“EDUCATING” OUR CRITICS
On Friday morning, the third day of the conference, I attended what I figured would be yet another end run around the subject of art, yet one that I couldn’t afford to miss. It was called “How Should We Train the Next Generation of Art Critics?” Fourth on its list of speakers was Martha Schwendener , whose reviews I’d read for years in The New York Times.
The first talk, by Matthew Nicolas Biro, concerned “Apocalypse Now” (1988), a conceptual painting by Christopher Wool sold at Christie’s in 2013 for $26.4 million. The tale of its rise to fame & fortune, with the dizzying sequence from gallery to successive owners to a near-appearance in a Wool retrospective at the Guggenheim, made for a provocative talk. I remained foggy, though, on the role played by the critics in all of this, and only from the last sentence did I get the impression that Biro himself stopped short of considering “Apocalypse Now” a masterpiece.
“CONTAMINATING” ART CRITICISM IN THE SERVICE OF “THE OTHER”
The second speaker, Cynthia Cruz, is, according to google, a much-published poet who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence, from whom she received her M.F.A. She is enrolled in an M.F.A program for art criticism and writing at the School of Visual Arts.
The title of her talk was “Contaminations,” and its theme, as outlined in the CAA abstract, was that “generally speaking,” the art world is a “homogenous and pristine biosphere” whose members “traditionally come from the white middle and upper classes. As a student currently in an art criticism program,” the abstract continues, “I have often been the only person to speak up for the poor, the nonwhite, the Other.” She called for young art critics to be sent out to “contaminate” themselves by exposure to “the world.”
This need for “contamination” was expressed several times in the course of her talk, and there was more than one reference to “the Other,” as well as other phrases that sounded familiar, such as “hegemonic discourse,” the need for “critical thinking,” and the need for students to be introduced to “non-Western writers.”
I’m sorry to say that I was a tad irked by what sounded to me a bit like postmodernist clichés. Maybe it’s because I get a little tired of the steady diet of art by members of the currently-favored disadvantaged communities served up to me nearly every Friday in The New York Times by Holland Cotter. “Holland Cotter would love this!” I scrawled in my notes, and sure enough, Ms. Cruz almost immediately admitted that Cotter was doing “an exemplary job,” but—she added quickly—he’s only one reviewer.
Maybe it wasn’t just Cotter that irked me, or the succession of clichés, either. Maybe more importantly, it’s this concept of “The Other.” Sure, right now the “Others” that are getting all the attention are deserving and long ignored: Latinos, LGBTs, women, artists of African descent, Asians, Native Americans and Muslims (especially Palestinians ---one thing that fascinates me is how Muslims and especially Palestinians have been getting so much more attention as persecuted minorities since 9/11).
Still, historically, these groups aren’t the only Others. I have been an Other for most of my life. When I was born, Hungarians were Others, as was everybody else from Eastern and Southern Europe. WASPs ruled the roost, along with other Aryan peoples (Germans and Dutch) and other immigrant groups from the U.K. (Scots).
For my WASP mother to marry a “Hunky” was radical – particularly since anybody with an Eastern European name was also apt to be considered Jewish. And really, folks, although World War II meant many Catholic Italians and Poles became better integrated into U.S. society, Jewish was still a not-very-desirable thing to be until the 1960s. Only then did Upper West Side Jewish Intellectuals become chic.
With a Hungarian possibly Jewish name, I spent the first part of my life being an Other in that sense. And, even in New York, it was not the best thing to be.
But in addition to being an Other to the WASP establishment because I was a Hungarian and possibly Jewish, I was also an Other to Hungarians, because I’m only half-Hungarian and don’t speak the language, and an Other to Jews, because they count descent through the mother, and my mother had been a shikse, too.
(I never thought about this as an adolescent, because I’d been raised through high school in a progressive milieu where nobody made any distinctions, but in retrospect, I don’t think it helped my social life at a more traditional college or the years immediately beyond. If I’d been happy with hippies and other far-out types, it wouldn’t have made any difference, but I wanted to meet and marry a nice "normal" conventional Jew or Gentile, and they were precisely the kind of men who shied away from courting an Other.)
On Time, I was the sole woman writer for most of the 6 years I did that job. So I was an Other in that sense, too.
At present, I feel myself very much an Other because I express my admiration for Greenberg. Also, I’m no longer under 50.
Here are two forms of prejudice and discrimination that even Cotter doesn’t address—ageism and anti-Greenberg bias.
Though I suspect that if Cotter did address himself to ageism, he would probably go about it in the wrong way – by praising exhibitions of senior artists, not because the work’s good but because the artists who made it are old.
Speaking as an Other myself, I have never tried to play identity politics, which is what Cotter – and Cynthia Cruz – would have us do. They want work by members of disadvantaged groups praised, not necessarily because the work is good, but because whoever made it represents a group that has been discriminated against.
In all my life, I have never tried to trade on being an Other to win praise. I wanted the praise because what I’d done was good, not because of who I was.
I’m not interested in being a great woman art critic. I want to be a great art critic, period.
When I was on Time, I wasn’t interested in being a great woman Time writer. I wanted to be a great Time writer, period. I was able to establish my parity with other writers due to the policies of Time: when I was there, the magazine wasn’t yet using bylines.
When I started writing in the World section, it had five other writers, and a man named Roy Alexander tried to figure out which stories in the section had been written by me. He couldn’t. This amused me, since Alexander had once been managing editor of Time, and, while he was in office, refused to let women write for it.
I think Helen Frankenthaler would have understood my position. Throughout her life, she was never interested in participating in women’s group shows. She didn’t want to be considered a great woman artist. She wanted to be considered a great artist, period.
I review plenty of shows by women artists. I don’t review them because they’re women, but because they’re making art I admire. Same story with those artists of color I review. It’s not because they’re artists of color that I review them, but because I admire their art.
