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by Walter Robinson
The Crisis of Criticism
The Crisis of Criticism
The Crisis of Criticism, edited by Maurice Berger, New Press, N.Y., 172 pp., 1998, $13.95.

Is art criticism in crisis? If so, what could the matter be? Stupidity, cowardice, irrelevance. Yes, all that and more. But these woes are chronic. Doesn't the notion of "crisis" imply something more acute?

An acute need to sell books, perhaps?

The Crisis of Criticism is a modest undertaking, a 5 x 7 in. paperback containing an introduction by the editor and a collection of nine essays, about half of which were previously published elsewhere. Most of the contributors are celebrities of a sort, a few from the big time (Arlene Croce, Joyce Carol Oates) and the rest known in the art world or academe (Homi Bhabha, bell hooks, Wayne Koestenbaum).

A powerful iconoclast, Berger edited some years ago a kind of symposium-in-print for Art in America called "Is the Art World Racist?" He's a graceful writer, so graceful that in his intro he sounds a little bored, viz:

"Criticism is not, of course, a monolithic enterprise. Some journalistic critics function as industry cheerleaders; others insist on writing reasoned, analytical essays. Some critics write strictly for trade or specialized journals; others practice criticism as an academic discipline with defined methodologies. Sometimes the methodologies of one critical discipline cross over to those of another... ."

Note the reference to those who "insist on writing reasoned, analytic essays." It sounds like an uphill battle.

By the way, Berger has been urged more than once to contribute polemical pieces to this magazine. A chance, you know, to raise important issues before a broad audience. He turned it down.

The book proper opens with a reprint of Arlene Croce's controversial 1994 New Yorker essay on Bill T. Jones and his Still/Here performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's "Next Wave" festival. Though at the time Jones had a remarkably athletic physique that he did not hesitate to bare to his audience, he was HIV positive and featured people with AIDS in his performances.

Croce's essay, "Defending the Indefensible," starts out as a prickly protest against the trivialization that kitsch pieties can visit on the very real experience of death. But the text soon collapses in an idiosyncratic rant against various imaginary targets -- "victim art," '60s permissiveness, people who don't listen to critics. It's like a nervous breakdown in print, and as such is quite remarkable.

This text is followed by two other essays that were also previously printed elsewhere. In "Confronting Head-on the Face of the Afflicted," Joyce Carol Oates offers a long list of artists like Goya, Dostoyevsky and Anne Frank who have also dealt with death and sickness. Oates suggests that Croce may have been submitting to "the censorious-conservative impulse" to "protect art from apparent incursions of disorder, even by artists themselves."

Homi Bhabha's "Dance This Diss Around" -- the Klingon cadence of the title reveals much -- was first published in Artforum. The celebrated multiculturalist barely bothers to articulate his point, which seems to be that the issue is not victimhood but survival. He does try his hand at some semiotic tropes, though. Here's his final sentence, a model of pretension: "As for me, I shall repair via e-mail to the restless seminars at the university in the dusty town of Pataniganj, where quite surprisingly this year the oranges have developed blood-red segments, like their California counterparts, and their juice is more acid than anyone can remember."

Word is that bell hooks (she likes a lower-case pen name, for some reason) has made a mint off her writing, which flows like water from a tap. The text here, "Making Movie Magic," mixes a colloquial tone -- calling her audience "folks," for instance -- with crypto-Stalinist rhetoric. It seems that she wants film "to promote a counterhegemonic narrative challenging the conventional structures of domination that uphold and maintain white supremacist capitalist patriarchy."

As if!

What's more, "Making Movie Magic" seems to have originally been written as a introduction to a 1996 collection of hooks' own essays on film. Thus, it includes tantalizing references to critical pieces that are presumably included in other books, elsewhere.

The most promising essay of the lot -- and consequently the biggest disappointment -- is "Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis of Journalistic Criticism" by former New York Times reporter Michael Brenson. This text first crossed my desk in 1995, published by the Andy Warhol Foundation in a crummy cardboard binding that I threw on a pile under my desk.

So now's my chance to read the thing. It's not easy. Brenson seems to think that critics didn't do enough to defend the National Endowment for the Arts, but when he was asked two years ago whether he would post a version of this essay in this magazine, he said no. He claimed that "I have to be careful where my work appears."

He complains about an "unofficial conspiracy of silence among critics about other critics." Then he mentions three examples of critical power -- "one negative review in the Times made collectors cancel orders to buy an artist's paintings," another negative review made a museum "think twice about taking an exhibition that was panned," and a third report prompted "the enraged director of a prominent cultural organization" to make a change in policy -- but conceals the identity of the principals in these incredible events.

Brenson insists that journalistic art criticism is in crisis, and then calls Robert Hughes "a good wordsmith." Faint praise, as it turns out, when Brenson later refers, in a footnote, to Columbia University philosopher Arthur Danto as "the only critic writing for a national journalistic publication who is entirely comfortable with ideas." Brenson doesn't mention Roberta Smith, who now leads the discussion from her post at the Times.

The remaining essays include wandering meditations on film by Jim Hoberman, on music by Sarah Rothenberg and on fashion by Richard Martin, curator of the so-called Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum. More power to Martin, who trashes some celebrated critics in his field ("raptures from Polly Mellen and bubbly babble from Carrie Donovan"). There's also a self-indulgent piece on academic writing by Wayne Koestenbaum, a professor of English at NYU.

If none of this, then what? Something of practical use, maybe, something focused on the economic base, with actual research and real reporting, and sustained and lucid arguments. What a concept.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of ArtNet Magazine.