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Back to Features 97

art criticism
in a changing
cultural landscape

by Peter Halley

I would like to start with a brief acknowledgment of some of the pieces of art criticism that have most influenced me as an artist. I think there is some apprehension on the part of critics today that they have lost their voice in the artistic debate, replaced perhaps by market forces or by the collector. For me, that has not been the case. Early on, I was enthralled by Thomas Hess's MoMA catalogue on Barnett Newman -- not so much because of Hess's cabalistic interpretation of Newman, but by the way Hess was able to bring Newman's exemplary practice as an artist so alive. As a graduate student in the late '70s, I remember reading Donald Kuspit's essay in Artforum, "Elizabeth Murray's Dandyish Abstraction." It was a crucial text for me. It helped me legitimize my own latent idea that abstraction could be dandyish -- playful and provocative -- rather than spiritual and high-minded. However, I can imagine Donald Kuspit's discomfiture that he may have helped give birth to an oeuvre as monstrous as my own; but let us not forget that art criticism is no less subject to a "strong misreading" -- in Harold Bloom's terms -- as the work of visual art itself.

I would also like to mention both Rosalind Krauss's work of the early '80s and Benjamin Buchloch's essay, "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression," from October magazine in 1981. While I disagree with both writers on many subjects, I nevertheless feel that Krauss helped give me a way into understanding post-structuralism, while Buchloch's essay was a crucial attempt to try to understand the cultural politics of the Reagan era. Lastly, I would like to turn to the work of another artist-critic, Robert Smithson. Strictly speaking, his far-reaching writing still qualifies as art criticism, since in the end he mostly does write about art, but here is art criticism as a fantastic act of the imagination, freely clothing itself in a variety of literary genres, mixing contemporary art with a wide range of other cultural production, constantly provoking and probing, yet maintaining a detached ironic humor throughout. In terms of today's writing, the only practitioner-critic who approaches this intensity of activity is unfortunately not an artist but an architect, Rem Koolhaas.

That said, I would like to turn to the crux of my argument. Several years ago, I was asked to participate in a panel organized by the International Association of Art Critics on the subject of the ethics of art criticism. Much to my surprise, the distinguished panelists spent a good deal of time talking about whether critics should collect art, accept gifts from artists, or buy art by the artists they supported. To me, this discussion was reflective of a state of misplaced anxiety. By claiming to be aloof from the marketplace, the critics were able to imply that they were also separate from the power relations of the art world. I came away from the panel with the feeling that the participants saw themselves as something akin to members of the Supreme Court, able to decide on the merits and meaning of works of art with the dispassionate objectivity of the Judiciary Branch.

For me, this is not just a distortion of the role of the critic, but a more basic denial of both the purpose and pleasure of criticism. The work of the critic is to influence the course of cultural events in his or her own day. The critic is an active proponent in forming the meaning of contemporary culture. And this is the chief pleasure of criticism -- a truly Nietzschean pleasure -- to gain the power of having one's own subjective views, one's interpretations and evaluations, accepted by some small portion of the cultural world as valued and valid.

For some reason, this vision of the critic has gotten a bad name. Critics seem horrified that the purpose of their work is to validate and empower their subjectivity. They seem aghast that their writings might influence or even determine the course of culture. Yet a denial of the pleasure of this power is, to my mind, to deny the discoveries not just of Nietzsche, but of Freud and Foucault as well. This denial is an almost fanciful return to the idea of an objective science advocated by the Enlightenment.

Let me express my views on why this embarrassment may be present. First, there are examples of sadistic abuse, such as the career of the late Clement Greenberg. But Greenberg is not a model but an aberration. He had lost his sense of the role of play always inherent in games of power. Further, he erroneously and egregiously tied power to objectivity, whereas power is by its nature a subjective impulse.

More importantly, because of the convulsions of the '80s, we have become too attached to thinking about the relationship between art and money. If we fixate on the relationship between art and the marketplace, there is good reason for the critic to resist a role as p.r. person for some money-making enterprise. However, I feel that to see art as analogous to the real marketplace is misleading. After all, I have yet to see an artist or even an art dealer on the Forbes list of wealthiest American individuals.

A better analogy is to see art as akin to politics. In art, as in politics, the struggle for money is only a means to an end -- and that end is the ascendance and influence of one's own world view. If we look back, for example, at the struggle between Minimalism and Pop art, it is clear that it was an ideological struggle with each camp, as in politics, arguing for a different vision of what culture and society-at-large was and should be. People usually don't feel embarrassed when a political candidate they support wins (although maybe they should). By analogy, I see no reason the critic should disown his or her satisfaction in the success of a cultural production they believe in and even love or the failure of cultural practices they deeply abhor.

Turning to another subject: despite the fairly bountiful amount of criticism that currently appears in newspapers, magazines, books and museum catalogues, I believe that in several important ways, art criticism is in trouble. I am disturbed by the lack of radical or experimental criticism that appears today -- such as that of Robert Smithson -- or even of eccentric criticism like that of Sidney Tillim in the late '60s. This is further reflected in the lack of periodicals today that are experimental in form such as Artforum in the '60s, Avalanche in the early '70s, or ZG in the early '80s.

In my view, creative or radical criticism is being constricted by two different powers at once.

