Critical Mess

The Eroding Impact of Art Writing

By: Charles Giuliano - Feb 21, 2007

Critical Mess: Art Critics and the State of Their Practice
Edited by Raphael Rubenstein
Essays in order of publication by: James Elkins, Thomas McEvilley, Jerry Saltz, Raphael Rubenstein, Katy Siegel, Lane Relyea, Arthur C. Danto, JJ Charlesworth, Nancy Princenthal, Carter Ratcliff, Eleanor Heartney, Michael Duncan and Peter Plagens. Hard Press Editions, Lenox, Massachusetts. 125 pages with biographical statements by the contributors. Published December, 2006. $24.95, Trade Paper edition. Email

          No child aspires to grow up and be an art critic. When I was asked it seemed clever at the time to reply that I wanted to be a ballerina. Just prior to giving that answer we attended a performance of Swan Lake by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the old Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue on what is now the campus of Northeastern University. Not long after that we took in the Rodeo with Gene Autry at the former Boston Garden and I changed my mind and wanted to be a cowboy. My parents, both of whom were doctors, had a different idea. This resulted in a fist fight with Dad when after freshman year at Brandeis in which I flunked chemistry and got an A in art I announced that I planned to be an artist. That was later compromised a bit when Professor Creighton Gilbert wisely advised that "If you want to be an artist study art history."

           Like virtually everyone who answers to the tag of art critic I got there by luck and circumstance. Having washed out of the Institute of Fine Arts as a student of Egyptology, that's another story, I answered an ad in the Village Voice and landed the job as director of an artist's cooperative, Spectrum Gallery, on 57th street. This is when I first encountered the notion that there was a crisis in the field of art criticism. The senior art critic of the New York Times, John Canaday, was generally indifferent or hostile to what was being shown in galleries. He covered the handful of galleries of his friends, ignored the rest, or wrote scathing, sarcastic reviews. I remember one that simply stated a single word "No." It was the 1960s but that review is easy to remember. Actually I rather liked that show though now I can't remember why. It deserved more than a one word dismissal. By the Times no less.

          Jock Truman, the director of the Betty Parsons Gallery, decided to do something about it and started a fanzine which flourished for a time as "The 57th Street Review." I was invited to contribute. The idea was  to cover shows that the Times was ignoring. It was great fun but I don't remember if there was any money involved. Then as now money is not really why one writes arts criticism. Soon I was taken on to write reviews for the former Arts Magazine. If I recall correctly we were paid something like $5 for a gallery and $10 for a museum review. But even at that level, suddenly, as far as the art world was concerned I was a somebody. At least at Max's Kansas City where glasses of sour white wine were seventy five cents and if you went during happy hour you could make dinner out of the chicken wings. If you hung out late enough you got to see Andy and his factory sweep in and sit in the back room under the Dan Flavin sculpture or watch Rene Ricard dance on table tops.

           That was the 1960s. But according to a slim but absorbing book of essays by a range of art critics "Critical Mess: Art critics and the state of their practice" nothing today seems terribly different. Instead of Critical Crisis the editor and chief essayist, Raphael Rubenstein, is pained to explain why Mess is a better and more accurate term than Crisis. But the arguments put forth seem like they are centuries old. Going back to the very birth of art criticism when it was invented by the artist/ architect/ acolyte Giorgio Vasari. Then as now the argument was advanced that he was a major writer and a minor artist/ architect. Actually, the first work of art that I acquired, a high school graduation present, was a Vasari drawing which I still own.  It is generally assumed that if one succeeds at one pursuit in the arts you are a failure or at best mediocre at the other. Historically, art critics have been moonlighting or failed artists, poets, philosophers, authors of fiction, curators, sociologists, anthropologists, pot smokers, pugilists or pimps. This is a game that artists also dabble in. How many successful artists today, for example, really want to make feature films? Or, when a critic presumes to write about the Artist, Adrien Piper, they get drawn into nasty exchanges of letters with Piper the Kantian philosopher. None of which makes the work more lucid or even interesting.

