality of concern, the quality of vision, the quality of the experience of art and language. It is also the quality of debate a critic makes available. If the discussions provoked by a critic are at the expense of that critic, so be it. If I say something that unwittingly brings to the surface esthetic or cultural or racial limitations, and my words enable people to become more aware of those limitations, fine. Probably everyone here has a sense of the kind of critic needed to meet the challenges of this moment. Many approaches are, of course, possible. Many different approaches are needed. I am looking for critics who not only love art -- not just one kind of art, art -- but who also love language, and who are also able to keep learning and growing from their mistakes, and from the dialogues they establish with and among their readers and within themselves."

- sally mckay 7-22-2004 7:13 pm

"...there seems to be a generalised eruption of sadness and dismay at the loss of a formal art criticism that passes judgement."

If there is anything to lament, anything lost I would like to propose that a strict distinction between the 'passage' of judgement in criticism and the 'exercise' of judgement seems to have been missing in this debate so far. What's lost is the sense that it's a dialectic, that criticism is an arena for judgement and the contest or interraction between judgements.

I'll risk provoking Tom Moody ( and probably others) again by invoking Dave Hickey, - who has implied a relationship between art criticism and sports, (basketball actually). In sports everyone is watching the ball (or in Canada, the puck) to see how it's handled, how it's possession is challenged. There are wins losses and draws. There are fights and even decorum, a lineup to shake hands at the end. Time turned Adorno and Benjamin's letters into tome on The Frankfurt School of Aesthetics but in their time they adressed one another, as did The Socratics and The Romantics and so on and so forth.

When people talk about a lost "golden age" of criticism, my 'feeling/suspiscion' is they don't like the idea the game is over. The hammer of judgement hits the table and it's over - no appeal - no rematch. If, as James Elkins alludes and you yourself suggest "... brilliant writers of many ilks are publishing criticism hither and yon, and there is more good art criticism by more different types of people than ever before.... It seems to me that judgement is alive and well, that rigour is alive and well, that discourse and guidance and depth of intellectual investigation is fuller and richer than its ever been, with more avenues of accessibility to a broader range of reader..." I agree there is a huge quantity of material out there but as to the quality of much of it....hmmm. Perhaps there is plenty of chatter and certainly the fullest sense of entitlement to chatter. But who is everybody talking to, writing for? Why is the first chapter of "What Happened to Art Criticism?" called "Writing Without Readers"? Perhaps this is what Philip Monk was getting at ( though he has not followed up?) when he asked, "What does the disavowal of the word “criticism”mean?"

These are my first thoughts - I'll post more as they come to me

- Jennifer at simpleposie (guest) 7-22-2004 9:27 pm

Excellent blog entry Sal. I think the only lose some feel is that the language has changed, to a more common (rather than highly academic) writing style.

I did a studio visit recently with a young artist, and he spent about five or so minutes defining irony. He did it in such a convoluted manner I just listened with intrigue at how he could make irony seem like some sort of foreign and strange condition. I am not mentioning this to laugh at the artist, but at how artspeak guises a lot of ideas that are really not all that complicated. Art relies on a certain amount of mystic, and artspeak has always been one way to keeping some mystery. In the end though, "it's a schtickl!" as David Shrigley once said about his self-depricating style.

Btw, you probably know a similar debate about leniency in criticism has been happening in the book reviewing world too, ever since Dale Peck said Ricky Moodie couldn't write himself out of a paper bag.
- lola-x 7-22-2004 9:44 pm


I offer no answers. I'm puzzled and rather conflicted as well. Many still throw up their hands over the "problem with contemporary art" (and criticism) and I really can't decide if this dissatisfied grousing is in any way legitimate or if its all just based on easy assumptions and unrealistic or misplaced expectations.