I may have reviewed shows by LGBT artists, though I can’t think of any specific examples at the moment, and might not have known whether or not they were LGBT, as I don’t find the need to inquire about this when I see a show that I like.
I think that by also reviewing shows of straight white male artists, I underline the fact that it’s the art that makes me review shows by any artist, not sex or the color of skins.
I think that by singling out and underlining such characteristics, it diminishes the praise that a critic can bestow. In effect, such a critic is demoting the artist from being of a higher quality than all artists to being merely of higher quality than other artists in his or her particular category.
An artist from a disadvantaged group who gets a good review from Cotter may be happy to get any review at all, and a review by The New York Times is very important. However, I wonder if any of these artists ever wonder whether Cotter was really praising their art or simply making allowances for the artist who made it.
I think he would enhance his credibility if he didn’t limit himself as he does. If he ever got around to reviewing shows of art by contemporary straight white male artists – maybe even contemporary straight white male abstract artists – his praise of shows by other Others might carry more weight.
I realize, however, that this may be difficult on a daily paper which carries a lot of headline news about politics, riots and other evidence of problems between the races, as well as a lot of headline news about the problems women face in politics or business.
There must be a lot of pressure these days on the critics of the Times to establish the “relevance” of their calling. Even in the best of times, the art page doesn’t enjoy high readership (again, something I learned during my term in the major media).
And for all the print media, these days are not the best of times—not with the inroads being made by all the free “content” on the web.
One easy way to deal with this pressure for “relevance” is to substitute politics for esthetics in the evaluation of art, especially since politics is a subject that interests practically everybody, while esthetics interests only a relative few.
If Greenberg could be taken as the Satan of CAA, Cotter must be considered its patron saint. Cruz got a big hand for her impassioned call to “contaminate” prospective art critics by sending them out into “the world” and paying more attention to “the Other.”
If I’d presumed to offer any of the heretical ideas I’ve outlined above in the Q & A period, I’m sure that I’d have met with outraged opposition, but that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t try to challenge Cruz.
More important is the fact that, I do agree in principle more attention needs to be paid to the art of artists from disadvantaged groups. It’s just that I think that she and Cotter are not going about it in the best possible way.
A TALK THAT SUBSEQUENTLY PROVED ITS WORTH
The next talk at this session irritated me initially, but led to more positive second thoughts. It was offered by Johanna Ruth Epstein, who teaches at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia, and its title was, “Why Art Criticism Should Be Taught to Undergraduates.” This talk principally concerned the way that she was teaching her students how to become art critics. As nearly as I could tell, this consisted primarily of sending them out to review everything in sight, no matter how local or inconsequential. True, she did indicate that she occasionally carted them off to look at art in the bigger and better museums, but if she indicated that she ever asked any of her students to read the writings of established critics, I missed it.
Most of the talk dealt with encouraging her students to review local displays and monuments. This as I initially saw it, was carrying the “learning by doing” philosophy of John Dewey to a ludicrous extreme. Yet, a few weeks after I’d attended this talk, I found myself witnessing a situation where I would have welcomed some teachers telling their students to write reviews of a local exhibit. There were only two small differences here between my recommendations and those of Prof. Epstein. The first was, that the local exhibit I thought should be written about had been created by an artist whose works I happen to think highly of. The second was, the purpose of the exercise would not have been to create a new generation of art critics, but rather to encourage these students to look longer and more closely at the art itself.
FINALLY, MARTHA SCHWENDENER
The fourth speaker at this session, Martha Schwendener, was identified in the program as an NYU faculty member. She is much better known, though, through her reviews in the New York Times, though I would imagine, from the fact that these reviews appear only sporadically, that she is not a staffer on the paper but rather a “stringer” (part-time employee paid by the article, rather than receiving a regular salary).
Ms. Schwendener has also taught or is teaching at many other schools. She has published in many other newspapers and magazines. She took her BA in art history from Columbia University in 1989, an MA in fiction from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000, and she is going for a PhD in art history at the CUNY graduate center.
According to the abstract, she was to give a very tidy little talk on “Training Ethical Critics.” The summary indicated that she felt this was to be done by avoiding “pessimistic” or “cynical” writing, and to focus instead – as she does – on more “optimistic” and “activist” models (among others, Lucy Lippard). In this way, she suggested, we would be acting as “ethical critics.” (In retrospect, I have to insist that this is a very curious definition of "ethical.")
If I’d read this summary before I attended the session, I might have been better prepared for what I heard her say, but I hadn’t. Also, I have vast faith in the New York Times to get things at least factually right. Thus I was doubly unprepared for a statement she made almost at the beginning of her talk.
She set up Greenberg as her prime example as an unethical critic by saying that he “reportedly” “exchanged ““reviews” for pictures. Then she hauled out accusations made by Rosalind Krauss 41 years ago, and claimed that Greenberg had compromised his position as executor by altering works in the David Smith Estate.
All of this -- but especially the claim that Greenberg had exchanged reviews for pictures-- was so grossly misleading and so totally unfair – that it greatly upset me. To suggest that he’d exchanged reviews for pictures is to say that he was dishonest, and wrote what he didn’t believe—but dishonesty and lying in print were not his problems. Quite the reverse is true.
He was honest – to a fault. He was honest – to the point of disease. His honesty was his fatal flaw, his Achilles heel, his nemesis. Oh, I’m sure he was capable of little white lies in social situations, but when it came to art, he always said – and wrote -- exactly what he thought, even when it flew in the face of popular opinion. If he didn’t like an artist, a work of art, or even a school of art, he said so, and this is why he has been so frequently pilloried.
What Schwendener said was so upsetting to me that I found it impossible to continue listening to what she had to say. I got up and left the Trianon Ballroom of the New York Hilton, which was where this session was being staged. Looking at my notes, I realize that I didn’t do this immediately, but I was so upset that I won’t vouch for those notes, or for anything else that this woman had said in her little speech.
