Is There a Crisis in Art Criticism?
Last December the art critic Irving Sandler posed (www.brooklynrail.org) fourteen broadly philosophical questions to fellow art critics who are trying to understand where art is going. Today, the third question, Q3: Is there a crisis in art criticism?
Well, yes, sort of. But first a trip down Memory Lane. In 1925, the Dadaist/Expressionist George Grosz and the publisher Wieland Herzfelde (brother of the photomontage artist John Heartfield) published a diatribe against the avant-garde art of the time (which they considered out of touch), and a defense of Dadaist sociopolitical iconoclasm, entitled “Art is in Danger,” referring to the alarums of “foes of Dada.” It’s a pithy, funny rant, and extremely partisan, excoriating the “the head-in-the-clouds tendency of so-called holy art, whose disciples brooded over …the ‘really’ revolutionary problems of form, color, and style” “while the generals were painting in blood.” If we, a century after The Great War, now oscillate between holy art and aesthetic iconoclasm, and often confuse the two, well, there’s nothing new under the global capitalist sun, maybe. Grosz and Herzfelde: “Formal revolution lost its shock effect a long time ago. The modern citizen digests everything . . . [I]ce-cold, aloof, he hangs the most radical things in his apartment. . . . Rash and unhesitating acceptance so as not to be “born yesterday” is the password. . . . [C]ool, . . . skeptical, without illusions, . . . he understands only his merchandise [read ‘business’]. . .for all culture, there are specialists who determine the fashion. . . . Even the formal revolutionaries . . . do fairly well, for, underneath, they are related to those gentlemen, and have . . . the same indifferent, arrogant view of life.” (That Grosz later repudiated, or at least depicted his earlier radicalism with irony, does not invalidate the 1925 analysis.)
The worldview of the consumer/flâneur, of course, pervades the art world, and it’s no good pining for “holy” art again, in either its realist or abstract incarnations. But to the extent that art exercises an influence on us, even shapes us, we need to be conscious of the values that it embodies, and what pleasure (or pain) centers in our brains it stimulates. If there is a crisis in art criticism—and I think there is—its cause is the present crisis in art, which is due to its plurality and diffuseness. There is no consensus about art’s purpose or function; indeed, at the top rungs of the art world, it often seems devoid of aesthetic value or human emotion, devolved into mere markers of social status. The reason so much art criticism divides into the extremes of formalist exposition/description (without analysis) or politically correct tendentious tract is that meaning has been leached from art in the name of total creative freedom. Today we are conditioned to invest blind faith in the artist and the art world, at the risk of seeming culturally retrograde. The last domain of free thought that many of us once discerned in art once has gradually become (or is becoming, or is in danger of becoming) an entertainment for the fashionable conformist: the popular game in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Centrifugal Bumble Puppy. The crisis in art, reflected in the crisis in art crit, is a reflection of contemporary society. In my opinion—and take it as misguided or alarmist if you will—is that we cannot afford to remain arrogant and indifferent to—and perpetually distracted from—the critically important larger crises at our doorstep. Art can be part of the solution; it should not exult in being part of the problem, or cover-up. —DeWitt Cheng