MTC Diary
Here & There
This & That
Beaux Arts
Home Theatre

Art and Criticism


On the Sunday before last, I promised that I would get round to Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art," which appeared in the Book Review for December 11. Mr Gewen mentions eight books in the course of his piece, but it is not a review so much as a consideration of the current state of art criticism. Art critics, after all, are the people who tell us about the art world, distinguishing, in the process, the good from the bad, the worthy from the meretricious. What most critics have not been distinguishing, for the past half century, however, is art from non-art. We have been living in an anything-goes art world, largely because critics have resisted the urge to reject, to exclude offerings from the rubric of art.

There are conservatives, of course; Hilton Kramer, founder and still editor of The New Criterion, is an unhesitating debunker of much of what passes for art these days. But as Mr Gewen points out, there are limits to what we can expect of a critic who proclaimed, in 1980, that Juan Miró was the greatest living artist. More typical of modern criticism is the moonlighting philosopher, Arthur C Danto, of The Nation. Mr Danto finds room for almost anything in his big tent, and he writes (as I know from reading him) with an almost amused pleasure about his encounters. His actual philosophy of art is rather more difficult to grasp, which is perhaps as it should be. The question that I came away from Mr Gewen's overview was this: why have theories in the first place?

The alternative to theory, in Mr Gewen's view, is "belletrism."

In the 50's and 60's, young, aspiring art critics were confronted with an intellectual divide. They could write about art out of their particular passions and responses, or they could adopt Greenberg's vision. The first, the belletrist option, allowed for the exercise of personal style, the careful inspection and precise expression of one's own reactions, and it found adherents among poet-critics like John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, and individualistic, iconoclastic intellects like Susan Sontag. But freedom came with a price. The problem with belletrism was a lack of any shared perspective, a floating subjectivity. It depended on little more than hedonistic responsiveness.

I might as well say plainly that there is nothing in this passage that points up a genuine problem to me. I have absolutely no idea what sort of responsiveness art calls for if not one grounded in pleasure. It is tendentious of Mr Gewen to use the word "hedonistic," and it contradicts what he has just written, too, about "the careful inspection and precise expression of one's own reactions. Hedonists don't take such troubles, as Mr Gewen must well know. He remains in thrall, if not to Clement Greenberg himself (a critic who stopped writing in 1962), then to the virile authority of Greenberg's insistence upon "inflexible obligations." Here is the nub of Greenberg's theory:

The nonrepresentational or "abstract," if it is to have aesthetic validity, cannot be arbitrary and accidental, but must stem from obedience to some worthy constraint or original.

If this isn't the patriarchy speaking, then I'll eat my Pentateuch. "Obedience," "worthy," "validity" - these are incantations with muscle. Greenberg will study a work for these elements, and if he finds them, award the palm. But what are they, after all? Greenberg made his reputation, and Jackson Pollock's, too, explaining Pollock's drip paintings to a public that thought that art ought to look harder to produce. He showed that Pollock's paintings were hard to produce, and he was able to unpack their coherence in a satisfying way. But it seems to have been something of a one-shot deal. Barbara Rose wrote, Greenberg "was looking for the new Pollock and he never found him."

Pop art, of course, was the art of accident par excellence, and the pontificators loathed it. Andy Warhol made a career out of upending Greenberg's tentative certainties. And yet, hostile as I am to Greenberg's authoritarianism, I share his doubts about Pop. I'd have counseled the critic not to worry, but then he could not see Pop with from the vantage of Pop's first mutation, something called "conceptual art," of which Pop is merely the pretty precursor.

I have wrestled with the idea of "conceptual art" for as long as I've known the term. It's one thing, as I automatically do, to refuse to classify "conceptual art" as art, and quite another to say just why and on what grounds I do so. My efforts have always been hampered by the puritanical streak in American thinking that, for example, leads Mr Gewen to overdo things with "hedonistic." Beauty, suppressed in its more accessible forms by all respectable modernism, lies ever at the heart of art, but in the second half of the last century it came to be viewed as a heart condition, not the organ itself. For the heart itself, artists substituted the verbal regions of the mind.

