PRINT May 1984


ART CRITICISM HAS LONG BEEN programmatically under fire from its enemies and it has just now been dealt a setback by its supposed friends. I’ve often complained of criticism too, but it is the best instrument we have for reflecting upon the experience of art in modern culture. The critic is the individual who assesses the ideas, responds to the artistic processing, and monitors the feeling tones of the created work, in public, and for the record.

Criticism is accomplished through great internal disputes, using sensitized language in which the allusive character and the value systems of works of art can be analyzed. Working on indicative visual forms, critics edge possible meanings into thought. When the feathers fly in art criticism, we learn what difference the art makes—how it has or hasn’t mattered, from the vantage point not of its producers or patrons, but of impassioned spectators.

Nearly everyone in the art world recognizes the importance of a healthy criticism, but very few pay its modest bills. One of the rare arrangements by which criticism has been acknowledged materially and socially in a disinterested context has been the NEA program of fellowships for critical writing. Through the judgment of peer panels (whose membership has changed each year) it has supported representative writers in both national and regional networks of information and comment, without imposing any particular stylistic pattern or voice on critical production. Originally fostered by Brian O’Doherty, then director of the NEA’s Visual Arts Program, in 1972, these fellowships were awarded annually (except 1974) until 1981. They were reinstated this year. O’Doherty recognized that critics were woefully under-financed, yet played a catalytic role. No one can justifiably say that the fellowships introduced a new, bureaucratic tone in American art criticism, nor that they inspired undue allegiance to the policies of any of the several administrations under which they have been awarded. But many grantees can tell how the fellowships allowed them, for the first time, to travel to see art, or enabled them to stay in place and write, when it might otherwise have been ridiculously hard to do so. Others can speak of how NEA funds subsidized them in work for editors who could not pay them a living wage. Directly or indirectly, the grants facilitated the critical dialogue across a range of cities and situations.

Imagine you are in charge of an outfit feeding a group of hungry people. You invite some of them, as representatives, to tell you about their needs. When they advise you to increase your help—yes, they are starved—you respond by cutting off their food! This happened when on March 7, 1984, Frank Hodsoll, Chairman of the NEA, announced his suspension of the fellowships for critical writing, as of the fiscal year 1985–86. As a reason for his act, Hodsoll cited contentions raised in a report on the fellowships, commissioned from John Beardsley, adjunct curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Beardsley, by and large, fueled the thought that critics were chiseling the government that fed them by not producing “better criticism.”

We don’t have any evidence of Beardsley’s credentials as a literary expert, but it is hard to see how they would be relevant to questions about the NEA’s granting activities, which he still wanted to maintain. Hilton Kramer, however, seconded Beardsley’s main allegations (in his article “Criticism endowed: reflections on a debacle,” The New Criterion, November 1983). He implied that the jurors were corrupt, because of their favoritism, and that the fellows were undeserving because of the deficiencies of their writing. He actually took the NEA to task for reinstituting the critical fellowships after they had been temporarily suspended in 1981 (not, as he thought, because the program had been botched, but in premature anticipation of a budget cutback). Now, more grippingly, he was suggesting that ending government assistance to art criticism in the future would be a good thing—not least, presumably, because a great many fellowships have gone to “people who were publicly opposed to just about every policy of the United States government except the one that put money in their own pockets or the pockets of their friends and political associates.” In suspending the fellowships, Hodsoll seems to have accepted and acted upon Kramer’s arguments.

