PRINT December 1977



In his letter in your September issue responding to my article on British art (Artforum, April 1977), Martin Ackerman described me as a “critic who puts politics first and foremost.” In fact, I attempt through my writing to bear witness to events and works of art as truthfully as I can. It is a pity that Ackerman does not do the same.

The view that there is a crisis in British art, and that the visual artist here has lost the social purpose which he once possessed as a professional serving the middle classes is far from being “leftist political nonsense.” It is shared by the majority of London art critics, many artists, and is widely held among the general public by those on the right, the left, and the center of the political spectrum. For example, the television commentator Fyfe Robertson recently made a documentary about modern art in Britain which graphically described its crisis from an extremely conservative position.

Similarly, in a recent interview the leading painter David Hockey—whom no one has ever been called an extremist—was asked if he thought the crisis in the visual arts in Britain had worsened since 1975, when he first began discussing it. He replied, “Yes, I think it’s more serious. . . . More people can see the crisis, something can be done about it. But it is serious.” In a full and frank interview published in a recent issue of Art Monthly, Leslie Waddington, the leading dealer in modern British art, admitted that there was virtually no private market in the visual arts over here and stated, “We are in a vacuum at present. There may be one or two good painters: I have been unable to recognize them . . . we may have come to the end of a period.” In this interview Waddington specifically described himself as a “non-socialist.”

Such commentators may, of course, disagree with me about why the crisis has come about, and about why the crisis has come about, and about how it might be resolved. But I believe that, after this year’s exhibitions and controversies in the London art world, only a fool or a liar would deny that it exists.

Ackerman goes on to pour scorn on my observation that the audience for contemporary art in Britain is very small. Once again, most commentators—many of quite different persuasions from mine—agree about this. Writing in the Times recently the keeper of one of our leading provincial museums spoke of “a general lack of sympathy for contemporary art over quite a long period” in Britain.

Ackerman is fully entitled to form any judgment he wishes about the value of my contribution as a critic. However, he suggests in his letter about art dealers, other critics, art schools, etc.—the whole art world in fact—“totally ignores” what I say. This is not quite true, as the range of magazines to which I am contributing, and my present lecture schedule indicate. As the crisis deepens, I find there is an increasing interest not just in my own ideas, but in those being put forward by a number of the so-called “social critics”; Ackerman himself is—unfortunately—far from “totally ignoring” my work. Earlier this year he made so many extensive, often approving, but always out-of-context quotations from my essays in his own writings that it became necessary for me to write to him to complain about his misuse of my material.

Your readers may not know that last year Ackerman bought a small arts magazine, Arts Review, over here and, through his own writings, and those of the confused extremists whom he employs, has driven the magazine along a path of right-wing posturing on major issues in the visual arts. At a recent public seminar on arts magazines, Ackerman was asked to give the circulation of his publication. He stated that it was 10,000 copies. When it was suggested that his was an impossible figure, he cut it to 7,000. He then refused to answer further questions on the matter. I am not suggesting that Ackerman ought to agree to my analysis. However, whether one is discussing the state of British art, the number of people who are interested in it, the reputation of a critic, or the circulation of a magazine, it is helpful to start by telling the truth about the relevant facts.

Until this year, Janet Daley was an obscure, occasional critic, remembered only by a few of her ultra-leftist articles in the far-left press during the 1960s and early 1970s. For example, in a letter written to the newspaper Ink in 1971, Daley described me as “an intelligent and sincerely committed leftwing critic,” and then went on to attack me from a position well to my left. Following her recent conversion to the right, Janet Daley has become the leading ideologist for Ackerman’s magazine. It is not, therefore, surprising that she writes in to complain about my piece together with her boss.

Daley makes much of the fact that I no longer hold the same views that I did when I began writing about art in 1968. Of course, my positions have developed and I would be concerned if they had not. But Daley’s have gone through a complete volte-face. For example, in an article written in the far-left paper Black Dwarf, in April 1969, Janet Daley praised John Berger’s views as “vitally important to current controversies over political commitment in art.” (The article of mine to which she objects in her letter was, of course, deeply influenced by Berger.) Daley continued, “In his criticism of Socialist Realism, Berger undermines the two chief defenses of this doctrinal tyranny. To the argument that its naturalism provides the most accessible form for communicating with the masses, he replies that ‘this claim ignores most of what we know about the process of perception, but even more obviously it is betrayed by child art, folk art and by the ease with which a mass adult urban population learns to read highly formalized cartoons, caricatures, posters, etc.’ To the contention that such ‘realist’ art is an effective means of educating the masses and developing their revolutionary consciousness, he counters that, if it were the case that mass consciousness was truly being educated and developed then artistic forms and techniques would not have (could not have) remained so static and unchanging over the last 30 years.” Concluding her article, Daley agreed that works of art which were not simply propaganda “must come to grips with the totality of man’s situation and not simply be the interim statements of his various momentary conditions.” The sad truth is that, in order to prove herself to her new allies, Daley has chosen to rage against those who hold, in a more developed form, precisely the positions which she herself struggled unsuccessfully to express in late 1960s. But her own approving synopsis of Berger’s analysis is as succinct an explanation as any of why her present opinions are, quite simply, wrong.