Saul Steinberg liked to call himself a writer who drew. There are many aesthetic pleasures in Steinberg's drawings, but they are always put to a literary purpose. A mood is not just represented but expressed, spelled out, in terms of verbal irony and graphic puns. A full response to Steinberg must be mediated by one's literate sensibility, because Steinberg's raw material is allusion. Some of the allusions are visual, certainly, but they are handled in a framed, self-conscious manner that invokes history and criticism. The more innocent the surface texture of one of his drawings, the more cunning the drift. Saul Steinberg is the ultimate cartoonist; he is certainly the most beautiful. But he traffics in ideas, not aesthetic effects. He points, in everything he does, to words.

As far as I'm concerned, "conceptual artists" aren't doing anything that Steinberg didn't do; they're just doing it, for the most part, with considerably less grace and intelligence. Their wit is a matter of bludgeon and insult; their intrigue depends upon shock and violence. This doesn't make them bad artists, however, because they're not making art to begin with. They're making statements, provoking conceptual responses. They're commenting, at their best, on current events, as often as not urging us to see and grasp the exercise of institutional power in our everyday lives. Like Saul Steinberg, they're critics. They want to tell you something. Artists, in contrast, want to show you something - something beautiful.

I write this with a charged sense of the novelty of art criticism. It did not exist, in any meaningful way, before Sir Joshua Reynolds composed his Seven Discourses. There is no question but that art criticism began as a semi-professional discrimination designed to inform the general public of the works that merited its attention. As such, curators have functioned much as critics do, and there have been great figures, such as Kenneth Clark, who served in both capacities. The vogue word today that describes their activity is "gate-keeping." They decide who gets into the museums and who does not, who wins the prizes, who gets written up in the media, and so on. Until the challenge of Pop Art and its conceptual sequel, discrimination was not very complicated, because certain values prevailed unquestioned: rarity, craft, excellence of execution, and a certain subtlety or understatement; as befit an activity judged by gentleman, artists were rewarded for avoiding overstatement.

This, of course, is precisely what Andy Warhol refused to do, and the garishness of his presentations - the very idea of mounting a pallet of Brillo boxes as art! - obscured the fact that Warhol had given up on art as well as on understatement. Also obscuring this development was Warhol's challenge to the experts, demanding that they lay out their rules, that they say exactly why a soup can label could not be art. Many tried, Greenberg among them, to make the case, but a certain confusion, between making a case against Warhol himself and making a case against the kind of thing that Warhol was doing, clouded their instincts. Warhol was the ideal rebel, because his work was so guileless and charming. He promised a public that found Pollock and de Kooning rebarbative an art that would be accessible to them.


How had art become inaccessible? This is where a familiarity with art's changing audience becomes indispensable. As this audience changed, the range of art expanded, as did that of its effects. The art world of Cimabue's day was tight and limited: religious subjects, iconic conventions, ecclesiastical settings. Over the two hundred years that separate the Black Death from the Counter-reformation, the audience for art broadened, while at the same time art became increasingly representational. Illusionism was not central to art, but it was the aspect of art that everybody seemed to understand. Artists would continue to perfect their representational skills for another three hundred years, until running into the challenge of photography. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the audience for art was colossal by fourteenth-century standards, and certain to swell even further. It now included that new invention, "the general public," membership in which required little more than a decent suit of clothes and a modicum of personal cleanliness.

Photography forced artists to consider the importance of representation in what they were doing. If representation was the point of art, then painters might just as well look for other work. It did not take long, however, for painters to loosen the tyranny of representation. They began painting ineffable things, such as the quality of the air, or the mood of a mist. Presently, the very idea of representation was questioned, first by cubists and later, most severely, by abstract expressionists.

