Sandow Birk, Average American (32 Donuts, 17 Bars of Soap, 1 Book), (2005).
Let’s go straight to it. We don’t really talk about art anymore. What we do is chat and nod and casually interject on worn down themes. We echo the words of art magazines, the blurbs written by curators. We feel comfortable.
Critical discourse means taking things apart, discussing with passion, avoiding complacency. Always looking with new eyes, with fresh minds. This is not to say that the writing has to resemble an academic treatise, a conservative harangue or a philosophical essay. What I’m talking about is a voice that is not afraid to call a spade a spade. A writing that elaborates some kind of defensible scheme, whose style is consistent, reliable, complex, a bit adversarial and why not, entertaining. I’m defending the kind of criticism that aims at quality and avoids self-indulgence and mannerism. Criticism as reflection of judgments, not as parading of judgments.
Unfortunately, this kind of criticism is gone. What Miami writers (let’s bracket the term “critic” for the time being) produce today is art advocacy plain and simple. They have become the media mouthpiece for the gallery and the museum system. Art-writing for the art market.*
What happened? The demise of the printed media has something to do with it. One could argue that sometime during the early 2000’s Miami had a variety of choices: The New Times, The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Street and The Sun Post, all competing for attention. They provided different points of view (and we thought it needed to be improved!). Today only the first three in the list above do some kind of art covering. To make things worse, they converge ideologically.
Norman Rockwell, The Art Critic, (1955).
I present some examples, taken from recent art reviews (my purple ink interjects to point to the obvious). The first two by Carlos Suarez de Jesus. The style here is to declare and embroider with a “groovy” sleight-of-hand:
Arguably the highlight of the slow summer art season and one of the most anticipated events of the year, the freewheeling show features a zany half-hour-long video collaboration featuring a Cecil B. DeMille cast of coconspirators.--“Dadarhea, the absurdist funstravaganza opening at O.H.W.O.W.” New Times, (August 12).Or this one:
The provocative show ploughs the fertile furrows of macho/male positioning in contemporary culture from sweeping perspectives, shifting seamlessly from macho-man swagger to female and childhood notions of manliness and the complex relationships between young boys and girls. – “Three art shows in Wynwood probe manliness, devastation and the passage of time”.—(Idem, August 8).This sample is by Tom Austin:
In the end, the Lowe exhibition proves that artists don't care for politicians and, for the most part, find the world a crummy place, a sensibility that crosses all strains of humanity. This show is a wonderful opportunity --for a change-- to see angry art that's about changing the world, as opposed to all the narcissistic nonsense of contemporary art, the navel-gazing that changes nothing. “ArtLab at the Lowe examines centuries of revolts and bad behavior”, The Miami Herald, (August 8).Our digital media is not far behind. Observe how the writer apologizes for her words and proceeds to beg the question on her own declaration:
This is by no means a criticism of Miami artists nor of the exhibition. It’s a good show, plain and simple. I challenge anyone to argue differently (and if that naysayer is you, by all means, leave a comment). It’s no easy task to sum up the production of a city in just a few rooms.—Art Lurker, (August 2).Sadly, El Nuevo is not that different.**
Sandow Birk, Average American (60 Hot Dogs and 60 Sticks of Butter a Year), (2005).
Why is the writing so vapid? The writers feel they have a mission to educate, which brings me to the next point. The alleged decline of reading, which art writers whine so much about, has nothing to do with the so-called dumbing down of America. There is nothing more condescending than to assume people cannot understand, which -conveniently- puts the enlightened writer on the moral obligation to dilute the information for them. It all reflects the ignorance -and hypocrisy- of today’s editors,*** whom flatly reject the idea that the dumbing starts with their presumption that the public is dumb. They live in blind, pathetic denial: On the one hand, they don’t feel it’s their fault that people don’t read, on the other hand, they bathe in this glow of being America’s educators.
Why not assuming that people don’t read because they are tired of feeling stupid?
Miami’s printed media doesn’t do criticism --if by criticism one means a serious engagement with the work that avoids political conflict of interests, enthusiasm and bias. Let me explain. There are two modalities of what I see as plain art advocacy in this town:
1. “Augmenting” the event, conceptually framing it with the purpose of “selling” a show. Think of the typical 200-word-blurb of today’s gallery-circuit ads magnified now into 800 words. The writer doesn’t bother to present the reader some sort of ideological stand-point reference from which to evaluate. Generally, the writing feels like dictum clothed in ad-parlance or cool, groovy, sophomoric description --depending your take. In any case, the “selling” takes the form of obvious partisanship (only rarely it looks as nuanced-defense).
2. De facto artwriting: This out-and-out positive approach falsely presumes that since the writer is entitled to engage only what he/she likes, he/she can go all the way in his/her de facto defense of such-and-such artist or art work, and yet come out as “honest” and “truthful”. The writer justifies his/her bad faith with the dubious claim that not writing about something transparently shows a normative choice. In other words: If I don’t write about it is because I don’t like it (or don’t care about it). Really? Meanwhile, the public, to whom the writer supposedly “owes full disclosure” is left in the dark as “why” this is the case.
Both forms increasingly recur to social coverage, which makes the writer and the paper look socially engaged, or the news story, which has nothing to do with art criticism. So, we “hear” the protagonists: the voice of artists, gallerists, curators, being interviewed to shed light on the context of the art. The writer becomes a medium for truthful reportage. Art becomes cultural news to be digested by the masses.
So, on the one hand we get an indulgent version of the critic’s preference, on the other hand, an amplified, distorted, cultural message.
John Heartfield, Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages!, Photomontage, (1930).
Doesn’t Miami deserve better?
* Whether inspired genius or avant-garde cynic, the artist is a cultural ambassador of capitalism. The gallery owner and curator are just bona fide facilitators between the artist and the public. The art writer takes the role of the publicist: His/her job consists in 1- creatively reporting on opening night, 2- building a richly adjectival import in order to help reflect on the event’s cultural impact, i.e, attendance, general mood and public appreciation. The more they (the public) consume (to consume is to attend), the better it looks. The writer’s job consists in embroidering an allegorical moral play, stitched with the protagonists’ voices (artist, curator, gallery owner and curious public) -as if all descended from the aesthetic heavens. **I’m not disputing these writers don’t believe what they say, or that they are hypocrites. All I’m saying is they (inadvertently at best, willingly at worse) play the game. ***You can always locate the editor’s hand in the review’s heading. The choice of words is either redundant or banal or both. Check this one: “Miami Art Museum's "New Work Miami 2010" showcases breadth and scope of local talent”. --The Miami New Times, July 22.