            The perennial problem is that there are virtually no qualifications to being an art critic other than claiming that you are and finding some means of publishing. The greater the circulation and visibility of the publication the more credible the critic. So following that model, arguably, the only real art critics write for the New York Times, Art Forum, or Art in America. All other writers and publications in some kind of descending spiral are wannabes and imposters. By that measure there are perhaps a dozen art critics in America but virtually thousands of individuals who write about art. I am a card carrying member of AICA, which gets you in free at most museums. There are several hundred American members of this international organization of art critics and in the thousands internationally. But actually AICA is more exclusive than inclusive. It seems more devoted to keeping potential members out than inviting them in. Our local chapter, for example, has had difficulty passing along candidates to the national organization. I am informed that some progress has been made but I urgently believe that we would all benefit from having a broader membership and more lively dialogue about common issues and agendas.

             One of the essays in this useful book lamented that at an international AICA convention the keynote speaker was an art star who bragged about never reading art criticism. Cool. During the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Boston in 2006 the official AICA meeting was a panel of moonlighting  curators one of whom doubted why he had been invited to speak on a panel of critics and added that he would consider, perhaps for the sake of appearances, to officially join AICA. Which struck me as rather arch, and I stated so publicly, when working art critics for those numerous under the radar publications, like Art New England, get snubbed.

               Just as there was 57th Street Review, back in the 60s, a generation later there was another New York publication, for much the same reason, called simply Review. It was black and white and read all over. Sometimes printing more than one review of the same show. It was fun, lively and free. But it became tedious when the publisher was always berating freeloading readers to subscribe or galleries to advertise. The galleries prefer to put their expensive glossy ads in magazines that everyone looks at but nobody reads like Art Forum. Or to a lesser extent, Art in America, of which I read, rather typically, about 20 percent per issue. That includes virtually all of the "news" most of the text in the front of the book, an occasional feature, and none of the reviews. The features and reviews are generally useless as they offer nothing of importance and insight. One of the laments laid down in this book is the lack of insight, judgment and "opinion." As an art writer the Art in America features and reviews feel over edited. The personality of the writer seems squeezed out of the text. This is especially annoying when the feature is about an artist or exhibition in which I take a particular interest. Some years back I saw a fascinating survey of the late German artist Blinky Palermo, at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and more recently a small show of work by Lucio Fontana at the Guggenheim. In both instances I pounced on those articles with great interest only to be turned away by their muddled mediocrity. I don't even recall the byline of the authors. But, does it matter? As usual the writer may have submitted a text which then got the usual Art in America treatment. Similarly I may have seen a show that interested me in the galleries but by the time it turns up as a review it is a mostly dead issue.

             Two of the essayists in this collection are ubiquitous AiA authors, Nancy Princenthal and Eleanor Heartney. Here, however, they do not appear to be overedited and left to speak on their own prove to be lucid and provocative. While they are not the strongest and most original voices in this collection they state their points with insight and clarity. Similarly, Peter Plagens who pumped out pop culture coverage at Newsweek, now semi retired, is far more interesting and witty when let off the leash of mass circulation. In this book he has the compelling idea that all critics may be divided into three categories: Goalies, cartographers and evangelists. At one time or another all three might apply to my critical ambitions. So it was kind of squeamish fun to feel nailed by his wit. On the other hand it gets tedious when Jerry Saltz constantly reminds us that before he took up art writing in his 40s, having failed to acquire a formal education and spending years as a truck driver, he emerged full grown from the forehead of Zeus as the art critic for the Village Voice. As the spouse of Roberta Smith of the Times they are often described as a power couple, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of the art world. I have never met them but they sound groovy to run into at an opening or party. I just wish  Saltz were smarter rather than smart ass. It does make a difference when one lacks an education. Sure he sees a lot of art but the art world is rife with sophists who have their finger on the here and now. These individuals run up frequent flyer miles zooming from art fairs to biennales and back again but don't seem to know squat about anything prior to last week.

