by Viktor Witkowski
Art Without Criticism
We initially created the Railing Opinion column in November 2004 as a platform for critics, art historians, and artists to voice insights and critical reflections on the nature of art, its history, and its relationship to current political and social currents. Due to the overwhelming response to the rotating guest editorship of the ARTSEEN section since February 2012 and inspired particularly by the thoughtful questions Irving Sandler posed to critics on the state of criticism in the December/January 2013 issue, we have revived and reimagined Railing Opinion as the Critics’ Page. Here we hope to foster dialogue that addresses and broadens the value of art criticism in today’s complex visual culture.
In 1831, a year after the July Revolution in France, Heinrich Heine wrote about the Paris Salon and the art he encountered there. Heine observed that the exhibited paintings were like “poor children of art, to whom a busy crowd tossed only the alms of an indifferent glance.” This did not imply that the public was not worthy or incapable of appreciating the paintings on display. To Heine, the visitors’ minds were “occupied elsewhere and filled with anxious politics.” Even though he praised some of the paintings in the Salon, the main reason why many other works failed to attract any attention from the public (and Heine the critic) had to do with a lack of “art in enthusiastic harmony with [its] age, an art that does not need to borrow its symbols from a faded past.”
Heinrich Heine does nothing less than question an entire generation of artists’ vision for art. Furthermore, he questions the Salon itself as a place that promotes art that has, in large parts, become irrelevant. It is a shame that one has to travel back to a time when the phrase “institutional critique” had not yet been invented to realize that one of the gains of the great revolutions and their democratizing effects was to be able to challenge the conditions of your time, to not accept them as a given.
In his most recent contribution for the Brooklyn Rail Irving Sandler arrives at the following conclusion about the state of art criticism in our time: “During the pluralistic postmodernist era there are no longer riveting polemics that absorb critics. Instead, critics tend to be reduced to choosing artists they admire (and in rare cases, dislike) and deal with each individually. Art world discourse has become unfocused and undramatic, and has fallen into a kind of disarray, and in the minds of many, irrelevant.”
If you take Sandler’s observation seriously, which I do, then you have to conclude that art criticism is in much worse shape than it was during Heine’s time. Art fairs and the art they exhibit and inevitably produce has been accepted as a given. Many art blogs and art publications write about art as if it existed independently of the art markets, art schools, art galleries, and institutions. Have we become lazy, have we become partially blind? How did we arrive at this laissez-faire art discourse that is not actually a discourse, but an unending series of opinions, comments, and naked praise?