After pacing furiously about the corridors for a few minutes, I decided that I couldn’t let this pass, and went back into the ballroom. When it came time for the Q & A, I stood up at the open mike and tried to counter the impression that Schwendener had created.
I’m not good at extemporaneous speaking, and I was so upset by this blast that I don’t think I did a particularly good job at defending Greenberg. I can recall trying to keep my voice level, and explaining that the reason so many artists gave work to Greenberg was not because he’d reviewed them favorably but because they loved him – although, I added, this concept might be difficult for the people at this session to grasp.
I said that any art he was given must have been given in the spirit of thank you, not please, and that there was a difference. I may have said that this was my policy, too.
I said that Greenberg accepted some art that he was offered, but that he refused it if he didn’t like it. I added that I’d heard how artists would bring art they wanted him to have and leave it outside his apartment – but that he still wouldn’t take it if he didn’t like it.
I said that because he had been forthright about the art he didn’t like, he had acquired enemies. I can dimly recall speaking very emphatically about the number of enemies he had, and pointing out that this was now the third CAA session where I’d heard him badmouthed—like it was the official policy of CAA.
As for the David Smith Estate, I may have been too overwrought to point out that the paint removed from the sculpture had only been primer, but I did suggest that by not mentioning how many works were involved Krauss had created the impression that Greenberg was vandalizing the estate wholesale.
In fact, I said, there had been 200 works in the estate at the time of the article, and only a very small number of them had been affected (I said eight, but actually I’ve rechecked and the number was five – and the estate when Greenberg became executor had included about 400 works, half of which had been sold by the time Krauss published her article).
After I’d finished speaking, Ms. Schwendener answered me, speaking very sweetly in her turn but identifying me as “pro-Greenberg,” and thereby setting herself up as neutral. I think I must have made some sort of an impression, because she backed away a little bit from what she’d said. However, she concluded, Greenberg was a proscriptive critic, and we can’t really do that nowadays.
At least I think she said, “proscriptive,” though it may have been “prescriptive.” The two amount to the same thing. With “proscriptive,” the critic sins by saying that certain art or a certain artist should be excluded from discussion, while with “prescriptive,” the critic is sinning by saying that certain art or a certain artist should be included in the discussion. Either way, the critic is saying that some art is better than other art, and this is what critics like Schwendener claim to find so unacceptable.
Schwendener’s dictum was very similar to what David Cohen had been saying at the AICA panel, on Wednesday, but whereas there I had been accepting it as his website’s policy, here I was realizing that it was far more widespread than that.
I was also realizing that Schwendener is much more proscriptive – and prescriptive—than Greenberg ever was, as she simply doesn’t write about art she doesn’t like. If nobody ever hears about it, that’s fine with her – she would presumably prefer to see every artist ever praised by Greenberg become an unperson, as in “1984.”.
How to be proscriptive in Schwendener’s way is not a lesson that I was learning from her. I learned it back when I was writing the Art page for Time. At most, I could offer two or three articles per issue. I knew there were many, many more artists that I could have been writing about, if I’d had the space – so in the simple fact that I chose some artists and not others, I was exercising a critical faculty.
After speaking my piece on Schwendener’s foul slander, I sat down with the blood coursing through my ears so I could barely hear what else was going on. I did become aware that at least one and maybe more speakers up on the dais were piously insisting that they never accepted gifts of art from artists.
One speaker even had the temerity to hold up Donald Kuspit as a model of propriety in this context. Here was again more than I could take, and – over audible complaints from other members of the audience—I leapt up again to the mike, and said something like, “Kuspit has written hundreds of exhibition catalogs.”
And, if there is a practice in the art world that I find questionable, it’s how people who call themselves “critics” write catalog essays for commercial galleries, for which they get paid two and three times as much as they could earn from reviews in the art magazines.
These catalog essays aren’t criticism, they’re advertising, and I don’t think they conduce to critical detachment or objectivity. I know that I’m very easily influenced by who’s paying me money, especially large sums of it from a single source. I learned this on the day that I turned in my resignation from Time.
Up to that point, I had been carefully concealing from myself what a hell that job had become, but within hours after turning in my resignation, I became all too well aware of what I’d just escaped from.
I don’t think that this vulnerability to money is unique to me. In this (if nothing else), I think that I’m just like everybody else, and the proof of that is the fact that none of these “critics” ever have any real objections to the status quo.
If you’ve just been paid a handsome sum by Gagosian or Pace, you will become not only loath to condemn the artist you’ve been writing about—but inclined to think hard before saying anything negative about any other shows at Gagosian or Pace – or, for that matter, about any galleries and today’s most popular art in general. If you ever criticized them, you might not be asked to write any more lucrative catalog essays.
The New York Times feels the same way that I do. At the website of the New York Times Company (www.nytco.com) is a booklet on journalistic ethics, which its employees are expected to be aware of. It reads, in part, “Staff members may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other inducements from any individuals or organizations covered by The Times or likely to be covered by The Times. (Exceptions may be made for trinkets of nominal value, say, $25 or less, such as a mug or a cap with a company logo.) “
I used to follow much the same policy on Time. Then again, as a staff member on a magazine with a circulation in the millions, I had a handsome salary. I also had an expense account, so that I didn’t have to accept hospitality from sources, either. The staff members of the New York Times (even in these thin and piping times) presumably earn enough so they don’t have to write catalogs, even if they wanted to. But the art magazines, having far smaller circulations, pay their contributors chicken feed. These contributors may have altruistic reasons for writing catalogs, but they may also be doing it because they have to.
If my heretical notion that critics who write reviews shouldn’t also write catalog essays ever caught on, hundreds of critics would be scrambling for day jobs. This would make thousands of artists very unhappy, because few if indeed any artists care about the ethics of having “critics” write catalog essays. As far as they’re concerned, anybody who wants to write nice things about them is more than welcome to do so, and they could care less about whether or not a gallery has paid them for their kind words.
