Three and a half years ago, I came to New York after graduating from the University of Michigan with concentrations in History of Art, Ethical Analysis, and Philosophy of Morality. My first NY editor had suggested that I stopped writing like an academic (totally necessary). Still, I never published a piece without receiving a comment about “esoteric language” or “too harsh” of an argument. Editors never did me wrong, and I honored their requests. Until recently, I had ignored that my writing style was different from other art critics: finally, an aesthetics professor from a philosophy department in the city explained that I straddled a seat between philosophy and criticism, analyzing much more than object in gallery, postulating ontology of contemporary art. Years of hardcore journalism couldn’t remove philosophical deliberation from my process nor from my sent email box.
My meta-ethical and meta-everything-else brain had fueled my penchant for ranting about how much I disliked current art criticism, however my meta-criticism obsession forced me to find out why.
In 2006, Irving Sandler asked colleagues, “Is there justification in the widespread feeling among us that art criticism is irrelevant,” as an opener for “Railing Opinion: A Call to Art Critics,” Brooklyn Rail. The Rail printed three thoughtful responses. Alas, we continued to dread the demise of our discourse, when only we, as critics, were to blame.
We confuse other forms of art writing for art criticism. Academic art history delineates and examines; reviews and scene pieces survey without critique; journalistic articles profile, list, investigate and feature; catalogue essay archive. Each remains imperative to the artworld, yet art criticism differs from all. Art criticism compels the reader. It functions as an interpretation of the artworld based on practical theory, empirical observation and aesthetics. Art critics present an argument that opens a dialogue. Our unwillingness to postulate leads us to survey rather than support artworks; often we review and insert an unwarranted opinion at the end of an article. Therefore, we develop enumerable “theories” that are moot. Communication among art critics would encourage more from young critics and support young artists.
Normally, I bang my head against the wall, computer screen and other flat surfaces while completing a review because I imagine my work printed and forgotten all in one day. Luckily, I write well and am able to produce art criticism for my career as well as other writing to pay my rent. Regardless, I hear Carlo McCormick ask, “Why would a young person even entertain art criticism, a dying career that yields no money?” Let’s be honest and admit that no one works for free. As art critics, we develop a love affair with art writing. As if we were breaking up with a junkie, we constantly answer the door and lead it to bed: only to have it leave us broke and unsatisfied the next morning, waiting for some great article to stir us again.
When true criticism sees print, it is normally met with a negative or silent response. It is as if art critics (writers by trade!) have forgotten that “criticism” does not connote “bad” and that a negative argument is not an insult.
Sadly, an essay commenting on the lack of young artists’ profundity has been the greatest example of our attack on art criticism.
This summer, Jerry Saltz purported that our young artist generation lacked “content” due to our selfish satisfaction with merely placating the “insider’s game of art, not really make [our] own work” in “Venice Biennale GENERATION BLANK,” New York Magazine, June 19th, 2011. Moreover, he found that the work’s imploding from the weight of enumerable ism’s stacked onto any conceptual foundation.
Although Saltz’s article ignited a massive facebook thread, it mainly rendered cavil and even pathetic pleas begging Saltz to visit shows. Saltz’s responded on his thread that defining “Generation BLANK” was not his job.
As a young art critic who had waited for any chance to publish in a main art outlet, I celebrated Saltz’s article. Saltz had invited our generation to respond. At last, we could define our artwork because “Generation BLANK” centered around a tangible, debatable argument: we could confront a major art figure with evidence.
The dilemma of contemporary art criticism impedes progress of not only young critics but also young artists. Past art criticism details the critic’s reaction to artwork and explains his or her reasoning. Read Arthur C. Danto’s criticism of “Whitney Biennial 2000,” May 8, 2000, reprinted in Unnatural Wonders. The critic looks at all players in the artworld: firstly, he analyzes the “written sign” or title that explains the corresponding contemporary artwork (made in 2000) as a necessity; secondly, he comments on society’s reaction to art that focuses on social iconography not just aesthetics by comparing paintings of Christ with young artists at the Biennial; thirdly, he questions the curatorial intent and museum politics; fourthly, he mentions the media’s influence on artists; finally, he reviews artists’ individual works. “Whitney Biennial 2000” reveals more than simply an opinion to the reader. Secret studio visits wouldn’t be so necessary if the paid “visitor” were to fully explicate his or her art theory!
Now over ten years later, as the new generation of artworld grown ups, we have a responsibility to reopen a dialogue and take risks through art criticism—we have some explaining to do.
As a philosopher of aesthetics, I applaud that today’s philosophers compete in international “philosophical duels,” where they battle components vis-à-vis, to develop theories, and ask that art critics rejoin the tradition of cerebral discourse. We need not rely on past criteria to constitute value. Yes, it may be taboo to delineate art as a trajectory of “movements;” yet replace “movements” with any made-up word and find that our generation’s art deserves arguments that appear to contradict postmodern ideology. Moreover, we cannot fear debunking “accepted” art writers or looking outside of the gallery space. Our lack of aesthetic theories renders the very void that we wish to fill; our lack of aesthetic dialogue plagues us.