Thursday, June 28, 2012

how professional critics write about "green things"

norman rockwell, the art critic, 1955


i'd like to comment james panero's article "criticism after art," published in the new criterion, vol. 24, issue 4, 2005. panero opens in a friendly informal tone:
The business of art criticism is a great deal more practical than you might imagine. This is one of its great appeals for me. Art criticism is less Immanuel Kant and more should I bring an umbrella.
point taken, theory shouldn't be overbearing, though it's pretty naive to think that "umbrella," as idea, exists outside of conceptual frameworks. but let's not get fussy.
A world of difference separates those who criticize art from those who seek to know about how art criticism is done, because art criticism is done by doing it. To ask after the details beyond the most practical ones is already a step in the wrong direction. Art critics who make the "criticism of art criticism" their business do not stay in the business of art criticism for long.
indeed, anything is done by doing & the sentence in blue walks like a crab. is panero afraid of scrutiny? the question remains "why do you write about this and not about this?" "why are you so happily clueless about the ideas that inform your writing?"

panero is stuck. he's not addressing the serious issues: the art market rules, criticism is a mouth piece of the system and he still wants to argue from a professional perspective. so, he goes back to the moment of professional spaltung. once upon a time in the new york of the 1950's there were just modern critics. suddenly, the 1960's brought up an invasion of alien critics with a post-structuralist mission. see how panero plays the detached conspiracy commenter:
In need of a power base, not to mention a livelihood, Krauss's generation also took to the universities--Krauss herself to the City University of New York, then to Columbia University--where it set about seeding and gaining control of an entire network of art history departments. Krauss became famous for her letters of negative recommendation against dissident thinkers. Her severe legacy is still felt in the universities, even if much of the art being produced today has departed from the minimalist and conceptualist formulations with which she and others once held sway, writing for Art forum those many years ago.
raise the art-terror level on krauss to orange!
 critic & art historian rosalind krauss (circa 1970's)

how can one individual (and a woman at that in the late 1960's!) exert such amazing power in the -for the most part phallocentric- land of academic freedom?
An academic-based, anti-modern ideology now repudiates and replaces the high-modernist judgment of Clement Greenberg. October describes its editorial mission as "examining relationships between the arts and their critical and social contexts" Put in simplest terms, Greenberg judged art, for which he was praised by one generation and vilified by the next. Krauss judges the judgment of art. In an article for Art in America in 1974 called "Changing the Work of David Smith" Krauss even charged Greenberg with over-stepping his bounds of judgment in his maintenance of the David Smith estate--the critic's judgment was put in judgment by a former disciple.
aw! woman-critic dares to challenge man-critic?
clement greenberg (circa 1960's)

panero throws the most disparate angst-ingredients in one big pot and hopes for spontaneous alchemy. what is history if not change? october can be explained as a generational struggle for power, but also as an intellectual paradigm shift within american intelligentsia. greenberg was the best american critic of his generation and he also had serious conflicts of interest between his critic and curator profiles (regarding david smith's state -as it was pointed by krauss). modern-ism fell out of favor & postmodern-ism had its moment through the 1980's and 1990s'.

when greenberg "judged art" he was also judging art practices. if a powerful critical voice defends X style, she is addressing X's objects as well as X ways-of-doing things. greenberg did not shun theory. he was a known trotskyist in the 1940's (at the helm of greenberg's penmanship for partisan review). 1940's greenbergian criticism is trivially a different practice than in the 1960's during krauss' generation. panero should know all this, but he's projecting his own insecurities: the quintessential tension between academic and non-academic.

so non-academics get an empty defense. en passant we get a confession:
The New Criterion is a modernist magazine. I, too, consider myself a modernist art critic. In New York, when I think of the "relationships between the arts and their critical and social contexts" to take a cue from October, rare is the case that the legacy of modernism and the New York School does not serve as the foundation for the art I see. 
what's all the fuss about? panero (the non-academic) gets invited to a panel talk at the art institute of chicago by (the academic) critic and art historian james elkins. the former quotes the latter: 
[Art criticism's] voice has become very weak, and it is dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism. But the decay is not the ordinary last faint push of a practice that has run its course, because at the very same time, art criticism is also healthier than ever.... [A]rt criticism is flourishing, but invisibly, out of sight of contemporary intellectual debates. So it's dying, but it's everywhere. It's ignored, and yet it has the market behind it.
he swiftly moves to dave hickey, another panel member who articulates the difference between panero's academic vs. non-academic, now reframed as "criticism" vs. "metacriticism" (panero will re-reframe it later as "modern" vs. "post-modern"):
(...) I am a professional writer. I have written about Ed Ruscha for forty years, and then Benjamin Buchloh does the big piece about the Venice Biennale. I'm envious of the assignments, but that's about all. We write about art. Most of the people in October write about criticism; it is a meta-critical project, and they are interested in controlling the forms and shapes of criticism, and the manner of address, and the rhetorical mode --I don't talk about criticism. I talk about things that are green.
the discussion takes again a "professional" turn which panero enjoys (and i spare you the details). these are known paid-per-assignment writers, they do this and that). one feels something crucial is missing in this chin-wag. the conundrum is right back at panero and hickey's blind-critical-spot. is academic vs. non academic equivalent to criticism vs. metacriticism? only if you are afraid of critical bacteria.

