Friday, May 02, 2008

The Kindness of Critics : Open Thread

OK, so this one rambles around like a drunken butterfly, but I'll offer it anyway:

There's an
ongoing debate on the Guardian's art blog as to whether artists and critics can be friends. It seems to have begun with Jonathan Jones's post "Did someone mention courtiers?"
Can artists and critics ever be friends? It might be different for music or film critics but for an art critic in Britain in the 21st century it has become an urgent question: critics have become so close to artists, they practically do their laundry.
Jones notes how Giorgio Vasari, "a devoted friend of Michelangelo," wrote about his and other artists' work and lives and how the "British surrealist Roland Penrose was a friend of Picasso and Miró - his biographies of them glow with affection."

He then goes on to note something I hear frequently (although it doesn't seem to be as applicable to my gallery as much as folks seem to think it is across the board):
[C]riticism of contemporary art has become incredibly mealy mouthed. Hell, even Vasari wrote bad reviews.
Jones does some serious self-reflection in this post as well, citing how he learned "the hard way" not to become close to an artist he was going to review:
I once spent several months observing the work of an artist I admired. I'd written a catalogue essay for him, and was invited to watch him at work on his latest, most ambitious project. It certainly felt more trusting and revelatory than merely interviewing him, and it was great to be casually accepted into the studio, to feel involved with the creation of a work of art. [...]

I wrote my piece, full of enthusiasm, and went to the private view... and the finished work struck me as astonishingly empty, even though it has been enthusiastically reviewed by most critics. Was I corrupt when I liked it in the studio, or corrupted into disliking it by my later self-disgust at being a suck-up? For me, writing about art is an honest examination of response. Does it really work? Is it really powerful? These questions seem worth asking in a culture saturated with art. This is a great time to be an art critic, with so many bloated reputations to puncture. All that is stopping us is friendship.
OK, so that's a pretty good example of why a critic might want to be careful how close they get to an artist, but it hardly serves as the last word (not as long as I have a keyboard). What about a more seasoned critic, with more control over their emotions throughout the entire research process, like Vasari. Should the same rules apply? And what (asks the gallerist) about becoming friendly with artists' galleries? Where is the line there?

I thought of this all this morning, reading a review in The New York Times by Ken Johnson. I want to phrase this carefully because I don't want to even remotely suggest what Jones described is what Johnson has done here. I present the Jones excerpts merely as context for the follow-up discussion (in other words, stay with me folks, I'll get to my point). What caught my attention in the Johnson review, though, was this:
After 12 years as one of Chelsea’s most consistently interesting showcases for younger artists, Clementine is, sadly, closing.
There's a lot to discuss in that short sentence, I know, but let me first echo Ken's sentiment that Clementine's closing is indeed sad. When I first began making the rounds at galleries after moving to New York, Abby and Elizabeth's space was one of the first that I became really excited about. Their "Son of a Guston" exhibition (curated by Nina Bovasso in 1998) remains my prime example for how an exhibition can connect contemporary art to its referents without minimizing the newer work. That show was awesome. And Clementine's generosity and innovation with the Art Rock exhibitions at Rockefeller Center (my Lord how we danced at that first after party) was an inspiration to me that I am still benefiting from and can't thank them enough for.

But before I get all maudlin here, let me back up and refocus on the fact that so much of the debate about objectivity and avoiding conflicts of interests among critics that we've been having lately has rung hollow for me. I wasn't sure why though until I read Ken's statement. It boils down to this idea: how could a critic we expect to be sensitive enough to respond to work and offer meaningful insights not also notice the ups and downs of a young gallery and not feel sad if they decide to close? How could they not feel friendly toward an artist they visited in researching for a catalog essay if they clicked?

Maybe the question of "friendship" or closeness or cold-hard objectivity about relationships is a red herring here. Maybe too much emphasis on its importance sets up a false consciousness in the mind of the critic. Maybe it only serves to dull the openness with which a critic approaches the work in a space or by a particular artist. I mean, I honestly think I might have noticed if the word "sadly" had not been included in that sentence. Its omission would have been distracting. Indeed, the review became so much more real to me because it did include the word "sadly." I immediately connected with it, it opened my mind up more, and in my opinion the entire piece did the work criticism is supposed to do better because of its inclusion.

And if we allow that a critic can feel sad that a gallery closes, how far are we from allowing that a critic can like an artist? Enjoy a studio visit or cup of coffee with that artist? Accept an invitation to that artist's after party? If Vasari could devote the years it took to write his "Lives" and still pan the work of his subjects (some of them close friends) on occasion, why are we so rigid about the line between critics and artists or critics and galleries today?

The crux of this question is an allowance of kindness to my mind. By insisting on a division of interactions, to ensure objectivity, there becomes less opportunity for kind feelings to develop. I can understand where that's that point and goal for some, but it seems to me a bit counter-intuitive and, if you seek good criticism, counter-productive. I mean, again, we gain the most from critics who are sensitive enough to perceive strongly. Asking them to shut off those powers when they would lead to feeling kindly toward someone seems artificial and weakens the end result. The Times could have edited out "sadly" (and just reported the closing matter-of-factly) but then, again, I would have been distracted by its omission (I would have felt the artificial coldness of that edit) and not really read the rest of the review.

Criticism, after all, is one of the humanities. It doesn't make sense to me to draw lines so rigid between the critic and his/her subject that the process becomes artificially inhumane. A critic should be able to write,"I really love Artist X (he makes a mean martini), but Wow, did he stink up the joint in that last show." OK, so perhaps I shouldn't venture into art criticism, but my point is that a disclosure like that would only enhance the openness with which I approached the critique that followed. There's something much more suspect in the forcefully objective approach to criticism. My alarm bells go off much more when I can't feel the humanity/voice of the writer.

OK, so I warned you this one rambled. And we have been all over this topic in recent weeks. Consider this an open thread on anything of your choosing.

Labels:

110 Comments:

Anonymous pedro velez said...

How was Chicago?!

5/02/2008 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Bambino has been crazy busy since we got back but promises to do a SEE and Be SEEN round-up soon.

We made some money, not tons, but enough to make it worth the trip, and met some wonderful new people and curators (which is invaluable actually). Others were struggling to break even and I've heard some galleries sold nothing at all. The reports of "sluggish" sales seem accurate.

5/02/2008 09:44:00 AM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Jerry Saltz has said quite clearly that he will not write about artists he knows personally. Of course the definition of "friend" is important, but he made the statement pretty strenuously, so I assume he draws the line quite strictly.

I think there's a difference between being biased toward an artist or a gallery (which would let someone use a word like "sadly"), and being a friend of an artist or gallerist. I have been positively-biased toward plenty of artists and galleries, but then seen works or exhibitions that I felt didn't meet the standard of their previous work. I didn't have a problem saying "Favorite Artist didn't do such a good job with this piece," or "Favorite Gallery didn't put up such a great show last week."

But when you know an artist or a gallerist personally, you may feel like you should make a better effort to understand where they're coming from, or else maintain a dignified silence (the "grandma rule" -- and as we all know, there's a lot of "dignified silence" in the art world).

So I think it's possible to distinguish between having a positive bias, which allows you to use words like "sadly," but doesn't stop you from saying things like "they missed the target with their latest work"; and having a friendship, which will almost certainly preclude you from making any negative comments whatsoever.

5/02/2008 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

having a friendship, which will almost certainly preclude you from making any negative comments whatsoever.

But that's where I think we've gone wrong somehow since Vasari. It's not easy, I'll admit, but I will tell artists friends of mine when I think they're off on the wrong path or bluntly say "I don't think you did what you set out to on this one." I consider it a difficult, but important, obligation of friendship.

5/02/2008 10:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is like political commentators who work on a campaign talking on air about the overall race. I don't mind this if the connection is made public. So if an art critic mentions a previous connection with an artist, then the reader can determine the degree of objectivity.

As for negative reviews, there are so many wonderful shows out there, why would any writer want to do a negative one? Unless it's a collapse of a major talent, why bother? Sometimes I feel that adding little snide comments is just a pathetic way for critics to pretend to be superior to the artist.

5/02/2008 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Why pretend that the "art world" is not a small place? Everyone DOES know each other.

On another note: can you explain how your Recent Comments selection. They rarerly seem to change.

5/02/2008 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The "Recent Comments" feature seems to work differently in different browsers and operating systems. I like it, but have noticed that in IE on a MAC it does them alphabetically or something wierd. In Firefox, they seem to be more reliable.

5/02/2008 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

A very well known art historian, several books behind her, told me that she had been invited to write for the NYT but she refused because she was a friend of too many artists and didn't want to lose their friendship. It's been my experience that artists are very grateful for the appearance of someone who dialogues well with their work, but are at the same time guarded in such a way that friendship doesn't easily arise out of this experience. And critics are likely to be very guarded as well. In social situations I have literally had artists turn their back on me when I am introduced as a critic, the social field closes down and becomes one of professional hostilities that prevent further interest, and at least in my experience of it, this has always come from the artists side of the handshake.

On the other hand, if you are standing behind an artist's work over time, there is a comraderie that naturally builds and this can be quite rewarding. I would add, however, that Ed's comment about negative criticism is apt, but there is a difference between writing that in Artforum and saying it to a friend. Artists can be really good at carrying a grudge.

Whatever professional distance exists, it is in the protection of what can be a deeply emotional situation.

5/02/2008 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Catherine,
Who are these odd artists who turn their backs on you when you are introduced as a critic? And this has happened more than once? I would think it would be the opposite, that they would try to suck up to you.

I'm primarily an artist but when I started doing a little art writing, many artists were not subtle in expressing their increased interest in me. I don't mean to imply that I was unpopular before, but once people realized that I was in a position to give them some press, they were all over me. It was almost pathetic in some cases.

Oriane

5/02/2008 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

This post tacitly describes the situation of Christian Viveros-Faune, and I don't think people sufficiently appreciate that he sinned as a writer not by conflict of interest but by his astonishingly glib attitude toward the possibility of conflict of interest. As he put it to Tyler Green, "I no longer sell art work to anyone, which in my mind takes me out of the area of real conflict, period." But doing so second-hand still presented significant problems for his credibility. He never seemed to grasp this, and that lack of insight undermines the sense of honest witness in his work.

And I prefer "sense of honest witness" to "objectivity." The former makes room for freindship, preferences, and quirks of taste. One rightly suspects animosity more than friendship, but honest witness can make a bit of room for that as well. In the case of some writers, I might add, even full disclosure doesn't dispell the musty atmosphere of compromised judgment. They might use objectivity as an ethical standard, but writers have to cultivate a sense of witness as an aspect of their craft.

@Oraine: When I started writing my artist friends treated me just the same. Museum people, however, and to a lesser extent gallery people, immediately changed my status from persona non grata to person of interest. Only simple manners stopped me from telling them to go play in traffic.

5/02/2008 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Edward, Would you criticize a friend by writing an article in the New York Times or ArtForum? Or would you tell them discreetly about your concerns in private? If you would publish, would you feel obliged to talk to your friend before publication? The connection to a subject always affects the publication of a criticism. I don't think this can be avoided.

5/02/2008 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I'm with Edward and Franklin on this. It's a fact of human nature that knowing someone personally causes you to take a closer and more nuanced look at what they do than if you just randomly encountered it, particularly in the sea of images we live in. In fact, it's been proven that when, say, a Luc Tuymans is encountered in the street, or Joshua Bell plays in the subway station, the vast majority of people don't even notice it. So how is critical 'objectivity' assisting in true understanding of art at all?

I don't think there's any such thing as an objective judgment. Either critics decide to actually look at the work, really look, in which case friendship can be a motivating factor to do so, or else they don't.

5/02/2008 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous sharonA said...

I suppose this was said in a different way before, but it seems sad to me that we would expect those who write about art and things that make us feel to be expected to not feel themselves. I sort of want critics to be impassioned, rather than cold and analytical. Not harshly opinionated, per se (this is good/right, that is bad/wrong) but certainly inspired.

Either critics decide to actually look at the work, really look, in which case friendship can be a motivating factor to do so, or else they don't.

Well said, Pretty Lady!

5/02/2008 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Would you criticize a friend by writing an article in the New York Times or ArtForum? Or would you tell them discreetly about your concerns in private?

Back when I was doing the "Artist of the Week" posts (when I had more time), I frequently offered some negative criticism of those artists' work (many of whom are friends of mine). I know it's not the profile of NTY or AF, but I do feel it's more convincing when I praise certain aspects of a friend's work if I also point out what I find lacking.

5/02/2008 12:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Franklin,

In your link to the Washington Post article, are you referring to the writer's disclosure that his wife teaches at the same school as the artist he is writing about, or to the artist and her appropriation of another artist's work? I'm a little confused.

I agree that there is no such thing as true objectivity. And the whole conflict of interest thing, not just the possible appearance of it for credibility's sake, but the personal reality of it, is one of the things that make me feel uncomfortable writing reviews of other artists' work. I have only written one review, and that was on assignment from an editor. I prefer to do interviews.

Also, Flankrin, they say there's no such thing as bad press, as long as they spell your name right!

ORIANE

ps Artists who were already my friends didn't treat me any differently; I was referring to artists who who were being introduced to me for the first time, as a writer.

5/02/2008 12:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Goddammit! Sorry, Oriane.

I was referring to Gopnik's disclosure about his wife. It turns out that the rabbit hole went down quite a bit farther. The review itself, on top of it, was moronic.

5/02/2008 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Flank (can we have nicknames?),
That is an interesting situation in Baltimore - thanks for bringing it to our attention. And it's true that Gopnik gives his wife's pal more than the benefit of the doubt. Especially unsubtle was his last sentence, pitting the

"tasteful, Oberesque good looks" against the "hard-hitting Baileyan brains".

Olianne

5/02/2008 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

To answer Oriane's question, I was responding to Ed's post by describing a purely social situation in which what I do is at first unknown. Let's say that an artist sees me at a party, thinks, "Oh, that person looks really interesting," and on a purely personal level would like to say hello. But upon introduction (if they haven't asked somebody else first) personal interest can evaporate. This has happened more than once.

If they approach me with the knowledge beforehand, of course, the attitude is quite different. But it is not exactly seeking the intimacy of friendship, and this in return is why critics need to be guarded. Cultural parasites exist on both sides of the equation. Hesitancy or quick withdrawal on my side is likely to occur, as I tend to work on the basis of anonymity and what I have discovered myself. I'll admit that I am freakishly guarded in this way, and have even been accused of not living up to my responsibility as a critic to "help build the scene" by being more social. But it is unlikely that I would ever become a fixture at openings.

I have seen really good friendships develop over time to produce strong collaborative efforts, such as exhibitions co-curated by a critic and an artist, for example. It comes from the work, and how that brings people together in a quite powerful form of intimacy. That's where you're going to find me.

5/02/2008 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

That Ober/Bailey story makes me BOIL. There's a word for what Bailey is doing; that word is TACKY. It is TACKY and CHEAP to copy another artist's style of work without referencing that artist, then declare in retrospect that this is 'a conceptual piece that questions notions of authorship.' It is rude, parasitic, vulgar, and baselessly condescending.

It is even tackier to write a serious review, giving public legitimacy to this action, on behalf of a friend of your wife's. As if the act of copying without permission or credit were somehow intellectually superior to just making your own freakin' art. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

5/02/2008 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Gopnik's writing never impressed me as insightfull when I read it but that was a while ago, and I was going on the idea that if it;s fit to print maye I should read it.

I too decry the incestuous nature of the art world, and have cultivated a dissaciative sensibility - one that alows me to write with the clear head of a vivisectionist (no time to indulge I'm afraid).

Anyways, what does an artist need in a critic anyways? A thumb to suck? That.

Get the lead out bitchez. If you got it flaunt it. If you don;t, move out of New York, you are breathing my air.

5/02/2008 01:54:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...

I think the Ober/Bailey thing is really interesting; here are two artists competing at the same career level more or less, in the same locale and market. One is producing a kind of collage work well w/in the genre, the other is an appropriationist who's mechanism is conceptual, whose real subject hovers around the issue of originality and appearances, etc., or something of that sort. One problem - from a legal standpoint - resides in whether the bailey work usurps the ober market because the market itself cannot distinguish between the collage work on its face, and the conceptual/appropriation work. (ie: they appear to be "the same"). In fact, the works have nothing to do with each other except in terms of their surface-level appearance (a bailey point). Forget the critics for a moment: if the market is unable to distinguish between the two genres, does it really matter that they have completely different underlying ideas/concepts? (ie: how much should the short-sightedness of an audience/market determine the value of a work, or feed into what some feel is a transgression for that matter?).

5/02/2008 03:12:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

I would never hesitate to write about a friend and have made a couple of friends by writing about them.

I have also been accused, once, of sucking up to a gallery by writing criticism of work in the gallery. And I have received a small handful of unproductive communications from artists with hurt feelings.

I have been told more than once that I am going to hurt my career as an artist by writing criticism. It creates distance between yourself and your peers, and opens you up to accusations of Sour Grapes, folks say.

But you know, I think that's conflating honesty and objectivity. I respect my friends and I respect any artist that has made something that is interesting enough to actually write about. I respect them enough to subject them to honest criticism, which is a gift if done thoughtfully. Even when it's not "positive."

I like being a critic because it's a writing form that doesn't just showcase honest observation. As a form, it actively punishes dishonesty.

5/02/2008 03:18:00 PM  
Anonymous gavin said...

can a critic be a champion to an artist now? One doesn't have to be a friend to hold this position, but friendship can't hurt. It may be that a critic who likes an artists work, wants to see that artist succeed, and is a friend of that artist would not support them in print.
If they believe in the work they will discuss it with others in their field.

5/02/2008 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I seem to piss people off just by existing. And by being loud, arrogant, and ignorant, which are really just part of breathing for me. So I can write about friends, but they probably won't stay friends for long.

But you weren't talking about losers like me anyhow. You meant, like, real writers.

5/02/2008 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, you could write a book:
"How to Lose Friends and Not Influence People"

Just kidding. Even though you're loud, arrogant and ignorant and you do piss people off, I'm still your friend.

O

5/02/2008 05:56:00 PM  
Blogger Soraya Marcano said...

there is the possibility of blurring definitions, an looking at the critic- artist as a form of collaboration or cross fertilization.

After all, Giorgio Vasari was a biographer, painter and architect.

5/02/2008 06:38:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

You haven't pissed me off, yet, Chris, but then I'm someone who has a visceral, intuitive understanding of why Obama was so close to Wright for so many years. We empaths respond, not to overtly offensive comments, but to the woundedness underlying those comments.

;-) :-P

5/02/2008 06:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joy, If one person wrote a novel and another copied that novel verbatim and published it, would the discerning reader be able to tell the difference? Shift the discussion into any other medium and it's theft. George Harrison got nailed for using a melody in one of his songs written by someone else......

5/03/2008 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Joy, my feeling on the Ober/Bailey thing is, yes, Bailey is a thief and a fraud; but if Ober's art is so easily faked that people can't tell the difference without reading Bailey's manifesto, then Ober deserves what she gets.

5/03/2008 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Ed,

welcome back, and thanks for this tasty topic.

The questions and problems faced by a critic/artist or the relationships between said is a constant conundrum. I’m a practicing painter and have been for over thirty years. I’ve writing hundreds of published reviews, interviews, essays, catalog blurbs etc. yet I still have a problem with the notion of being a “critic”. One of the reasons I use a pseudonym is to avoid being identified when I’m visiting galleries, (better they think you’re a schnook, you get a truer view of the operation)

I think one of the real points of this, and all the ancillary discussions that have gone on recently about criticism, is that the nature of criticism is in flux. The four functions of criticism, description, analysis, interpretation and judgment are morphing into other realms. The abundance of informational sources has changed the focus and the balance of power.

The questions of potential conflicts of interest are, at this point, so complex that is should render everyone with the intelligence to comment open to indictment (call in the thought-police).

Art writing, like all the media, is a market place of ideas. If we want a free and open market, then we must assume that the audience (the consumer) is smart enough to decipher from the tone of a piece whether they’ll buy the view points. It’s condescending to think the critic’s job is to be some kind of moralistic barometer for their readers. I assume anyone who takes the time to write about an artist’s work likes or respects it, whether or not they write positively or negatively. Ultimately the worst review is no review.

Personally I want someone who’s engaged with the artists, someone on the inside, knows the tics and nitty-gritty of the scene. If I sense it’s a “hard-sell”, and everyone has no doubt run into that, I tune out.

It’s also important to realize that despite what formalist critics believe, the evaluations of works are constantly changing. What was once considered good becomes mediocre, what was bad becomes great. Over time the consensus shifts, and so do the reputations of artists and critics.

5/03/2008 11:56:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

"formalist critics"

Can you name a contemporary "formalist critic" and/or tell us what that is exactly?

5/03/2008 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

ericgelber,

The idea of “contemporary” formalist critics might be an oxymoron, but Greenberg and his acolytes would qualify.

5/03/2008 04:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Greenberg died fourteen years ago. In what sense is he "contemporary"? Can you at least name some living acolytes?

5/03/2008 04:34:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

It’s also important to realize that despite what formalist critics believe, the evaluations of works are constantly changing. What was once considered good becomes mediocre, what was bad becomes great. Over time the consensus shifts, and so do the reputations of artists and critics.

How true. I happened to be reading Greenberg’s essay on Collage this morning. While his observations are apt as far as they go, they represent a view of Cubism taken from the fifties, a view couched and locked in the prevailing issues of the time. His formal concerns, flatness and the elimination of the sculptural in painting (here referring to primarily Cubism)are just not the main issue today. When we go back and look at these Cubist historical works, we aren’t thinking "flatness" etc, those issues having been burned out in the sixties. Collage is very interesting today, more for its power of content juxtaposition than for the other reasons it was first utilized for in earlier Cubist works.

I can think of no reason why ‘formalist’ issues will not mutate and change over time, rendering past observations quaintly historical. It’s just studio talk among artists, our visions and interest keep evolving.

5/03/2008 05:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Would that be "The Pasted Paper Revolution" from 1958, George?

5/03/2008 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

no, it was
http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/collage.html

5/03/2008 07:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

That essay at the link is a heavily revised version of "Pasted Paper" from 1958.

These observations are not just "apt as far as they go," they may qualify as the most cogent description in the English language of how Cubist artists manipulated space. No wonder that people are still reading it fifty years after it was first published. One would expect a work of art criticism from the late 1950s to date to some degree. One would not expect it to continue to offer so much to the present - such exquisitely careful and accurate observations of the work in question.

I just looked at some Braques up at LACMA last week, and I don't think I was "thinking 'flatness'" or much of anything else in particular. I admired their colors (Braque deserves more credit as a colorist), those crazy sandy textures, and that crushed, low-relief effect that he gets out of the rendering. Content juxtaposition? I don't remember the content except as generalized still life.

My message to anyone reading is that it continues to be valid to look at art this way. It continues to be valid to look at art in any way that correlates reliably to the work itself. So take your early 21st Century sensibilities to the museum in their vehicle, a body that reached its present general configuration a few million years ago, look closely, react honestly, and enjoy yourself. And that's your thought for the day from a contemporary formalist critic.

5/03/2008 08:14:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

kalm james:

That is why I inserted the word "contemporary" in my question. When I hear the phrase "formalist critic" I assume that the person using the phrase has Greenberg on their mind. Obviously he is not contemporary, if you define that word as meaning someone who is living now and writing art criticism now. Clearly his presence in the art world is still alive and well if you consider how many times his name still gets brought up. But that isn't what I meant. Who would be a Greenberg acolyte and what qualifies them as such? When you say formalist do you mean that the art critic is focusing on the art works being reviewed and nothing else? If one actually bothers to read Greenberg he discusses a number of different things besides the specific works of art he is reviewing, and he also wrote a number of essays on wider topics about the art scene and aesthetics in general. I can't think of one contemporary art critic that appears in the glossies or the newspapers and magazines that doesn't use terminology, formalist or otherwise, that does not reflect the current intellectual climate. So clearly you are asserting that there is an art critic or art critics out there who are writing about art in such a way that their writing won't be dated in a decade or two.

5/03/2008 08:21:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

No doubt that Geeenberg’s analysis of Cubism is interesting taken from his point of view in 1959. One could expect no more, for Greenberg was no visionary of the future, but within his time he was fine.

I was responding to james remark on how our evaluation of artworks is in a constant state of flux, it changes over time. Greenberg’s observations, made in 1959, cannot take into account the developments in painting in the ensuing 50 years. I no longer worry about ‘flatness’ nor a handful of other issues from the period. I do not need a guidebook to see a Cubist painting. None the less, I admit it may be interesting to others.

Nobody is arguing that it is no longer a valid way to look at Cubism (or in my own case collage)but it is not the only way. Further, advanced painting must chew up and spit out Cubism and the rest of paintings history, and not follow along some authority from 50 years ago. The fact that the idea of content juxtaposition escapes you goes to show the stasis of your viewpoint. A contemporary formalist critic you are not.

5/03/2008 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Clearly his presence in the art world is still alive and well if you consider how many times his name still gets brought up.

His presence is maintained by those unable to think for themselves and who need an authority figure to lean back on.

Make no mistake, I think there is a place for contemporary criticism with a formalist point of view. It must use the tools of analysis to deal with all contemporary art, and not just pick and choose what fits nicely into some 50 year old pre-existing mold. I am sorry but that is not what is being done by the so called "formalist critics" It’s look-back, "I wish it was like it used to be," bullshit.

5/03/2008 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Jesus's parable about the mote in your brother's eye comes to mind here.

George, I'm not in the mood to answer flamebait. We're enjoying a beautiful evening here in Dana Point, where John McLaughlin painted, and I can see why. The window is open as wide as it will go, and the late afternoon Southern California light is throwing those crisp, blue-gray shadows that we get down here.