            Many with a passion for art criticism have a love hate relationship with the good old days of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. I have sat through those panels at CAA and read a ton on the topic. May they rest in peace. What is praised, reviled, lamented about Clem is that he judged things. Decided what was good or bad. That Pollock was more important than deKooning and why. Which is really stupid because today everyone knows that deKooning and Pollock were equally important. Apples and Oranges. And, according to Greenberg, Pollock led to Helen Frankenthaler. Who made like one important painting "Mountains and Sea" when she was dating Clem. A local Boston Globe critic, Cate McQuaid, in a recent negative review of Native artist, Jeffrey Gibson, suggested that he study Frankenthaler. It was a staggeringly dumb remark. Helen Frankenthaler? Yahgaddahbekidding.

            But Kantian, Greenbergian formalism again raises its dead and ugly head in this book of essays as a point of reference and nostalgia. Let him rest. Can't we find a way to redefine what he stood for at his best without exhuming the corpse of color field painting? It's like saying that Little Italy was safer when John Gotti was still around. The lament in this book appears to be that there is the lack of a Capo with enough clout to keep order in the art world neighborhood.

            Back in the day there were the epic struggles between the Apollonians and Dionysians, the Romantics and the Classicists, the Social Realists and the Abstract Expressionists, and on and on. Here Carter Ratcliff rather nicely argues for the poets who bring us to work and share its associations rather than the theorists who in their didactic manner reduce work to a text that requires initiation into the cult of French sources that are at best poorly understood and universally applied. It is another way of saying that Greenberg never really understood Kant and may have been not much more than a failed philosopher. Like Arthur C. Danto who appears to be our most widely read and influential critic although limited to about ten, 3000 word essays annually. Actually, I liked Danto's essay here a lot particularly as he responds quite nicely to criticisms leveled at him by Rubinstein. There is some retelling of how Art News under editor Frank O'Hara was a haven for poets where the neo formalist followers of Greenberg founded Art Forum until it went so mainstream that its core of writers decamped to start October which has now declined. What makes all this particularly relevant, and indeed the primary audience for the book, is the academic industry cranking out MFAs for the insatiable appetite of the art market. These newly minted grad students know lots of theory and nothing about art. Their work often feels like a thesis statement and has about that much holding power. At least until the next crop of grads with the latest theories. Or as one Museum School professor put it with great wit students in grad school today are limited to working within about five accepted isms. Like feminism and gender, identity, the environment, deconstruction, performance, installation etc. The usual suspects.

            The primary lament of this volume of essays is that for all the infighting and back stabbing the truth is that critics today have little or no influence in the booming art world. The power brokers are collectors, mega museums, major curators and auction houses. The opinion of critics has no real influence and the function of art writing, for example the endless praise for Boston's new ICA, is to generate publicity. It doesn't seem to matter, for example, that the contemporary art programming and exhibitions of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts suck big time just as long as the public comes in droves and Malcolm Rogers succeeds in building the new Norman Foster designed additions. The only tangible result of my stating this is being taken off their mailing list and not invited to openings. Not that it really makes any difference but I don't see my role as an art critic to function as a Goalie, Cartographer or Evangelist. Instead, it is important to let the work define the function of the critic. It is the process of looking at and making sense of art that structures what we say about it. So I see the process of writing about art as constantly evolving and we are free to use any and all resources. To quote Malcom X "By any means necessary." Which, I guess, makes me a radical. That's one of the voices and possibilities I did not find in this collection of essays. What if you really care about something and want to share that with readers? What I really liked about Milena Kalinovska, the former director of the ICA before she got run out of town, was that she always used the word "passion" when we talked about art. It was what we had in common and liked about each other. Passion. Not mess.