On one hand, the increasing consolidation of ownership within the print media has had a stultifying effect on writing of all kinds. Magazines and newspapers are increasingly the property of large companies -- often publicly held-- for whom the bottom line is the deciding factor in determining content. Less obviously, there has also been tremendous consolidation in the areas of book and periodical distribution. Thus, anything not conforming to the mega-distributors' needs will not get out either. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, a new tradition has developed in the world of periodicals -- to begin a new and interesting magazine that may have the potential to publish some non-conformist material -- and then as soon as it gains some cache or recognition, to sell it and sell it out to the richest media conglomerate around. While this of course conforms to the laws of capitalism, I find it reprehensible, and I would suggest that a diversity of ownership of newspapers, magazines, and book publishers is essential to revive intellectual experimentalism today.

At the same time, I see the university as, at this point, also a threat to experimental art criticism. The situation is this: in our epoch, in the '80s and '90s, for whatever reasons, it has become harder and harder economically and socially for young intellectuals to fashion lives for themselves except within the university. At the same time, in every field, including art history, the university standard has become more and more oriented towards the mastery of a highly specialized field of knowledge. There has also been an accompanying standardization of intellectual methodology for judging the validity of argument. In my view, the result has been stultifying. There are fewer and fewer independent, unaffiliated intellectuals, and those within the university system are subject to increasingly rigid methodological conformity. These are not the ideal conditions for nurturing experimental thought.

Another disappointment with art criticism that I have experienced in recent years is the lack of any movement towards intertextual criticism. As an artist, or practitioner, I have long been aware of the importance of intertextual thinking in the development of my own work and that of my colleagues. Artists are often just as influenced by pop music, architecture, literature or movies as they are by work in their own field. Further, in my view, any profound understanding of the work of a visual artist past or present must locate his or her work within the matrix of cultural production of that era. Yet art criticism generally continues to cling to an exposition of art as it relates to other art. But perhaps this is not surprising if we think back to what we have said about both the state of publishing and the university. The traditional periodical demands that culture be subdivided into sections -- the movie section, the art section, the music section. There is no place given to the intertextual writer. Similarly, the university, as we have observed, most directly rewards scholars who confine themselves to a specific field.

Still another crisis that art criticism, and art, faces today is that we are coming to the end of the vitality of our era's critical paradigm -- namely post-structuralism. It has always been one role of the art critic to mediate between the non-verbal world of visual art and the linguistic world of philosophical or theoretical discourse. If we grant to visual art an intellectual importance equal to written theory, and imagine that the two are linked at any given time as part of each era's mentalité, than it falls to the art critic to link the worlds of written theory and visual art. We can see such linkages in the world of literary and visual Surrealism, in the discourse between Existentialism and Abstract Expressionism, and even in the relationship between abstraction and neo-formalist structuralist tendencies in the '60s.

Since the beginning of the '80s, we have inhabited a world increasingly dominated by post-structuralist thought. There are three reasons to think this paradigm may be about to shift. Firstly, every paradigm changes. Secondly if we view intellectual production in terms of George Kubler's ideas of their length of viability, post-structuralism shows every sign of being at the end of its cycle -- insofar as it is not generating innovative production but rather increasingly specialized non-innovative uses. Thirdly, in the intellectual community, post-structuralist analysis has gained the authority of truth, it is hegemonic; and such hegemony is a sure sign that post-structuralism has outlived its potential for creativity. I strike this death-knell with a certain note of sadness. If we are all the products of our time, I am surely a child of the post-structuralist revolution, and its tenets will always dominate my thinking. I believe it falls on a new generation to figure out how to now challenge the assumptions we make about the world.

In planning my remarks today, I also made the misguided promise to say something about art criticism and the Internet. There remains the possibility that interactive periodicals will appear on the Web that will democratize the dialogue about art. However, I am skeptical that such a transition will ever occur. Firstly, it is my contention that as the Internet becomes more sophisticated it will inevitably become dominated by highly capitalized media giants. Their concept of interactivity will probably be very different from ours. Secondly, for real interactivity to become reality, one must imagine a true revolution in human relations, one in which every person's utterances are valued equally with every others. Such a revolution is unlikely and perhaps undesirable.

There is one experiment on the Web, however, that I have followed with some interest. It is called The Thing, and it is the project of the artist Wolfgang Staehle. At its height, The Thing hosted an open chat session for artists to discuss the current exhibitions in New York and Europe. The result was unlike any other art criticism that I have seen before or since. Scanning the screen, one got a very real sense of the kind of talk that takes place between artists in restaurants, bars, studios, and parties -- a look into the real thinking of the protagonists in contemporary art.

This is perhaps one possibility that the Internet holds -- to record for the future the actual back and forth dialogue that takes place among artists who are a part of the production of contemporary art. And to my mind, this is one thing that art criticism has never done very well. From Cubism onwards, art criticism has created its own dialogue about contemporary art that as a rule quiets the voice of the artist and supersedes the actual debates that take place between artists.

I would like to add just one more comment on my own role as an artist and an art critic. I guess I have become a proponent of trying to "seize the means of production" in this monopolistic age. I became an art critic in order to insert my own concerns as an artist in the critical debate, rather than leaving that task to others. More recently, dissatisfied with the periodicals that discuss contemporary culture, I decided with my colleague Bob Nickas to start a cultural magazine of my own. In music, cinema, and the phenomenon of fanzines, this practice of doing-it-yourself is becoming more and more widespread in the United States. And I find it a very effective form of criticism.

This text was delivered at the 85th annual conference of the College Art Association in New York on the panel "Art Criticism: Valuation and Reevaluation," organized by the United States Section of the International Association of Art Critics.

PETER HALLEY is a New York painter and publisher of Index magazine.