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art criticism 
and the 
vanishing public:
in search of
some interesting 

by Peter Plagens

A long time ago my wife and another couple 

were driving back to L.A. from San 

Francisco. Now my wife, Laurie Fendrich, 

who is a painter, was once a serious 

student of political philosophy. Diane, the 

woman of the other couple, was a Classics 

scholar who'd once been married to a fairly 

famous political philosopher of the 

Straussian persuasion. With her in the back 

seat was her latest boyfriend, a guy named 

Al, who had just gotten out of the Navy, 

after a couple of hitches on a nuclear sub. 

Well, Laurie and Diane got to gabbing about 

Hegel and Kant and Rousseau and Nietzsche 

and the meaning of life. I chimed in 

occasionally because I, like Plato, have 

read about six books in my life. Never mind 

that five of them were Raymond Chandlers. 

Less occasionally, Al put in his two cents' 

worth. When we got back to our loft in 

downtown L.A., we poured some drinks and 

kept talking. Al was drop-jawed fascinated 

by the conversation. At about 3 a.m., I 

said I was going to have to crash. Laurie

and Diane said they, too, were turning in. 

At that point, Al looked at all three of us 

pleadingly. "Look," he said. "That 

nature/nurture thing--can't we just clear 

that up first?"

Now I've got six minutes to clear up this 

criticism thing. O.K., first a few highly 

partial remarks on the state of things.

I take it as axiomatic that there is 

something we might call art to which some 

kind of common terminology and standards 

can, however loosely, be applied. If there 

weren't, you wouldn't be able to put all 

that stuff, from Ancient Egypt to 

postmodern America, under one roof at the 

Metropolitan Museum and entice as many 

people as the Met does to come through the 

doors to see it. If you had in the Met, to 

the contrary, say a chamber music recital 

hall, a John Deere tractor salesroom, a 

sauna, a Communist Party cell meeting in 

progress and a manicure parlor, that would 

amount to the range of diversity you'd have 

to have to say there's no such thing as 


I say this, because a lot of critics try to 

tell you, in effect, that art has gotten so 

varied, and its audience so varied, that 

there is hardly any such thing as "art" 

anymore. Be warned: That's what academics 

and critics do for a living. (I know; I've 

been both.) They tell you: a) things are a 

whole lot more complicated than you ever 

thought, b) the boundaries between the 

entities you've always taken for granted--

between art and theater, or sculpture and 

painting, or poetry and architecture, for 

instance--are fuzzier, to the point of 

nonexistence, than you ever imagined, and 

c) that most everything you know is the 

product of biased, even arbitrary, social 

and political construction. That last one 

is the whole art world's version of the 

basic paradox of relativism, to wit: All 

truths are relative, except, of course, the 

truth that all truths are relative.

First, "audience." Audience is a trickier 

thing with contemporary art than it is 

with, say, theater or dance. Practically 

all dance and theater companies can measure 

their audience by the box office, i.e., how 

many people buy tickets to plays and dance 

programs. In contemporary art, only museums 

and kunsthallen survive, more or less, by 

the box office. Aside from big chunks of 

money from wealthy donors, their income 

comes from people who pay to get in and buy a 

few items at the souvenir stand.

Art galleries are different. They're stores 

that sell stuff from inventory to pay the 

rent, the light bill and the receptionist's 

salary. Ninety-nine percent of the people 

who just wander into galleries from off the 

street--those crowds in SoHo on Saturdays--

are what in the real estate business they 

call "looky-loo's." They don't buy 

anything. The vast, vast majority of people 

who come to look and never to buy but who 

nevertheless consider themselves serious 

gallery-goers and who wonder, at times, why 

critics don't make it more interesting for 

them, are actually getting a free show on 

the backs of those status-conscious rich 

people who buy the art. If the galleries 

couldn't sell art and had to survive on the 

thousands of looky-loo's who come through 

the doors for free, they'd go out of 

business. And there would be no feeder 

system for contemporary museums, and the 

whole contemporary world would collapse. 

So, perhaps a little sentiment about art 

dealers is in order.

I don't, however, have much sentiment about 

the general public. I have come to the 

conclusion that the average middle-class 

American is a real boob, and probably worse 

than he was when Mencken first said it. I 

mean, have you ever seen what they're 

watching on the Jerry Springer Show? Do you 

know what kind of jogging suits they buy at 

the mall? Have you checked the gas mileage 

on the four-wheel drive vehicles they want 

to buy, and do you know what they dream 

about doing to the natural environment with 

them? Have you tuned into C-SPAN and 

listened to the freshman congressmen that 

average Americans, with open eyes, and by 

large margins, elected? As far as I'm 

concerned, the movie Fargo is a 

documentary. All those oversized meals, the 

godawful lounge in the Raddisson hotel, 

that ugly new Buick and the hideous little 

bell it had when you left your keys in it. 

