Critics tend to be unkind, especially to each other, being by nature unkind, but then there’s Richard Lacayo fawning all over Michael Kimmelman in Time Magazine. Reviewing Kimmelman’s The Accidental Masterpiece in the Sept. 5, 2005, issue, Lacayo calls it "the work of a man who is both intellectually and physically intrepid, somebody who peregrinates between art-world topics and his own life experience, shedding light on the uses of suffering in the creative process or the sources of the urge to collect." Lacayo, who’s as poorly educated as Kimmelman, doesn’t realize that sharper light has already been shed on such subjects by brighter minds than Kimmelman’s. Kimmelman, like Lacayo, has a low-watt mind, doing less to illuminate art than the average graduate student’s master’s thesis. Both write criticism lite -- criticism with little or no intellectual nutrients and a good deal of artificial flavor.
Accompanying Lacayo’s review is a reproduction of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Fog. The wanderer is presumably Kimmelman, a mountain climber of sorts -- does trudging up Mont Ste.-Victoire really make him intrepid? -- and the sea of fog is presumably the art world, suggesting that Kimmelman has risen above it, only to look down on it condescendingly, as the wanderer’s unruffled suit and dandy’s cane suggest.
You would think, if you didn’t know anything about the history of art criticism, and from reading Lacayo’s sycophantish review -- one media hypster going down on another, no doubt hoping for the same favor (or is a grand alliance of Time and the New York Times, for which Kimmelman writes, so that nothing is involved except mutual self-congratulation?) -- that Kimmelman was the greatest critic since Clement Greenberg, not to say Charles Baudelaire, or even the Enlightenment thinker Dennis Diderot, the first peripatetic art critic and the father of modern art criticism.
They all wrote for the media of their day, but their thoughtful writing has outlasted it. How far media criticism has fallen from them to Kimmelman and Lacayo! They reshuffle old thoughts rather than offer fresh insights that often outlast much of the art that inspired them. Kimmelman and Lacayo are not on the heights of these masterful thinkers about art, nor in the lower depths of creative suffering, but on the leveling playing field of transient journalism.
It’s worth noting that the photographs of them are somewhat larger than the photographs of their works, suggesting that the artist’s look -- and the article is a Sears Roebuck catalogue of artists’ looks (that is, looks that help sales) -- counts for more than the artist’s work. It’s an idea that can be traced back to Andy Warhol, and perhaps his greatest innovation, although it’s only a spin on the old adage that appearance matters, implicitly more than reality.
If you compare the appearance of the artists in the famous Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists group photographs, you can see that artists have gone a long way downhill to informality, as the change from proper suits to casual jeans suggests. Presumably the trendy young artists wear the same jeans all the time -- working in the studio or relaxing outside it.
In contrast, the clothes of the much more original Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists suggest there’s a difference between everyday behavior and creative labor, that is, between social life and serious art. A study of changing artists’ looks and clothes -- their style of self-presentation (and thus public consumption) -- might do more for our understanding of the history of art than a study of their artworks.
Dana Schutz has a pretty face, which should get her somewhere, and Guy Ben-Ner seems to be affecting a peg-leg, at least in his artwork, which should carry him far (personal novelty goes even further than novel art in the art world). Jules de Balincourt has a fancy French name, and French names still have cachet in the art world, and Jen DeNike’s last name suggests that she’s running hard (ha, ha). But they’re all avant-garde hacks, full of commercial hope and marketing savvy, that is, the latest crop of careerist artists.
Paul Chan has the best marketing ploy: "a member of Voices in the Wilderness, an activist group under federal indictment for violating sanctions against Iraq," his face is hidden behind a blurb declaring that "Because of the nature of Chan’s work, he asked that his identity be kept secret." Makes him coyly mysterious -- and photogenic? (None of these artists is particularly photogenic, at least by Hollywood standards, although one might characterize their appearance as slick crummy) -- which is a terrific marketing ploy. And no doubt adds to his in-your-face avant-garde credentials, as tedious as such credentials have become these I’ve-seen-it-all days.
And who is Yvonne Force Villareal? She was an assistant director at the AD Gallery, and fell in love with a John Chamberlain sofa, which she eventually bought. And what does she think of this "great, inviting mass of sculpted foam, canvas, and parachute silk?" "It’s very emotional," she explains. It’s a groovy sensibility -- a lot of people can all sit in it together." "Groovy" -- now that’s the concept to end all critical concepts. And sitting together (cozily, touchie-feelie, foreplayish?) -- now that’s art with a use.
And then there’s Chuck Close again, a New York magazine guru staple and starfucker artist star -- his portraits of artists are even more sycophantish and grandiose than Lacayo’s small portrait of Kimmelman’s small mind -- telling it like it is in the May 23, 2005, issue. Answering the question, "Has the contemporary art world gone mad?," Close states: "Yeah, it’s crazy. Auction houses have no commitment to the artist, only the seller. I mean, I have two paintings up for auction, and I’d sold one of them for $7,000. [It went for $4.8 million at Sotheby’s on May 10.] I’m not kicking myself. I needed the money." Good for Chuck. He’s come clean about why he’s making art. No wonder he’s got a big smile on his face.
GORGON occasionally writes about art and culture from New York.