WSJ Adds its Voice to the Artspeak Debate

Today’s WSJ tackles the artspeak debate but says something that is more fiction than fact…though like all fairy tales it does start “Once upon a time”….

Once upon a time, art writing was all those things. Critics of an earlier age, such as John Ruskin, had no problem making themselves understood, and they are still read today. The same is true of the great art historians of the postwar era, such as Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich. Panofsky, among whose books was the definitive study of Albrecht Dürer, was a supremely elegant prose stylist. Gombrich’s 1950 survey, “The Story of Art,” has sold six million copies and been translated into 23 languages. By the way, English was the second language for both men. And Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, wrote catalogs on topics ranging from Matisse to Surrealism that made the mysteries of modern art accessible to the American public.

On what planet? Do you think most people were reading art criticism? Panofsky’s discussion of iconology (one of Panofsky’s big ideas and frankly it would qualify as “artspeak” nowadays or did the WSJ writer conveniently forget that) is actually quite complex. And I think it’s odd to think that Ruskin was what the common person read.

My favorite is who he blames for the turn to inaccessibility:

Until Duchamp, criticism was aesthetically based…

…So art criticism moved from the realm of visual experience to that of philosophy…

…by the 1980s it had become mainstream. Around that time, academics and critics drove another nail into the coffin of accessible writing. They turned to areas outside of art and aesthetics — disciplines such as linguistics and ideologies such as Marxism and feminism — to interpret art.

Never mind the fact that Eurocentric male heterosexist values predominated the language of this “accessible” art criticism…and never mind that that limited perspective essentially alienated or overlooked the majority of the art audience (women, etc.). Or how about the fact that as a genre modern art criticism was only a century or two old and still developing (Diderot’s writings in the 18th C. were nothing like Gombrich’s or Panofsky’s in the 20th C.). It’s a bizarre argument filled with nostalgia for something that I don’t think ever existed. I can almost hear the writer thinking…Damn barbarians, why did they have to crash the gates of Rome and throw the good ol’ values to the wind?

**************

Just in case the article becomes inaccessible on WSJ.com I parked a PDF here.

2 responses to “WSJ Adds its Voice to the Artspeak Debate”

  1. I’m really glad you caught this article, it plays into some really bad journalistic hype about the dangers of “conceptualism” and, as you address, a rather self-righteous attitude about what an arts-going public consists of. “So art criticism moved from the realm of visual experience to that of philosophy.” Huh?! If all those writers of old that he waxes nostalgia for weren’t writing about that as well, and if we weren’t still dealing with the consequences of those contributions to a history of thought, there would be no arts writing at all.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: