Accessible Art Criticism is a Canard

There’s been a lot of sounding off in the art blogosphere in the last few weeks regarding accessible art writing and criticism. It has made me think a great deal about the issue but I’m starting to think it’s a canard.

Though I would like to make it clear that art criticism and writing for a public museum (or gallery) catalogue is not the same thing the boundaries often blur so we often talk about them as one in the same or at least overlapping.

Now let’s get the chronology of this “controversy” down from the past weeks down (hope I get it right):

  1. the whole thing started when Art Vent’s very entertaining Carol Diehl couldn’t resist taunting the Whitney Biennial curators for their “impenetrable prose” that contained words like “invert” or “problematize.” Most of us chuckled a little because it was a familiar experience fumbling around contorted texts that were badly written.
  2. Then Time Magazine‘s Richard Lacayo started whining about poststructuralism, and kids like me who attended grad school in the 1980s and 1990s when he were looking for a new critical language to define art. We make everything into verbs…we invert…we fetishize…we even know what jouissance means.
  3. Next Catherine Spaeth chimed in to defend the academic tone in artspeak and suggested Lacayo was unknowingly calling for a kind of “censorship“…
  4. …Lacayo said no but he wants more “editing.”
  5. C-Monster, who I think I have a little secret platonic crush on, told everyone to get a grip because it is levity that we’re lacking, it’s the BLOGOSPHERE after all….duh!
  6. Now Tyler Green has added his voice to the fray by suggesting: “If I were a contemporary art museum director and if I’d just read two weeks of posts about how curatorial writing about contemporary art is an embarrassment to the profession (which it is), I think I’d give potential hires a writing test…If applied retroactively, the ranks of contemporary curators would be thinned by two-thirds.”–LOL!! Boy, this is funny stuff, but maybe I find it funny because I’m immersed in the scene.

There’s no doubt about it…writing about art can take a theoretic turn. If the ideas are complex it is because they often grapple with concepts that resist simplification. Andy Warhol endlessly poked fun at the media’s fascination with flashy ideas and even packed some for mass consumption, but he also resisted the march to “dumbing down” with his experimental video works that are still difficult to endure.

Art criticism has long been fertile soil for textual experimentation. To give one example, in the 19th C., Walter Pater wrote about art in a way that wasn’t exactly “easy” but it inspired a generation of thinkers, including Oscar Wilde.

When Pater described the Mona Lisa as a kind of mythic embodiment of eternal femininity, who is “older than the rocks among which she sits” and who “has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave,” he was simply expressing his critical view but capturing the zeitgeist through the lens of the famous work by Leonardo da Vinci. WB Yeat’s even lifted Pater’s eloquent lines and fashioned them into a poem that appeared as the first ‘poem’ in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, such is the influence and impact of great art writing.

In the last hundred years, Apollonaire, Clement Greenberg, Susan Sontag and Germano Celant (to name a very few) have all inspired artists, writers, and cultural trends with their not always accessible prose.

So where is the issue of accessibility coming from? Sure it has always existed in some form but it feels more prominent today (am I wrong?). I suspect it may something stemming from a flashy art scene that is attracting greater public interest–the audiences are growing and growing and growing…

The other danger we need to be weary of is the dangers of populist rhetoric. We decry things as “elitest” when we don’t understand or feel they are out of touch or simply disagree. I agree with Edward Winkleman that there is a disturbing meme that decries bloggers as “fascist” but I also think there is another emerging meme that suggests that all art (and by extension art blogs) should be “accessible” but that is not really possible unless it is predominantly pop culture based.

If your a stats whore (and most bloggers are) then the numbers really matter and accessibility gets you big traffic numbers. But some of us have smaller audiences and create posts for tailored audiences hoping our posts may find life elsewhere in the virtual world. In depth writing about art that isn’t tethered to the market or popular tastes doesn’t easily find a home in the public imagination but it is an equally important aspect of art writing.