It’s difficult to say if there’s more ignorance of criticism than political malignance in Hodsoll’s ruling, for they are both vigorously blended into it. The completely unreal idea that infusions of cash could improve intellectual performance is present in Beardsley’s text. If he were intimate with the actual practice of criticism, he would have known that the chemistry of editor-writer relations is more responsible for the presence or absence of interesting work. (Unfortunately, you can’t finance such personal chemistry.) As for the complaint of critics’ log-rolling, everyone knows that their small number merely inflames their mutual animosity. Critics get on with each other only slightly better than do Lebanese, so that their NEA jury record over the years has been a miracle of circumspection and public-spiritedness, far removed from the crony-pandering of which they are accused. Beardsley can disagree with jury choices (we all can), but no outsider can second-guess the complexity and relativity of the variables through which they were sifted (and therefore be in a position to feel superior). Throughout his report Beardsley upholds a boy-scout measure of conduct by which most everyone is found wanting. He might possibly have critics sent to Ivy League think-tanks to learn their métier, and he would certainly demand that they furnish reports on what they did to earn their funding. The prissy condescension and implied infantilization of critics to be read from this report are amazing. Were he to require a similar accountability from artists, he’d be hustled off the podium, yet the outlook and professional needs of critics are similar to those of artists. If you won’t trust your professionals, but have no better sources of judgment, you leave yourself open to groundless counsels.

As for the Kramer piece, its nominal concern for writing standards is but the wispiest smokescreen for its neoconservative weaponry. It will come as news to many of us critics that we still profess the barefoot doctrines of the ’60s, that we are still, barbarously, of the “movement,” and that, totally contrary to what has happened, it is we who are running the government art bureaucracy. Kramer’s attempt to smear anyone who holds a different political opinion from his as self-serving and against true intellectual discourse is comically wide of the mark. But in the context of a discussion about NEA funding of criticism, his supposed argument about principles shows its hand in a desire to punish—and that is no laughing matter.

Kramer represents himself as a lone, feisty independent, who blows the whistle on hypocrisy, conflict of interest, in-competence, and subversiveness. To his fellow critics, however, he is saying, in effect, that he would be delighted to see them hurt economically—particularly the majority who are in a weaker financial position than he is. Beardsley’s report states that, in one of the three years it covers, the average income of grantees was $13,000, while in the other two it was $8,000. Does it need to be pointed out that this is wretched? That critics do not produce collectible objects, nor do most of them get regular staff salaries or achieve tenure for what they do? A callous thing has happened here, for which one of the culprits blames the victims.

But more is involved than the fact that Kramer wants to kick away one of the few material props to the critical profession—his own profession. He shows no sympathy to or even grasp of criticism as a form of cultural conscience in a democratic society, a conscience whose strength lies not only in its tolerance of multiple points of view (messy or irritating as they may be), but in its freedom to challenge prevailing norms or ideologies, even those of its official patrons (an indispensable condition of the field). Kramer’s publisher, Samuel Lipman, sits on the National Council on the Arts, a body whose unspecified doubts, Hodsoll has said, have guided him to suspend the critical-writing fellowships. In doing so, Hodsoll transmits an ominous message that dismays the arts community—not just the writers but the artists and readers—his agency has been assigned to serve. Kramer must be rather happy these days, to have clicked with a strategy to chill dissent. Perhaps that is what “The New Criterion” finally means.

Max Kozloff has been an art critic for 23 years, was formerly Executive Editor of Artforum, and has written several books on contemporary art.


WHAT'S GOING ON HERE? More than meets the eye, certainly. The NEA’s decision to suspend all critics’ grants after this fiscal year is not a recognition of its bureaucratic inadequacy in administering the grants, but the successful result of a well-planned political drive to sabotage federal funding for art critics. To soften the proclamation the NEA has appointed a task force, headed by a former critic of the National Review, which will “study” the “problem” and return, presumably with an answer, sometime in the hazy future. The agenda was suggested by Samuel Lipman, publisher of The New Criterion and a member of the National Council on the Arts (the endowment’s advisory board), in a speech delivered to the Philadelphia Society last November, and reprinted in The Washington Times, December 6, 1983. After lamenting the NEA’s “air of bureaucratic secrecy” and its “close ties to well-organized—and well-government-financed—pressure groups,” Lipman continued: “Mention also must be made of the enormous investment of government prestige and money in a single staff-favored and imposed notion of the avant-garde, a brand of trendy exhibitionism going under the title of ‘The New Wave.’ This might, I suppose, be seen by the kindly disposed as artistic misjudgments rather than imposition of opinion. I am rather more concerned by the present tendency of the Endowment to engage in the subsidy of words which appear in our press and periodicals.” (My italics.) For Lipman, the creation and maintenance of public institutions such as the NEA “provide a possible infrastructure for future attempts at political manipulation and control.” Critics should be stunned to learn they hold so much power.

Conservative attacks on the art world are not new, and neither is the Lipmanesque fear that radicals and subversives are taking over those hotbeds of unorthodoxy, the grants-giving institutions. Certainly, at one level, we must address the cynical political manipulations by which Lipman and his rightist bedfellows are attempting to dominate the NEA. There was a clockwork precision to events during this first year of Lipman’s membership on the National Council. Last fall, a report was commissioned from John Beardsley, adjunct curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, who probably didn’t realize that his criticisms of the grants process would subsequently be so misused. Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, took Beardsley’s paper and his own privileged access as panel member to write a self-servingly snide attack on what he called “government subsidies” to art critics. Among Kramer’s most outrageous sophistries was his claim that no one (presumably, that is, no one but himself) cares about clarity in art-writing.

At the February meeting of the National Council his article prompted denunciations of the grants program. Who would blame the denouncers? Why would anyone in a responsible position in government condone the use of federal funds to support a bunch of marginal counter-culture hangers-on who feel it’s “fascistic” to perfect their craft?

The problem is that reality does not conform to the model set forth by Kramer and Lipman. While one might be tempted to answer Kramer’s and Lipman’s claims and denunciations point by point, we would undoubtedly be better off reminding ourselves of the real issues: the philosophical necessity of criticism, its practical difficulties, and its importance for the art world and for the history of ideas. The problem of how to nurture younger critics and writers outside the New York journals is also of immense concern.

You quickly catch a familiar fury in Lipman’s voice. To paraphrase: it’s bad enough that modern artists do what they do, but it’s outrageous that anyone should write about it. Art criticism is a tricky profession. It addresses itself, as Harold Rosenberg once observed, to the “wilderness of values in which art originates.” To those who don’t spend much time there, a wilderness can be a terrifying place. The historic American solution is simply to cut down all the trees. Eliminate art, artists, and art critics, and presto: the wilderness has been tamed.

The arguments for art criticism are fundamental. You can point to the fact that no work of art is ever a purely visual experience—that, in fact, there is no such thing as a purely visual experience. For the past two hundred years, most philosophy has recognized that visual encounters with the world are a negotiated truce dominated by the Kantian categories. An art critic volunteers (foolishly, no doubt) to describe the negotiations. The conversion of a visual language to a verbal one absorbs an enormous amount of energy and can never be a wholly acceptable translation; I suspect that the vogue for difficult syntax among critics stems from a kind of unconscious fear that too much clarity can rob the artwork of its complexity. Obfuscation is also a way of counting coup against other critics. Certainly it has done us no favors.

The problem of how criticism develops was never adequately addressed by the NEA program. The project grants are perhaps the worst possible way to encourage criticism in its early stages. I ought to know, since I received grants in 1978 and 1980. The experience was terrifying—it was akin to being given a large sum of money and being told to write the Great American Novel. But the first grant also changed my life. It allowed me to leave my desk job and to throw myself (and my West Coast, feminist, ex-artist’s perceptions) into freelancing fulltime for New York publications. My stories didn’t resemble my project descriptions, but that’s because I was learning as I went along. The second grant was awarded before I knew I would be leaving The Village Voice for New York magazine. I was therefore unable to complete my project (a history of the rise of alternative spaces and the type of art they encourage). Should I have been required to do so? Would an artist have been required to forego a show in order to conform to grants guidelines? If so, then something is wrong with the guidelines. The project grants work well only for writers whose careers are already well along and who can be expected to know where they want to end up. The focal point of Beardsley’s objections was that most of the projects were never completed. Of course not: the program was ill-conceived from the start. Project grants seem to require the NEA to become a police force, rather than a funding source.

The NEA was founded to foster American art. Then how could it not also concern itself with art criticism? How healthy can American art be if its artists spend their lifetimes in unreviewed and bitter obscurity? If we give federal money to artists, how can we not also give it to critics? (Whether we should give it at all is another issue.) What should be the goal of critics’ grants? The same goal as for artist’s grants. Some artists take their grant money and use it for personal ends. What are personal ends? Those financial transactions that allow you to survive—to pay the dentist, the landlord, and the supermarket—while you proceed with your work. Creativity can’t be “bought,” but time can.

