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Part I: The Crisis

In the new book Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice, edited by Raphael Rubinstein, the heavyweights of contemporary art criticism each take a turn at defining the “crisis” as they see it, or refuting the idea of a crisis altogether. Some do it with grace and elegance, such as James Elkins and JJ Charlesworth; others defend their long-held territory, such as Jerry Salz and Arthur Danto; and a few try hard to not play at the game while, of course, playing the game. Thomas McEvilley and Nancy Princenthal belong in that last category.

Critical Mess is based on a single premise and a familiar format. It began with the publication of Rubinstein’s essay “A Quiet Crisis” in Art In America, reproduced in Critical Mess, in which he discusses his perception of the state of his practice. “Part of the problem, surely, is that we have so few consistently tough art critics,” he writes, before moving on to cite the growing scale and decentralization of the art scene, the pluralistic approach to art-making after Modernism, and the artists themselves.

The problem, in Rubinstein’s view, is that “(t)oo few painters seem willing to get in the ring with great artists of the past, to really grapple with their strong predecessors. Instead, we have a lot of shadow boxing and influence without anxiety.” His argument is based on the idea that it is the critic’s job to set up standards for artists to meet, and to compare them to the past in order to set that standard. The “crisis,” it seems, comes from the fact that the current attitude claims “(t)here’s no need to spell things out in today’s art world, and in any case, value judgments and the quest for historical significance are so yesterday; it’s all about spin, about discussing the artist’s self-declared subject matter rather than hazarding any potentially invidious comparisons between one artist and another.” Thus, when critics are afraid or forbidden to compare one artist to another, they are forced to actually address the “self-declared” intentions of the artist they are reviewing; it is this condescending attitude that prevails throughout many of the essays in Critical Mess.

Given that most of the writing in the book has been previously published, much of it may already be familiar to those who follow the state of art criticism. The first essay, for example, is an excerpt from James Elkin’s fantastic pamphlet “What Happened To Art Criticism?” The excerpt chosen for Critical Mess includes Elkins thoughts on who art criticism is for and what the audience expects or takes from criticism.

Elkin’s hits the nail on the head when he writes that “art criticism is flourishing, out of sight of contemporary intellectual debates. So it’s dying, but it’s everywhere. It’s ignored, yet it has the market behind it.” The value of most art criticism, he points out, is not based on its ability to pass judgment on the art in question, simply to promote it. The pluralistic art world that Rubinstein bemoans and JJ Charlesworth defends, has left the critic to pass on their opinions, which can be agreed with or discarded as a reader sees fit. Much like other forms of popular criticism, an art critic may strongly declare their like or dislike of a work or exhibition, but their readers are free to disagree with them.

That is, if they even read the text at all. “Do art criticism and catalogue essays function, then, primarily to get people into galleries and to induce them to buy?” Elkins asks. “Probably, but in the case of catalogue essays the economic effect does not seem to depend on the writing actually being read – often it is enough to have a well-produced brochure or catalogue on hand to convince a customer to buy. It is not entirely clear that criticism affects the art market except in prominent cases, when the buzz surrounding an artist’s show can certainly drive up attendance and prices.”

Later in the book, JJ Charlesworth takes on the notion that to move away from decisive judgment is worthy of the cries of “crisis”. In considering whether or not art writing should be “the individuated, professionalized act of mediating between art and readers,” he writes that”(w)ithout a broader purpose underpinning the activity of addressing art, and its exchanges with culture and society, it’s not hard to see how writing about art starts to turn inward, holding up its banal prerequisites – looking at art, stringing words together, and acknowledging your reader – as if they were the essence of its being.”

What is left, then, is text that is not critical at all, or at least not openly and consistently so. The text that is produced in response to art is introspective, descriptive, personal and, at it’s best, offers the writer as a portal though which the work can be experienced in text and removed from the authentic experience of the work itself. “The slip of terminology from art criticism to mere art writing in recent years is symptomatic of a growing indifference to writing’s polemic and contestative potential,” Charlesworth writes.

