PRINT September 1975



To the Editor:
Mr. Alloway in his article “The Great Curatorial Dim-out” identifies some evils of the contemporary art world: the “artist-dealer-collector triad” and their coercion of museum policy. But he fails to add anything we did not already know. His remedy for the situation is the creation of an “association” to protect curatorial independence. But an independence “not immune to executive judgment” at “crucial points” (?) is weak liberalizing which would essentially compound the bureaucratic stagnation already afflicting the art world. Mr. Alloway never questions the function of a museum in its attempt to keep pace with the private galleries as arbiters of contemporary taste and ideology, and he never brings up the question, to whom is a curator (and for that matter a museum itself) finally responsible—except for a brief unqualified hint of a “public as consumers.”

There is a conspicuous omission in Mr. Alloway’s scenario: the critic. It is curious, in the artist-dealer-collector-curator-director-trustee-public components of the art world, that the critic, namely Mr. Alloway himself, except for a small mention of his role as a sometimes curator, is not brought into question. For example, could the decline of the “catalogue” lamented by Mr. Alloway, have an inverse relation to the rise of the “intellectually influential” art magazines such as Artforum itself? Mr. Alloway flagrantly understates the influence “some critics” (sic) might have on museum policy, putting the weight of blame “more decisively” on “dealers and collectors.” Can he absolve himself so easily? What curator would dare mount a show that has not been already incontrovertibly discussed and approved by the influential art media? Artforum has frequently given “purposeful” coverage to artists well in advance of any museum showings, and I am sure that Mr. Alloway’s articles have purveyed more influence than the disclaimers of various artists or dealers.

The omission of the critic from his article is, also, indicative of the deliberate inability of the critic to be self-reflexive. Mr. Alloway cannot afford to include himself since to do so would compromise the very reification of roles he is arguing for. It could be noted, in this context, that “curator” could be replaced with “critic” and his article would, with minor changes, read the same. This seems not only a desperate plea for the curator, but inversely for the critic as well. Both roles contribute to the preservation of the present alienating power structure, in their capacity as mediators of consumption in the marketplace of the art world. If the artist or public (that is, a community rather than a state agency) were to gain control of art institutions, the critic and the curator would, quite simply, be out of work. Therefore Mr. Alloway’s demand for curatorial independence is a demand to further reify the status quo. Tacitly the article argues for increasing the autonomy not only of the curator, but of the critic as well, in the existing power hierarchy.

One is amazed at the naiveté with which the “problem” is presented. That problem, rather than the failure of curatorial courage, should be the question of a museum’s relation to the art market. Mr. Alloway does not seem to acknowledge that current market practice leads inevitably to the situation he disparages. Is not the very concept of a “public” museum, actively trading in contemporary art, one of the means by which the practice of art itself is institutionalized and assimilated into the power structure? By conferring the “status” of historicized taste upon an artwork, in some cases still wet from the studio, the museum does not simply exert a marginal influence, but exercises decisive control over art production—the curator being nothing more than an agent conferring scholastic (!) dignity to this exercise of power. To claim autonomy for a curator is much like attempting to create an ideologically neutral policeman. Mr. Alloway’s parallel between a museum and a university, although plausible, fails to mention that universities themselves have become rather dubious sanctuaries of “free” learning. Does he seriously believe the museum could become neutral, unaffected by the “vulgar” concerns of the political world, some of whose more powerful members sit on their boards?

I am afraid that if anything is to be done about the “curatorial dim-out” or the larger and more critical problems of authority and the art market, then more than a “standard of ethics” will be needed. There is an indisputable need for articles which question the function of our institutions, but not ones that argue for their increased autonomy and reification. Mr. Alloway’s article is frightening in its accommodation to institutional oppression.

Karl Beveridge
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:
The trouble with his article “The Great Curatorial Dim-Out” (Artforum, May, 1975) is that Lawrence Alloway, alternating between the roles of sociologist and of art critic, tries to have his subject—the performance of today’s museum curators—both ways. His mea culpa may be partly the explanation but it is in no way an excuse. What Alloway does is approach the problem as one of personnel and leave it as one of institutions, pivoting the shift on an extraordinary confession of his own acquiescence to dealer pressure in an exhibition he organized. Thus his main contention can be summarized as follows: “The curator problem is that people on the job just aren’t up to it, but since I too was found wanting when I was a curator, then the problem is the way museums have evolved as institutions.” Now one or the other or both of these may be true, but Alloway’s method of playing fast and loose with the evidence while making some nasty, unsubstantiated accusations proves nothing. In addition, he approaches the subject with such zeal that the reader can’t help expecting a momentous solution to the problem. But the ultimate suggestion is so puny that the reader wonders whether the epithet “dim-out” hasn’t been misplaced.