It’s all part of this screwy little environment we call “the art world,” where, as I have long known, practices obtain that would be unheard of in the major media. Like this nonsensical business of how a gallery will buy an ad in an art magazine in hopes of encouraging the magazine to review the show. At the AICA session, everybody protested that the ads in the art magazines had nothing to do with the reviews, but the protests, it seemed to me, lacked conviction.
I’m not the only freelance art critic who doesn’t do catalog essays. I have some company, but I won’t mention names as I don’t wish them to incur obloquy.
In fact, this notion of “critics” writing catalogs is such a hot potato that I’ll drop it right here, and go back to the narrower issue of Greenberg’s accepting gifts of art from artists, under what circumstances he did so and whether or not he was being unethical.
This subject really bugged me. Long after CAA was over, I continued to lose sleep over it. It’s the prime reason I’ve been suffering so from hypergraphia--a condition in which I feel compelled to write write write, usually (in my case, at least) brought on by an attack of anxiety.
To me, Schwendener had slandered Greenberg when she said that he exchanged reviews for art – an untrue statement that she had no proof for. You can tell about this lack of proof from that little qualification, “reportedly,” that she inserted into her claim.
Journalists insert words like “reportedly” and “allegedly” in statements that may or may not be true (“So and so allegedly committed murder”). The legal dodge here is that truth is considered a legitimate defense against a charge of libel (written) or slander (spoken). And, if you can’t prove that a claim you made is true, you can still prove that somebody said (or alleged, or reported) that it was—the only necessary “truth” here being that somebody said so, regardless of whether or not what they said is true.
This is a tried-and-true way of getting potentially actionable ideas into print. Florence Rubenfeld in her 1997 biography of Greenberg, used it to insinuate that Greenberg took money from André Emmerich, though both men denied it. She had not a shred of proof to substantiate it, so she quoted Rosalind Krauss saying that she couldn’t prove it, either, but “believed” it was true, and Dore Ashton saying, “I believe he was getting a sizable retainer from André Emmerich.”
Not much has been heard about this retainer-from-Emmerich nonsense for years, but Ashton and Krauss are still around, so I found myself wondering about the origin of this latest attempt to malign Greenberg. Schwendener is a lot younger than either of those two women, and graduated from Columbia before Krauss arrived there. Still, she has contributed to October, the magazine Krauss helped to found, so maybe that’s the connection (not that it matters all that much).
Anyway, I went back and did what I could to check out the circumstances under which Greenberg was given art by artists. There’s no secret that he received a lot of it, and was proud of his collection. It was featured in Vogue in 1964, and Vogue returned to visit him in his art-filled home on Central Park West in 1990.
But from first to last, I have never once doubted that virtually all of these gifts had been given in the spirit of “thank you, “ rather than “please,” and certainly not because he’d demanded them in exchange for a review.
After Greenberg’s death, most of the works left in his collection came to rest in the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, which published a handsome catalog of them in 2001. The catalog essay, by Karen Wilkin, again reminded me of how much he gave to artists in moral support, sound advice on everything from pricing to exhibitions, and studio critiques, as well as how grateful they were for all of this.
It made me feel, even more strongly, that most of the larger works in the collection came to him out of gratitude for such service, rather than in response to reviews – particularly since after about 1960, he practically never wrote reviews
And, as I studied the catalog, I realized that most of the work in it, especially the larger pieces, also came from the 1960s or later, and represented what I’d call artists of the second and third generation of abstract expressionism, from Noland, Olitski & Caro on through Willard Boepple, Darby Bannard, Ann Walsh & James Walsh.
Three paintings in the catalog from the first generation – by Gottlieb, Hofmann & Pollock -- are all earlier (the latest, from Pollock, dates from 1951). All are inconsequential, much smaller and done on paper. The notion that these works were given to the critic in exchange for reviews disparages not only on Greenberg, but also on the whole New York School. Are we to conclude that Pollock, Hofmann, Gottlieb, Motherwell, Newman, de Kooning, & Baziotes – all of whose work Greenberg reviewed – were such lousy artists that Greenberg had to be bribed to review their shows?
Greenberg also received a few larger works from this generation, but they seem to have been given later—for example, the large Motherwell, from the artist’s “je t’aime” series, was a wedding present, so it would have been given around 1956. It was sold before Greenberg’s death, as were paintings by Morris Louis and (presumably) Barnett Newman that Greenberg is known to have owned.
Greenberg never made any apologies for selling works that he’d been given. He seems to have felt (and I believe rightly) that the artists had given him these works to do with as he pleased, and with an awareness that honest criticism doesn’t pay well. To be sure, it was excellent advertising to have one’s work displayed in the Greenberg living room, or even to be able to list “Collection of Clement Greenberg” on one’s CV, but more importantly, I truly believe that he was dear to the hearts of the vast majority of the artists who gave him work.
Never will I forget what Anthony Caro said to me, the first time I met him (in 1969): Isn’t Clement Greenberg the most lovable person you ever met?”
You can call him unethical if you want. My own feeling is that he never allowed any gifts that he was given to corrupt his esthetic judgment, and that maintaining one’s integrity is the reason for rules involving gifts. Greenberg’s integrity remained uncorrupted – to the point, again, that he wouldn’t accept art that he couldn’t praise.
Beyond that, he was a law unto himself in this matter, just as he was in his personal relationships—unconventional but understandable, if you knew and respected the man.
As I re-read this catalog of the Oregon collection, a picture emerged for me of Greenberg’s acquisitions over the years. All the evidence in it suggested that it was only in his later years, when he was only occasionally – if at all – still writing reviews, that he began to accept substantial works of art as gifts.
