Nancy Grossman at PS1aTriFf
The coverage of art has become so lame that we don't notice anymore. Art writers produce reviews for magazines. The review is supposed to be about the art object, but instead the writing presents itself as persuading rather than analyzing, defending, instead of observing. Rarely one finds a genuine desire to problematize the issues being raised. Polished, suave and convincing, these review-like blurbs have become plain art-advocacy (in the meantime art object gets thickened with all this relational layers of blathering and eventually disappears).
I'll try to illustrate my point with two reviews taken at random from artforum.co. A fragment from Beau Rutland:
The works evince an unsettling mix of ebullient pride and painful embarrassment that is only heightened by the implementation of decorative chains, straps, studs, horns, and other trappings of the s/m aesthetic. With only fourteen of these dungeon effigies on view, the exhibition is stunningly sparse, creating a thrilling tension between the presented and the presentation."Evince" means "to show clearly." What? an unsettling mix of ebullient pride and painful embarrassment? Not so clear after all, which is precisely why the sentence is so successful. It plays along the reader's embedded ideas about s/m objects. It accommodates perception and agreement. Rutland's creating a thrilling tension adds the anticipated cherry to the cake. Rutland has no desire at all to problematize the tension between presented and presentation. It's all good, and it sells! Let's give him an "A."
This is Ara Merjian, reviewing a show by Katrin Heichel, at Thierry Goldberg Projects:
Here, a cement mixer hovers between schematic presence and prodigious corpulence, enlivened with touches of light and a striking play of shadows at its base. From its gaping hole, a stream of paint pours down the surface of the canvas, congealing in real time and real space in a lumpy pool at its base. Vergangenheit I (Past I), 2011, furthers this play between representation and raw materials. Next to a bucket and whitewashed wall, a painting roller sits at once neatly delineated and heavily encrusted. The coarse material of paint itself flits in and out of likeness and readymade.The writer reports a cement mixer as hovering "between schematic presence and prodigious corpulence." Sensational. Merjian starts with an objective mark: "here...", then she proceeds to unfold this struggle, as she puts it, "... between representation and raw materials." Clearly, Merjian's intentional language aims at blending description and evaluation. She never departs from being laudatory, which is the goal of her piece. She deserves an "A."
Intentional language* is the staple of today's art reviews. Its rhetoric combines advertising's shrewdness and persuasion. One may retort that there is nothing wrong about using language this way. But here is the catch: The purpose of these reviews is to sell. And the paradox is that in order to sell one has to pretend "as if" one is not really doing it. If the selling is obvious one immediately doubts it.** Right?
Not necessarily. Far from shying from the pretense of selling, the media has adopted a late-capitalist strategy: Consumers are fools. Make the language more than obvious. This way any suspicion of deceptiveness will vanish behind the hyperbole.
In other words, the best way to lie is to lie more.
*Intentional language ascribes propositional attitudes to art objects. So, one can see Mondrian Composition in Gray and Brown,
Piet Mondrian, Composition in Gray and Brown, 1918.
as "an example of temporal dialectics, with each figure struggling two essential properties: shape and color," or "as an implicit political statement about the excess of capitalism hidden, as plain form, behind society's superstructure", etc. One can go on and on... ** I use "selling" in the broad sense of advertising. Writers today don't write reviews of shows they don't like (in our thumbs-up era this is not cool). Imagine what happens in a possible world where reviewers get paid to write about stuff they don't like.