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“Critical Wrongs”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Let me be the first to admit it, I’ve been wrong. 

Recently, within the “art critical establishment,” there’s been near-hysterical teeth gnashing and hand wringing over the diminished state of contemporary criticism.  In an open letter, A Call to Art Critics, published in the December/January Rail, Irving Sandler lamented this “crisis of criticism” and its seeming irrelevance, a position that was echoed by several respondents in subsequent issues.  The recently published Critical Mess,a collection, edited by Raphael Rubinstein, of essays by some of New York’s most esteemed writers, ponders this and related challenges.  And, in a controversial address given at the New York Studio School on February 22, 2007, Donald Kuspit stated that “Both art and criticism have been defeated by money…” essentially accusing critics of becoming the jailhouse punks of the big money dudes from the art market.   

Blame for the perceived decline of the relevance of current art criticism runs the gamut with all the usual suspects: too much money in the market, no government support, societal decadence, lack of appropriate education, the failure of artists to follow the dictates of their muse by selling-out to entrepreneurial collectors, and maybe even global warming. 

It’s time to stop the Chicken Little whining and come clean.  The purpose of art criticism (and all philosophy for that matter) is to be WRONG.  It’s that simple. Rather than constructing ornately designed arguments and lambasting the decadence of the art world, the market, and the rich, critics and theorists should simply realize that it’s their job to be wrong and to be brilliantly provocative at it.  This is not to say that that they’ve failed in their calling.  Rather it is the realization that as we evolve from one stage of thought to the next with few “eternal truths” to count on, inevitably the preceding levels become, if not obsolete, then at least accepted and institutionalized.  In our brave new world of the Internet, with 24-hour art blogging and online magazines, ideas trends and fashions spread with the speed and invasiveness of computer viruses.  Today’s brilliant insight is tomorrow’s tired cliché.  Once we critics accept our job as being wrong, we can then get down to the serious business: how do we make art criticism relevant, if not to 95% of humanity, at least beyond the walls of our tiny, effete and elite intellectual ghetto?

The primary problem facing art criticism since Duchamp is the question of just what is art?  It follows that if you can’t really define art, your ability to criticize it becomes even more difficult, if not debilitated.  Let’s cut to the chase and assert that the purpose of criticism is to examine and elucidate a work of art in order to derive greater pleasure, enlightenment, and satisfaction from it.  Interpretation, description and judgment all have their places, but are invisible if if the way they are conveyed isn’t compelling for the reader.  I think our worthy task is to make art criticism engaging, challenging, even fun.   

Having been rejected by the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and as someone who has always considered himself an artist first, I may not be the guy to opine on this dismal state of affairs.  The following are not value judgments, just observations.  A quick scan of the major of critics in general doesn’t reveal a wide swath of social diversity.  Nearly everyone is highly educated, middle-aged (being generous), and white.  Many are academians and most are leftists, some, stone-cold Marxists. A number of the academic critics couldn’t give a rodent’s rear-end whether anyone outside the institution pays any attention to their writing; they’re satisfied to keep their dialog confined to a small circle of fellow professional specialists.  Finally, just as art styles are rapidly changing to keep pace with new media and technology, criticism is undergoing a fundamental shift as its venues migrate.  Those who can’t adapt will end up as sun bleached bones along the cultural highway.   For art criticism to avoid the same fate as the Shakers, we should seek out the widest divergence of opinion and diversity of voices, demographically, politically, and philosophically.  Most of all we should look for a good story, a unique perspective, an unexpected twist on the standard formula.  The critical practice will keep chugging along because, as Clement Greenberg said, “If you can’t criticize it, it ain’t art.”  I may be wrong, but you know I can’t be more right than when I’m wrong.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 1978 where we’ll find…an America at the tail-end of one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history.  The Vietnam War came to an end three years previously, and many of the social changes shepherded in during the sixties had run their inevitable course, being replaced by ambitions closer to one’s father’s version of success.  The “Essentialist” stage of Feminism had peaked, but a summing-up of its accomplishments, at least in the arts, was still awaiting the energies of a driven personality, someone like Judy Chicago.