During his earlier years, when he was still writing reviews, he might be offered, and would accept, small inconsequential works – because, among other reasons, he thought of the artists who were giving them as friends. On the basis of all I’ve read, the art world of the 40s and 50s was a lot smaller, more intimate and friendlier than it is today, when art is big business, and some (though not all) critics have become what Irving Sandler has called "hired guns," writing appreciations of any art for which a dealer will pay.
In the old days, I like to think, there was more friendship between artists and critics (many critics being poets or creative writers, and as such artists in their own right).
I didn’t believe that it was unusual for artists in those days to thank critics with little presents of their art. Even the later 1960s, when I was on Time, I was occasionally given modest works of art to thank me for articles I’d written (two small drawings, one $10 poster—none from artists who had anything to do with Greenberg). Nor did I have any problem accepting these gifts, as the people working with me at Time – who knew the art world much better than I did – didn’t object when I told them about my gifts.
For the rest of February 2015, I devoted many moments – and a lot of agonized energy – trying to document this theory of mine about the 40s and 50s, but I was unable to come up with anything of substance.
Not, that is, until the first week of March, when I attended The Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory. At the Forum booth, I found a critic of note (younger than I am, but older than Schwendener) admiring a lovely display of Picasso-like still lifes from the late 1920s or early 30s by John Graham, de Kooning & Gorky. She said that she thought the potato-ricer depicted in a de Kooning had been inspired by the egg-beater series of Stuart Davis; at first, I pooh-poohed the notion, then began to accept her point of view.
Anyway, we got to talking, and by and by the conversation rolled around to critics accepting gifts of art from artists. I asked this critic if she, in her earlier days, had ever been offered and accepted small gifts of art from artists. She conceded that perhaps she had, but, she added hastily, that was then and this is now—or words to that effect.
So that was it, and it made perfect sense to me, as I am well aware of how the world has changed over the decades, in so many other ways as well. Autre temps, autre moeurs, as the French say. Ms. Schwendener, being so young, is evidently unaware of how things used to be: I shall charitably lay her indiscretion down to ignorance, as opposed to malice (though to the extent that she may have been misinformed by somebody who should know better, I’d still censure whoever that may have been).
At any rate, the exercise had a profound effect on me, necessitating a change in my own policy. Over the years, I have been given some very lovely small works of art, but that has got to come to an end. Greenberg may have been a law unto himself, but if I am to hold up my head in today’s critical circles, I can no longer accept such gifts, so don’t tempt me, folks. If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that they prejudice me on behalf of their creators, and make it difficult for me to review future shows with the kind of detachment that I think so important to maintain.
(A postscript: in consulting the Rubenfeld book on Greenberg in May, I incidentally came across a passage quoting Frank Getlein (1921-2000), a conservative critic who wrote for The Washington Star and The New Republic. He said that Harold Rosenberg accepted and even asked for paintings from artists, and, while Rubenfeld is obviously rather uncritical about the art-world gossip she repeats, her book goes on to say that “May Rosenberg’s practice of telling people what gift Harold would appreciate when inviting them to his annual birthday party was well known.”
OH, THOSE HUNGARIANS
For the rest of Friday, I soothed my wounds by dropping in at three more well-attended art-historical sessions. At the lunch hour, the session was “Charting Cubism across Central and Eastern Europe,” sponsored by the Historians of German and Central European Art and Architecture. I missed most of the first talk, on an avant-garde Czech journal, and wasn’t overwhelmed by the second, on cubism in Latvia, but the third was the one that my Magyar blood wanted to hear, and it didn’t disappoint.
Entitled “Known and Unknown Hungarian Cubists,” this talk was delivered by Gerkely Barki, of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. The only Magyar artist from the early 20th century whose work I’m at all familiar with is János Mattis-Teutsch, so I was expecting to hear about him, but what I learned instead was more surprising. Mattis-Teutsch didn’t achieve pure abstraction until the 1920s, and this talk concerned an earlier group of young Hungarians who were in Paris around 1910—in at the birth of cubism.
Why this should have surprised me, I can’t imagine – I knew Paris was Mecca for any ambitious young artist in 1910, luring Romanians like Brancusi, Americans like Max Weber, Italians like Severini, Brits like Jacob Epstein, and Russians like Chagall…so why not Hungarians? Still, I recognized none of the names mentioned by Barki. Their work was even less familiar, but the modest images of it that he showed were almost hypnotically intriguing. None of these young Hungarians became famous in Paris, and, with the onslaught of World War I, they couldn’t get back home again, either, so they never were able to establish a cubist beach head in Budapest. What a warning to us all.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON #1:
The first afternoon session that I looked in on was “Two for One: Doppelgängers, Alter Egos, Mirror Images and other Duples in Western Art, 1900-2000, Part I.” This session was chaired by Mary Edwards, a Pratt Institute professor & fellow Columbia PhD whom I’ve run into, on the Columbia campus & off, over the years.
I went largely for the sake of this collegiality, and thinking I might run into Edwards at the Columbia alumni reunion, but the artists to be discussed typified postmodernist taste: Egon Schiele; Bauhaus Double Portraits; Artaud, Michaux, & Jean Dubuffet; Francis Bacon; Jasper Johns & Félix González-Torres.
I arrived in the middle of the Schiele talk, and found it respectable but not inspiring. Then again, Schiele has always been for me only too representative of the stylistic conservatism of Viennese art in the early 20th century, a conservatism that (among other things) tells me why the esthetic theories of Freud are SO banal.
Next, the speaker on Bauhaus portraits presented stark black-and-white photographs. The images were so intense that they hit me like a blow across the face, as did the heavily emotional voice of the speaker and the fact that she led off her talk with a quote from Rosalind Krauss, arguably my least favorite writer. I got out of there fast.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON #2:
ART HISTORY & ITS DISCONTENTS
I’m not sure exactly when I visited the exhibition hall on Friday, but what I observed there plugged in with the next session I attended. It bore the provocative title of “What Have You Done for Art History Lately? Initiatives for the Future of a Discipline.”