As Alloway sees it, only a very small number of exhibitions of contemporary artists organized by museum curators represent “substantial additions to the state of knowledge concerning the artist[s] shown.” To explain this, he cites as “dysfunctions” the various pressures curators are subject to, ranging from their desires to get along with artists and “peers,” the “taste-expectations” of museum directors and trustees, to the marketing strategies of an artist-dealer-collector complex, an alliance with “a shared taste and a common interest” of furthering works of art “both as cultural sign and as object on the market.” Alloway accuses a number of curators by name of acquiescing if not colluding in the promotion of new work by artists and of having their choice of works exhibited subverted or manipulated by artists. This is only part of the story. Curators have become isolated in their institutions, as ambitious staffers nip at their heels and directors strip away their “educational” functions and assign these to other bureaus. Thus deprived of their traditional responsibilities, curators have “gravitated into various phases of dependency on the market” and thereby strengthened the “artist-dealer-collector triad” and its “monopolistic hold on art which acts to limit its interaction with society.”

Alloway calls the Whitney Museum the main sinner in all this, because the Whitney’s are sins of commission. Out of about 140 shows the Whitney has mounted in five-and-one-half years, Alloway says only half a dozen represented “substantial additions” to the knowledge we have of individual modern artists. He also cites three Whitney shows whose curators buckled under dealer-artist pressure—one less than the Guggenheim Museum. Now Alloway neglects to give us overall figures for the activity of the Guggenheim and The Museum of Modern Art, but he does accord these two “protected” status because theirs are “largely sins of omission.” The truth is that the “impressive” activity of the Whitney makes that museum the great exception to Alloway’s institutional thesis. Whitney trustees are powerless to affect the choice or content of shows, and their influence is limited to grumbling after faits accomplis; the Whitney directorship has had a distinctly hands-off policy regarding in-house curatorial decisions; curatorial staffs consist of one secretary per curator at most. Nowhere are curators less isolated than in the Whitney.

Moreover, the Whitney lobby gallery, which Alloway calls the “Nigger room,” has been used by the curators for the explicit purpose of presenting the work of artists with no New York gallery affiliation, who are unknown, neglected, or otherwise overlooked. But for Alloway to acknowledge the fact that a large number of the Whitney’s one-artist presentations have been made under this policy would be to subvert his thesis that curators in general and Whitney curators (the main sinners) in particular are tools of the “triad.” So what does he do? He pushes the critic button and discounts the lobby operation from his quantitative analysis of the Whitney by maligning it (“Nigger room”) and dismissing it (“supplement to the Whitney Annual/Biennial,” i.e., code for second-rate work). Incidentally, Alloway credits the term “Nigger room” to “black artists who are accustomed to being shown in this small area at the Whitney.” It would grace far more black artists who refuse to be shown in the space. As it is, the term is a gratuitous smear, serving only Alloway’s method.

Now Alloway’s analysis makes more sense when applied to the Modern to judge from the paralysis of that in-situation, and there is no reason why a museum that is not exclusively devoted to American art should not be “exposed to repeated encounters with a mobile and active art scene.” It is interesting to note that Alloway’s failure to line his thesis up squarely with the obvious culprit does spare him the possible embarrassment of dealing with the problem posed by the executive style and the family connections of William S. Rubin, who for Alloway is the last of the great catalogue writers! It can be added that a notable “commission” by the Modern in recent years has been the opening of an experimental ground-floor gallery between the restaurant corridor and the garden door.

Not until the last two sentences of the article does Alloway wheel out a tentative approach to a solution to the problem he has drawn so big: a professional association of curators with a standard of ethics designed to protect its members from “complicity in entrepreneurial pressure.” Does sociologist Alloway really believe that an institutional problem can be solved by the addition of an institution? Surely he knows that codes of ethics historically serve nothing more than to commemorate the resolution of scandals—after perpetrators of abuses have been removed from the scene. The contrast between the lameness of his suggestion and the dimensions of the problem as he describes it makes me wonder about his motives. Does he plan to offer his services as a consultant in drafting a code—putting his own bad experience to good use? Is he holding out on specifics meanwhile for something more in the way of compensation than merely being read?

The complaints Alloway lodges against curators are suspiciously similar to what traditionally has been said about critics working out of magazines in collusion with, say, dealers and collectors. (It has even been argued that the requirements of the printed page are the material basis of the esthetic of “frontality”!) But, in fact, there has been a shift of power in the art world in the last few years—from critics to curators. The reasons should be clear—an explosion of art-making in America and a concurrent collapse of art theory. Curators, whose principal job is to present art directly to the public more or less on the art’s own terms (interpretation is only a secondary function), are better equipped than critics to handle the explosion. Symptomatic of the. situation is that despite its almost universal bad press time after time, the Whitney Annual/Biennial continues to be a great beacon to unknown artists as well as a perennial bête noire of those established artists who for reasons of policy (not quality or what Alloway calls “exhibitability”) are excluded.