As it is laid out by several writers in Critical Mess, the “crisis” in art criticism is on several fronts. The first part of the problem is that critics cannot, or choose not, to be decisively judgmental about artwork, and opt instead for personal insights and descriptive, “belletristic” writing. The second side of the problem lies in the audience, who do not perceive art criticism as definitive or authoritative, and may not even read it at all. The final dilemma for art critics is that the scale of the art world has grown exponentially in the past few decades, and the pluralistic and interdisciplinary nature of art denies critics firm points of reference upon which they can declare works good or bad, and instead pushes them into the role of explaining the discursive nature of contemporary art.

Part II: Greenberg

In 1976, Tom Wolfe wrote in The Painted Word:

“I am willing to predict that in the year 2000, when the Metropolitan or the Museum of Modern Art puts on the great retrospective exhibition of American Art 1945-75, artists who will be featured, the three seminal figures of the era, will not be Pollock, de Kooning and Johns – but Greenberg, Rosenberg and Steinberg. Up on the walls will be huge copy blocks, eight and a half by eleven feet each, presenting the protean passages of the period… a little “fuliginous flatness” here… a little “action painting” there… and some of that “all great art is about art” just beyond. Beside them will be small reproductions of the work of leading illustrators of the Word from that period, such as Johns, Louis, Noland, Stella, and Olitski.” [1]

One doesn’t have to read very far into Critical Mess before they encounter Greenberg. Rosenberg and Steinberg may not be mentioned by name, but their presence can be found in the religious awe with which Greenberg is referenced. This is not to say that every writer wants to be Greenberg, or wants to return to a time when art criticism functioned in that way; however, his legacy is so strong and the perception he created of the role of the art critic is so enduring, that a book on the state of art criticism could not get by without addressing his work.

Jerry Salz deflects his feelings for Greenberg onto one of the great Clement’s current adherents. Almost in passing, Salz writes that “(o)n several occasions art writer Lane Relyea (…) has demanded in print and at panels to know my “criteria” for judging art (as if this could be distilled into one answer or an easy sound byte: e.g. “Minimalism: good; Painting: bad,” etc.) When he does this, he often refers to Clement Greenberg. I have asked my students to tell me what he means, but none of them can understand his writing. When I asked his editor what he was on about, she said she had no idea but that he “seems obsessed with Greenberg.””

Twenty pages after Salz, Critical Mess features a ten page essay by Lane Relyea. As if trying to prove Salz right, he mentions Greenberg no less than nine times in his piece, and it is easy to see why Saltz’s students cannot “understand” his writing. Relyea veers all over the map, trying to discredit critics, like Salz, who “often pass themselves off as the rightful heirs to Greenberg.” His attack claims simultaneously that “academia” is a “retreat” and that many contemporary critics “happily sell out the whole modernist project: instead of struggling to keep united thought and feeling, intuition and understanding, as modernists attempted, they proudly abandon thinking, denounce any tie between what they feel and the larger world, and gleefully orphan their sensations within a hermetically sealed privacy, exactly the disaster modernist critics tried to forestall.”

As the only defender of the Greenberg-ian position in Critical Mess, Relyea provides a necessary if annoying counterpoint to much of the rest of the debate. His is such a hard line, unwavering in its commitment to a singular (and past tense) vision of what art criticism should be, that it is necessary for the rest of the writers to qualify and hedge their push for more judgment in art criticism, lest they regress to the monomaniacal vision and singularly restrictive method that Relyea advocates.