My main critical interest in art is how the best art works the way it does, and how everything else falls short in the way it does. I rely on my observations for this. They may conform to Greenberg's observations or they may not; I don't keep track. But to the extent that one might call this a method, and I'm not sure one can, I see a similar thing operating in Greenberg's writings, and thus sense a kindred spirit with an eminently fine flair for criticism. So I read him with admiration and learn what I can from his work.

For however often he is accused of such sentiments, I search in vain for where he said that art "must" do this or criticism "must" do that. To find those kinds of authoritarian declarations, I have to go to George's comments.

5/03/2008 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Make no mistake, I think there is a place for contemporary criticism with a formalist point of view.

It must use the tools of analysis to deal with all contemporary art, and not just pick and choose what fits nicely into some 50 year old pre-existing mold.

I am sorry but that is not what is being done by the so called "formalist critics" It’s look-back, "I wish it was like it used to be."

5/03/2008 10:11:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

My main point in bringing up “formalist criticism” was not to dis Greenberg or his followers (I, like Franklin, enjoy reading some of the more interesting critics from the 40s and 50s, Rosenberg and Schapiro, even Canaday) but mainly to question their notion that once a work of art has achieved a consensus among a particular group of critics artists or collectors that its status as “quality” was everlasting. As we’ve seen this changes, sometimes precipitously over time. This was in relation to the critic who wrote glowingly about a friends piece during its creation, then at it’s debut, deciding it sucked.

Formalism does provide a certain set of tools for the evaluation of art. Sometimes it’s useful, sometimes not.

5/03/2008 10:23:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

"His presence is maintained by those unable to think for themselves and who need an authority figure to lean back on."

If you include those critics and artists who bring his name and writings up in a negative context, who caricature him and then use him as a foil, you would have quite a long list of contemporary art writers, artists, and bloggers. Aren't they all guilty of 'maintaining his presence', whatever that means.

5/03/2008 10:33:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

...but mainly to question their notion that once a work of art has achieved a consensus among a particular group of critics artists or collectors that its status as "quality" was everlasting.

Well it’s true that taste and fashions change but I also think it’s the artists which have the ability to direct the focus on one artist or another. If one goes back into the sixties, Olitski was one painter championed by one set of critics and Jasper Johns was another. Over time these two ideological camps have more or less maintained their positions but the culture has anointed Jasper Johns and reduced the rank of Olitski.

I think culture gets what it wants, the art flows from the artist and not the critic.

5/03/2008 10:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

James, if I understand it rightly, consensus forms around quality, not the other way around. Otherwise there would be no way to claim, as CG did, and I maintain, that taste is objective. That may be controversial, but it's probably pretty safe to say that consensus stabilizes over time. You could disagree with the above assertion and still agree that we're more likely to change our minds as a viewing public about Dana Schutz than Fra Angelico.

Eric, you beat me to it.

George, was that a semi-double-post or some kind of clarification? At any rate, here's that "must" business again. I put it this way: "Criticism provides a way to get more pleasure out of art, like chewing gets flavor out of food. Whether it ends up influencing anyone's collection decisions or the direction of the market, or meeting any other metric of importance, doesn't matter. Accuracy of observation, honesty, clarity, judgment, and taste matter above all. Perpetrators of criticism might as well write well, too, while they're at it." That's about as "must" as I'm willing to go.

5/03/2008 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Eric,

Whatever, we’re two quotes deep there, it’s not worth arguing over.

I just have no use for either side, for those who cannot fathom out what’s happening on their own without resorting to someone else for authority. Greenberg wrote some good stuff but he also championed some awful artists, go figure.

What I do think is possible, in fact interesting, would be the application of the analytical approach of the earlier formalist writers in a fresh way with today’s art. I contend that one cannot look at the Cubists, say, in the same way one did in 1959, too much has happened since then. I do think one can take a similar approach, with a fresh point of view, and apply it to contemporary works. ‘Fresh’ means one leaves the baggage behind and for some reason that seems difficult for some to do.

5/03/2008 10:53:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Criticism deals with the contemporary, otherwise it’s history. So what don’t you understand about must "deal with all contemporary art?" Obviously not all at once.

5/03/2008 10:59:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

I guess I am getting confused by the terms we are using. kalm james defines 'formal critic' (at least in his last comment) as those critics who put forth the "notion that once a work of art has achieved a consensus among a particular group of critics artists or collectors that its status as “quality” was everlasting." I know of no art critic writing for the print dinosaurs who avoids this. The word ‘masterpiece’ is bandied about quite regularly in the NYT and elsewhere. They have to write about the big shows because they are most likely assigned them. So in a sense they are forced to continue rehashing the same ideas, anecdotes, and platitudes about the same artists. After all, the history books have been written. They probably have strict deadlines to meet so there is little time to come up with a fresh approach to subjects that have been written about over and over again. Museums and galleries pay the newspapers and magazines large (but continually shrinking) advertising fees. I thought a 'formal critic' would focus on things "relating to or involving the outward form, structure, relationships, or arrangement of elements rather than content". I can’t think of one art critic who appears regularly in magazines and newspapers who completely avoids dealing with content. Most art criticism, including kalm james' video reviews, is a hodge podge, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, some historical analysis but no too much, a little formal analysis but not too much, a little joking around, some general concepts or ideas lightly sprinkled onto the mix, a few jaded or in the know comments about the current state of the art world or the artist whose work is being reviewed, comparisons of the work under review to other artists' work, and maybe even a brief mention of the world outside the art world. I don't think any art criticism that is strictly ‘formal’ appears in the magazines or newspapers. In other words, it just doesn’t exist in these formats.

5/03/2008 11:05:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I thought a 'formal critic' would focus on things "relating to or involving the outward form, structure, relationships, or arrangement of elements rather than content".

eric, I’m glad you wrote that. It’s part of the problem. If one could take the same approach but also include content, then one would have something interesting. I suspect the early development of formalist critical thought was directly influenced by the development of modernism and a positioning away from content as a quality of advanced art as it was seen then. Obviously this is not the case today, content is what drives advanced art.

5/03/2008 11:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

...content is what drives advanced art.

Right into the median.

I use formalist to mean "primarily concerned with form." Content is just recognizable form.

5/03/2008 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Form is recognizable because of content.

5/03/2008 11:56:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Let me just gather my things and I will be on my way...

5/03/2008 11:58:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

live a little
put some content
in your bag

5/04/2008 12:12:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

A work possessing content that makes one think about the world in a different way, or feel profound emotions, takes nothing away from the formal qualities of the work, if the formal qualities are strong.

Stunning formal qualities move us in a more intuitive way. If those stunning formal qualities exist in a floral watercolor, I'll note the nature of the formal trick and move on. If the work possesses powerful content in addition to seductive formal qualities, then I'm riveted, and spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the work trying to unlock the layers.

At least that's the game I'm trying to win in my work.

It would be really interesting to do a survey project on criticism, a la Komar and Melamid, working with the qualities of contemporary works that have gained the consensus of top critics. I'm sure it could be done by some sort of computer program, where you scan in all the reviews and catalog essays, extract the adjectives and descriptive phrases, and formulate (at least conceptually) an ultimate work of contemporary art.

5/04/2008 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

I know this is sort of off-topic, but I want to respond to the two posts that start:

Joy,

When folks start a sentence with your name+comma, they are taking the position of the upper hand. They feel you've said something that needs to be nipped in the bud. Easiest thing is to just talk down to you. I notice it sometimes when I challenge people's assumptions about authorship, "originality", copyright, etc. - it's no secret that this is a fraught area these days. To disengage from any possible dialogue they rush to take the position of upper hand, of being in the know, to shut the challenge down. "Joy, you just don't get it: if someone copies such and such, then it's stealing, period. And here's a lawsuit to prove it." So basically, shut up about this because we know what's what. Stealing is stealing.

Funny thing is, these folks generally manage to illustrate my point: they are unable to or unwilling to shine a bright light on their assumptions about originality; there is for the most part a stubborn refusal to see beyond appearance, as though everything should be taken at face value. Painting taken at face value? (pick any century) - I don't think so.

Along with this refusal usually comes a few off the cuff generalizations and sloppy comparisons. For example: anonymous above equates reproducing a novel verbatim with a visual artist mimicking a visual style to push through their own conceptual conceit; the example is bogus for at least two reasons: one, aping a style in order to make a point or ask a question (regardless of whether it's successful), is not the same as plagiarism, which is simply fraud (passing someone else's work off as your own).

The second but perhaps most important reason is that you can't equate visual language with the verbal. There is a distinction there that should be obvious, at least to visual artists. The fact that copyright was invented in the context of publishing and is more tailored to dealing with words than visual art has affected the way we think about originality and art, and this is a problem.