I'll give Brenson a read tonight (see Tim Quigley's commentary on this very essay at asymptote:
- Dan (iconoduel) (guest) 7-23-2004 2:29 am

Journalistic critic in Seattle Nate Lippens, first day on the job, writes about artworld elitism [via zeke]
- sally mckay 7-24-2004 7:08 pm

God, that's confessional. Has he never heard of...bluffing? Also, he whines that he can't take it, but he can sure dish it out:

Just observe the strange parade at First Thursday: bobbleheaded girls, yammering on cell phones, in low-slung jeans with dorsal cleavage showing, standing beside a young man in a Jean-Michel Basquiat T-shirt from Urban Outfitters, next to someone having an insular, sibilant art-world conversation (artists say meaner things about other artists than any critic ever would).
"Sibilant" could be "whispered," but also hissing or...well. I would have avoided the word in this context.

- tom moody 7-24-2004 7:18 pm

In 1998 we (ie Lola magazine) sent a "secret agent" (ie student intern) around to all the art galleries to ask questions of the attendants and then rate them on their customer service and accessibility to general public. Needless to say, some gallerists got their dander up over that! We did it though, cause we noticed we were being treated much much better when people knew we were publishing an art mag. Just normal human behaviour, but wouldn't it be nice if everyone who walked into an art gallery got a nice welcome like art writers and collectors get? Lippens may be whining but he's also right that there's a nasty contradiction between (some) art's elitism and (some) art's requirment of public support. It gets broken down pretty good around here with stuff like Instant Coffee's make out parties and the plethora of friendly storefront galleries.
- sally mckay 7-25-2004 12:47 am

Elkins' book quotes Lola--an anecdote about a car collliding with a Henry Moore. It also contains what I've been wishing for: some close discussion of critics' writing (more like non-writing) about specific artists' work. Especially fun is Elkins' dismantling of Rob Weiner's generalities on Kate Shepherd (published in a Lannan Foundation catalog), and his semantic analysis of a James Yood Artforum review that carefully avoids stating an opinion about the value of the work under consideration. Yood (an admitted buddy of Elkins') says he deliberately doesn't make judgments lest he prejudice the reader's experience; Elkins twits him for that but ultimately defends him because he thinks he's "judging subtly." I'll post the excerpts eventually.
- tom moody 7-25-2004 7:15 am

Back to Nate Lippens--it's precisely the impetus for your Lola experiment that makes me distrust him on the topic of art world so-called elitism. What gallerist questions a newspaper writer's credentials, and to his face no less? NONE. He is clearly out of his element, and probably took an awkward or poorly phrased comment in the worst way. He compensates for feelings of insecurity (and very probably a lack of what we non-elitists call "getting it") by creating a straw man of gallery snobbery and through sneering descriptions such as the one I quoted above. I feel kind of sorry for the Seattle art community--looks like they're in for a bad year.

I would distinguish between class snobbery and intellectual snobbery: class distinctions are very real in marketing art, and there's not much you can do about that. Either you have the dough to play in the big leagues of patronage and collecting or you don't. I do wish neighborhoods like Chelsea would be a little less obvious in creating a bubble world for the moneyed contingent, but poor people manage to shuffle through those spaces every day. Intellectual snobbery can be risen above, too: most people who practice it are pseuds, and their bubbles are easily popped with a little actual knowledge. Or, as I said, by bluffing. Either way, I don't really understand who the villains are here (other than a dangerously defensive critic).

- tom moody 7-25-2004 11:00 am

Tom, which Elkin book mentions Lola?
- lola-x 7-25-2004 7:44 pm

"What Happened to Art Criticism?"
- Jennifer McMackon (guest) 7-25-2004 8:26 pm

"I don't really understand who the villains are here" ...yeah I get that. I used to work in retail and I was friendly to everybody because that was my job. Now I work at a desk that happens to be the front desk in a gallery. My job is not to sell the art, as it's a non-profit space, nor is it to greet the public, but by default of that being my work station, mine is the face they see. I honestly do try hard to be welcoming, but often don't put on a friendly face because I am busy fussing away at my work. But if it is someone I know I put down what I'm doing to say hello, and if it's one of the art columnists in town I always say hello.
- sally mckay 7-25-2004 11:52 pm

side note: I believe Brenson hired Kimmelman before he quit The New York Times. (I recall some kind of scandal? - I think Brenson had been promised the job by Rockwell but it went to Kimmelman instead, Brenson quit in protest?).
- selma 7-29-2004 9:47 pm

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