Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Agenda | Open Thread

Believing as I do that what we talk about when we talk about art is ultimately ourselves, I was fully in agreement with Jonathan Jones' post in the Guardian that "For critics, it's better to be interesting than right." Jones extrapolates on this point with a comparison between an artist championed by 18th Century French philosopher/art critic Denis Diderot and an artist he wasn't so keen on, but who clearly won out in the history contest:

Diderot raises a question: is a good critic one who is right, or one who makes an interesting case, however wrong-headed? He loathed the sensuous, sophisticated, courtly and erotic painter François Boucher. In his eyes, Boucher's paintings were heartless, decadent, trivial, and morally worthless.

In place of Boucher he preferred another contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Greuze. For Diderot, this painter of grief-stricken families and sincere young people was a truly serious and worthwhile artist – the antithesis of Boucher.

A good place to compare these two artists is the Wallace Collection in London, which has works by both in abundance. Boucher's erotic mythological fantasies are floating concoctions of silk and skin, ethereal and flimsy and ... hugely pleasurable. He is defiantly unserious and delightfully ambitious in the scale and proliferation of his visual frolics. As for Greuze – what visitor to the Wallace Collection spends much time on this sentimental, morbid, palpably dishonest artist's clogged and nauseating daubs?

I would fully agree with Jones that a critic is more helpful to me as a reader if they have a strong and interesting point of view. I don't need them to be "right," because if I disagree with them I'm just stubborn enough to cling to my current opinion anyway (it changes at a glacial pace). What I want to take away from reading them is not confirmation of that opinion (I'm just arrogant enough to be fine without such confirmation), but rather an interesting challenge to look at the work I think I know in a way I hadn't thought of. Hence, the more interesting the critic's point of view is, the better.

And I would leave the discussion at that. If it were up to me.

But Jones takes it somewhere I'm not so sure of:
There were compelling reasons for Diderot to see so much more in Greuze that meets our eyes. He was setting out a theory of art, searching for a definition of value that was truly serious, moral, even political. His readers were searching too, which was why they too loved Greuze.

What does all that have to with art and criticism today? Everything. The job of a critic is not to be "right" – that would make them into jumped-up authority figures, high-court judges of art. What pompous nonsense. The memorable critics – including the greatest of all, John Ruskin – were often wrong, even absurd, but they made arguments that will always bear thinking about. Ruskin could pursue a train of thought over hundreds of pages and his richness of intellect and language makes the journey worthwhile, even if you find his opinions insane or offensive.

Critics are not parasitical on art. They practice an art of their own. History shows that being right has very little to do with it.

I think Jones is arguing against himself through that passage. It was indeed the very thought that occurred to me that he seemed to anticipate and try to (weakly) cut off in the first sentence of that last paragraph.

Let's say he's right. Let's say Diderot was using his art criticism as part of his goal of "searching for a definition of value that was truly serious, moral, even political." That would mean he had a very specific agenda.

Specific agendas in arts writing are certainly not unheard of. Greenberg clearly had one, and(later in his career, at least) it led him to also champion a few artists that history hasn't fully agreed with him about. In my opinion, it was Clement's agenda and not any failing in the new work itself that led him to miss/dismiss some of the most important developments happening right under his exquisite eye.

But where I'm not so sure Jones isn't wrong is in that last paragraph. If a critic is pursuing an agenda, then how is that practice not parasitical? The definition of a parasite is "An organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host." If we take "art" in general as the host (what critics make their living off of), is not a critic who focuses their audience's attention on a particular movement or artist to the exclusion of others and more because doing so advances some specific agenda rather than because they don't see its value, ignoring what's best for the host?

Consider this an open thread on what it means to have an agenda and pursue it through one's art writing.

Image above:
A detail from François Boucher, Workshop of François Boucher,The Arts and Sciences: Poetry and Music, The Frick Collection.

Labels: art criticism


Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

I think this quote frames my attitude toward critics perfectly... they take themselves too seriously and are prone to ridiculous levels of intellectual gamesmanship in the service of self rather than art or understanding.

In my mind true worthwhile criticism should have the aim to understand and challenge more than to dismiss and trivialize. I think a little more humilty should be routinely employed by critics.

It's funny how Jones basically supports a line of thinking in which criticism removes itself from criticism by allowing for it to be worthwhile even if it is wrong or misguided.