Then the example of poor George Harrison's music: this is typical of those who take the courts' bad decisions and wave them in front of everyone as though they were morally or ethically above reproach, when in fact, they're nothing more than the courts trying to catch up with art, with the innovations of art and technology, reflecting divisions within our own industry and passing off a lot of bad decisions in the meantime.

Fact is, "stealing is stealing" doesn't do much to describe the complexity of what's going on in the arts these days; I think it worthwhile to keep the channels open, rather than trying to shut 'em down.

J

5/04/2008 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Carol Diehl said...

I agree with Ed: there is no such thing as objectivity; we are not machines, and this is especially so in the field of art criticism, which happens to be an endeavor of opinion. I like how Pretty Lady put it: “…knowing someone personally causes you to take a closer and more nuanced look at what they do than if you just randomly encountered it…”

But we must have our agendas straight. A catalogue essay is not, and should not be considered, a work of criticism. It is a work-for-hire, intended to flatter the art and the artist, contracted, written, and paid handsomely for with the clear intention that it will help sell paintings. A critic with integrity will not accept such an assignment if s/he does not believe in the work. (When I wrote my most recent catalogue essay, however, the gallery owner expressed surprise when I insisted on seeing the work in person before agreeing to write about it; he said this is not usually the case.) But there is also such a thing as conflict-of-interest. Therefore, having accepted the handsome fees to promote an artist, one would also expect that the writer refrain from writing in a critical way about the artist for other publications.

Other than that, I do not make hard and fast rules for myself. Mostly I don’t write about my friends (I can’t write about all of them, and it would be just too awkward to pick and choose), but have had no compunction about doing so when their reputation was soundly based and my interest in their work preceded my friendship with them. And I do not write about galleries with whom I’ve had, or expect to have, business dealings.

I also find that most galleries and artists are professional in the way they approach me and a pleasure to deal with.

However ultimately it’s all about the quality of the writing. What teachers of writing always say to their students is true: “Don’t tell me, show me.” If you write clearly, without artspeak or hyperbole, if you stick to the subject of the work, your opinion will be convincing of itself and everyone will know where you stand without your having to state it. Your approbation, no matter where it comes from, or your censure, will be justified.

5/04/2008 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Joy,

When folks start a sentence with your name+comma, they are taking the position of the upper hand. They feel you've said something that needs to be nipped in the bud. Easiest thing is to just talk down to you."

Joy,

It also could be the case that addressing a comment to you means the commenter is responding in particular to what you wrote. It is not necessarily disrespectful or condescending. (I'm not either of the above commenters who addressed you.) Maybe you're not happy with the substance of the commment, or the fact that they commented anonymously, but really, it's not like they started with "Joy, you ignorant slut." Is it more proper to start out with
"In reference to what Joy said,"?

What's the dif?

Respectfully,
Oriane

5/04/2008 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Regardless of “quality” (formalistic, content wise, fashion, ideological) culture will only accept what it is capable of receive at any particular time. George Kubler in “The Shape of Time” says (paraphrasing here) that great innovation can’t be accepted until there is a wide enough understanding of what’s happening that a tipping point is reached culturally. In that way the idea of a consensus based on objective “quality” in formalistic terms is subservient to a culture’s ability to accept something. I think the reverse is also true.

Regarding the authoritarian critic, as readers have become more educated, or maybe just better consumers, the style of criticism has evolved. I don’t consider the “Kalm Reports” as critical reviews. I’m walking in cold, usually after a long ride to other openings, a few drinks. A formal critical analysis takes time, hard work, research, and to come out well, some poetic panache. I’m hopping to engage the viewer in investing their own senses in the evaluation of what’s happening, in a sense, to become their own favorite critic, and to understand why.

5/04/2008 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

...great innovation can’t be accepted until there is a wide enough understanding of what’s happening that a tipping point is reached culturally. In that way the idea of a consensus based on objective "quality" in formalistic terms is subservient to a culture’s ability to accept something.

This only matters if you correlate the consensus to wide acceptance in the culture. When we talk about the consensus that forms around quality, we're talking necessarily about consensus among people who have the ability to detect quality - in other words, people who have taste. This is a subset of the culture, even a subset of people who care about art. While factors in the culture may encourage or impede the acceptance of a new development, these factors sort themselves out over time. Greenberg carefully emphasized the importance of time to the consensus. The consensus over time, not consensus itself, demonstrates the objectivity of taste.

I reread his 1973 "Can Taste Be Objective?" this morning thinking it would come in handy. It concludes with this paragraph:

Art can do without taste: I hear voices from as far back as 1913 saying this. What they mean, without knowing it, is that art can do without art; that is, art can do without offering the satisfactions it alone can offer. That's what doing art without taste really means. Well, if the satisfactions exclusive to art are dispensable, why bother with art at all? We can go on to something else. (And there are, after all, things more valuable than art, as I myself would always insist.) But meanwhile we're talking about art.

5/04/2008 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous ann said...

Making Mr. Right

5/04/2008 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...

Oriane,

(respectfully)

you're missing my point, which is not about my feeling insulted but about the ways people shut down dialogue about issues they wish were cut and dry but aren't.

cheers,
J

5/04/2008 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Irving Sandler, God bless him, made the point a few years ago at David Cohen’s Greenberg seminar held at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, that regarding the “Greenbergian” notion of taste, Clem had appetites, not taste.

I personally find the idea of that there’s a minute elite, graced by God with “taste”, (especially if their “taste” agrees with mine) laughable, a version of aesthetic eugenics.

5/04/2008 02:23:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

authoritarian-of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority

I am not sure what you mean by "authoritarian critic". All critics share their opinions and judgements with their readers (or viewers). Readers can take them or leave them.

5/04/2008 03:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I personally find the idea of that there’s a minute elite, graced by God with “taste”, (especially if their “taste” agrees with mine) laughable, a version of aesthetic eugenics.

And stated that way, the idea sounds ridiculous; even toned down, my egalitarianism wants to disagree with it. But casual observation reveals that folks operate at noticiably variable degrees of visual sophistication. There's a talent for looking at art, and like any talent, a minute elite possesses quite a lot of it, and an overarching majority has less. You could make the same observation about talent for singing or golf.

The evidence of taste is not the extent to which it agrees with mine, but a particular kind of sensitivity that comes out in discussions of the topic. I disagree with other formally inclined artists and writers on any number of topics. But when they have that eye, they make observations with a particular intensity of detail and feeling that I recognize as being on target even if I don't share their opinion. I have a sample of a bunch of highbrows in full effect in the comment thread here.

5/04/2008 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Hsien-Ko said...

the hidden reverse loops and through yards...

5/04/2008 05:29:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

james said: ...great innovation can’t be accepted until there is a wide enough understanding of what’s happening that a tipping point is reached culturally. In that way the idea of a consensus based on objective "quality" in formalistic terms is subservient to a culture’s ability to accept something.

Franklin says, This only matters if you correlate the consensus to wide acceptance in the culture.

True, so what else matters? Some subset of the culture with a rarefied sense taste? What makes them so special? Who gets to say they have the taste we should all pay attention to?

It is utter nonsense to suggest that the culture is not capable of anointing the art they desire, the art they respond to, the art which feels relevant to them at some moment in time. Individuals are as much subject to making mistakes as is the collective. It is more likely however, that the collective will make a correct decision when viewed from a bayesian perspective. Further, it is the artists, within the culture, which provide additional validation of the cultural taste by extending previous explorations which were seen as significant to the culture. The relevance and importance of Duchamp lies as much in his influence on later artists as it does in the excellence of his body of work. (forget the pisspot, the Large Glass is one of the art-wonders of the 20th century, a truly radical painting.)

5/04/2008 07:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on Franklin.

5/04/2008 07:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

True, so what else matters? Some subset of the culture with a rarefied sense taste?

Yes.

What makes them so special?

I have wondered about this. I keep running across people who develop a fondness for art seemingly ex nihlo. Walter Darby Bannard, of all people, tells a story to that effect. For some reason they get the core issues quickly and with little or no apprenticeship. And then other people go through an enormous amount of training and credentialling and they don't see art at all. And then you have people who are both trained and sensitive. It's a big mystery that ties into the problem of cluefulness in general, and I think the root of the matter is the ability to humble yourself to percieved data. I'm still working on that idea, though.

It's an elite, but it's a funny sort of elite that admits anyone who can detect quality, a class of people who share no other trait.

Who gets to say they have the taste we should all pay attention to?

Here's the real cruelty - no one is telling you to do anything. If you share these peoples' tastes, you'll naturally attend to them, reading what they write, seeing art they favor, arguing over the details in a spirit of comraderie. If you don't share these peoples' tastes, you'll go on liking the lesser stuff you like. Your pleasure will be just as great as theirs, even if different in kind, and you will miss out on the best art that the world has to offer.