But if artists were prepared to abandon representation, their audiences weren't. Overwhelmingly, the general public continued to clamor for beautiful representations. Beauty was precisely what distinguished, in the general public's mind, art from photography; the beauty of photography, flickering as it did in Julia Margaret Cameron's work, would not settle into widespread accessibility until well into the twentieth century. We look back and see beauty in the photographs of, say, Roger Fenton (whose photographs, taken between 1852 and 1860, were the subject of a recent traveling exhibition), but Fenton's contemporaries wanted color as much as fine design, and colored photography remained iffy until the introduction of Kodachrome in the late Thirties. The rift that opened up with the first Salon des refusés in 1863 widened until the general public decided that it could live very well without modern fine art. This mutiny did not always take the form of embracing kitsch. Sophisticated art-lovers who were uncomfortable with modernism had all of art history to play with, and the taste that they brought to bear on art of the past all but inverted the values prevalent when that art was created. The big history paintings that had been so highly esteemed in the ancien régime were consigned to the warehouse; favored in their place were the once-insignificant easel pictures of Chardin and Vermeer. Netherlandish art of the fifteenth century, hitherto regarded as "primitive" or "provincial," was snapped up by newly-rich Americans. If there seems to be least as much of the good stuff here in New York as there is anywhere else, that's thanks to a moment of arbitrage in the taste for art, during which Netherlandish painting was more highly prized in New York than it was in Brussels.

If I have conveyed anything in the preceding paragraphs, I hope that it is a sense of the constantly shifting dimensions of the world and meaning of art. We're wired, sadly perhaps, to distinguish the things that happened before our parents' generations from the things that happened earlier. We seek a richness of detail about what's closest to us. That's why one can't try too hard to bear in mind that there are few simple continuities in the history of art - a history, itself, that would have surprised Renaissance painters.

What I've taken to looking for are the continuities that really do hold up. The sense of beauty, difficulty as it is to write about, is one of these. It is dishonest to talk about Impressionist and even Post-Impressionist art without acknowledging that beauty - whatever it may be - is the most appealing thing about it, and that being appealed to is a central pleasure of art. Finding beauty in more recent artwork is certainly possible, and some new painters, such as the controversial John Currin, are pursuing the beautiful with what their detractors can only call shamelessness. So let's put beauty at the head of our list. It will not be a long one; I can only think of one other continuity: durability.

Durability is important - essential, I think - because it allows succeeding generations to judge for themselves. Setting questions of decay and restoration aside, paintings such as Mona Lisa (not its real name) have been impressing observers for centuries, and the patina of admiration is pretty thick. Will we see future revolutions in appreciation such as the one that dismissed history painting? I doubt it; that rejection was one of the defining acts of a maturing aesthetic sensibility. History painting, while definitely "art," was burdened by an extra-artistic agenda - the glory of rulers - that became clutter when rulers stopped trying for grandeur. It is always possible, however, that Leonardo's mystery woman will lose her admirers. (She will almost certainly be displaced, at some point or other, as Most Famous Painting.) That's the chance that every work of art must take. And in order to take it, it has to last. When an artwork is destroyed, it really does cease to exist. It can no longer be directly admired, and not even the most extravagant critical claims made before its destruction can inspire enthusiasm.

It's for this reason as much as any that I think it's silly to become too concerned about distinguishing good art from bad art or even "real art" from "conceptual art." It's why I think that the belletrist approach to art is, in the end, the only meaningful one. If you find a painting more attractive than interesting, you are probably looking at a work of art, but, really, that's for time to tell. If you write down your impressions, and your writing makes something more comprehensible to someone else, then you have contributed to the pile-up of leaves that is the actual history of art. Paintings and appreciations of paintings constitute the human encounter with painting, an encounter that has come to be predicated upon the presence of a quality or characteristic that we call "art."

The history of art, in short, is in perpetual re-write. We still don't have the faintest idea, for example, of how much longer our great museums will continue to draw the crowds that they do today. The whole phenomenon of "drawing crowds" is too recent. And it is interesting to follow the crowds into the museum and to see where exactly it is that they go. The Met's European Painting Galleries (the "old masters") are never crowded and often uninhabited, while specialized expositions - conceptualizations, if you will, of art - pack them in.


Barry Gewen is very interested in the possibility that "anything goes" in today's art world. Is this the case? Of course not; there are limits. He quotes André Breton, who

said that the "simplest Surrealist act" would consist of "dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly.

