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New Art Examiner

AMERICAN ART
CRITICISM LIVES!
by Donald Kuspit
 
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Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born, Janet Koplos, eds., The Essential New Art Examiner, Northern Illinois University Press, 2011, 336 pages, $22.50.

“The New Art Examiner was Chicago’s only successful art publication,” Kathryn Born writes in the foreword to The Essential New Art Examiner (Northern Illinois University Press, 2011). “It had a 29-year run, starting in 1973 and ending in 2002, and since its founding by Jane Addams Allen and Derek Guthrie, no other art periodical has survived more than a few issues, or achieved any kind of critical mass of readership.” Jane Addams Allen is deceased; Guthrie, in the Introduction to this welcome anthology of articles from the New Art Examiner, writes that the magazine “worked on the principle that vitality can only come when the writer is following his or her own basic response” to the art they are examining.

The included writers -- many not from Chicago, but taken with Chicago art, or having something interesting and important to say about modern art in general -- have strong responses indeed, and perhaps more crucially, carefully considered responses. They convincingly refute James Elkins’ thesis that “criticism has virtually died in the U.S.” Guthrie quotes it respectfully, humbling himself before it -- Elkins, after all, teaches at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- but the entire book shows that Elkins doesn’t know what he is talking about.

The book is organized into five sections, with the articles in each section chosen by the editor at the time. The longest section (ten articles) is the first one by Allen and Guthrie; it includes their seminal article on “The [Chicago] Tradition” (originally published February 1975). It makes a convincing case for the art historical importance of Chicago Imagist art. The second section, by Ann Lee Morgan, has five articles, perhaps most interestingly Carole Harmel’s “The Word vs. the Image -- Some Thoughts on Reading Photography” (originally published in December 1979).

The third section, introduced by James Yood, has seven articles. Joanna Frueh’s “Explicit -- Towards a Feminist Theory of Art Criticism” and the Guerrilla Girls’ “Speakeasy” remain tellingly relevant (originally published in January 1985 and March 1986, respectively). Hilton Kramer offers an insightful discussion of the “troubling. . . consequences” of “the democratization of high culture” (which he is in favor of) -- determining “what is good or great as distinguished from what is worthless” -- in an account of “The Art Scene of the ‘80s” (originally published October 1985).

And, if I may recommend myself (who else will?), also worth the read is my article on “The ‘Madness’ of Chicago Art” (originally published May 1986). My point of departure is the view of a New York critic who dismissed Chicago artists “Midwestern eccentrics.” It is a not atypical view that condescendingly sees them as second-rate provincial artists outside the self-styled mainstream of big-time New York art. (Even if there are many small fish in it, and even if the marketplace is not always the right place to be.)

This view -- a sort of delusion of cosmopolitan grandeur -- suggests that New York’s superiority complex masks a deeper inferiority complex than Chicago’s. There’s certainly a greater fear of failure among New York artists. In his introduction, which has more than a touch of bitterness, Guthrie defends against the view that the second city’s art is second best, but he neglects to note that the first city’s claim to having a monopoly on first rate art is farfetched. When art is international, there is no longer any capital of art, suggesting that every art must be given its critical due, wherever it is made and shown, and whether or not it is economically rewarded, which is more chancy.

Ann Wiens’ fourth section, with eight articles, contains Steven C. Dubin’s “Art’s Demise -- Censors to the Right of Me, Censors to the Left of Me” (originally published March 1994). The left as well as right has its ideological prejudices, as Dubin ingeniously shows, and, more ingeniously, similar apocalyptic fears -- as though art could trigger the apocalypse. (More power to it.) The fifth and final section, edited by Jan Estep, contains six articles, most noteworthily, Henry A. Giroux’s “Heroin Chic, Trendy Aesthetics, and the Politics of Pathology” (originally published November 1997), and my own sociological jeremiad, “Art is Dead -- Long Live Aesthetic Management” (originally published April 1999), contrasting de Kooning’s painting of Marilyn Monroe with Warhol’s. †

Every article in the Essential New Art Examiner is worth the serious read. Each and every one shows that art criticism -- serious thinking about art, often daring and challenging -- is alive and well, which is why the anthology will become an abiding source of historical information and ideas about art and its history, in Chicago and elsewhere. Allen and Guthrie have performed a major service for the art world. They have been underappreciated, but they were heroes to many critics and artists.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


 




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