While reading Critical Mess I kept notes in the margins, inspired by my feelings on an essay or idea. One of these, in midst of Relyea’s piece, reads “If they had replaced this essay with a soup recipe, this would be a better book.” The second, at the end of Relyea’s piece, reads “Much of this sounds similar to when Baby Boomers wax nostalgic about how the summer of '69 changed the world.” In many ways, that sentiment runs through all the essays: that there was once a “better” time, a pure time, and this small band of art critics are keepers of that faith, who may have strayed from the path but are willing to return to the flock. As a GenXer, I have lived my whole life after that “better” time, constantly reminded that I “missed it,” and I find this insulting. If art criticism is worth having, and worth working to improve, it will be done in this time, our time, and not by forcing it to fit to some nostalgic fantasy. Otherwise, we risk creating a form of discourse that is genuine and contemporary as that “retro” 1950s diner in the mall.

Part III: Kingdoms, or lack thereof

Many of the writers in Critical Mess work hard to define their approach and methods for art criticism. In some ways, this is the most fascinating part of the book; it would be a great service to the art community to collect these expositions in a single place for easy reference, so that anyone reading these critics can know what to expect.

Jerry Salz sets himself up as the voice of the everyman, and reminds us of his days when he “stopped painting and became a long-distance truck driver. My C.B. handle was “The Jewish Cowboy.” I taught myself art criticism by reading it in art magazines; this was in the 1980s so it meant I didn’t understand most of what I read.”

As a position, this is a pretty good one. Considering the art critic as the filter for the audience to experience the work, one needs to identify with the critic in some way. Salz manages to get “Jewish”, “cowboy”, “trucker” and “painting” all in the same sentence. The criticism that Salz practices is summed up when he writes “I am interested in criticism that takes a forceful position, challenges lore and received wisdom, is personal, isn’t afraid of extreme points of view or animus, but that does this with responsibility, critical rigor and credibility.”

Arthur Danto, on the other hand, sees judgment as unnecessary, and education as his role. For him, “the fact that an artist’s work has been selected for a museum exhibition (…) is evidence that a number of individuals, who have undergone training and acquired the experience that entitles them to make such decisions, have come to the shared conclusion that the work merits display, and that the public will benefit in various ways by seeing the work in this format.”

This form of art writing, of which Danto is the undisputed king, is predicated on the notion that the critic does not debate or consider value, but merely discusses the qualities of work that has already been deemed “important” by some outside force. This comes up in many of the essays in Critical Mess, when authors complain that critics have ceded too much power to curators (or curator/critics) – and they then turn their blame on Dave Hickey (and “others” – although only Hickey is mentioned by name) for taking the authoritative control once assumed by critics and usurping it for curators. Danto’s stand is that it is okay for these curators to have that power, since he doesn’t want it anyway; having work pre-declared “important” frees him to write more general pieces. “I get to write perhaps ten pieces a year,” he explains, “and my essays are about three thousand words in length. My criterion for choosing a subject is a judgment that it has a certain cultural importance, not just for the art world, but for everyone, since The Nation is not an art magazine, and its mission is to help readers think about issues of great immediate moment.”

Peter Plagens takes a different approach and tries to define the three types of art critics he perceives. This is some of the most interesting writing in the book, because Plagens is one of the only writers not in attack mode or defensive about their turf, and he makes amusing categories rather than calling out specific writers and their techniques.

Plagens’ categories of art critics “come in three types: goalies, cartographers, and evangelists. Goalies – most often reviewers for the popular press – play “defense,” preventing undeserving art from being considered good. (…) Cartographers are apparently more permissive; they want to make the art landscape more intelligible. (…) (E)vangelists: they are advocates proselytizing on behalf of artists they consider deserving. In the heyday of modern art, the evangelist fought for work that was in danger of being too advanced, too far-out, too shocking to succeed outside the garret.”

Plagens’ piece comes at the end of Critical Mess, and seems almost a challenge to go back through the book and try to classify the writers. Danto and Salz: cartographers. Relyea, Rubinstein and Siegal: goalies. Elkins may well be an evangelist, but not for art but art criticism itself.