The chairs of this panel, Amy Hamlin & Karen J. Leader, declared in their introductory statement that “This session is both a response and a clarion call. It emerges out of the so-called crisis in the humanities and an objective to change the conversation toward constructive engagement, using art history as a platform.”
Now, I’d been hearing about this “so-called crisis in the humanities” for some time, and yes it has had me worried. I’ve read the news stories about how much college costs these days to attend. Tuition, I know, has increased by many multiples of the increases in the broader cost of living indices.
I’ve read more news stories about how students have been running up mountains of debt to pay for their college educations. I’m not surprised, only saddened.
A humanities degree teaches a student to think, to become a fuller, more rounded person, and (not so incidentally) to become a more knowledgeable and concerned voter, but in itself it may not provide that student with a marketable skill leading to an immediate source of income in the form of a job.
Would it be any wonder, under those circumstances, if fewer students were signing up for the humanities? Would it be any wonder if the moneys allotted to teaching and doing research in the humanities was slipping? And would it be any wonder if college art departments and more especially art history departments were feeling the pinch?
Adding to this was the observation, made at the AICA panel, that more students were becoming interested in studying contemporary art, as opposed to the art of the past.
If such students wanted a teaching job, it might be likely that such jobs are for courses in recent and contemporary art……even assuming any full-time jobs were available…
God knows they were rare enough in art history even when I was job-hunting in the 1990s. I was able to get my job at a college in West Virginia because I was one of only 20 applicants—the odds against getting a job in the New York area were far, far worse, with 600 & 700 applicants for every opening
AND nowadays so I understood more and more colleges were hiring “contingency faculty” to handle a major part of the teaching load instead of tenure-track professors. “Contingency faculty” is the latest euphemism for “adjuncts” or part-timers, and by all accounts they are just as badly paid.
Really, it all had me a little worried – nor was I much cheered by the fact that a couple of the sessions that I’d attended had had many empty seats, and that none of the others had been S.R.O. (I can remember previous years when such crowds had gathered, at least to hear some of the stars).
Also bothersome was the fact that on one of my visits to the exhibition hall, I had seen empty stretches of space between the booths where conference-goers should have been milling around (on one or two other occasions, I noticed this less).
Conversation in the exhibit hall elicited the opinion that one reason for a smaller turnout might be that schools are less willing to pay traveling expenses than they used to be.
Further, I was depressed by the prevalence of exhibition catalogs at the booths of university presses. An exhibition catalog is cheaper for a university press to publish than a book of independent research, as the museum pays part of the cost. Evidently funding for these presses is so tight that they must publish ever more of these catalogs.
This doesn’t help independent research, and besides, an exhibition catalog has come into being because a museum has concluded that a sufficient number of people will come to the show. Thus the project is hooked yet more firmly into prevailing taste.
I was even more depressed by finding – at one smaller publisher – a catalog for a show that had toured smaller heartland museums --- and was all from one private collection.
Here was a book that I’d guess had been partially funded not only by the museums where the show had gone but also by the owners of the works on view. The fact that the show had toured all these museums, and the catalog had celebrated it, would enhance the value of the collection on the auction block. This is yet another way in which the publishing game is tied into the marketplace.
True, I didn’t get around to every publisher—think I ought to have stopped at Phaidon, but didn’t. One booth I did see & like was that for Getty Publications. For one thing, they were announcing a new translation of “Principles of Art History,” that classical formalist tract by Heinrich Wölfflin, which is 100 years young this year. For another, they had a nifty little book on the Getty’s restoration of the big mural that Jackson Pollock painted for the town house of Peggy Guggenheim in 1943, and that is now the prized possession of the University of Iowa art museum. In the course of the restoration, they were able to dispel the myth that Pollock painted it all in one night.
Another thing bothered me: so many of the conference goers looked so young! True, the older I get, the younger everybody else looks. Also true, a major reason anybody comes to these conferences is to land a job, and there are more job-hunters in the early age brackets. Still, I would have liked to see more professors in their middle years, to say nothing of seniors whom I might recognize. I wasn’t all alone – I did see five people whom I knew. But (if only for the sake of art history) I would have liked to see more.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON #3:
“ART HISTORY FOR ARTISTS”
The question in the title to the Hamlin/Leader session -- “What Have You Done for Art History Lately?” -- suggested that it might offer solutions to what I (with my particular set of problems) perceived (rather glumly) as the discontents of art history. However, of the eight talks listed in the program, only the eighth appeared relevant to my problems, so I skipped most of the program—arriving only in the middle of the seventh talk.
I wished I’d come earlier, because I loved what I heard of that talk. The speaker was Sarada Natarajan, and her topic was “Art History for Artists: Experiments from an Indian University.” In her classes at the University of Hyderabad, she has been using “learning by doing” to introduce studio art students to art history. Among the projects illustrated were amazingly accurate student self-portraits, each in the style of a specific 17th century Dutch master, also color footage of students dressed & dancing in the style of Egyptian tomb murals. I don’t think any of her students will ever forget those lessons!
The talk I’d come to hear proved original but perhaps not as useful to me as I’d hoped it would be. Delivered by Sarah E. Diebel, it was called “Selling Art History Outside the Classroom: Targeting the Audience, Changing the Paradigm.” Professor Diebel teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, a vocationally-oriented branch of the university. It has a studio art major but no art history one.
To enhance art history’s public persona, and boost enrollment in art history courses, Diebel inaugurated an ambitious program of posters, put up all over the campus, and each with an image from art history (ranging from cave painting to Ai Wei Wei) combined with a humorous headline about how “sexy” and/or relevant art history is.