Jerry Lundeberg is America as far as I'm 


The reason that I'm so hard on the average 

American is that he or she has--downsizing 

notwithstanding--a comparative lot of spare 

time and money. He can buy a Walkman, go to 

$8.50 movies, pay for cable TV, replace his 

$100 sneakers every time Nike changes its 

TV commercials, gobble up $7.00 Dean Koontz 

paperbacks, own stacks of Mariah Carey CD's 

at $15 a pop, spend $500 for his daughter's 

prom dress and share one of those 25-foot 

white limousines and put a boat in his 

driveway. This same guy could go to night 

school, learn to appreciate opera, and read 

Walden. But he doesn't. He just wants more 

crap. I've come to the point where I don't 

have much hope for wooing average Americans 

into the contemporary art audience any 

more. It's time, as W.C. Fields said, to 

take the bull by the tail and face the 


But there's also a problem with much 

contemporary art in that, to a middle-class 

sensibility, it's simply unappetizing. For 

some reason, the middle class can endure--

it even craves--a lot of unpleasantness in 

its movies but still wants some kind of 

comprehensible beauty in its art. Now, a 

lot of us here will scoff and cite Clement 

Greenberg to the effect that truly great 

art looks ugly first. Fine, but that 

doesn't mean that all ugly art is destined 

to be truly great. You know, all horses are 

quadrupeds, but not all quadrupeds are 

horses. Me, I'm used to looking at Cindy 

Sherman photographs. Not only do I know 

that the grotesque, garishly lighted 

genitalia is fake, but I've seen enough of 

it so that when I see more, my heart goes 

right to the problem of her stagecraft and 

whether or not this autobiographical gran 

guingol manages, as promised, to make some 

sort of biting social comment.

And I see related stuff all the time: 

installation art with fake body parts, 

sculptures replicating vomit on the floor, 

videos with people doing painful things to 

themselves, paintings depicting horrible 

sex crimes, and performance art that leaves 

a big mess on the floor. Any sense of shock 

generally eludes me, and I merely start 

thinking--as Dave Hickey said recently--

about what part of Walter Benjamin is this 

supposed to allude to? But to the suburban 

couple with two kids who come into the city 

on a Sunday to go to the museum of 

contemporary art, the Cindy Sherman 

photographs can virtually hurl them back 

out the front door.  

I may not have the same feeling about Cindy 

Sherman, but I know what it feels like with 

movies, because I don't go to a lot of 

movies. When I do, I'm shocked at the 

amount of gratuitous violence and gore 

people take for granted. And I don't feel 

obligated anymore--thank you very much--to 

retrain myself to get over it so I can 

appreciate the movie's subtler points or 

its advanced cinematic style. Chances are 

about one in 50 that the movie has either. 

That's why I'm one of the few people in 

this audience who hasn't seen Pulp Fiction. 

The chances that any given contemporary 

show with unappetizing art in it has some 

worthwhile subtlety, social comment or 

advance in style are also about 1 in 50. 

So, the suburban couple thinks (if they've 

ever done this before), why put ourselves 

through it? Even if I were sensitive to the 

pervasive unappetizingness of contemporary 

art, I get paid for putting myself through 

it. So I do it. Janet Maslin gets paid for 

the same thing with movies, and she does 

it. Outside of the art business, I bother 

only when its something or someone I'm 

interested in, like the Coen Brothers's 


Let's go to language for a minute. 

Contemporary art, like any specialized 

endeavor, is entitled to its professional 

theorists writing, in professional 

journals, in argot particular to the field. 

It's not fair to peek at a Hal Foster essay 

in October and immediately complain about 

how dense the writing is.  That being said, 

art, to me, is less entitled to that kind 

of privilege, and those journals, than are 

the sciences or professions like 

engineering or medicine. Why? Because the 

nature of art is presentation. It's 

outward-facing by definition. The artist's 

painting filled with brushstrokes is not 

analogous to the physicist's blackboard 

filled with equations; the painting is its 

own result, while the physicist's 

blackboard is a means to an end. So writing 

about art assumes a little more 

accessibility, even at its most scholarly, 

than writing about physics.  

Still, contrary to the common perception, 

there is a lot of readable art writing out 

there. Artforum is actually readable these 

days, although it's a Rolling Stone kind of 

readable that isn't my cup of tea. There 

are lots of readable art writers. Roberta 

Smith in the New York Times, Peter 

Schjeldahl in the Voice, Deborah Solomon in 

the Wall Street Journal, Robert Hughes in 

Time are all eminently readable. Dave 

Hickey, whose "Simple Hearts" columns in 

the L.A. magazine  Art Issues are, hands-

down, the best ongoing art criticism in 

America, is readable like Cecilia Bartoli 

can carry a tune. And whatever else you 

think about my art criticism, I am 

readable. They don't pay these editors at 

Newsweek the big bucks to let me go 

unreadable into print.