Anyone can stir up a mess of shit by shooting off their mouth, but this doesn't necessarily qualify as worthy criticism to me.

2/02/2011 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I would disagree on the humility issue, Anonymous. I want my critics to be self-assured, even if wrong. A milquetoast opinion, even when it's one I agree with, is still somehow ... well .... gross.

2/02/2011 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

If Greenberg (not "Clement," please - leave the patronizing, pretended familiarity to John Perrault) had an agenda, kindly tell us what it was.

Jones has misunderstood his profession. First of all, critics are parasites upon art except in unusual instances where the artist finds benefit in the critic's remarks. Yes, criticism is an art of its own, but it is an ancillary art at best. Art could operate without critics. For the most part, art does operate without critics. The converse is not true.

Second, the job of the critic is to be right. We can't hope for mathematical correctness, but we can aspire to see art for what it is, examine the claims made on its behalf, and write the truth about it as best as we can determine it. Chekov warns us to fear lying like fire. The writer must fear inadvertent lying, putting down something that isn't as true as it should be, that doesn't do justice to its subject. A considered judgment that is true to its object of judgment, for better or worse, is the very thing that makes criticism worth reading. I can't say whether it's pompous to form such judgments. Maybe it is. I can say that forming a judgment worth keeping requires enormous probity.

Third, Jones is conflating Ruskin's value as a writer, which may be considerable (I don't have a lot of patience for him), and his value as a critic, which was, at times, nil. The answer to Diderot's question, whether the good critic is one who is right or the one who makes an interesting case, is that the good critic is the one who does both. They Might Be Giants has a song in which someone says, "I'd like to poison your mind with wrong ideas that appeal to you." The title is "Whistling in the Dark," and it describes Jones aptly.

2/02/2011 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If Greenberg (not "Clement," please - leave the patronizing, pretended familiarity to John Perrault) had an agenda, kindly tell us what it was.

Two responses to that. First, the fact that you've never once objected when I've used the first names for Cotter or Saltz or Smith or any of the other of dozens of critics I've discussed here over the years reveals either an overdeveloped urge to defend the dearly departed or an attempt to affiliate yourself and/or to claim Greenberg as somehow yours. Either way, it's clearly designed to be a harrumphing "How dare you!!" when as anyone who has read here as long as you have should know, the tone here is always chatty, if not down right folksy.

Just so it's clear, I'm not accepting editorial direction today. And tomorrow doesn't look promising in that regard either.

Second, my assertion that Greenberg had an agenda is supported by 1) his declaration that Jules Olitski was the greatest living painter of his time (something history has yet to confirm) and 2) by the time Clement had met Jules (1958), the Postmodern movement was already becoming abundantly evident to those with antennae as attuned as Greenberg's were. Yes, it's arguable he didn't seen anything incongruous with championing one of the last stars of the Modernist movement and keeping himself up-to-speed on where artists were leading the history of art all around him, but it certainly looks as if he dismissed the new movement through his curatorial and critical choices at that time. This dismissal suggests a rejection based on an agenda.

2/02/2011 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Cotter has been in your gallery. I don't know about Saltz and Smith. Greenberg you never met. I know and work with some of his former friends. They miss him. That's all I intend to say about that.

This dismissal suggests a rejection based on an agenda.

Fine. Tell us what the agenda was.

2/02/2011 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm sure they do miss him, and I personally would have loved to meet him. But I don't think it's disrespectful in any serious way to refer to Vincent, Jackson, Andy, or any other art world greats no longer with us by their first name. It's merely part of the long-standing chatty tone of this blog.

As I understand it (and I fully expect that you'll correct any nuances I have wrong), Greenberg was interested in a definitions/examples of the "the irreducible working essence of art." When that question--"What is the essence of art?"--evolved via PostModernism to the more fundamental "What is Art?" (not only opening up the canon to a wider group of artists than previously could have dreamed of entry but also calling into question your assertion that there is a "right" or "wrong" that's measurable by a certain group of people), though, Greenberg kept insisting that "what is the essence of art?" was the more vital question.

When the rest of the art world takes up a new question, and you dig in your heels and insist it's not important, it reveals you have an agenda (because if your curatorial objective was to study and present contemporary "art" in general, you'd have to acknowledge what others were doin).

And so it was a Modernist (with a capital "M") agenda, to the exclusion of any ideas that suggested the "essence" of art wasn't as interesting as "what is art?" And while obviously a very important subject for anyone who cares about contemporary art and its history, it was an agenda all the same.

