Railing Opinion: A Call to Art Critics

In the December/January issue, the Brooklyn Rail published “A Call to Art Critics” by Irving Sandler in the open column Railing Opinion. The questions posed by Sandler in his essay touched a nerve among many of our readers, who responded with emails and letters. The editors of ARTSEEN decided to publish four of the letters that seemed to most directly respond to Sandler’s questions. We decided to also reprint the original column in its entirety. The letters have been edited only for grammar, not for content, and are otherwise complete. —The ARTSEEN Editors

This call is written from a deep feeling of frustration with things as they are in the art world, a feeling shared by many art critics today. Consequently, I believe that we as art critics begin to deal with a series of questions.

Is there justification in the widespread feeling among us that art criticism is irrelevant, eclipsed by the activities of dealers, collectors, and curators, and consequently that there is a crisis in art criticism? If so, how can art criticism be made more relevant?

More specifically: How does the current structure of the art world and the roles of dealers, collectors, and curators, usurp the functions of art critics and threaten the integrity and impact of criticism, if indeed they do? How do “spin” mechanisms engaged in by art institutions affect art criticism? How can they be dealt with? Are we too timid in dealing with the power structures in the art world? If so, how can we overcome our timidity? Do we dare name names? Above all: Is what Jerry Salz described as the “art fair frenzy, auction madness, money lust, and market hype” influencing what we write and more important, what artists create in their studios and in our graduate programs? Must we not analyze the art world and its practices? If we don’t, who will?

What ethical lapses or compromises have we found that we have to tolerate? What is cronyism in the art world and what can we do about it?

Has criticism been upstaged by lavish gallery catalogues? There is nothing corrupt in this. The galleries choose critics they know admire the work of artists they show and the critics honestly reveal their admiration. But how does this affect art criticism? Does not a lavish catalogue upstage anything that will appear in art magazines?

Is it the primary function of criticism to tell good from bad? If so, what are our criteria for quality? What art-world mechanisms affect our perception of quality, e.g., what dealers sell and collectors buy, what museums show and art magazines publish?

How should we be dealing with the impact of politics and social issues on contemporary art and our criticism?

Does meta-art criticism, or the criticism of criticism, require more consideration than we have been giving it?

As for the question that most interests me: Is contemporary art in a pluralist situation? If everything goes, what counts? Is there a need for art critics to specify what is relevant or significant in art and what is not?

If things in our art world are wrong, how can they be remedied? How can we create our own agendas?

We must speak up. We have nothing to lose but our irrelevance. And we must be specific and avoid blowing off steam, grandstanding, or using glittering generalities, what Thomas Hess labeled “glidge.” Opinions must be backed up by fact.

Dear Rail,

There is no challenge in the world of art more important than the issues (in the form of questions) raised by Irving Sandler in your current (December/January) issue. I am a 70-year-old small poetry press publisher who also had an art gallery, in New York, in the1950s, and I speak as a lifelong worker in the vineyards.

The questions Sandler raised were inconceivable in 1950s and ’60s, which was the world of my youth. In the last few decades they have become legion. What has caused the change? I think the obvious answers are the correct ones: (1) America has become an imperialistic empire, but its art has refused to address this and so has become merely a symptom of our collective imperial ambitions; (2) our hegemony has produced enormous wealth and with it, corruption in all our institutions, not least of all museums, galleries, and art institutes; (3) finally, the bizarre and unexpected rush of “artists” to become students, to pretend that art can be learned, and learned in an academic graduate setting, has stultified creativity and complexified and confused the entire structure.

We cannot divorce the situation in Art from the United States as a whole, much as we pretend to. Art and Life cannot be divided. Art and the world cannot be separated. Art must suffer because we as a people are suffering and, due to our greed and ambition, the world is suffering.

To most “artists” and other “players” my words are probably a joke. But the joke is on us. Art is still possible. But it is only possible “the old way,” which includes the old-fashioned, out-of-date, spiritual ideals of work, commitment, disregarding monetary and popular considerations, and staying out of the sophisticated urban jollies. “Artists” have never had so much fun—and the promise of so much fame and money. We are getting the “art” we deserve. As they say, have fun while it lasts.

After we’re lucky enough to see the U. S. Empire fall, as all others have fallen before us, because of the bankruptcy of standing armies and arrogance of power, we will see our Art prosper once again. I figure another 150–200 years at the most. Or perhaps as soon as the rest of the world realizes the U. S. is as bankrupt financially as it is artistically.

Sincerely, Alan Brilliant

Dear Irving,

In regard to your belated series of questions in the Brooklyn Rail, I will key my response to the matter of the relevance of art criticism. Relevant to whom?

The dealers, collectors and curators who may or may not have eclipsed our activities as art critics are in their own ways art critics too. Their activities are evaluations, no matter how market-driven. But I suppose, my esteemed colleague, by art critics you mean those who are not actively engaged in what some call the “dark side” of art—i.e. sales. This dark side includes curators because they are beholden to the trustees of their institutions (often collectors), to artists, and to their own careers. I would also add to this “dark side” academics who make their livings by affirming the art market and/or encouraging new inductees for art world fodder. Narrowing it down even further, we must consider payments received for catalogues, monographs, magazine articles and newspaper reviews as bribes. Thus we are left with a tiny pool indeed. And you, like myself, a former president of the U.S. Section of the International Art Critics Association, must be acquainted with the dismal pool of talent.