Daley’s attempt to distort my arguments from her own tendentious position will, I think, be evident to anyone who reads my text. But her assault on my central emphasis that realism must take a definite relationship to history, which, in the present situation, means that the artist who aspires to be a realist must try to take his standards from the future and express a visual moment of becoming through his work, cannot go unanswered. Daley launches out from her position of emotional support for whatever Ron Kitaj does. My argument with Kitaj is not about his intentions as a painter but rather about his insistence that those intentions can still be realized through use of a specific set of “naturalist” conventions which has a particular class history. (Although Daley tries to deny it, this has involved him, as I originally stated, in support for improbable “Bloomsbury relics,” as the “Human clay” catalogue demonstrates.) In the Hayward Annual this summer, Kitaj exhibited a painting which, he stated in accompanying exhibition notes, was an allegory about “good government.” He wrote, “it is meant as a moment of vision and as a token of better times to come.” This might be thought by many to be an attempt to paint a moment of becoming of a possible historical future—something which Daley objects to strongly in my critical analysis, but not, apparently, in the work of her chosen painter. The reason that here, as elsewhere, Kitaj has hitherto failed is, I believe, his commitment to precisely those representational conventions which, for Daley, are all that matter.

Kitaj is quite openly a socialist painter, as I am a socialist critic: radicalism of any kind must posit a future which is distinct from the present. To do so is not to engage in “theology,” or Hegelianism, so long as one’s emphasis on becoming remains rooted in the material world, and in history. Daley, and her friend Martin Ackerman, would do better if they championed the lost and posthumous cause of the deceased president of the Royal Academy, and English horse and society painter, Alfred Munnings. Unlike Kitaj, Munnings could not possibly be accused of painting with “some unknown future reality in mind.” Like Daley, he believed that the only future for painting, and for society itself, was the past. Happily, every second of every day proves them wrong.

Daley scandalously misreports my position on Constable. Fortunately, the article I published at the time of his Tate exhibition last year shows how little truth there is in her description of my interpretation of his achievement. It is a pity that working for Ackerman has caused her to pick up so many bad habits.

Even though I cannot accept his assessment of Art Language, of Willats, I welcome Martin Rewcastle’s useful comments on and criticisms of my piece. I believe, however, that the future of the visual arts depends on the future of the tradition of static, visual imagery. The various activities which he describes are dubious, tendentious ideologies, masquerading under the cloak of art: I have already explained why I do not believe that they can point the way forward in the present crisis.

—Peter Fuller

In his article on art criticism Donald B. Kuspit writes that much art criticism today fails by only describing the work without evaluating it. Inadvertently his piece points up an even greater failure of much contemporary art criticism: the failure to make itself understood because of the critic’s inability to write clearly.

If it were only Aunt Minnie in Keokuk who couldn’t make heads or tails out of an article in Artforum or Art in America it wouldn’t be a serious problem. But more and more it’s the artist with an M.F.A. from Cooper, who lives on Prince Street, gets a show every year or two and maybe an occasional teaching assignment at Visual Arts or Queens College who is flummoxed. When an intelligent, educated, knowledgeable person finds himself unable to understand a trade magazine about his own trade, there’s a problem.

Certainly some critics know how to put their ideas across: Barbara Rose and Harold Rosenberg both present complex ideas clearly and forcefully, and Jeff Perrone’s articles in Artforum exhibit honesty, grace, style, and even wit. But these critics are the exceptions. Mr. Kuspit seems to be the rule.

I single out Kuspit’s piece only as an example, for it seems no worse than average. Nevertheless, it’s execrable. It’s pretentious, semi-literate, poorly phrased, weak, ungrammatical, unclear, and unreadable. And par for the course.

As an example: he writes, “In the last analysis, these reduce to a number of limited perspectives . . .” What does “these” refer to? The general ideas of the preceding paragraph? Or the two kinds of criticism referred to earlier? Or something else? And what is it that these “reduce?” Do they reduce themselves? (A curious notion.) Or something else? “Reduce” is a transitive verb and as such requires an object in order to mean anything. You might go on a diet to reduce your girth, or you might reduce your wife to tears, but you can’t go around reducing right and left without having an object for your reductions. Mr. Kuspit’s sentence, in fact, means nothing.

He also writes that “any description must . . . emanate an aura of alternatives.” It would be correct (grammatically, at least) to say that an aura must emanate from a description. And his meaning would have been clear had he written more simply “any description must give off an aura.” But “emanate” is usually an intransitive verb used with “from,” and to use it transitively as he does, while not absolutely incorrect, is uncommon enough to draw attention to the usage and away from the meaning of the sentence.

Then we have the extraordinary Sentence of the Four Isms in which the reader is perfunctorily introduced to “neo-idealistic criticism,” “naive empiricism,” “quasi-absolutist particularism,” and “immediatism.” As for the first two, I suppose they might seem to have some meaning if one does a little head scratching, but I wouldn’t want to put money on it. “Immediatism” doesn’t appear in my dictionary, so I’m at a loss there. But can you tell what in God’s name is “quasi-absolutist particularism?” Can you define it? If not, can you expect the reader to get any sense out of it? Even if all these “isms” were real words with real meanings, throwing them all together in one sentence is too much for even the most intelligent reader, and a good editor would have rewritten the sentence.

Why coin an attention-getting word like “monodimensional,” when the unobtrusive and widely understood “one-dimensional” would have served as well, even better?

Why coin “tautologously” in the phrase “to mirror it tautologously” when the words “to mirror it” say it all? The very use of that non-word in that sentence is a tautology.

What is meant by the invented words “facticity” and “intentionality?” One assumes their roots are fact and intention, but even knowing that doesn’t give one more than a vague idea of what might be meant. I don’t know what they mean, but if Mr. Kuspit would tell me I think I could find two synonyms for them that everyone would understand. These two I find especially worrisome: they have just the right degree of seeming authority to be latched onto by every nincompoop from Duane Street to Fifty-seventh Street before the season is out. In fact, I suspect, they’re meaningless.

Toward the end of his article Mr. Kuspit writes about a work of art’s “arrogantly obvious appearance.” Now, really. Does this mean anything? An object may have parts or qualities that are not obvious, but its appearance is not one of them. In fact, the appearance of an object is the only thing about it that is obvious. So why mention it? As for whether or not an object’s appearance may be “arrogantly” obvious . . . well, we’re getting into nonsense here.

All these points about intransitive verbs and isms and tautologies are small ones, I realize. But put them all together in one article and throw in a few dozen more and the poor reader feels like he’s caught in cross-town traffic at five o’clock: stop and go all the way.

At the risk of sounding like a moron I’ll say that it’s hard to read a sentence with a lot of big words in it, even if one knows the meaning of the words.

It’s also hard to read a sentence that has several independent clauses stuck in the middle.

It’s hard to read a sentence with a pronoun whose antecedent is unclear, or with made-up words, or with grammatical errors.

These are all matters of style, and they may seem subordinate to content. Perhaps they are. But it’s the style that either shows off or conceals the content. A fluid, clear style of writing can illuminate a work of art. It can also give authority to a critic or magazine by disseminating the critic’s or magazine’s ideas to the public. A muddy, bombastic style like Mr. Kuspit’s does just the opposite: it doesn’t help the public understand either art or the critic’s ideas on art.

Of course, there’s still another purpose that impregnable, pretentious criticism may serve: It may conceal the critic’s uncertainty, confusion, and embarrassing paucity of ideas. There seems to be a widespread opinion that this is often the case, and it's not surprising. Perhaps if you had never read an art review you might say to yourself the first time, “Wow, isn’t he smart? He knows all those big words.” But you don’t have to be around too long before you realize that the critics with something to say have learned how to say it in words that everyone understands.

Having been editor of one of McGraw-Hill’s magazines for several years, I’m aware that most people calling themselves writers today are only marginally literate. The more they know about their field, the less able they are to write about it. And the less they’re concerned with being able to write about it. There were many times when I read a manuscript that seemed so hopeless that I wanted to cry rather than try to whip it into shape. So I sympathize with the problem that I suppose you’re up against. Frankly, I would rather clean cuspidors than try to clean up Kuspit’s prose. It’s no fun, and I know it. But for $22.50 a year, your subscribers deserve better.

As I said, I singled out Mr. Kuspit’s article only because it was symptomatic and because he happened to choose art criticism as his subject. One could pick up a copy of Art in America or Arts and just as easily do a job on almost any article there. The specific criticisms would be different, but the general criticisms of pretentiousness, awkwardness, and obfuscation would almost certainly be the same.

—T. Jeffrey Keeffe
Oceanside, California

Just finished plodding through the muddy, twisted trails of the groves of academe with Donald B. Kuspit’s “Art Criticism: Where’s the Depth?” (Artforum, September 1977). I need a drink.

Right away, Professor Kuspit grabs descriptive criticism by the coat and starts beating it up. Description as an approach is “a limited, immediate response” to the work of art, and, it leaves “half the work of criticism undone.”

Maybe. But far better to risk leaving half the work of criticism undone than to listen to the bunch of busy scuba divers “descending into the depths of the work” that Prof. Kuspit is so crazy about. Critics like Kuspit say things like this:

“The artist’s ignorance of his own work’s import is often marked by a self-righteous assertion that his art be taken on the terms he stakes out for it . . . if we leave the work of art to its own arrogantly obvious appearance and to that of the artist’s intent, it becomes dust.”

Well, uh, let’s see here. Was Klee self-righteous to formulate his principles in Padagogisches Skizzenbuch, or was Kandinsky out of line with Concerning the Spiritual in Art, or did Ad Reinhardt forget his place with Writings? Are all artists liars when they discuss their works? And how can a work be “arrogant” if we want to use language the least bit intelligently?

Viewers of art just get in the way, too, cautions Kuspit. Viewers have inherent in their viewing (I guess like original sin) “a superficial consciousness” and, even worse, the monolithic viewer posited by the professor regards the work of art as “simply another phenomenon.” Ain’t them viewers dumb?

But before we all snicker into our sherry down at the Faculty Club, let’s take a look at what’s happening here:

Artists can’t be trusted to tell us about any facet of their own creative work—neither its intention, nor its execution (Kuspit says).

Viewers are too simple-minded to inform the work they look at without being helped (Kuspit says).

Art, itself, is arrogant (Kuspit says).

Who’s left to talk about art in this wilderness of untruth, arrogance and lumpen stupidity? The critic, natch. But only the kind of critic who feels good talking about something called the “intentionality” of what is apprehended visually. Only the critic, who, as Professor Kuspit so smugly puts it, “must create the illusion that the work will find its own level in the context of thought he creates for it.”

Fifteen years ago, in a classically beautiful essay on criticism, Leo Steinberg said: “I have little confidence in people who habitually, when exposed to new works of art, know what is great and what will last.” Steinberg, a critic with a towering talent for blending both description and conceptualization, made a point with clarity, and, a great deal of humility: Criticism serves art, art is not in the service of criticism.

Critics who blather away mystically about an “intentionality” outside the scope of an artwork to express through its surface(s) or beyond the ability of the artist to describe honestly, or too complex for the viewer to understand, are talking about something removed from the experience of looking at or making art. Show me the “intentionality” playing hide and seek, detached from what art or artist says to the viewer. I can’t find it. I don’t think it’s there.

—David Lees Venice

I’m always happy to have scripture quoted to me, particularly by an ex-editor. But I’m a nonbeliever, and continue to be so, particularly when the scripture becomes ad hominem, as in Keeffe’s sentence “I would rather clean cuspidors than try to clean up Kuspit’s prose.” However, let’s get down to cases. The words “facticity” and “intentionality” are well known from the philosophy of Sartre and Husserl, if not the dictionary Keeffe uses. Even more popularly, there is a discussion of “intentionality” in Rollo May’s Love and Will. “These,” in the phrase “these reduce to a number of limited perspectives,” refers, like most pronouns, to the last noun before it, namely, “general ideas.” Why would Keeffe ignore the obvious if he wasn’t out to stretch a small point? Also, the sixth definition of “reduce” in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary is “to bring from one form to another,” allowing the use of “to.” The Oxford Universal Dictionary gives numerous examples of such usage. Since Keeffe in the end allows me the use of “emanate” I won’t go into that. However, he is probably right in implying that I ought to have used “tautologically” instead of “tautologously,” and “one-dimensional” instead of “monodimensional.” I was being joyously enterprising with the language. Probably another result of the critic’s uncertainty, which I hasten to acknowledge.