2/02/2011 01:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I would disagree on the humility issue, Anonymous. I want my critics to be self-assured, even if wrong."

There are many forms of humilty beyond a garden variety one and I happen to beleive that humility and intellectual assertiveness as well as flexibility are not mutually exclusive qualities. All that I am proposing is that critics measure their words with a little truth to the fact that they deal in opinions and not truth and fact. Critics can become wholly worthless if they buy in to the belief that their own ideas are infallible. Even Arthur Danto once mentioned in the Nation that if you never change your mind then you never really use it.

I think this openness to exchange of ideas is really the key to criticism rather than a narrow approach to one's own aesthetic subjectivity.

-Anonymous Critic of Critics

2/02/2011 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Edward, you understand it incorrectly. The quote is from "After Abstract Expressionism," from 1962, and reads in full:

Elsewhere [in "Modernist Painting," 1960] I have written of the kind of self-critical process which I think provides the infra-logic of modernist art. The aim of the self-criticism, which is entirely empirical and not at all an affair of theory, is to determine the irreducible working essence of art and the separate arts.

Germane to this discussion, it continues in the next paragraph:

The question now asked through [the art of Newman, Rothko, and Still] is no longer what constitutes art, or the art of painting, as such, but what irreducibly constitutes good art as such. Or rather, what is the ultimate source of value or quality in art? And the worked-out answer appears to be: not skill, training, or anything else having to do with execution or performance, but conception alone. ... Conception can also be called invention, inspiration, or even intuition.

Greenberg was attempting to describe the real functioning of modernist painting at the time, as it appeared to him, not issue perscriptions about all art. He felt strongly enough about that to append a note to this essay in 1978 clarifying that the traits of successful modernism were not criteria for its quality. You can read in the excerpt that the question of what is art didn't evolve into being in postmodernism, but was already an important consideration of modernism, as noticed by Greenberg himself.

The question that Greenberg asked himself over and over again was whether a given individual work of art was good, bad, or something between. He concluded after a lot of looking that there was no way to reach an answer to that question except by intuited judgment, which has a tendency to surprise you and defy what you think you think about art. It's important to note all this because there's something perverse going on when the guy who gets hauled out as the protypical example of a critic with an agenda is a critic who didn't have one. Frank Jewett Mather noted in the 1930s that theories about art were, as a class, useless, but Greenberg spelled it out and lived it.

Before somebody says it: No, intuited judgment is not just another agenda, any more than atheism is just another religion. Someone cleverer than me said that asserting as much is like saying that not smoking is just another kind of smoking.

2/02/2011 02:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greenberg will always be characterized as having an agenda regardless of what anyone says about him. But if your "agenda" is commonly understood as truth and idealism, I'm not sure that the purpose is entirely self-serving. I think Greenburg was so passionate about art (and certain artists in particular) that his real agenda was to understand and explain...He merely wanted people to see art with the same intensity that he had for it.

In a sense he was less of a critic and more of an advocate...which in a sense is more important than a mere critic anyway.

2/02/2011 03:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

calling into question your assertion that there is a "right" or "wrong" that's measurable by a certain group of people

I wouldn't say that right and wrong are measurable, but I would say that they are detectable, that they can detected to exist in a greater or lesser way relative to some norm or comparison, that not everyone has an equal acumen for that detection, and not everyone has cultivated that acumen with equal skill and passion. You're right that postmodernism calls all this into question, but it never disproves any of it, nor does it deal with practicalities of art or life especially well, and it has a tendency to divide the world into Progressive-Liberal-Left and Evil. Pardon me for not being a subscriber.

2/02/2011 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Greenberg will always be characterized as having an agenda regardless of what anyone says about him.

I believe you're right and, regardless of whether it's fair to Greenberg or not, I believe it stems from his being the most influential critic of his time and his not rushing to embrace the Postmodernist movement, which eclipsed the fading Modernist movement.

I actually did realize that no matter how I characterized what I (still) see as Greenberg's "agenda" that Franklin could easily pull it apart (being so much better versed in Greenberg that I am), but to return to my original point (my "perverse" example duly smacked down), having an agenda as a critic strikes me as a working with a set of blinders on.

And although I remain unconvinced that there wasn't a set of said blinders with the monogram CG on them, I will acknowledge that we'd all benefit from having Clement still around to show us what he saw.