We can't have that. "Anything goes" is pretty much a matter of insulting the general public's sense of good taste - as a way of making it consider good taste instead of following it blindly. The advisability of taking on good taste in the altogether is dubious, but the general public likes a good scandal, as the crowds the Brooklyn Museum's Sensation show in 2000-1 attested. Mr Gewen writes with insight about the consequences.

Similarly, it has taken time to recognize that granting artists a privileged zone eventually undermined their seriousness. The Greenbergers thought they were protecting art by removing it from the materialistic workaday world, but by restricting it to what goes on in museums and galleries, or transforming it into a conversation solely among artists, they were actually converting it into an irrelevancy. Art made no claims upon the "nonartistic," except as a source of amusement. And the artists, for their part, were given permission to behave like unsocialized children.

The privileged zone, at least in the United States, has been opened to celebrities of all kinds, just as the small group of serious critics and curators has been stretched to include gossip columnists and talk-show hosts. There simply is no line between artists and people who are famous for being famous. "Conceptual art," which often partakes of theatrical qualities, fills the gap between the calm exhibition of paintings and the rock concert. It's not really a question of "anything goes," but rather that anyone does.

"State of the Art" ends with a discussion of three instances of what I'll call "occurrence art." This is the opposite of fine art as I understand it, because "you had to be there," and once the occurrence is over, the artwork is destroyed. Two of Mr Gewen's events took place in art galleries, but one of them occurred in Central Park: last year's installation of "The Gates." I have been thinking a lot about "The Gates," stimulated every other day by one of the many photos that I snapped on my two walks through Christo's promenade of hanging orange flags. They show up along with all of the other images in the slide show screen saver that Windows makes of "My Pictures." Inordinately often, it seems, the picture that I come back to when I've been away from the desk for a bit is one of "The Gates," and I have found that these photographs affect me powerfully - perhaps because they come as a mild surprise. I remember the two walks with uncanny clarity. The cold, the wet of melting snow, the rude contrast of the virulent flags against the somber cityscape, and, most of all, the people, the thousands of people who would never have been in Central Park in such weather had it not been for an installation that ceased being controversial the moment it was experienced. One passed immediately from doubting that "The Gates" would be bearable to liking them very much on condition that they'd be taken down in a few weeks. The impermanence of "The Gates" was the secret of its charm.

But was it art? In those old days that I was talking about, when rulers doused themselves with grandeur as if it were bath powder, formidable pageants were useful ways of impressing the populace with edifying themes. Over time, show business overtook oratory, and allegory gave way to fireworks, but the productions were always "the best ever." Philippe le bon, the great Duke of Burgundy, the template of regality and almost a sovereign himself, gave a famous dinner in 1454 that has come down to us in great detail. But it's difficult to imagine what the affair was actually like, because the chroniclers were too much of their time to understand what we do not. So, even though we can reconstruct the music program, and even though we know some of the recipes and the manner in which they were served, the Banquet du voeu has been lost to time, just as "The Gates" has been. In a hundred years from now, no one will know what "The Gates" was like. If "The Gates" were permanent - installed for a few weeks every winter - even then no one would know what it was like in 2005. But generations walking through it would have built up a few useful paragraphs. "Occurrence art" is pageantry, not art.

If I were to say, "But just because it's not art, that doesn't mean that it's not great," I'd be weaseling. The cruel point is that, "Because it's not art, it can't be great art." If it's great something else, fine. But there's a reason behind the desire to bless fruits of the imagination with the label of art, and it is nothing other than the patina of admiration that I spoke of before in connection with Mona Lisa. Works of art achieve an immortality, or something like it - something much more like it than our own lives ever can - that it's impossible not to long for. Fragonard, Adam, Mozart, Houdon, Goethe - just to name five great figures whose lives overlapped over two hundred years ago - we may regret that more of our own contemporaries don't know much about them, but it can't be denied that in certain circles they are very much alive. That's not because we read of their fame. It's because we can experience their work directly ourselves. We don't need the critics to tell us how fine it is. (December 2005)

Permalink  | Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me