i disagree with hickey's (and panero's) antiseptic view of criticism, which takes for granted that writing about "things that are green" is a done deal. that is to say, reality is transparent to the critic's eye, the critic is impervious to personal interests, ideologies, aesthetic inclinations, the art market, etc. if one raises an objection to these platitudes, one is labeled, what, a radical post-structuralist? boloney!

coming back to panero, what did he get out of his vis-a-vis?
I recognized how modernism has, perhaps, reached an ebb. Among academics like Elkins, the battles of modernism are now two wars past. As for Hickey, the glossy mirror-image of Elkins, the critical moment is not found in modernism or anti-modernism but in what I call premodernism. Like Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, Hickey finds succor in the style of Beaux-Arts. He argues for the same eclecticism in the galleries that Elkins wants to a bring to the university. When asked to name his influences, Hickey responded to our panel: "I have an eccentric practice that goes back to Baudelaire, Wilde, Shaw, Hazlitt, and De Quincey." Take out Communism and you have it: Hickey's twenty-first century picks up where the nineteenth century leaves off. 
panero-as-hickey sounds as one-dimensional as a flat-line. why? zeitgeist contagion, since a transmission of post-modern-to-modern becomes a possibility, get rid of both. we're critics, aren't we? we can throw the baby with the bathwater, even if the whole 20th century is left out of the game!

there are no different criticisms for different realities. there is only one reality. let's puts it in hickeyian:  green things are green for reasons that aren't green.

advice to panero: don't be afraid & open the round table to all relevant matters: green things, greenology and/or both.


Feminista said...

Triff: This is an interesting and entertaining piece. What one gets is not that the difference between literature and metaliterature is trivial but that we use it too often to hide facets of green that are hard to deal with. I'm sharing it with my students.

Feminista said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"green things are green for reasons that aren't green"

man, always a pleasure to read you.

that is not the fault of art said...

There is plenty here to digest. I agree that generally we artists take it that there is only this problem ignoring a lot of baggage behind the art. However I have no time to think about those things on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

nice post. fun and irreverent.
thanks, triff.

Dissey said...

who cares?... the market took over and people go on with their lives. what we see is artbranding and no one complains. panero & co. are just screaming for attention but it's also their fault for looking the other side.

Dissey said...

who cares?... the market took over and people go on with their lives. what we see is artbranding and no one complains. panero & co. are just screaming for attention but it's also their fault for looking the other side.

No art critic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
No art critic said...

How can critics they change anything when they are part of the system? Are opinions circulating changed by critics? Do they exercise any sway in what artists or the market does? Criticism is irrelevant. And maybe we are worse off because of it.

Alfredo Triff said...

thanks, guys, feminista: an honor.
not the fault: don't think about these things, let me think them for you.:)
alicia: tx.
dissey: we should care. that's how we change things.
no art: we're part and not part of the system. weird but true.

Anonymous said...

what follows is more "thinking alound" than an argument that has been worked through, and it responds to the general interest in criticism that has taken hold of the blog rather than to this post specifically. in no way is it intended to defend or justify the examples that have been used. it aims instead to see if the notion of criticism put forth can be complicated through the idea of positionality. in other words, does it depend *where* one is writing/criticizing from. the scenario i'm imagining is that of an active participant in a field--rather than a professional (disinterested?) critic--engaging critically with something produced within that field. say, a pan-asian chef criticizing in a newspaper column a new pan-asian restaurant. does this chef not have a depth of knowledge (and desire) that allows him to enact a parallax shift in his labor as critic from "finding fault" to "finding opportunity," from judging to speculating on what possibilities were missed (and hence are now on the table to be taken up) or may have been rendered available by what he experienced/ate? in other words, if one is practicing criticism from *within* a field can't one find a space of opportunity in the deficiencies that one locates? is there not a way "to be done with judgement" as an ultimate end (without necessarily absolving oneself from the demand to be as rigorously critical as possible), to attempt a productive criticism? more, say, glauber rocha than clement greenberg. i don t think this would foreclose by necessity on "criticism as finding fault" or lower the bar on rigor as much as pin a new duty to critical engagement.

Alfredo Triff said...

thanks, anon. nice comment. just keep in mind that our present predicament is hardly late-19th century or mid 20th-century industrial capitalism. this is global capitalism-MARKET-all-over. which is why i have a problem with this yours:

in other words, if one is practicing criticism from *within* a field can't one find a space of opportunity in the deficiencies that one locates? is there not a way "to be done with judgement" as an ultimate end (without necessarily absolving oneself from the demand to be as rigorously critical as possible), to attempt a productive criticism?

done with judgement as ultimate end? to do exactly what the system wants? look, curators spend tons of man-hour$
to do exactly what you propose! their role is to make it look as if they "problematize" issue$ (but alway$ within the market provision$).

productive? this exchange between you and i.:)

Anonymous said...

what is not within the market? you make it seem impossible to do anything outside it.

Alfredo Triff said...

anon 12.21: don't paint me like a market determinist. the market is very powerful but there's porosity. i believe this blog is a very tiny pore. i don't have big dreams of changing anything. i just do what i feel i have to do.

with anon 7:44, i'd like to add that there is room from critics and artists to act from "within" and effect change. i still believe finding-fault is a necessary imperative for our times.

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