2/02/2011 03:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Art critics feed off of art, and the art industry (and the artists) benefit by having free publicity for their exhibits/art/galleries -- "there is no bad publicity".

Art critics are journalists who have the job of reporting on art. They are part time-line, part editorial -- they are merely an Arts Calendar with an opinion.

As reporters, they need an "angle" for their story, and if they can tie this week's "spin" in with last week's "angle", they are on their way to a full-blown "agenda". An agenda will tie all of their writings together, developing their written personality and further fleshing-out their "brand".

It's quite obvious to me that "what it means to have an agenda and pursue it through one's art writing" is to exhibit an opinion congruent with the other opinions that one has expressed at different times; it's a consistency, which in and of itself is not a bad thing.

Yet like any position of power, if an art critic gains enough influence, they can make or break careers -- and influence acceptance or rejection of new movements, as well as flogging a dead horse by championing fading movements. But in the end they are just reporters -- why anyone wants to give them so much power really puzzles me.

2/02/2011 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

In this context, what's the difference between an agenda, a purpose, or a strategy? It might be useful to think about the similarities and differences of that for starters in answering this question.
I think almost everyone has an agenda. Especially in this day and age when everyone wants the limelight for themselves, esp. critics, so it seems. But is it not possible to have an agenda and still let others benefit at the same time? Or conversely, can one not find ways to benefit from other people's agenda? Why would having an agenda be parasitic by default?

Truth is usually built on a back & forth of interesting and opposing ideas. So an interesting case is probably a good place for a critic to start...

2/02/2011 07:37:00 PM  
Anonymous sven Loven said...

I think you're being to harsh on greuze actually. I'm a young contemporary artist, and I've always liked his genre paintings , partly for their melodramatic campiness. The MET has a number of wonderful examples. The picture you chose was quite boring though, i admit.

2/02/2011 11:42:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

As usual, Jonathan Jones misses the point. J. P. Greuze may have been preferred to F. Boucher, in Diderot's valiant struggle against Rococco frivolity, but there was only ever going to be one winner - then as now! - J. S. Chardin.

It would be impossible to say anything very interesting or even correct for a critic, if they did not have some ideals, or an agenda.

'Much of Greuze's later work consisted of titillating pictures of young girls, which contain thinly veiled sexual allusions under their surface appearance of mawkish innocence; The Broken Pitcher (Louvre), for example, alludes to loss of virginity. With the swing of taste towards Neoclassicism his work went out of fashion and he sank into obscurity at the Revolution in 1789.'

I don't find that period of painting very interesting, but this summary does seem right.

2/03/2011 01:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

somehow I think you're actually commenting on your blog but anyway ...

Just as if art is imbued only with agenda it becomes propaganda, so an art critic imbued only with agenda (versus having personal bias), they are likely critiquing their world, not the world of the art.

As the writer of Lolita (V Nabokov) wrote somewhere:

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

I can't see art critics as parasites - they look at art,experience it, and then analyze that subjective experience coming to a conclusion if the art is good or less so. Calling them parasites would be like claiming artists are also parasites of their life, wherein we may take source of our experience of life, we are part of life and not separate from it.

2/03/2011 08:21:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Whatever Greenberg's agenda was, it's a moot point at this date. His opinions and writings will be picked apart by future historians who will sort it out using their own agendas. That's what happens to "agendas." Fine.

What perplexes me are those who still cling to Greenberg's proselytizing, as if it still had some importance in the todays context. I'm sure they would argue that it does. Well, show me the beef.

2/03/2011 11:59:00 AM  
Anonymous JBraun said...

Thank you Anonymous for this quote..."Arthur Danto once mentioned in the Nation that if you never change your mind then you never really use it".

2/03/2011 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous claude lambert said...

You are right about Boucher but wrong about Greuze. Boucher painted high class people with gusto, Greuze painted ordinary people. Until 1940, there was a Greuze reproduction in every peasant family of France, because people recognized themselves. They do not any more: society has changed. Diderot thinks like an Encyclopedia man: a generation wanting everybody to read and access science and art. It is a way of thinking, not an agenda. Greuze had meaning for 200 years, it cannot be that bad. Many Virgins have no meaning to me, that does not make them worthless.

2/03/2011 02:31:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Kessler said...