I used to subscribe to the conventional 

wisdom--I even wrote it--that Hilton Kramer 

was, whatever else you thought about him, 

readable. I've had to amend that. He's 

readable only for these curious about 

apoplectic politics. I've come to think 

that, behind the nice faux-Victorian prose 

style and an admirable disregard for what 

anybody on the art-world party circuit 

thinks about him, he wouldn't know a decent 

work of contemporary art if it sat on his 

face. He's recently liked the print shows 

of William Bailey, Euan Uglow and Dale 

Chilhuly, which struck me as practically 

definitive of vapidity or tastelessness or 

both. Lest you think I'm just kissing up to 

those colleagues I named before Kramer, let 

me add my caveats: I think Roberta Smith at 

times seems to be looking over her shoulder 

at the Guerrilla Girls; Peter Schjeldahl is 

a little too flattering to artists; Deborah 

Solomon is too given to strange, off-the-

cuff theories about what makes the artist 

do the work: Robert Hughes actually likes 

the painting of R.B. Kitaj, and Dave Hickey 

(whom, yes, I've known   for 30 years) said 

out loud a couple of weeks ago that Jasper 

Johns is superior to even the best of 

Abstract Expressionism. And me, I tend to 

argue with art instead of looking at it 

thoughtfully and--unlike any of the 

foregoing critics--I like even a 

rudimentary field theory about the nature 

and judging of art.  Caveats aside, 

however, all of us are living, breathing 

exceptions to the charge of unreadability.  


I don't think it's criticism's job to build 

or maintain an audience for contemporary 

art, except insofar that the critic needs a 

certain number of people to be interested 

in reading art criticism for him/her to get 

work. When you think of any of a number of 

great and/or prominent art critics--Suzi 

Gablik, Clement Greenberg, Sadakichi 

Hartmann, Hilton Kramer, Barbara Rose, 

Harold Rosenberg, John Ruskin--do you think 

at all about whether or not more viewers 

came through because of them?  Absolutely 


Audience building is the job, first of all, 

of the artists. Think about that. Hasn't 

the whole idea of the poor, publicly inept, 

reclusive artist been out of date for about 

50 years, at least? Hasn't much of the 

art since 1960--I'm talking about 

Conceptual Art, site-specific sculpture, 

installation art, performance art, and 

various forms of political advocacy art--

been not about holing yourself up in a 

garret to express your inner feelings and 

hoping that history eventually cuts you a 

break, but about indirectly manipulating 

the audience? Yes. Artists have taken on 

that job--again--and it's theirs first. 

Audience-building is the job, second, of 

galleries and museums. That's what they get 

paid to do. End of story about audience 


What the critic is supposed to do is 

satisfy his or her own audience, that is, 

write a piece of prose that helps the 

audience be a little more discerning. And 

maybe it's not even supposed to do that. 

Maybe it's supposed to be interesting 

reading, and nothing more. Maybe it isn't 

the critic's job to make readers interested 

in art any more than it's the artist's job 

to make viewers interested in criticism.

But since interest in criticism and 

interest in art are entwined, I do have one 

suggestion for critics: that they quit 

being so sentimental about the causes in 

which works of art enlist themselves, that 

they quit making that sentiment, however 

unintentionally, the basis for a favorable 

judgment. Now I want to be understood here: 

I don't mean that artists shouldn't make 

art about AIDS, racism, sexual abuse or 

political repression. And I don't mean that 

critics should pay favorable attention only 

to art that purports to be nonpolitical. I 

mean that critics shouldn't judge art by 

the causes it supports, but rather by the 

artfulness with which it supports those 


The critic's allowing sentiment for the 

cause into whose service art puts itself to 

influence his or her judgment too heavily 

sooner or later causes loss of credibility. 

A while back somebody remarked in print 

about Frank Rich (when he was still an 

excellent theatrical critic instead of a 

mediocre political columnist) writing about 

"this week's gay genius of the century." 

Rich, apparently, had been favorably 

reviewing every play about five guys who 

rent a summer house and, over the course of 

a dramatic summer, come to terms with life, 

love and morality. The somebody knew that 

all those plays couldn't be that good. He 

knew that 90% of those kinds of plays are 

bad because 90% of all plays are. Talk 

about something immutable in art--it's the 

ol' 90% ratio.

What critics should keep in mind is that 

artists are artists before anything else; 

otherwise they'd be revolutionaries, social 

workers or monks. They do what they do 

because they like to, and because they're 

trying to go one up on their forebears and 

peers. The only issue they're really 

tackling is the issue of just where are the 

interesting edges of the envelope of art. 

What comes out of that can be boring and 

stupid, or it can be beautiful and 

inspirational but, deep down, its motives 

are ultimately morally neutral.

I've used more than my six minutes, so I'll 

quit here.         

A somewhat abbreviated version of 

the above text was delivered as an opening 

statement at a panel discussion, titled 

"Invisible Ink: Art Criticism and a 

Vanishing Public,"sponsored by Art Table 

and the American chapter of the 

International Association of Art Critics at 

the American Craft Museum on May 15, 1996. 

The discussion was moderated by Amei 

Wallach; other panelists included Donald 

Kuspit, professor of art history and 

philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook; Lynne 

Cooke, curator of the Dia Art Center; and 

Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr.

Peter Plagens, Newsweek's  art 

critic, is a painter based in New York.