John Updike once rather acidly remarked that "an artist sets sail for the horizon, while a critic hugs the shore." While this observation didn't prevent Updike from penning some perceptive art criticism, he has a point. I just finished reading Craig Seligman's excellent 2004 study Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, a careful bumper-cars tour through the pride and prejudices of two of the last century's cultural mark-makers.
What distinguished Sue and Pauline especially was their obsessive urge to turn over every shell on the beach and describe it as passionately as possible to the diners back on the beach club patio. A bit much of this can quickly transform the best of critics into a hybrid of Uriah Heep and Quasimodo.
Take Jerry Saltz. A few years ago Jerry declared that Urs Fischer, by virtue of jackhammering Gavin Brown's floor, was the new paragon of Shock and Awe in the art game. This did not sit well with Peter Schjeldahl, who dismissed Fischer's New Museum retro recently in the New Yorker as a few seconds' wasted trip into emptiness. Conversely, Schjeldahl weighed in with a glorious tribute to Gabriel Orozco, in a New Yorker feature, stating that a few yogurt lids were the equivalent of so many magic beans from which Jack had brought forth a giant surrealistic beanstalk.
Saltz, in this week's New York magazine (and on Artnet, where many of his fans read him), thinks that Orozco's work has devolved into a tired, by rote, frieze of dull, existential gestures. Not to be outdone, Culturegrrl, on her museo-driven blog, declares a Saltzian crush on Urs, while refusing to blow Gabriel's horn.
Now, what's interesting about the Orozco and Fischer efforts is, that if you were to arrive from Tralfamador in a spaceship, you probably could not only not differentiate between the items in the two shows, you would find irresistible what any child of two would want to do: play with, scramble and otherwise mix and match the Fischer and Orozco objects. This urge would also have the salutary benefit of dragging object-fixated and otherwise jaded critics away from the huggable shore and out towards the creative horizon, like the title character in The Truman Show.
So, an immodest proposal (for charity). Let's open up a wide public space like the Javits Center, dump all the Fischers and Orozcos in it and invite Schjeldahl, Saltz, Roberta, Paddy Johnson, Tim Griffin and a dozen other critics to roll, handle, fondle and explain their favorite objects to a paying audience. All the touching and groping will have the salutary effect, additionally, of destroying their market value (or perhaps the critical touch, like the saints', will add value). It should be quite the spectacle. I'll referee.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).