Art: Appraising Passions

This is Peter Schjeldahl’s first column as the Voice’s senior art critic.


Appraising Passions
January 7, 1981

More is happening in American art right now than ever before. There is more of everything and of everybody, including critics. There is more public interest and much more money — not necessarily in that order. There is a lot of confusion, fatigue, hysteria, cynicism, and paranoia. Sometimes I wonder how anyone in the vicinity stays sane. There is something faintly unwholesome — heavily made-up and neon-lit-about the scene, but it is very exciting.

Today anything, though of course not everybody, sells, and the effect on our experience of art is retroactive. Laid out and organized by the scholars and curators, the modern canon has become a vast and teeming bazaar. The recent succession of historical exhibitions has been wonderful: Picasso, Post-Impressionism, the Russian avant-garde of 1910–1930, Expressionism, Hopper, on and on. We have the effects of a frantic art market to thank for much of this revivalism. Thanks, market.

Modern art history has ceased to represent a road traveled, and has come to seem an encircling panorama. All of it is available, ripe, ours. (There is a tendency to feel a little oppressed and guilty, a little unworthy of it, hence resentful, flip.) The phrase “Post-Modern,” which everyone hates and uses compulsively, expresses the almost metaphysical strangeness of our time. It connotes “post-present.” If something travels faster than light, where is it? Or, rather, when is it? The feeling today is a bit like that. We have this inkling of a historical momentum that at some point — whoops! — outdistanced history.

The writing of Robert Smithson, who died in a plane crash at age 35 in 1973 on the site of one of his Earthworks, are indispensable in trying to think about all this. Polemicist for Minimalism, science-fiction addict, mystifier and prophet, he used the phrase “post-modernism” in the late ’60s, rhapsodized about pluralism and cosmic entropy, “crystalline” as opposed to “linear” history, and an aesthetic of waste, sediment, and ruin. He had already made himself deliriously at home in the post-historical house of mirrors we have all come to inhabit, trying not to fall down out of sheer disorientation.

As corporate capitalism becomes more enveloping, rationalized, and sterile, art is increasingly vested with the function of representing the repressed, factored-out, amputated life of the emotions, the thwarted — and dangerous when thwarted — sum of the sexual and survival instincts that Freud called Eros. Mere evidence of the human hand, a mere brushstroke, glows today with talismanic intensity. All sorts of people respond reflexively to such things, corporate capitalists no less needy and responsive than anyone else. The art that holds this charge is speedily bought and sold, plunged into the originally offending medium of money like hot metal into ice water. No wonder our vision gets steamed over.

Dealers run the show today. There are more good dealers and they are more influential, as well as richer, than ever before. Dispensers to artists of the erotic warmth of acceptance and, figuratively, love-money, and dispensers to the world of the commodity that is Eros objectified, dealers are smack at the crossroads of contradiction. To think of them is to imagine a flicker of images — angel and monster, the best and the worst. To think too long and hard is to risk throwing up.

Beneath hip veneers, many journalistic art critics today are testy, defensive, and carping. This may be because they are beset from without by hordes of the recognition-starved (one’s mail some mornings is like a nest of open-mouthed baby birds) and from within by a haunted sense of their own powerlessness. Such purposeful power as critics used to have disappeared with the time-lag between the appearance of something new and its acceptance, a transition that dealers manage now seemingly in a matter of hours. The artworldly function of critics has become largely cere­monial: after-dinner speakers at the vic­tory party. Thus critics tend to dig in their heels.

The average piece of bad criticism a decade ago cozied up to some rising artist or art idea and implied that anyone who couldn’t see the critic’s jargon as a form of higher common sense was an idiot. The average piece of bad criticism today reads like something from Consumer Reports. The art is tested; its tires are kicked. Pretensions to importance are attributed, inspected, and dismissed. The critic glories in remaining unmoved: “Ha ha, you missed me!” More artists hate — really hate — more critics today than ever before.

I’m talking here about relatively young critics, in the same generation as today’s emerging artists. They are filling a vacuum left by art writers of my generation (I’m 38) and the preceding one, many of whom have quit journalism, victims of the rate and directions of change — honorable victims often, heartsick at the eclipse of much they cared about and the triumph of much they despise. The newer critics are the progeny of a new semi-educated middle-class audience that repels the older critics. This audience has some vir­tues, including an influential appreciation of clarity and style in criticism. Its vices, faithfully mirrored by many critics, include laziness, voyeurism, cynicism, and envy.

This has been coming for a long time. In 1975 I left the Sunday Times Arts and Leisure section after years of regular contributing because, as the new editor explained to me, “heavy criticism” was being de-emphasized. I still had a job if I wanted it. “There’s a big future in this business,” my amazed ears heard him saying, “for a young man who will be an investigative reporter in the art world.” Maybe with the same speech, the editor got someone else to write a prying but toothless piece on Castelli, which I believe exhausted the idea. At about the same time, Tom Wolfe’s incredibly misinformed The Painted Word was a best-seller.

The art world, with its traditions of personal dealing and secrecy, its intimidating spaces, and its dizzying mixture of ineffable values and effable bucks, rouses anxieties that are allayed by suspicions of cabal. The main fact missed by “outsiders” is not that the “inside” is an assembly of angels, but that the inside does not exist. The art world is a balkanized anarchy, with lots of little insides, lots of little games, better and worse people, hierophants and hustlers. Meanwhile there is art, available to anyone who has a personal use for it. Love of and hope for art are the only solid ground in this swampy, fecund craziness.

Nothing in today’s torrent of art seems great and epochal, but how could it? The historical sense that underlay avant-garde greatness, replacing the social agreements of pre-“modern” times, is gone, and nothing replaces it. We are obliged to remake from scratch the foundations of our taste, as of our politics and our very lives. Old ways of judging linger as unexamined habits, comforting defenses against the recognition of our common lostness. Thus defended, one is deprived of the com­pensatory joy of current liberty and prof­usion. I want to affirm these values, so costly to everyone’s peace of mind, and to encourage others who affirm them, too. ■