It is utter nonsense to suggest that the culture is not capable of anointing the art they desire, the art they respond to, the art which feels relevant to them at some moment in time.

You're quite right. It's a broad term, but in a limited sense this anointing is what the culture is. But we're not talking about a moment in time - we're talking about a consensus that forms over time. This process will be shaped by people who will be born after we're dead. So all I can do is like the art I like, dislike the art I dislike, put myself on the record accordingly, and encourage anyone who wants to look further into it to join me.

Individuals are as much subject to making mistakes as is the collective. It is more likely however, that the collective will make a correct decision when viewed from a bayesian perspective.

Define "mistake" and "correct decision" as you're using them here.

the Large Glass is one of the art-wonders of the 20th century, a truly radical painting.

I saw it at the PMA a couple of years ago and it is indeed an impressive work. It's a shame that nothing else in his oeuvre measures up to it.

5/04/2008 08:44:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

It's a shame that nothing else in his oeuvre measures up to it.

Well, not quite, Duchamp's "Fountain" is the most radical and transgressive work of art in modern history. Even to this day it has not been totally assimilated and continues to offend.

5/04/2008 09:22:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I said, Individuals are as much subject to making mistakes as is the collective. It is more likely however, that the collective will make a correct decision when viewed from a bayesian perspective.

I was asked to "define "mistake" and "correct decision" as you're using them here."

Errors in taste, as you use the term. As individuals there are the obvious examples, Greenberg championed some artists which weren’t up to the task, etc. By correct, we could use Jasper Johns, who was dismissed by several critics early in his career but who has also seen his status as an artist continue to rise. My use of the terminology ‘bayesian perspective’ implies that the cultural view is self correcting in the direction of a final consensus.

5/04/2008 09:30:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Moi, Who gets to say they have the taste we should all pay attention to?

F. Here's the real cruelty - no one is telling you to do anything. . .
. . . If you don't share these peoples' tastes, you'll go on liking the lesser stuff you like.


Like I said, who gets to say what is the lesser stuff? And why should I listen?

5/04/2008 09:38:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

This process will be shaped by people who will be born after we're dead.

Oh, I don’t think so, maybe in the agrarian age but not today. Further, fifty years is a good amount of time, well within the average lifespan. This would include Duchamp, and I suggest that his place in history has been assured. Certainly tastes will vary over time but his overall importance will not.

5/04/2008 09:44:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Dedicated to James Kalm

5/04/2008 09:51:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I asked so what else matters? Some subset of the culture with a rarefied sense taste? What makes them so special?

F responds, I have wondered about this.

Well so have I, I cannot fathom how a bunch of ‘people of taste’ can like someone like Olitski and dislike an artist like Jasper Johns. Unquestionably, Jasper Johns is the superior painter, so obviously some ‘people of taste’ have a biased viewpoint on what they see. So they aren’t so special after all.

5/04/2008 09:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Meh, more flamebait. I don't feel like debating Duchamp's alleged importance and if you like Johns, you can have him. I regard nothing as unquestionable, least of all Johns's worth as a painter. (My take on his recent MoMA show here.)

Like I said, who gets to say what is the lesser stuff? And why should I listen?

The individual has to make that call for himself. You should listen because it's you. And as a general rule, one listens to other people because there's a chance one might learn something.

Oh, I don’t think so, maybe in the agrarian age but not today. Further, fifty years is a good amount of time, well within the average lifespan.

With more art being made than at any previous period in history, the hastening rate at which the culture changes across the board, and the increasing ease with which individual artists can record and publicize their work, I think we're going see more and larger revisions of reputations, not fewer and smaller.

5/04/2008 10:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Whoops - Johns's show at the Met, not MoMA.

5/04/2008 11:24:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

No flamebait, my comment on Duchamps’ "Fountain" is accurate, it continues to be an inflammatory burr within the greater art world. It is rare that this situation has not moderated over time.

I see you penned your opinion on Jasper Johns to the choir. Unfortunately it isn’t a work of ‘contemporary formalist criticism’ just a drive by shooting looking for agreement. In an exhibition of over 100 works by Johns, I would think one could find one or two which would yield to a formalist analysis and provide the reader with a little more to chew on. What you wrote appears to be nothing more than a self-justification for a preconceived opinion, without any attempt to engage the artworks at all. It was an opinion, which I can accept, but don’t put it on your resume as an example of ‘contemporary formalist criticism.’

5/05/2008 09:04:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

George I am going to step in now because I was part of the Jasper Johns thread over at artblog and I don't like being called "the choir". What is the meaning of your argument? That established art historical figures are established art historical figures. Who would argue this point? Obviously the contemporary art world has many connections to the work of Jasper Johns and Duchamp. I like plenty of contemporary paintings and conceptual art works but I really don't like the work of Jasper Johns. I am allowed to feel this way no? You always take on the superficial role of cheerleader for the new. What a bold position to stake out. Sorry if people like painters who are little known or unpopular right now. Why is this retardaire in your mind? You appear to have no problem with the existing nomenclature. There are clear winners and losers in your mind. You use these words incessantly. I think that discovering what current or past art matters is a personal process and I hope people do not decide to like or defend something simply because it is very influential or in the history books. Why is it wrong to think that taste and the historical narrative of art might be different than it is now in the near or distant future? It is quite conservative and safe for you to say nothing will change and that the winners will stay the same and the invisible/ignored will remain invisible/ignored but who really knows. Too many talented artists work in complete obscurity for me to accept that formulation. All we have is our individual taste, which may or may not be influenced by academia, academic publishing, or art hacks.

5/05/2008 09:30:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

This sentence should read:

"You always take on the superficial role of cheerleader for the new or firmly entrenched."

Do Duchamp and Jasper Johns really need defenders at this point historically? I think others have taken care of that for you George. I think for any artist who struggles in obscurity, it is healthy and positive to think that the paradigm (forgive my use of this word) might change in the future and the current art historical structure might become reconfigured. I also don't think painting will completely shrivel up and die because of new technologies. Artists will definitely be working in new unknown mediums in the future, and computer based art might become more prominent (it is currently a backwater), but like the act of writing, painting will still be around. So notions of what makes a good painting will shift and change as well. Forgotten figures from the past will become meaningful to living artists and will have an impact on their work and firmly entrenched art historical figures will have less influence.

5/05/2008 09:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

No flamebait, my comment on Duchamps’ "Fountain" is accurate...

I might debate the accuracy, except that, like I said last night, I don't feel like doing so. Of course, merely invoking Duchamp is not in itself flamebait, however little his work related to anything I had been talking about previously to the point you brought him up, and however much that looks like an attempt to derail the conversation. No, the flamebaits are the various aspertions on my motives and intellectual capacity. Ah, here come some more:

I see you penned your opinion on Jasper Johns to the choir. Unfortunately it isn’t a work of ‘contemporary formalist criticism’ just a drive by shooting looking for agreement. ... What you wrote appears to be nothing more than a self-justification for a preconceived opinion, without any attempt to engage the artworks at all. It was an opinion, which I can accept, but don’t put it on your resume as an example of ‘contemporary formalist criticism.’

You're likewise entitled to your opinion, but I find you wholly unqualified to discuss the point at which I conceived my opinion of this exhibition and why I wrote it down, for the simple reason that you have no access to my interior life. We've had ample opportunities to call you out drive-by shootings at Artblog.net because of your habit of leaving six-word (or shorter!) cracks in the midst of otherwise productive discussions. While you're likely anxious to return the characterization, inviting a comparison of my review to your one-sentence insults won't turn out well for you. Obviously, it wouldn't be necessary to resort to this sort of thing if you had a cogent counterargument for points I made above that have nothing to do with Johns.

In an exhibition of over 100 works by Johns, I would think one could find one or two which would yield to a formalist analysis and provide the reader with a little more to chew on.

I scrutinize more than I analyze, but yes, you would think that out of so many works, one or two would call for closer inspection. That none of them do tells you what you need to know about this exhibition. It's a veritable festival of dreary artistic absurdity.

Come back, James - I want to disagree with someone reasonable.

5/05/2008 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that just as there is a boom in the information available to help revive faded careers, or attract attention to overlooked masterpieces, there are forces that are harnessing this power to “streamline” and negate “unimportant” or “low quality” art, and its authors. History doesn’t just happen, it’s a battle with champions and cowards.

5/05/2008 10:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Well, you would think that putting the tools into the hands of more people would axiomatically level the playing field. Do you have an instance of the negation you're talking about in mind?

5/05/2008 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

eric, you're right Duchamp and Jasper Johns are not really in need of defenders at this point and it was not the intention of my commentary. I have difficulty with those who would dismiss an artists entire body of work based upon preconceived assumptions.