I’m not trying to insist that all art writing is great but sometimes it is simply transcendental, relaying a beautifully big and messy idea in a rough and tumble way.

There are bad writers and there are good writers. Some people have more room for improvement than others and we all write differently for different venues (and sometimes we try things that fail–such is life).

Yes, the art blogosphere needs more humor (as do some art reviews & catalogues), but at the same time no one wants to regularly skim fluffy posts (or reviews or catalogues) that don’t have any new, interesting and difficult ideas.

I am the first person to rail about crap that passes for art writing, but I do understand that each type of art writing addresses different audiences.

Recently the philosopher and critic Stanley Fish wrote a lucid (well, almost) post on NYTimes.com on the impact of French theory on America. The most interesting part for me was one comment by an artist identified as Lou:

Well, I’m a painter. And if I can describe in words what the painting is all about, it’s probably a weak piece of art.

Lou is quite right. A flaw exists at the foundation of art and text (i.e. the art review). The recent show at Greenpoint’s Janet Kurnatowski gallery also suggested the same idea in its press release. Critic/artist/curator Ben La Rocco writes:

“There is a point in visual art in which speech fails to help us explain what we see. It is the inherent nature of most criticism and much historical writing to ignore this.”

Maybe we’ve ignored it too long. Now that the art market is bigger and richer than ever, at a time when more people than ever are looking at art and scratching their head trying to decipher “meaning,” maybe we need to come up with a solution to all this theoretical talk.

The popularization of art may create another strata of critical discourse, maybe even subsets of writing that appeal to various groups, but don’t expect it to change overnight. The salons of 18th C. France spawned art criticism as we know it when the public needed a guide to what they saw, maybe this new era of burgeoning art audiences will spawn its own critical offspring.

One of the reasons I began to blog was because I was searching for a new medium to convey ideas about culture and art. With video, photos, hyperlinks and other tools at my disposable I thought I could get closer to my goal–I posted about this a while ago.

Have I? Somewhat. More importantly I feel like I’ve restored a conversational tone to my art writing. Maybe that is what is lacking in art writing *(and politics) that people are hungry for today…conversation and dialogue, not lectures and tracts.

So maybe art writing and criticism is possible if we stop telling people what to think and pose ideas in terms of conversational topics and springboards for more elaborate discussions. Would that work?

Recently on Edward_Winkleman (the blog not the person) James Kalm suggested: “I predict everyone will switch to video and leave writing in the same basket as hieroglyphics, just my humble opinion.” I think he has a point but overreaches since I don’t think it will supplant all written criticism as watching video is often more time consuming than reading (where scanning is possible). Yet video may serve as the forum for accessible criticism…making visually accessible what some people do not glean from written reviews.

The conversation continues…

5 responses to “Accessible Art Criticism is a Canard”

  1. Cheers on this! I agree with you on all points. I, too, am looking for ways to write about art in a new medium. While many art-oriented websites serve mainly as forms of promotions and lists, we need new voices in art criticism. While print journalism is in crisis, leaving less room for arts writing, more arts writers need to find ways to adequately review exhibitions and discuss larger themes. Writing seriously about art, and opening up the language to more people, is much harder than penning clever one-line promos. You’re doing a good job here!

  2. Many responses to my blog post about the Whitney Biennial have confused curatorial writing with art criticism. I was referring to material posted on the Whitney Museum’s website. “So where is the issue of accessibility coming from?” Perhaps from the idea that writing intended for the general public should be appropriate to that audience.

    “If the ideas are complex it is because they often grapple with concepts that resist simplification.” It is important to make a distinction between “simplification” and “clarification.” It is not necessary to simplify in order to clarify—I would be suspicious of any ideas that could not be clarified.

    I’d also posit that Apollonaire, Greenberg, Sontag, and Celant were influential not in spite of their prose, but in large part because they were capable of communicating their ideas clearly.

    The problem at hand is not about difficult ideas being made simple, but simple ideas being made difficult.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: