What Crisis? Some Promising Futures for Art Criticism
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. As former Voice critic Jerry Saltz pointed out a few years ago, no one's further from the epicenter of action at an art fair—the recent boom market's vehicle of choice—than a critic. Art fairs, Saltz wrote, made him feel "existentially adrift."
Besides, art writing already experienced its own sort of crash. 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.
One of the writers who has paved the way is Chris Kraus, whose books Aliens & Anorexia (2000), Video Green (2004), and Torpor (2006) mix disparate kinds of writing. (Her I Love Dick, which chronicled her obsession—or, more likely, fictional obsession—with cultural-studies figurehead Dick Hebdige, was a cult hit in the late '90s.) When Kraus won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism last year—a prize given by the College Art Association that usually goes to more "traditional" art writers and critics (Greenberg, Rosenberg, Robert Hughes, Arthur Danto, Roberta Smith)—it seemed to signal a shift in what art criticism could be. Because, while Kraus's writing combines biography, autobiography, criticism, theory, history, and Joan Didion–esque journalism, she often identifies it not only with fiction, but as fiction.
Earlier art critics and historians cited fiction as a primary influence: Leo Steinberg described James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as "the pabulum of my teens." But since the '60s and '70s, art writers have been mostly under the sway of critical theory and are often hostile to fiction. (I experienced this personally when I was in a graduate program in art history, studying with a professor who wrote in her first book that her students read theory, not fiction.)
Other forces have helped shape a more laissez-faire climate for art writing. Art blogs have created a new, largely unedited, admirably "unprofessional"—hence, democratic—venue for people to speak their minds, gossip, or theorize about art. (Edward Winkleman's blog, edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com, provides a comprehensive list of links that also demonstrates how relatively cooperative and uncompetitive the blogosphere is, compared to other art writing venues.) Journals like Cabinet blur the boundaries between academic writing, journalism, fiction, and other forms.
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.
Another bellwether of changing modes in art writing is a book like Saul Anton's Warhol's Dream (2007), which also combines art theory with fiction. Its premise is an imaginary conversation between Warhol and Smithson that starts in Warhol's favorite diner on the corner of Madison and 37th Street and ambles through a vacant, entropic/post-apocalyptic-feeling New York. What's interesting is that Anton, a former Artforum.com editor currently working on a dissertation on Denis Diderot—often considered the father of art criticism—took his cues from artists, mimicking Andy and "Bob's" voices rather than the discourse of academia or "straight" art writing.
Anton is also taking cues from Diderot, however, which makes you wonder if the "crisis in criticism" hasn't opened things up by driving us back to our origins, which were considerably more eclectic and heteroglossic than most 20th-century art criticism. After all, Diderot was writing criticism—or some version of it (his bimonthly newsletter was circulated privately to subscribers like Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia) in the 18th century. At the same time, the novel was being test-driven by writers like Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy serves as a kind of proto-meta-novel (or, to quote Michael Winterbottom's rogue 2005 film adaptation, "postmodern before there was any modern to be post about").
Or maybe with all of these developments, we're entering a new phase of postmodernism, of what art historian Rosalind Krauss termed "paraliterature" to describe writing that blurs the distinction between literature and criticism. Even better, what if art writing, which has weathered its own "crisis" and is exhibiting the rumblings of reinvention, serves as a harbinger for art itself? After all, when the market and everyone else has given up on you, that's often when things get interesting.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.