Few works of contemporary American art have achieved the iconic status of essentially existing through their documentation rather than their actuality.  One is Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” on the high desert shore of the Great Salt Lake.  Another is Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.”   As an avid peruser of art publications, I’ve probably seen dozens of reproductions of it over the years, though never in person.  So it was with genuine curiosity and a mediated sense of late ‘70s nostalgia that, during the last week of March, I visited the Brooklyn Museum’s newly dedicated Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and its centerpiece “The Dinner Party”.  Advertised as the first public space dedicated to the presentation of “Feminist Art”, the Sackler Center marks the Brooklyn Museum’s ongoing efforts to preserve unique works that might not find permanent homes in New York’s “mainline” museums. 

Hand-woven tapestries emblazoned with Feminist utopian slogans like “and then everywhere was Eden once again” hang overhead in the hallway approaching the pavilion, which was designed by Susan T. Rodriguez of Polshek Partnership Architects in consultation with curator Maura Reilly.  Seeing “The Dinner Party” for the first time I was struck with its sheer size.  Dramatically lit in a darkened room to enhance its ritualistic aura, each side of the triangular table is at least forty feet long and seats thirteen women. The entire ensemble is mounted on a low platform tiled in glistening white ceramic inscribed in gold script with the names of 999 other women of distinction.  The individual place settings include a painted/sculpted ceramic plate, chalice, knife, fork and spoon, along with a richly embroidered table cloth with the name of each honoree as well as motifs relating to her legend and culture.  Advancing chronologically from ancient goddesses to the mid-twentieth century, each effigy becomes progressively more extravagant, and the plates develop from mere paintings to voluptuous, full-fledged sculpture.  Stylistic allusions become more blatantly decorative.  There is no question that “The Dinner Party” is a major artistic statement reflecting major aspects of Feminist thought in the late seventies.  Complaints regarding its simpleminded bombast, exaggerated reliance on vaginal imagery, and dated references actually enhance the “trip back in time” experience implicit in the installation, and reestablish a connection with some of the salient issues that made this phase of Feminism so provocative. 

While studying art at a college in the northwest in the late seventies, I knew a female grad student who was coaxed into leaving her studies, going to California, and spending a year and a half working on “The Dinner Party” at her own expense.  She came back chastened and bitter, feeling like she’d been used.  Relegated to one sentence at the bottom of the second page of the press release is the fact that “The Dinner Party” is a collaborative work involving over 400 artists who freely volunteered extensive amounts of their time and energy.  Admittedly a work of this scale may require a communal effort and a kind of maniacal commitment, and for a great work of art some of us can forgive a certain amount of bad behavior.  That Chicago has kept these contributors anonymous while supposedly spotlighting other anonymous women is in itself an irony not lost on those keeping score.

For another take on women and time travel, a quick stop by Figureworks Gallery and a peek at Meridith McNeal’s “Keeping Room” is in order.  Step inside the gallery and you’re transported into a Victorian parlor with pea green walls, maroon velvet curtains and gold brocade tassels.  A pair of matching ruffled and pleated gowns, one adult, and one,  a little girl’s, have been painstakingly stitched together from a collection of subway maps (both outdated and current) and  displayed on classic seamstress forms.  The walls are hung salon-style with cut-out silhouettes mounted on antique wallpaper and period gilt frames.  A dollhouse resembling a miniature stage set mimics the layout of the installation.  This simulacrum is complete down to a teensy version of itself, which throws yet another scale of perception into the mix.  (If we could see the past would it be in miniature?)  McNeal has stated that she longs to maintain a connection with the past, to see time compressed, not unlike the built environment of New York, which is a commingling of elements from various periods of its history.  “Keeping Room” is her chance to “keep” a little bit of the past, and an invitation for us to join her there.