I have always suspected that there was a hidden punitive motive in requiring projects of critics but not of artists. Artists are “creative,” according to this prejudice, but critics are second-guessers, surviving off the greater energies of everyone else. Perhaps that’s why American art is in good shape, and American criticism is almost nonexistent. Artists, in the NEA’s formulation, could be expected to use their grants wisely, but critics must be held to the grindstone. That’s a foolish notion. It’s rooted in all those old American prejudices against the intellectual life. Hardwork in a studio is legitimate; hard work at a typewriter is suspect. Ideas are dangerous commodities—you can hear the discomfort behind Lipman’s words—and they must be banished as abruptly as possible. Artists are just misled—Lipman, again—but critics are supposedly out for the overthrow of the American government. The latest flap at the NEA is disturbingly reminiscent of much larger issues that are not yet resolved.

Kay Larson has been writing about art since 1972, and is the art critic for New York magazine.



On November 11, 1936, Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, issued a “Decree Concerning Art Criticism.” The decree stated:

I granted German critics four years after our assumption of power to adapt themselves to National Socialist principles. . . . Since the year 1936 has passed without any satisfactory improvement in art criticism, I am herewith forbidding, from this day on, the conduct of art criticism as it has been practiced to date. From today on, the art report will replace art criticism, which, during the period of Jewish domination of art, totally violated the meaning of the concept of “criticism” and assumed the role of judging art. The art critic will be replaced by the art editor. . . . The art report will be less an evaluation than a description and appreciation. . . . The art report of the future presupposes reverence for artistic activity and creative achievement. It requires an informed sensibility, tact, purity of mind, and respect for the artist’s intentions. In the future, only those art editors will be allowed to report on art who approach the task with an undefiled heart and National Socialist convictions. . . . I therefore decree that in the future every art report will be signed with the author’s full name. The professional regulations of the German press will require a special approval for the position of art editor, and this approval will depend in turn on proof of truly adequate training in the art field in which the editor in question will work.1

In an article in the November 1983 issue of The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer states that one of the reasons he thought the Criticism Seminar of the National Endowment for the Arts (September 1983) was a “debacle” was that he felt two of the papers presented at the seminar—those by Adrian Piper and Douglas Davis—were “unalloyed politics” and “more politics,” critical politics not to his liking.2 Another reason was that two other papers presented at the seminar—those by Rosalind Krauss and myself—were “in opposition to clarity,” that is, they advocated a theoretical, evaluative art criticism rather than the descriptive art report. Yet another important reason Kramer gives for his contempt for the art critics fellowship program is that it had since 1972 given “a great many” fellowships “as a matter of course to people who were publicly opposed to just about every policy of the United States government.”3 Kramer offers no proof of his charges, and wraps himself in the flag to repress some of the things it stands for.

In a letter to Catherine A. Fox, an art critic of the Atlanta Journal who was present at the Criticism Seminar, Frank Hodsoll, Chairman of the NEA, wrote (March 7, 1984):

We have decided not to include Fellowships for Critical Writing in the FY 85/86 Visual Arts fellowships guidelines which will soon be published. Our rationale is not based on Hilton Kramer’s article, but rather on our judgment that the criticisms raised by John Beardsley (in his September 1983 report to the Visual Arts Criticism Seminar) have not been adequately answered. Our decision was also influenced by doubts expressed by the National Council on the Arts about this area of funding.

