Quarterdeck Reflectionsby Alexi Worth
Surely all of us recognize that “minions on the quarterdeck” feeling, composed of equal parts fatigue, fatalism, and directionlessness. We are trying—artists, critics, and audience alike—to navigate a vast slovenly souk, and the Baedekers are mumbling. It feels that way. But how deep does that feeling run? My sense of the situation doesn’t entirely match Irving’s premise.
I wonder about the word “crisis.” In discussions like this, it has done honorable service for decades as a complacency-reducer. But there isn’t really any crisis looming, any turning point, any art world equivalent to the majestic, dire spectacle of the “fiscal cliff.” The closest analog may have been the 2008 recession, from which galleries emerged almost perfectly unscathed. The problem for criticism is that the overall status quo seems powerfully stable. Media, meanwhile, abhors stability. Why devote big space to small claims? And as Irving suggests, pluralism colludes with the market to medicate away negativity. What we lose, as readers, is a sense of expressive breadth, of risk. Imagine an art world equivalent to literary critic James Wood’s takedown of beloved sequoias like John Updike or Paul Auster. Can you picture, say, David Rimanelli taking on Richard Serra? Not easy to do, though Chelsea isn’t necessarily lacking in overrated careers. Meanwhile, the withering of long-form print media only concentrates the drive towards politesse. The upshot is that much mainstream art writing has been reduced to little more than “Hello; Thumbs up! Goodbye,” as one resigned critic put it (the critic in question: Lance Esplund. I bumped into him on the 4 train as I was writing this).
And yet, despite our perennial grousing, the quarterdeck is in fact crowded with terrific, discerning critics. I’m not just talking about the first names club, (Roberta, Peter, Jerry, Holland, and Ken) whose excellence we take for granted. I’m also thinking about the bylines at the Voice, people like Christian Viveros-Faune and Martha Schwendener; about relatively unheralded regulars at the front of the New Yorker or the back of Artforum—among them Andrea Scott, Frances Richard, and the underappreciated David Frankel, who has been writing quietly top-notch 800 word reviews for years (full disclosure, he reviewed me once). Some of the best writers operate outside the art periodicals—for instance, the Financial Times’s Ariella Budick, a strikingly unbeholden and decisive critic; or Blake Gopnik, who showed his mettle during the 2010 National Portrait Gallery censorship fracas, and was rewarded by being invited to sail on the Titanic—that is to say, to write for Newsweek.
I could list another two dozen names that deserve shout-outs, at places like ArtReview, Art in America, Art Fag City, Art Critical, not to mention the Rail—and already this partial roster feels grotesquely arbitrary. My point is, we have depth. The problem is dispersal. Who has time to track all the meaningful voices online and in print, to find out if Jack Bankowsky or David Cohen or Carroll Dunham or Jeffrey Kastner or Jonathan Neil or Barry Schwabsky or Sanford Schwartz or Katy Siegel or Trevor Winkfield or John Yau has a fascinating or infuriating piece, and where it is? There is a gathering provincialism at work—because art writing is scattered across so many platforms and sites. Art thrives on concentration, on density and easy interconnectedness. When there’s no center, we are all provincials.
Of course, one man has tried to rectify this situation singlehandedly, by becoming a taxonomist, cartographer, sociologist, and Facebook friend to all of the art world at once. But the job is too big, even for the superhuman gregariousness of Jerry Saltz. Of course, it would help if New York magazine would give him more scope. Another measure that might help, at least fractionally: what if some posse of smart 25-year olds set up a crack meta-criticism website, listing (their idea of) “necessary writing” each week or month? Kickstarter anyone?
ALEXI WORTH is a New York painter who has written for Artforum, the New Yorker, ARTnews, and T Magazine.