Like most artists, Greenberg, was narrow in what he liked and didn't like -- and I believe that was a good thing because it made him acutely passionate and more sensitive to that kind of art than a more catholic critic could be. So what if he didn't understand Pop or Conceptual Art, he was great at what he did understand. I wish more contemporary critics had this limitation.

2/03/2011 05:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

What perplexes me are those who still cling to Greenberg's proselytizing, as if it still had some importance in the todays context. I'm sure they would argue that it does. Well, show me the beef.

George, one need look no further than your irritation that someone would defend him. Plenty of 20th century writings have been disregarded and forgotten. You don't find a lot of writings about which people will say, No one should agree with this, and it doesn't matter if people misrepresent it. The former wouldn't be so unusual, but the latter is extraordinary. Something that would be an intellectual failure in any other context is a standard art world assumption when it comes to Greenberg. I think that this is worth some examination.

We ought to distinguish between having preferences, which is natural, and having agendas, which is not. It's not hard to imagine someone who witnessed the ascension and triumph of postwar American art not finding a lot to like about the art that came after it. What Jones is describing in Diderot is something else, a decision that art ought to be a certain way and the categorical disdain of work that is not.

2/03/2011 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Hah. You are confused, it's not 'irritation' but mockery. All dead critics are source material for future historians, what they said is written for all to see if they wish. In this case, Greenberg needs no defense, todays historians can find the footnotes they need.

Closer to the point, todays artists will find whatever they want BUT it won't make their art any better. The acolytes and sycophants of one critic, or another, are never going to find that little something, that little tid bit of words, that gives them the secret which changes their paintings from just good to great. You can learn that by looking at great paintings, but as noted it's an intuited judgment. not easily, or even expressible in words.

As far as agendas go, the worst are driven by ego, the desire to be right at any cost and to bend art to their own liking. It applies to a lot of them, don't take it the wrong way.

2/04/2011 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

You are confused, it's not 'irritation' but mockery.

That proves my point just as well, thanks. Ed claimed something about Greenberg, and I provided evidence that he was mistaken about it. For this I deserve mockery? If you insist. It just goes to show that some peoples' minds are epoxied shut when it comes to art. It applies to a lot of them - don't take it the wrong way.

2/04/2011 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Anonymous Franklin said...
"We ought to distinguish between having preferences, which is natural, and having agendas, which is not."

An agenda is merely a preference repeated over time, usually in a systematic manner, and as such can be totally subconscious.

Possibly what you intend to convey by using the term "agenda" is a conscious, forcefully-willed, dogmatic, prescriptive propaganda (only called such if you disagree with the said "propaganda", no doubt -- lol!).

The word agenda is neutral, it is only when it is colored with disdain that it becomes an insult.

2/04/2011 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

It just goes to show that some peoples' minds are epoxied shut when it comes to art.

Exactly my point.

2/04/2011 06:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

An agenda is, literally, a list of things to do. Art doesn't conform well to to-do lists. So when Diderot says that art should reflect moral virtues or Ruskin says that it ought to correlate to nature, eventually good art comes along that violates that framework and you're forced to make an insulting choice between truth and consistency. This is something that has gone on in art for a long time and it didn't end with the Victorians. When a certain dealer closed her New York gallery in 2009 she announced that she had always tried to curate from her values and not her taste. It was Diderot's aesthetics all over again.

Preferences spring up unbidden. You have preferences for food, sexual partners, colors, music, intellectual pursuits, and thousands of other things. Probably most of them were decided, at least at the macro level, by the age of six. You could never rid yourself of preferences. As Kant said, you can reason about how to get what you want, but not what to want. Preferences turned into a system would qualify as an agenda, but the system constitutes the agenda, not the preferences.

2/04/2011 10:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I disagree with George on this: "Closer to the point, todays artists will find whatever they want BUT it won't make their art any better. The acolytes and sycophants of one critic, or another, are never going to find that little something, that little tid bit of words, that gives them the secret which changes their paintings from just good to great."

Explain why Van Gogh was given attention late, or Gorky, or explain why Bouguereau was considered important at one time not another? Tastes change and often a splash of paint, sculpted fold of flesh cast in bronze, even a critics words can be overlooked in one era and seen with a different intensity in another. We are not frozen in time and what is great is, was, will always be great. There is a mood or zeitgeist that chooses of some to be great artists and others not. I wouldn't go so far as to call it relational aesthetics, but most artists can tap into what is great in art, few get the attention for it.

2/05/2011 10:43:00 AM  

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