Part IV: Secret Handshake

If Critical Mess is the only record of contemporary art criticism to survive some future holocaust, later generations will be led to assume that we only had the critics in this book and all they did was snipe at each other. Since Rubinstein’s “A Quiet Crisis” essay was the inspiration for this collection, it also seems to have been a requirement that each writer mention it at least once. This, along with the fact that there are only a few major art critics to be found in our vast landscape of print media, lends the book a feeling that we (the non-art-critics) are not a part of the club. Salz complains about Relyea, who in turn complains back. Elkins cites Danto, Danto gripes about Elkins, etcetera ad nauseum. The crisis in art criticism, it sometimes appears, would be how difficult it must be for these people to get along at cocktail parties.

As a discussion of the state of art criticism, it is expected and necessary that all of the major figures be represented. It is even understandable that, as they sort out the nature of their practice, they will point to each other’s work. What is missing, ultimately, is any sense that anything is being accomplished. Those who might have offered a counterpoint to the arguments of Critical Mess are not given a chance to respond. Dave Hickey is the most obvious example, since he is mentioned by more than one writer, but many others are cited as examples of “problems” and not given voice. Critical Mess is tailored to one set of questions, in defiance of some glaringly obvious alternatives.

Katy Siegal’s essay “We Are All Critics” seemed like it was going to be a bit of fresh air, discussing the notion that any art viewer is their own critic, but quickly her piece turned masturbatory and obnoxious, re-enforcing the idea that we are NOT all critics. Complaining that Rubinstein snubbed her in his essay, she asks in parentheses “Is ArtForum an obscure publication?” At this point I wrote “Fuck her” in the margins and it took several days to return to the book.

Critical Mess is a great read, but one is left with the understanding that art critics are “important” and that even the “outsiders” among them are really insiders, and that it is up to the members of the secret club to sort things out for themselves. Thomas McEvilley, whose piece is an edited version of a speech he gave at an AICA conference in 1994, clearly illustrates how “outside” is the new “inside”:

"So, to conclude, fundamentally, I thought this conference in which art critics barely mentioned art or art criticism was on the right track and that might even be enough to induce me to join this organization someday."

Part V: What’s Missing?

It’s hard not to notice that there are a few things missing in “Critical Mess.” A short list might include art critics who are not top-tier, artists who are not universally acclaimed, and alternatives to the mainstream print outlets for distribution. Other than Elkins, no writer addresses the audience for art criticism.

Perhaps this is because, very often, all of these things are actually the same thing: artists acting as critics of their peers and finding new ways to engage a concerned audience. Feel free to roll your eyes and point out that Matt is on his rant about community and local engagement again, but it seems to me that the most important, and potent, form of criticism comes from peers rather than distant authorities making declarations based on their own unstated standards. Peer pressure and peer support combine to create and build a community, not the remote critic who shows up at the end of the day to nod ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the final result.

Lane Relyea may be a famous critic with a strong voice, but I think it’s fair to say that any critic that can write the following statement will not be open to engaging contemporary work, no matter how relevant or successful it might be:

“It’s also hard not to feel that too much recent art finds its perfect complement in the depressing state to which criticism has fallen. All those idiosyncratic, hip readymades, all the thrift-store painting, all the pseudo-architecture and wannabe design, all the fashionable conversation nooks, all the knowing amateurishness – art that’s oh-so institutionally skeptical but also oh-so mysterious, that grimaces within an artworld apparatus it seems overly conscious of while at the same time demanding the glamour of its spotlight. It’s artwork that also can’t ask much more but that art criticism tell it that it’s deep, or at least that criticism help increase its market share, and yet then acts disappointed that criticism is incapable of doing anything more.”

What has happened in the face of a growing art market, and an expanded interest in discourse surrounding art, is that many artists and supporters have abandoned the narrow focus of mainstream art criticism for alternative venues. This often means the internet, although it has also found voice in local newspapers and magazines, academic conferences and panels, large-scale events and other forms of discussion that do not consider the authoritative critical voice the most important to appease.