Apparently this program has succeeded in some ways. Posters have been stolen by students, and campus surveys of opinion about art history indicate that it has a better image than it did, but I don’t recall Diebel quoting too many statistics on increased enrollment in art history courses. Also, if I understood her correctly, she conceded that the humorous style of the posters might be difficult to translate into classroom practice. This to me is an understatement. For most of the two millennia normally covered in art history courses, art was a serious undertaking – most of that time, even allied to religion – as opposed to the pastime or even humorous entertainment which is so much a part of the contemporary scene.
SATURDAY: THE UP TICK
I wish I’d gotten up earlier on Saturday morning, because I missed one of the few talks that I might have liked. It was delivered by Alexander Nemerov at the first of two sessions devoted to “New Genealogies of American Modernism at Midcentury,” and was titled “Magic Act: Pollock, Faulkner, and Desegregation.” I have been following Nemerov’s career for some years, ever since he delivered a talk on Morris Louis at CAA. At that point, he was still at Yale; now he’s at Stanford, but – to judge from the published abstract--moving across the continent hasn’t changed his style.
In his Louis talk—and in the catalog essay that eventually grew out of it--he took the wildest of liberties with Louis. I would imagine he did the same with Pollock, but it would still have been refreshing to hear a card-carrying postmodernist doing what he could to revive interest in an artist that academia doesn’t really want to hear about nowadays.
According to the abstract, the talk compared Pollock’s “magical” poured paintings of the later 1940s with the way that Faulkner dealt with desegregation in his 1948 novel, “Intruder in the Dust.” And the abstract quoted Greenberg in a flattering way, as having written that Pollock’s filigreed flat surfaces seemed to “answer something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility.” For that alone, I wished I’d been there.
In the wake of the CAA conference, I did what I could to check out the impressions I’d gained about the state of art history generally, and was fortunate enough to be able to conduct an email interview with Linda Downs, executive director and CEO of CAA. She was most constructive in correcting most of the more pessimistic observations I’d made.
Among other things, she said that attendance was about 4,000 to 5,000, close to what it has been at previous conferences, though bad weather kept many people in the Boston area from attending. She also said that she had visited the book publishers and artist supplies areas and found them very well attended, although she agreed that universities – especially state-supported ones—are much less willing to pay for travel expenses than they once were unless a faculty member was presenting a paper (from other sources, I heard that faculty members interviewing candidates for jobs may also have their travel expenses covered).
On the state of art history generally, she said that the number of students enrolled in art and art history courses continues to increase, although the number of majors in these departments has slightly decreased. She also confirmed that students today are more interested in learning about contemporary art and less interested in past periods of art history (from other sources, I heard that this tendency was even more marked among graduate students—not surprising, given the shrinking opportunities for full-time jobs in academia, as contrasted with the enhanced possibilities of gaining employment in the contemporary art market—in galleries, museums, auction houses and as advisers to private collectors or hedge funds).
None of the questions I asked her dealt with the state of the humanities generally, but I did check out what’s being said on the web. A report written by Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities at Harvard, and published in Harvard Magazine in June 2013 led off by observing that nationally the number of bachelor’s degrees in the field has fallen by half from 1966 to 2014, from 14 percent to 7 percent of all degrees taken.
However, an article by Ella Delany that was published in the International New York Times on December 2, 2013, said that when the Harvard article was released, a number of academics pointed out that the major drop in numbers had occurred in the 1970s. Delany quoted Michael Bérubé, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, saying, “I can tell you that humanities enrollments in the United States have not declined since 1980, even though everyone thinks they have.”
Another professor quoted by Delany explained that internationally, the situation varied from country to country. Some countries (Germany, Mexico, etc.) had seen an increase In the number of humanities degrees; some (the U.S., and UK) had been stable, while others (most especially France and Japan) has seen a sharp decline. Worldwide, though, according to Delany, funding for humanities programs and especially humanities research has declined.
Equally if not more serious is the decline in full-time faculty in this country, and the rising percentage of part-time adjuncts or “contingency faculty.” According to an article by Samantha Stainburn that went online at The New York Times website on January 3, 2010 (and may or may not have appeared in hard copy), in 1960, 75 percent of all college instructors in the U.S. were full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors. The rest were graduate students or else adjuncts. By 2010, these proportions were almost exactly reversed, with only 27 percent full-time faculty, and my sources tell me the situation is only growing worse.
Adjuncts typically get $3,000 per course. Even if they can manage to put together a full program of three courses per semester, they are still working for starvation wages, nor do they get health insurance or other benefits. The students are losers, too, as the adjuncts often don’t have offices to meet them in, or time to do the research that might lead to fresher, deeper and less canned lectures. . Given the exorbitant tuition charges most schools levy, you really wonder where all the money goes.
BUT TO RETURN TO CONTEMPORARY ART
As I said at the beginning of this report, art history needs to be placed in the context of contemporary art, and so – in addition to leading off my coverage of CAA with an exhibition review of “Forever Is Now,” I shall conclude it with reviews of two shows that relate more directly, not only to speakers at CAA like Cynthia Cruz, but also to the way in which Western European modernism was all but elbowed out of existence at CAA by talks on every other conceivable style, period and geographic address.
The first show I saw was one that I’d promised to see, “RESPOND,” at Smack Mellon, a 5000-square-foot non-profit space in Dumbo, Brooklyn (closed February 22). This show came into being as a result of a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who caused the death of Eric Garner by restraining him with a chokehold. As the official announcement at the gallery’s website says, the gallery decided to postpone a planned exhibition in order “to respond to the continued failure of the United States to protect its black citizens from police discrimination and violence.”
In response to its call for art works, more 600 artists submitted work for “RESPOND,” of whom more than 200 were chosen. The work was hung, salon style, on the back wall of the main space, and on the four walls of that smaller gallery behind. The front wall of the main space is largely windows. In front of them, a row of tables and desks displayed yet more art and/or photocopied notices of demonstrations and/or calls for action, while a large banner with lettering on it hung above the windows. Freestanding works of art stood in front of them, most notably the handsome “Witness Call Box,” by a team of artists, McCallum & Terry, with its inset video and sound track.
