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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



If you haven’t heard too much from me lately, it’s a) because I’ve been busy with other things, and b) because there’s been a shortage of exhibitions that I’ve really wanted to review. However, the College Art Association’s newsletter recently called my attention to an article by Ben Davis, formerly of Artnet.com, published on January 5 at his new employer’s website, Artinfo.com. In “Total Eclipse of the Art: The Rise of Art News and the Crisis of Art Criticism,” Davis argued that the proliferation of “art news” stories, especially on the web, had cast the more traditional “art criticism” into “eclipse” as a way of discussing art. And he wasn’t too happy about it.

His column prompted comment from several other websites. Paddy Johnson, at Art Fag City, took a “ho-hum” attitude toward the situation; he seemed to feel that what Davis said had been said before. Ben Eltham, a Aussie writing at Cultural Policy Reform, agreed with the thesis but didn’t seem too distressed about it, since when serious critics were paid attention to, back (presumably) in the 1950s, Clement Greenberg could “police an entire art movement.” (The column is illustrated by a photo of dat ole debil Greenberg). In Hyperallergic, Kyle Chayka maintained that “Criticism isn’t dead, it’s just changing into a new, more populist form that threatens to undermine the overwhelming authority of old-school critics like Ben Davis.” In Chyka’s opinion, the rise of wholesale blogging was a definitely a good thing.

I have no feelings pro or con blogging (though I would write in hard copy if I could, among other reasons because it pays better). I daresay I’m an old-school critic in the sense that I still believe the primary job of an art critic is to actually look at the art in question, and evaluate it for the benefit of people who might want to go and look at it themselves. Bloggers (with some notable exceptions) seem to prefer bloviating about Art in General. On this occasion, I too shall bloviate (some of my readers, I believe, actually prefer this form of expression in me).

My first complaint about Davis’s column is that he equates “serious criticism” to the kind of academic theorizing that apparently used to be characteristic of Artforum. This is awfully narrow of him. He doesn’t even mention what I consider art criticism, the fundamental business of eyeballing the art & talking about it in what (for lack of a better word) I shall call formal terms. Yet there is still a goodly amount of that being done, both on the web & off -- and not only by the kinds of critics who were once called "formalists."

I hardly ever read the hard-copy art magazines, but I believe those like ARTnews and Art in America still carry at least a few reviews in their later pages. Artcritical.com, a webzine to which I have occasionally contributed, includes many reviews among its varied activities (many of these reviews I disagree with). The New York Times, though its reviews seem to be getting longer & longer, also fewer & fewer, still every Friday attempts to talk about what’s on view.

But truth to tell, their art news writing is so much better than their art criticism that I enjoy reading it more. After all, they’re a newspaper, so news is what they really know how to do. Art criticism is strictly an alternative form of writing, practiced by people who don’t have that wide a readership and who probably rank relatively low on the totem pole within the organization because of that fact(if that’s any consolation to those among my readers who are not too enthusiastic about Holland Cotter and Ken Johnson). I would imagine that even among their fellow Times employees, art news writers like Carol Vogel, Randy Kennedy and Robin Pogrebin are more frequently read, and why shouldn’t they be—when they’re writing for an audience that stretches clear across the spectrum of New York Times readers?

Art news, after all, requires no knowledge of, let alone capacities for appreciating, genuine painting and sculpture. Anybody can appreciate money & fraud & social events & such. In fact, if readers secretly think all art's a con (which so many do) they will enjoy art news all the more. Thus, when I talk about art with my friendly neighborhood psychiatrist, he’s always much more aware of the art news stories that the Times is running than he is of the reviews of either gallery or museum shows. From him (and other people outside as well as inside the art world) I am also more likely to hear about the new museums that seem to be going up around the world, from the Arab emirates to Eli Broad’s “ego-seum” in Los Angles ("ego-seum" may be Davis’s coinage & it covers the phenomenon admirably).

I myself also like to keep up with art news in the Times because it’s one way of keeping in touch with the rest of the world. I was enthralled to read about how museum-goers were feeling up the nudes posing in the Marina Abramovic show at MoMA. Confirmed me in my suspicion that it was sensation-seekers as opposed to sincere art lovers who were primarily responsible for boosting the attendance statistics for that show. I am always intrigued by the unbelievable prices that art brings at auction, happy when a work that genuinely deserves it sets a new record, philosophic when the old Supply & Demand equation kicks in to result in astronomic prices being paid for work more popular than good. All the parties & clothes being worn at Art Basel/Miami are likely to be more fun and/or more attractive than whatever art in that show any critic from the Times is likely to mention. And how about that California woman who found what she insists is a genuine Pollock in a yard sale? This is hubris on a major scale, but shared by the legions of people who can‘t make head or tail out of a genuine Pollock.

Just at the moment, I am salivating about the stories on how Jeff Koons is insisting that he invented the image of a balloon dog, and is trying to get a Canadian manufacturer & San Francisco gallery with a line of bookends shaped like balloon dogs to cease and desist from selling them. Copyright infringement, he calls it. What crowning irony, considering (as Kate Taylor pointed out in the Times for January 20) that he's made a small fortune himself from copying just about everything from inflatable toys to vacuum cleaners (and been sued for copyright infringement himself four times). If he gets away with this cease & desist you may have to pay him a royalty the next time you accept a balloon dog made by a clown for your little boy or girl at a birthday party or circus.

The Times is really having fun with this one—at their website, they have been taking readers' comments on a story by Patricia Cohen published January 21, entitled “Gallery Challenges Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog Claim.” Among the responses, I particularly liked the one from “David” in New York. He offers a multi-versed song to be sung to the tune of “How Much is That Doggie in the Window.” One verse runs,

“I must file a claim up in Toronto
And tell them that I am Jeff Koons
They’d better stop their infringing pronto
Their bookends look like my balloons."

Seriously, though, I quite agree that the Times runs a lot more "art news" than it used to, while the word count on art criticism (if not the number of reviews) remains relatively stable. To that must be added its quantities of what I might call "art writing," in the sense that it is more reportage of art shows & interviews of artists than analysis or evaluation of work on view. I think here in particular of the weekly page in the Sunday arts & leisure section, and the far from rare articles in the Sunday NY Times magazine, all of which, far more often than not, describe the latest varieties of what I shall charitably call "non-traditional art."

For example, this past Sunday (the 23rd) we had a whole page devoted to a show at a museum, P.S. 1, of a lady who makes videos & movies.This to me has more to do with the performing arts than the visual arts, but since the show is being staged in a museum, it becomes ipso facto an "art" story for the Times. And, since everybody loves the movies, I'm sure lots of so-called art-lovers will trek out to Long Island City to see what they prefer to call art. All of which explains why the Times was glad to print a story about the show.

In other words, as I see it, the rise of "art news" and "art reportage" correlates with the rise of non-traditional art, which requires little or no visual capacity for discernment to enjoy. The link is the fact that because vast numbers of people can amuse themselves with non-traditional art, the crowds of people who flock to see it has grown & grown & grown to where "art" has become a major industry and source of revenue for museums & major metropolitan areas like New York. Along with this has come the whole mystique of how art is somehow something one ought to know about, even if one doesn't really like looking at it very much. It is for people of this persuasion that "art news" satisfies --- along with all the relatively small numbers of people who really do know (& care) something about art.
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