The very fact that Critical Mess avoids talk of artists and their audience implies that the critical structure wants to be removed from the actual day-to-day creation and conversations of work; critics, it seems, should show up at the end and approve or disapprove, declare what is right or wrong with art, and then leave until the next show. The very idea that involvement in, or engagement with, the larger art community might actually help critics and their audience is discarded as unpleasant. Only McEvilley, the “outsider,” has any interest in stating the obvious:

“If we want the rest of the cultural world to even begin to take our discourse seriously, we’ve got to demystify it from all of this insane romantic priestly power-tripping.”

In many ways, this is already happening, just not among the people who are famous for being art critics. Blogs and online journals, written by artists or those who care about art, are creating conversations that not only “demystify” criticism but openly encourage their audience to become a part of it. Far from shouting down to the masses from a pulpit, the new form of criticism is passed in whispers among the crowd; the Critical Mess is not that the peasants are no longer begging the critic Pharisees for bread, but that they are feeding themselves and proud to do so.

There are only two mentions of the internet in Critical Mess, and neither is in relation to online criticism or blogging. Elkins refers to the silence and lack of discourse among some online art forums; and within a quoted statement by a Whitney director in Rubinstein’s piece, in which “targeted email” is one of many new forms of promotion for museums. All of this suggests that art critics in print do not consider the internet a place for their craft, only promotion. That the publisher sent review copies of this book to many online publications is not mentioned.

Part VI: The Book Report

Critical Mess contains a wide variety of insights into the state and relevance of art criticism at the end of the twentieth and the start of the twenty-first centuries. Within this group of voices are advocates for several positions related to the evolution of the practice, ranging from an extremely conservative regression to the past power of Clement Greenberg and his peers, to a move forward into the pluralistic and international form that art practice and exhibition has become.

Very few writers suffer the delusion that art criticism would be a necessary form even if there were no art; although a few, such as Relyea, seem more interested in their own agendas rather than anything that is hung on a gallery or museum wall. Others, such as Danto, might not actually be art critics at all, but rather “art describers” who assume that importance is bestowed by others, and thus an irrelevant concern.

Critical Mess ignores some of the most important and revolutionary aspects of contemporary art criticism, including the rise of the artist-critic and the relevance of blogs and online sources. Beyond the big name critics, there are many others who care, and who write, that seek any outlet they can for their ideas. The fact that several of these have risen to national and international acclaim is proof of their timeliness, if not their importance, and for a book such as this to ignore them is a shame.

Overall, Critical Mess is a must-read for anyone who cares about contemporary art and art criticism. It is frustrating, certainly, and often condescending. Still, it illuminates the wide array of ideas concerning contemporary discourse and forces a reader to make decisions and choose sides; it is impossible to agree with both Relyea and Charlesworth at the same time. Critical Mess does what I expect from the best of writing: it makes me mad, it makes me think, and it provokes me to act. That my actions may be ignored or looked down upon by the writers of Critical Mess is of no concern; a “crisis” for one is an “opportunity” for another.

[1] - Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, Bantam Books, 1976. pp 118-9.

All other quoted text in this article from Critical Mess: Art Critics On The State Of Their Practice, edited by Raphael Rubinstein, Hard Press Editions, 2006. Essay titles, original publication dates and copyright information can be found in this publication.

Critical Mess: Art Critics On The State Of Their Practice
edited by Raphael Rubinstein
Hard Press Editions

Essays by: James Elkins, Thomas McEvilley, Jerry Salz, Raphael Rubinstein, Katy Siegel, Lane Relyea, Arthur C. Danto, JJ Charlesworth, Nancy Princenthal, Carter Ratcliff, Eleanor Heartney, Michael Duncan and Peter Plagens.

Charles Giuliano takes on Critical Mess twice at Maverick-Arts: Part One & Part Two


About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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