Art critics who actually produce texts are of little direct relevance to those who do not read: collectors (too busy competing with other collectors), many curators (too busy courting collectors), academics (no patience for jargon not their own), and other art critics (no patience for jargon not their own).

In an ideal world, art criticism would be relevant to all players, providing helpful insights, analysis, interpretations, and initiating conversations and dialogue. After all, art is a way of thinking. Unfortunately, attempts at formulating discussion were abandoned about 1963 because of the excesses of one or two art dealers masquerading as critics who used a dumb notion of history to validate the products they were hawking. A little later structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction demolished history. In a world without time there is no timelessness either.

How can art criticism be made more relevant? Figure out a way to divorce it from the art market, for therein the temptations are too great and only the truly heroic can survive with their eyes and brains intact.

But, alas, an anti-capitalist critique is too easy. What is really needed is a new consensus about the purpose of art. I’d say that the purpose of art is not the creation of status symbols or investment opportunities but spiritual growth. I am not holding my breath.

Sincerely,

John Perreault Founder of Artopia
www.artsjournal.com/artopia

My Hands Are Tied

“Ars longa is no longer. The present is all there is and all that matters…Every tendency of our present culture is intended to distract us, extinguish our critical intelligence, and smoke out and neutralize those people who don’t want to getwith the program.”

—Gerald Howard, “American Writing Today” (n+1, 2006)

In response to Irving Sandler’s call, I have to say that his questions could not be more relevant in today’s climate. My own experience as an art critic has been odd, writing reviews here and there, that read very positive on the most part, yet exclude my true opinions. Most of the sources that I have written for have required that “criticism”of the actual exhibition, artist or art work not be present. This has made me wonder if art criticism was supplanted by art theory.

Compounding matters even more, art criticism is a modestly paid profession, with little-to-no grant structure that offers support. Unfortunately the best critical responses to contemporary art appear in either online blogs or free publications—“free” meaning either available at no charge to the consumer or the writer submitting ideas for publication “pro bono.” In the wake of art fairs, biennials and the vibrant art market, there are doubts as to whether art criticism will ever be the bellwether of contemporary art. Due to the fact that influential benefactors of contemporary artists, meaning museums and foundations alike, are donating funds in each direction at once, art criticism is treated as a conflict of interest. But if the significance of art criticism could be revived, there should be some sort of grant structure setup for it to proliferate and be effective to artists as well as the general public.

We are living in a Nobrow culture, as John Seabrook asserted in 2001. At the moment I think that artists are making work without effective guidance. In addition art critics have no significant connection to the motions of the art world that render the relationship between artist and writer nearly insignificant. As much as I wouldwish this letter to be a full response to all of Sandler’s questions, I can only respond to what I face on a daily basis. However with a larger collective voice, it is my hope that critical writing will soon be able to appear in mainstream publications rather than in the peripheral online blogs and freebies one finds while visiting galleries and bookstores.

—Jill Conner

Dear Mr. Sandler;

Although I am a painter, not an art critic, I do write about art and find your appeal very interesting. I also want to let it be known at the beginning that I am an acquaintance of yours and consider several critics good friends. In addition, I was a friend of the late Clement Greenberg for many years.

I found your appeal very important—more for what you feel about the art world than for its appeal. You stated your feelings about the art world in a way that serves your profession well. That you and other good critics are ignored is a statement about the art world, and not about the critic. I agree with what you are saying and as a painter who sometimes over the last thirty years has felt ignored, even though I have also been fortunate enough show my work regularly, I understand your frustration,

But perhaps there are more people on the planet than is good for it, and too many people in the art world too few critics. I remember that when I first came to New York an old abstract painter, I think it was Herman Cherry, complained to me, “There used to be 200 painters in New York, now there must be 2000.” If only he were still alive and could see the New York art world now.

When the feeling that there is just so much bad art out there and so little good overwhelms me, I think of how Monet must have felt while looking at a Bougereau hanging in the Salon. When I worry that there are so few decent critics, I think that over the course of history there have been many great artists, but how few great critics or even art historians have written about them. I could hardly mention all the artists, but critics and writers like Vasari, Baudelaire, Fry, and Berenson are much more rare. Perhaps the situation today is not so different.

However much they deny, and whether they decry quality or not, the art world must make choices. They cannot fill their museums and galleries with everything. And, as much as they might refute it (“I know what I like.”), they can use help. Your job in part is to provide that help, and you personally have been trying valiantly to do it.

Critics have another function, which has been maligned, but for me has been very useful. Critics help the artist. The trained mind and eye can be, and I think always have been, a great help to the artist. A student of mine was asked, “What does he do for you?” and she answered “Saves me years.” If an artist said the critics have been no help to her or him, I feel sorry for them.

So I guess Mr. Sandler, while I have not answered your appeal, I would just like to say keep up your good work.

—John Adams Griefen

Contributors

Jill Conner

Jill Connor teaches at Parson's new school.

Irving Sandler

Irving Sandler is an art critic based in New York.

John Adams Griefen

John Perreault

Alan Brilliant

Alan Brilliant has established himself as one of America's preeminent small press publishers.

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