I am wondering whether Alloway’s perception of a curator problem is not a smokescreen masking the great critical dim-out underway now that critics have lost their stranglehold on the direction of American art. Alloway says “one weakness of the present generation of curators is their subservience to artists,” yet his remark about the “tactic to ditch Clement Greenberg, but hold on to the sort of painting that he liked or that has developed from his kind of painting” (emphasis added) reminds us that the great weakness of the previous generation of artists was their subservience to critics.

As American art widens its base in a growing profusion of forms and tendencies, the inability of individual critics to assimilate it into a single esthetic theory becomes plain, despite valiant attempts to revive criticism with injections from remnants of the Western philosophical tradition. (By the repetition of the word “conservative” Alloway implies that curators are responsible for the “input from linguistics” into formalist esthetics, but readers of Artforum know better than this. Structuralism, the latest expression of bourgeois human-nature ideology, is invading all branches of academic knowledge; to attribute the form of its penetration of the art field to curators is nonsense.) If criticism is turning increasingly sociological in its emphasis, it is a healthy change in my opinion. But inasmuch as sociology has aspirations to the status of scientific discipline, it does have rules. By sneer and smear, Alloway reverts to the criterion of quality—the central feature and major flaw of formalist art criticism—at his convenience to exclude evidence that challenges an institutional analysis. This is to compromise the sociological method; for it not to vindicate art criticism is little comfort.

Quentin C. Dacamera
New York, N.Y.

Lawrence Alloway replies:
Mr. Beveridge is more interested in the “alienating power structure” in general than in particular institutions and their difficulties—what I am concerned with. That is why I wrote as I did, being specific about an area which is usually cloudy, either because of discretion or because of the use of blanket-words like alienation. I do not expect the “power hierarchy” to change fundamentally, but I do think that it could be improved. I am more interested in an account of the present situation than in a projection of plans for a total reform which is unlikely. Mr. Beveridge wants to return discussion of the institutions to the level of generality at which it was before I wrote my piece.

I did not pursue critics because I am trying to be exact in describing professional roles in the art world. Rather than offer an ultimatistic package, I wanted to make distinctions not lose them. The role of the critic is complex and needs an article of its own, but I published a general sketch of the art world and some of the types in it (“Network: The Art World Described as a System,” Artforum, September, 1972), and Mr. Beveridge could check that if he wants to.

According to Mr. Dacamera, he expected a “momentous solution,” but I don’t see why. What I offered was a description of an underdefined situation; to propose a simultaneous solution would be hasty. The organization of curators I mentioned (and on which I place the most moderate of hopes) is a possibility because curators occupy a middle zone between directors and trustees, on one hand, and the various newly emerging professional associations on the other. If curators feel pinched, organization might be a survival tactic and, if so, the “code of ethics” would be a logical part of their action (for the full argument about the curators’ position, see “Museums and Unionization,” Artforum, February, 1975).

I am amused by Mr. Dacamera’s notion that I might be embarrassed to discuss William Rubin. He seems unaware that Mr. Rubin was the subject of a two-part interview by John Coplans and myself (Artforum, October, November, 1974) in which some of these matters were critically raised. (Incidentally, I consider Mr. Dacamera’s reference to Rubin’s “family connections” objectionable: it is a real example of the kind of smear he attributes to me.) But then I should not expect too much from somebody who thinks that critics dominated “the previous generation of artists.” So does Tom Wolfe. Owing to the Rubin interviews, it seemed unnecessary to treat the Whitney, the Modern Museum, and the Guggenheim equally. I used each to exemplify different characteristic problems. Mr. Dacamera expresses doubt about my “motives.” It must be his ignorant cynicism that leads him to misrepresent me maliciously throughout his letter. Incidentally the information about the one curator/one secretary equation at the Whitney is inaccurate as well as inconsequential. When I worked on the American Pop art show there, Marcia Tucker and James Monte shared a secretary. While I was temporarily on the staff as guest curator, she got me too.

Since both writers make a lot of my account of politics in connection with my 1963 Morris Louis exhibition, perhaps I should tell them something that I did not give in to. I was under pressure from Clement Greenberg to include Louis’s later striped paintings or even, when I resisted, one striped painting to illustrate Mr. Greenberg’s idea of Louis’s continuity. However, as the point of my show was the rediscovery of the then-neglected veils, I did not do so. But the primary reason I included the story was to show my sense of the reality of the problems curators face and thus to indicate a touch of kinship with those I was criticizing.