I also agree that it is healthy and positive to think that the paradigm ... might change in the future and the current art historical structure might become reconfigured. I think it makes sense to compare ones views (or theories, etc) to what actually happens in the real world. You are correct in assuming the paradigm might change, contemporary art (current art) has reformulated the paradigms of the past to suit the present cultural context. There is no reason to believe this will not be the case in the future, The avant guard is alive and well.

So far, painting has proven itself to be conceptually immortal, I see no reason why this should change in the future. New mediums, are exciting and virginal, they address the world in a different way from the mediums with a long history and may provide a fresh point of view.

So notions of what makes a good painting will shift and change as well. As a painter I might question this statement, our tastes may change, they may vary, but what makes a good painting is situated in paintings long history and probably less fungible than you suggest. What does change, from period to period, is how painting interacts with the culture both temporally and historically. Artist's and their paintings are subject to periodic reevaluation and interest, this doesn't change the quality of the work, how good it may be, only its interest to us. Every new generation of the avant guard acts to kill off the painting from their immediate past in order to reinvigorate the medium anew. This really pisses people off.

5/05/2008 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

eric (9:30), that you don't consider yourself part of the choir is good, nuff said. Nor, do I expect everyone to like Jasper John's work, it would be a silly assumption.

I am interested in the idea which concern what might be called advanced art, the avant guard but I would not characterize myself as a cheerleader for something so amorphous. You say Sorry if people like painters who are little known or unpopular right now. Why is this retardaire in your mind? why is that? You are making an incorrect assumption about something I have written , to the contrary I am very interested in young artists work regardless of how popular or unknown they may be, because they represent fresh thought for the future of art, and I am interested in that.

I have been painting for thirty years, with some success as well as number of years working underground in total isolation, so when it comes to 'little known or unpopular' it is something I know about first hand. I comment here because it's enjoyable and because I think I can offer a slightly different perspective. I have lived through a number of stylistic evolutions, I read Greenberg, Rosenberg as well as Bannard contemporaneously, when "flatness" was an issue of discussion, etc. I can look back on certain moments in art history which now only exist in text, and contextualize them through experience. It's one point of view, certainly not the only point of view, but it might shed some light on the questions you ask yourself.

5/05/2008 11:54:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

"So notions of what makes a good painting will shift and change as well.'

I still stand by this statement. How many oeuvres have been rescued from obscurity? Some, but not many. I don’t have to name names for you to understand this point do I? The history books have been written already so obviously the specific narrative that appears in most of them is not fungible. What I am suggesting is a new way of relating to the history of making, the recasting of the narrative or the abolition of the story as we know it. The digitization process makes images of more works available to people. For most people, search engines act as museums and galleries. People can put together their own composite history or histories of art. In my mind artists decide for themselves what makes a good painting. As long as work is available to the public in some form or another, people will be able to get something from it. Of course a lot of really good work disappears off the face of the earth. That is why it is important to record images from exhibitions. The Internet provides a way in which we can tell the story of art in our own terms. Whether or not the history of art will remain rigid and exclusionary is open to debate. Once a new figure is allowed through the hallowed doors of art history, Tracy Emin, John Currin, et. al., they are pretty much assured a position there no matter what they make throughout their lives. Perhaps art history curriculums will change in the future and ignored works of art, both old and new, will enter the discourse.

5/05/2008 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

After seeing all those Matthew Marks exhibits of Johns, and the last big show of Sean Scully at the Met, I find it sad that such a major institution is afraid of contemporary painting, and I walked right by that Johns show and headed for Courbet. With James Kalm, "History doesn't just happen, it's a battle with champions and cowards."

George wrote, "What does change, from period to period, is how painting interacts with the culture both temporally and historically." In the spirit of good taste, you might like what I have to say about some very recent paintings.

5/05/2008 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

After seeing all those Matthew Marks exhibits of Johns, and the last big show of Sean Scully at the Met, I find it sad that such a major institution is afraid of contemporary painting, and I walked right by that Johns show and headed for Courbet. With James Kalm, "History doesn't just happen, it's a battle with champions and cowards."

George wrote, "What does change, from period to period, is how painting interacts with the culture both temporally and historically." In the spirit of good taste, you might like what I have to say about some very recent paintings.

5/05/2008 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"So notions of what makes a good painting will shift and change as well."
I still stand by this statement. How many oeuvres have been rescued from obscurity? Some, but not many. I don’t have to name names for you to understand this point do I?


I'm confused with your point here because I'm not sure we disagreed. I was suggesting a difference between how we might view what is just popular, including what we might consider important, and the qualities which we ascribe to what makes a painting good. I was suggesting that but what makes a good painting is situated in paintings long history and is less subject to change. The difference is that we may value certain paintings, because they are considered important for some reason, even though they may be of lesser quality, in the more absolute historical sense I am using. Further, the quality of an artwork is not an important metric for the work to be influential on later artists. Frequently, this deficiency allows the later artist room to maneuver.

I also have no doubt that the new technologies will make more reproductions of artworks available to those interested. This may play an important part in how new artworks are brought before the public in the future. However, at some point in the process, the culture itself decides what it considers important enough to preserve and discards the remainder to the realms of chance, the Antique Roadshows of the future.

5/05/2008 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Not to give away too much (I’m working a piece for the June “Brooklyn Rail” on this) check out Jerry Saltz’s essay “New York Canon”, see if you notice any glaring omissions.

5/05/2008 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

cannon balls?

5/05/2008 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Further, the quality of an artwork is not an important metric for the work to be influential on later artists.

This may be the most fully wrong thing I've ever seen written down on this blog. As with all outrageous assertions, burden of proof falls to the person making it.

5/05/2008 08:11:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

To return to one of the topics EW brought up in the original post: can you provide a specific example of "the forcefully objective approach to criticism"? I am still not sure what you mean by this. A concrete example would really help.

5/06/2008 07:42:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Further, the quality of an artwork is not an important metric for the work to be influential on later artists.

This depends on whether one is an emulator or an innovator. Certainly an emulator would have difficulty with my remark.

While one may be able to recognize a great work of art it is not always easy, if possible at all, to determine why this is, a way which can be practically applied on ones own studio practice. Even within ones own practice, one will find that a strong artwork (great, good, successful, etc) is impenetrable, the methods and path to such a success are not obvious or necessarily even repeatable.

It is with artworks which may be flawed, less successful for one reason or another, which will succumb to analysis and reason with a potentially beneficial result. For a number of psychological reasons, it is not always easy to recognize the weaknesses within ones own work but one will be able to identify a similar flaw in another's work. This information can find its way back into ones own practice with positive results.

Taking this line of reasoning a step farther, any artwork, good or bad, always has the potential to inspire an artist to greatness. If one is an innovator, this potential for greatness flows outward from the artist and not from the source of their original inspiration.

I wasn't assuming that someone would try to emulate a lesser work as an end in itself.

5/06/2008 10:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Leonardo got inspiration from staring at wood panels. That doesn't mean he didn't think long and hard about his craft and how to execute it in an expemplary fashion, the models for which were the Greeks and the masters of his time. You're conflating inspiration and aspiration. You can get inspiration from anywhere. Aspiration requires an idea of where the heights lie, which has been established by the best work, and artists are typically acutely conscious of it.

This depends on whether one is an emulator or an innovator. Certainly an emulator would have difficulty with my remark.

Since there's an implicit dig here, I'll return it: an artist who thinks of himself as either one or the other is qualified for neither.

5/06/2008 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Franklin, I'm not conflating anything.

I did not suggest that one should emulate lesser works by using them as an example of the craft. To the contrary, I suggested that a less successful artwork was capable of providing the artist with a way of learning through someone else's existing, if unsuccessful, solution. The second point was that a lesser artwork can act as an initiator for something new. It by no means implies that the new work fails because its source inspiration was of lesser quality, the quality of the result is always in the purview of the creator. You seem to believe that I am suggesting there is no distinction between successful and unsuccessful artworks, to the contrary, I am suggesting that everything contains its own truth which can be utilized appropriately.

Several months ago, I happened across the website of a Belgian auction house with a number of paintings dating around 1890. I looked at a few, thought they were second rate and prepared to move on. I stopped myself, wondering what it was that made me dismiss them so quickly. So I went back and looked through the entire lot, viewing them from a different perspective. It was an instructional experience because I didn't allow my preconceptions to interfere with taking a deeper look.

It is not for me to state whether you are an emulator or an innovator, that is something one knows for oneself. I do believe that this is an apt general categorization, one which does not need to be viewed pejoratively.

5/06/2008 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I suggested that a less successful artwork was capable of providing the artist with a way of learning through someone else's existing, if unsuccessful, solution. The second point was that a lesser artwork can act as an initiator for something new.

And both statements are true, but you offered them as evidence that quality is not an important metric for work to be influential on later artists, which is false. You can learn a lot from looking at second-rate work (something I learned from Darby, actually) but if you don't use that information to make (or try to make) first-rate work, then there's no point. And so you have to know the first-rate work, and I don't know any artist worth being called that who doesn't.

It was an instructional experience because I didn't allow my preconceptions to interfere with taking a deeper look.

How do you know that the impulse to question your initial judgment wasn't the preconception? I'm not saying you were wrong to do so, but that it's hard to know how one's conceptions stack up in one's own consciousness, and dishonest to pretend to know how they stack up in others'.

5/06/2008 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

No, I still think that quality is not the only metric for work to be influential on later artists. Notice I changed "an important" to "the only" above. The work which is 'influential' to later artists is only the impetus for the later work. You are assuming that these later artists won't be able to see the 'lesser quality' and will promulgate this into the future. What is "influential" should not only be concerned with matters of style or formal achievements but can also with conceptual attributes as well. We may view artworks which fail to completely integrate these elements as being of lesser quality, deficient in some aspect but there is no reason why they cannot be influential. Either the later artist is an emulator, or he figures out how to extend the earlier flawed work by presenting a better solution. Moreover, one should not discount the influential effect of what might be called "anti-art." Regardless of whether or not one likes, or can even accept such endeavors, they frequently act to clear the plate, so to speak, for later developments.

You ask, "How do you know that the impulse to question your initial judgment wasn't the preconception?" Simple answer is that I have a good eye. The more complicated answer is that these were paintings by second and third rate artists emulating their better known contemporaries AND I had the advantage of distance in time, meaning that history had already sorted out some of these issues. When I was younger this was harder to do, especially with contemporaneous artists, there are a number I liked then which I no longer care for today.

5/06/2008 02:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

No, I still think that quality is not the only metric for work to be influential on later artists. Notice I changed "an important" to "the only" above.

So you "still think" something different than what you said earlier. Oh, boy...

You are assuming that these later artists won't be able to see the 'lesser quality' and will promulgate this into the future.

Show where I assumed this.

What is "influential" should not only be concerned with matters of style or formal achievements but can also with conceptual attributes as well.

Now we're getting somewhere. I agree with this completely. The conceptual component of art is the entry point for non-art influences on art. Some of those non-art influences can be enabling on a huge scale. You can find this if you look at all the good work that took its starting point from religion, myth, story, or current events of some kind. Some of those influences can be disabling on a huge scale, as evinced by the 18th Century for painting in just about its entirety; Greenberg noted that the century produced great artists but no great schools or great followers, and I think it would be hard to dispute that.

What one might call "anti-art" is a special case. Greenberg seems to have recognized that wide swaths of abstraction had become imitative and mannered by the '60s, and he welcomed the first salvos of Pop, if not the later ones. Hughes noted smartly about Susan Rothenberg that "bad" painting turned out to be just as hard as any other kind of painting. There's Guston, who worked his way into a gripping figurative style by way of cartooning. I find myself unable to dismiss Ruscha, and I've tried. I like the plate-clearing idea. I question, though, the effectiveness of whole careers based on plate-clearing: Baldessari, Kosuth, Richard Prince, Hirst.

Fountain is worth discussing in this light. The original, presented in 1917, was transgressive. Its recreation at the behest of Sidney Janis in 1950 starts to look bogus and commercial. Other versions date from '53 to '64 in limited editions, at which point we're talking about something akin to a Dali print. And to cite it now by way of justification for alleged trasgression in current work is deeply and profoundly mannered. I want to say, Hello? My plate is clear. Call it "lessness" if you want to; this plate has nothing on it. High echelons of the art world culture have gotten so good at plate-clearing that it has come to regard putting something back on the plate as retrogressive. Like anything else, the impulse starts as a refreshing development and ends as the exhausted style that is getting in the way of progress.

5/06/2008 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do bee a plate scraper don't bee a food waster

5/06/2008 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

101 is the 26th prime number

and palindromic

5/07/2008 12:47:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Oh well. I should have asked my question earlier on. Maybe I would have gotten an answer then.

5/07/2008 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

doebeedoobeedoo....

5/07/2008 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Hey, Eric, you are a writer so you know what it means to have developed a strong personal voice of your own. My own take on things is that this personal voice is not incompatible with objective knowledge, and that it in fact contributes to it. This is with the conviction that an art critic is doing more than merely expressing an opinion. And this strength of the personal voice inside of objective knowledge is going to happen whether or not a critic knows the artist.

5/07/2008 01:26:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Thank you for expressing that so clearly Catherine. I am in complete agreeance with you on that. How can an art critic avoid the self, the personal, when they write? Obviously technical manuals and product manuals do a good job of avoiding the personal. Their language is detached, instructional, bare-bones descriptive. Art criticism can't be forcefully objective. I try to use subdued language in my own writing. I don't like gushing or sniping because I would rather leave those types of emotional reactions to the viewers. If you gush about an exhibition early on I think the reader's mind grows slightly less attuned to what you are saying as they read. "Okay I get it. He really likes this artist." Jerry Saltz once told me, when I sent him one of my reviews via email, that I wasn't judgemental enough and I was perhaps too descriptive. This was a few years ago. Eventually he revised his opinion, stating that description can be as judgemental as opinion is. One reader here complained that they had no idea whether or not I liked the Tara Donovan review I provided a link for. They thought that I was being wordy and not really providing an opinion. But if you bother to read the review I tried to point out all of the layers of meaning present in the work. I used the work itself as a starting point again and again. If you can't go back to a work over and over again and return with new insights it is a weak work. I know that my stuff is seen as worthwhile by the artists I have written about because several of them have told me so after having read my reviews. I don't like being friends with someone that I am writing about because I have had some very unpleasant experiences in the past. A very near and dear friend of mine, who I had conversed with about their art many times in the past felt anger towards me because I wouldn't review their first gallery show. Friendships lead to expectations which are difficult to fuflfill. Back to your point, there is no escaping my own conceptual framework, memories, emotions, etc. So as soon as you start writing about a work of art the writing becomes personal.

5/07/2008 03:05:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Eric sez:
One reader here complained that they had no idea whether or not I liked the Tara Donovan review I provided a link for. They thought that I was being wordy and not really providing an opinion.

One reader replies, yeah, this makes sense -- for you. I guess if I'd read a lot of your writing and learned you only describe work extensively when you like it, it'd be clearer that you liked Donovan's work. Since that was the first review of yours I'd read, well, I couldn't tell.

I think you and Jerry might be right when you say description can be judgmental. So can simply choosing what you write about. I've occasionally thought about writing only positive reviews -- that is, simply quietly skipping things I don't like. (These days I've been skipping everything, but that's something else.) But then I think that's no fun.

Also, as Harlan Ellison writes in his introduction to Ellison's Watching (which I'm currently reading -- great book), "The critic can only go huzzah and huzzah so many times before it becomes white noise. The critic is limited in vocabulary, because beyond a certain point it becomes dangerous and boring, and then dangerously counterproductive. Dangerous, because nothing can live up to such panegyrics; boring, because what can one say after one says don't miss it?...One can be infinitely more entertaining when savaging the unworthy, the cupidic, the inept, the dishonest."

5/07/2008 04:13:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Chris you are entitled to think any or all of my reviews suck. So please don't worry about that. I haven't written a pan in quite a while but I have written a few of them. They are cathartic I guess, but I have to work just as hard whether I am praising or panning something. Ellison describes many of my own reservations about the genre. All of the things he brings up, what's the point of it all? am I a lapdog/cheerleader? must I be nothing more than filler for a press kit? etc., have a ring of truth to them and would lead a critic to quit being a critic and to create art instead. You definitely have to be happy with your contribution or you should just stop writing criticism.

5/07/2008 04:21:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I don't think any of your reviews suck. I've still only read the one. (The interface at that site isn't exactly conducive to browsing.)

5/07/2008 05:17:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Here is my big 'ME' moment. Here is the link to an archive of my artcritical reviews. A few of my more recent reviews might be missing and some reviews are missing images. This problem will be corrected soon.

ERIC'S ARCHIVE

The good news about artcritical is that David Cohen is going to begin paying writers, and we will be completely revamping the interface and retooling the archives, because of a grant and a few advertisers coming on board. Luckily it will have no effect on our editorial policy. I am also an editor for artcritical. I think we have about two million visitors a month, but I am not sure about that. David keeps track of that stuff. Some of my reviews suck.

5/07/2008 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

You are, in fact, more entertaining when you're being mean.

"All that is really impressive, at the end of the day, is that Schnabel owns a big enough warehouse in which to create these half-hearted attempts at great painting."

It's funny because it's true!

5/07/2008 06:21:00 PM  

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