Performance Anxiety

It is an odd, bracing time to be writing art criticism. I used to think of the job as starting with a dialogue between writer and artist, an exchange that might widen to engage other interested artists and writers (and, ideally, interested bystanders as well). It has always seemed like an enormous privilege, and also a huge stroke of luck, to participate in this kind of discussion. But dialogue, which I construed fairly broadly, has lately taken on a different cast. Conversation in the literal sense of spoken words has become the default position for writing, at least—but not only—stylistically. Thanks to the eclipse of printed text by alternatives that circulate digitally, from emails to blogs to online publications, the set point for written language is now informal interpersonal speech. Immediacy has become the prevailing critical standard. One result is that the barricades separating journalism from criticism have been largely dismantled; another, more striking, is that writing has become increasingly performative.

It can be said that the spirit of colloquy has taken hold of the art-making process as well, even for those (a dwindling number?) not explicitly impelled by relational aesthetics. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing from artists of all kinds, including painters with solitary working lives, because they are expected to speak regularly in public, give interviews, issue statements; having things to say has become as important, for artists, as having things to show. And critics increasingly respond in real time. Everything live—character, influence, circles of friendship, and all kinds of extracurricular activity—is fair game for critical attention. Taking time for considered reflection, and for the introduction of ideas from outside sources, is not much favored.

This is not an altogether new story, and it simplifies the situation, but it applies ever more widely. In a 1999 book about how artists are educated, Howard Singerman drew on writing by Lucy Lippard, Rosalind Krauss, and, more distantly, Harold Rosenberg to find a line of descent between the emergence of Conceptualism, the advent of performance and video art, and the rise of the visiting artist as a staple of art education—a type of visit that Singerman said, credibly, is in effect a workaday performance. It seems to me to have become paradigmatic.

Many of the participants in a 2001 roundtable on the state of criticism, organized by the editors of October, worried aloud about the encroachment of belle-lettrism into precincts better ruled by theory. A decade later, this seems a humorously quaint concern. In that and other forums, dichotomies were also found between critical explorers and stock takers, goalies and scorekeepers, advocates and scolds; we might now add gossips and market analysts. And a further paired set: where once there was the Anxious Object; now there is mostly performance anxiety. Perhaps one crucial way that critics might help relieve this condition is to expect the work—whether it is polemical or formal—to hold up its own end of the dialogue. 

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Nancy Princenthal

NANCY PRINCENTHAL is a Contributing Editor at Art in America, and teaches in the Art Criticism and Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts. She is writing a book about Agnes Martin, to be published by the Monacelli Press.