But Keeffe tips his hand—shows his know-nothingness—in isolating from context such terms as “naive empiricism” (standard philosophical usage), “neo-idealistic criticism,” etc., and the expression “arrogantly obvious appearance,” all of which are clear if one reads the article in sequence, rather than pick one’s way around in ignorance, hiding one’s own intellectual dullness and limited perspective by self-righteous faultfinding. Keeffe fully shows his Yahooism in his remarks about “big words.” Why won’t Keeffe come out from behind his smug possession of an obsolete linguistic convention? He knows old words and old meanings—an obviously limited range of both—and clearly has no stomach for anything new.

To Lees’ substantive points: (1) what the artist says about the work must be tested by the work—a difficult business, but at least one stopping us from taking the work for granted, and forcing us to question the claims it makes for itself; (2) with respect to the Steinberg question, I wrote nothing in my article about “what is great and what will last,” although I think when we uncritically view something as great we are mythologizing it, and I think nothing in art will last, in the sense of continue to be seen the way the artist meant it to be; and (3) I think it time that criticism stop “serving” art—there’s altogether too much sycophancy in criticism—and challenge it.

I welcome the comments from the esprits simplistes in California.

—Donald Kuspit

I have just seen the September issue of Artforum. What a surprise! Therein is a review of a two-man show by myself and Daniel Buren. Specifically, the surprise came from the photo. Burenstripes around a piece of mine. I want to be publicly on record as saying that I allowed no one this use of my work.

—John Baldessari
Santa Monica, California

In your October 1977 number my friend John Bernard Myers was a good deal less than scrupulous about the facts of my reaction to Larry Rivers’ Ace of Spades, which once belonged to William Rubin.

I never protested at its being in my field of vision chez Rubin. Far from feeling strongly one way or the other about the picture, I found it too obviously agreeable, too plausible and pat (as Rivers could be before he turned plainly bad—but never “terrible”).

As for its being “said” that Mr. Rubin was “so taken aback” by my reaction that he “soon after” got rid of Ace of Spades: there’s not a shred of truth to that. The picture remained with him for a good while after he heard my opinion of it—by which he wasn’t in the least taken aback.

Mr. Myers’ article on Rivers reflects terribly on himself. It was Robert De Niro, not Soutine, who became the dominating influence on Rivers at the beginning of the 1950s. And Mr. Myers should watch out for foreign words as well as for the truth: words like malerisch for example.

—Clement Greenberg
New York, N.Y.

In May of 1977 I telephoned Clement Greenberg and inquired if he had used the word “terrible” in describing the work of Larry Rivers while at a dinner party at William Rubin’s. I did this because I know few critics who have been so often misquoted, or whose ideas, distorted. Mr. Greenberg said he not only had said that, but had voiced a similar opinion on other occasions. As for the dinner party, he wasn’t quite sure where he was sitting when he looked at Rivers’ The Ace of Spades; possibly the picture was in the front hall. But I noted the story in my journal, having heard it from an impeccable source who was also at the same dinner.

Since it was I who sold The Ace of Spades I was interested in this picture’s fate—as I was with almost all pictures I had handled. I saw the picture next in Robert Elkon’s gallery; it was for sale. No doubt I should have checked the time lapse between the dinner and the “de-acquisition.” (“De-acquisition” is a camp word, like “finalize,” which came into use about the time the Metropolitan Museum was getting rid of excess baggage.) This tiny incident occurred 14 years ago, after Rivers had moved to Marlborough, and while William Rubin was still teaching school at Sarah Lawrence—long before he went to the Museum of Modern Art.

I also noted in my journal (May 1977) that during my telephone conversation with Mr. Greenberg I asked what sort of word there was to describe “painting, brushy-painting, painterly.” I was given the German word “malerisch,” which is sometimes used in that sense, although it can also refer to landscape painting.

As for Rivers being influenced by Robert De Niro, I can only say that Rivers told me he was fascinated by Soutine and very influenced personally by him. There were several Soutine books and catalogues in the studio. I was told this at a time when Rivers was painting rich, dark and messy canvases like The Rubber Plant (1953). Perhaps De Niro was also influenced by Soutine? Or maybe Mr. Greenberg has Rivers’ drawings mixed up with Diebenkorn’s early De Niro period?

All of this, I suspect, is a Sturm im Wasserglas (oops!). I trust, however, that both Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Rubin were interested in the larger aspects of my essay.

—John Bernard Myers

Upon the editor’s inquiry, Mr. Rubin noted that he was perfectly familiar with Mr. Greenberg’s less than enthusiastic view of Rivers’ recent work before he acquired The Ace of Spades, and that his exchange of The Ace of Spades for another work at least a year after Greenberg’s remarks about the painting followed from a change in his own feelings about the picture.