Thus, on the whole, the installation didn’t resemble the (considerably larger but much less political) exhibition at Sideshow to nearly the extent that was suggested by the huge photograph devoted to it on the front page of the Weekend Arts section of the New York Times for January 23. But it was certainly very moving, to see so much anger and outrage on display. Obviously, artists all over world had been moved to try and make appropriate statements of their feelings
I attended this show on February 20, the week after CAA. It was the last week of the show, and the only one when they weren’t having an event of some sort. As I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to see the art properly when an event was going on, I chose February 20, even though the weather was glacial—and, as it turned out, the gallery had next to no heating. In fact, it was so cold that for most of the time that I was there, I was the only visitor, and my fingers became so numb that it was difficult to take notes.
In any event, other representatives of the media have already covered this exhibition—links to 16 different reviews or discussions of it are at the gallery website--so I can’t add a whole lot. None of the show’s videos and participatory art struck me as outstandingly effective, though as these art forms belong more properly to the category of the performing arts, as opposed to the visual arts, I make no claim to expertise in them.
I liked better some of the more conventional paintings, photographs, collages & assemblages. Although in some cases, the imagery was able to convey its message without words, the most effective pieces were in the venerable tradition of literary and/or conceptual, with lettering as well as imagery. Among such works I would include a T-shirt by Gautam Kansara with a front page from the New York Times reproduced on it, bearing the headline, “New York Officer Facing No Charges in Chokehold Case.” I also liked a poignant painting by Sandra Koponen of a tall-backed pink armchair with a copy of the Daily News on its seat. Its headline: “We Can’t Breathe.”
A photo by Sanford Biggers showed the head of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his eyes replaced by blank blue spaces, and a headline below, “I have a dream.” In the back gallery, I noted a striking photograph of a nude African-American man, hung by both his neck and his penis, all surrounded by pieces of fabric. This one was by Elliott Brown.
Finally, I might mention the sprightly life vests made with American flags by Melissa Vandenberg, and bearing the title, “Sink or Swim: Family Style.”
KEHINDE WILEY AT THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM
The other show that I saw during that week right after CAA was “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” at the Brooklyn Museum (closed May 24). I’d noticed and been attracted by the booth showing this artist’s works at The Art Show in the Park Avenue Armory a year or so ago. Their exquisite workmanship appealed to me, as did the novelty of their composition: they were relatively small bust-length portraits of young and very good-looking African American men in 21st century accouterments (T-shirts, tattoos, etc.), done in a hyperrealist style, and set into gilded, pointed, and somewhat Byzantine- or Gothic-looking frames.
These frames made the wholes suggestive of private devotional images from the late Middle Ages—or rather, the 15th century Northern European Renaissance. They reminded me that Jan van Eyck & Rogier van der Weyden painted in something resembling a hyperrealist style – and that Grant Wood had adapted their style for his similarly frontal portraits of 20th century Middle Americans, most notably in “American Gothic” (1930). This made me feel that Wiley was bringing Early Netherlandish painting up to date—but also, bringing American Scene Painting up to date.
The show at Brooklyn was much larger, with more than 50 works. Most were paintings, but there were also the occasional sculpture, the obligatory video and a couple of stained glass windows. I attended the media preview at the Brooklyn Museum for Wiley, on February 18, and took the tour of the exhibition by its organizer, Eugenie Tsai. Here I learned that Wiley (still only in his late 30s) was born in Los Angeles, and first learned about portraits by studying the prime selection of 18th and 19th century English ones in the Huntington Library in San Marino, just over the Hollywood Hills from Los Angeles.
After taking his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999, and his MFA from Yale in 2001, Wiley became an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. There he began the process of developing his own signature style.
This, as could be seen from the lion’s share of the works in the Brooklyn Museum show, consisted of large and even huge adaptations of historical paintings into a contemporary mode by substituting (for the historical figures) handsome young African Americans (mostly but not exclusively male) clad in 21st century clothing and accessories.
Tsai suggested that Wiley was now very successful, with a studio in Beijing as well as several other countries. The museum’s press release said that he had works in forty museums, and I myself was impressed by the large number of works in the show whose labels indicated they came from private collections (as opposed to other contemporary artists' retrospectives, which commonly have fleets of work from the artist's dealer). Tsai likened Wiley’s studios to Andy Warhol’s Factory, but also indicated that they were not unlike Renaissance and baroque-era ateliers. I asked how much of these paintings had been done by Wiley, and how much by studio assistants. I was told that he liked doing the faces of his subjects and beyond that, I’d have to ask the artist himself.
The actual subjects were often based on photographs of people whom Wiley met on the streets, and invited to his studio to pose (though he has also used celebrities like Michael Jackson). Among the historical works into which such figures had been inserted were a Jacques-Louis David and an 1847 marble sculpture of a reclining woman being bitten by a snake by Auguste Clésinger, a little-known French academic artist. In the latter case, the handsome young African figure substituting for the woman wears a red baseball cap and Hanes underwear. He is positioned on a field of flowers—quite nice.
All of these learned quotations could, I suppose, also fall into the category of “derivative is new original,” but somehow, Wiley makes it work for him. His purpose may be to dignify the image of African America, but if indeed it is, he leavens it with a humor that gentles it and elevates it above polemic. Above all, what made the show rewarding was that the works themselves looked so good, nor was there any secret about the borrowings—they were meant to be obviously what they were. Whenever there was any doubt, the labels provided the necessary art-historical information about Wiley’s sources. So, on the whole, I found the show extremely diverting, although I still liked best the small, crypto-Netherlandish devotional images -- and was very pleased with the way that they'd been hung, in a small, classy maroon-walled gallery all their own.