John Beardsley, who offered the seminar his NEA-commissioned analysis of the art critics fellowship program as it existed in the past, and who became the hero of the seminar in Kramer’s editorial, began his report by assuming “the generally lamentable quality of recent visual arts criticism.”4 This unexamined assumption is not justified by analysis of individual art critics, and in fact insidiously dissuades one from looking too closely at actual critical positions or methods. Style is what counts for Beardsley—“stylistic self-awareness,” the presumed lack of which leads critics to produce writing that, to quote an anonymous panelist Beardsley quotes, is “clumsy, awkward, and incoherent.”5 And where is he going to find style? Among “newspaper critics,” he says, and he recommends that the revived NEA critics fellowships favor them because they have “the potential to reach a broader group” and to be “intelligible to the layman.” Moreover, “because they pay regular salaries and exercise less editorial control than art magazines, daily newspapers and mass market periodicals offer the best hope of an independent criticism.”6 This seems absurd, for it is unlikely that a newspaper would hire a critic whose position does not conform to its ideological expectations. In any case, the difference between newspaper criticism and specialized magazine criticism is not the issue; free criticism is at stake, wherever it might appear. Beardsley set up a dichotomy that is beside the point of the larger issue of the critics fellowships—to encourage critical thought in whatever medium of communication it might appear.

Unfortunately, it first has to be said that Kramer’s editorializing report of the discussion at the Criticism Seminar does not correspond to the way I and most of my colleagues remember it. In fact, 20 of the 23 professional critics and editors—representing a wide variety of critical positions—who attended the seminar signed a letter, addressed to Hodsoll, protesting Kramer’s published report of the seminar.

In general, Kramer and Beardsley, who seem not to comprehend that critical theorizing is sensibility at its most refined and intense, prefer to pick on clarity because it makes those who object seem ludicrous. The problem is that their kind of “clarity” not only neutralizes criticism, but undoes the whole Modernist understanding of it—enunciated perhaps most clearly by Oscar Wilde and T.S. Eliot, and the cornerstone of the contemporary belief in the continuity between creative art and its criticism (the creativity/criticality continuum). Modernism, in Geoffrey H. Hartman’s words, “reinvests criticism with creative potential.”7 Kramer implicitly understands “art” to mean “esthetic object,” which means to deprive it of the critical power that Modernism has recognized and cultivated in it. However unwittingly, Kramer’s decree of clarity in art criticism unexpectedly resembles Goebbels’ command that it be reverent description; in Berthold Hinz’s words, this

forbade art as a means of public discussion and communication; art was made instead into an aid to contemplation, empathy, and spiritual edification. The decree not only affected the reception of art but also had a continuing influence on its production. If it was the art editor’s task only “to appreciate” and not “to evaluate,” then the artworks he examined from this point of view had to be free of problematic elements that might provoke criticism and debate.8

In other words, the artworks had to be esthetic rather than insubordinate, conformist rather than contradictory, polite rather than “fresh”—“Frechheit . . . auf die Spitze getrieben” (impertinence . . . carried to an extreme), in the banner headline words of one page in the guide to the 1937 “Degenerate art” exhibition in Munich.9

Kramer is not only after art criticism, he is after art, and he is not only after art, he is after society. He attacks art under the cover of attacking art criticism, and he attacks the social challenge of critical opposition under the cover of demanding clarity and good writing, where both mean “correct,” obedient thinking. Clarity in fact is relative, as much the burden of the reader as the writer, for it has as much to do with the reader’s understanding of the concepts the writer uses as with the style the writer uses to articulate them. Clear thinking is the issue, not clear writing. Kramer’s clear writing is writing, meant for minds that are not very clear about what clear thinking means. It is inevitable that Kramer’s authoritarian anti-intellectualism and his suppressive opposition to critical thinking would lead him to dismiss Krauss’ seminar paper as “an exercise in feminist nihilism feebly attempting to disguise itself as critical theory.”10 For feminism provides not a reverent description of woman as an esthetic object—an idealizing report on her nature—but an irreverent evaluation of woman’s condition. It is inherently critical rather than conformist. Beardsley’s assertion that the critics fellowships have not helped “raise the standards of art criticism more generally” because they serve a narrow group of intellectuals rather than the broad public is also inevitable, on similar antitheoretical grounds.

The attack on intellectual and critical freedom implicit in the arguments put forth by Kramer and Beardsley, with their implicit insistence on the art report, was continued by Samuel Lipman in his article entitled “Government money, government art?”, in the December 6, 1983, issue of The Washington Times, an explicitly right-wing newspaper (see Newsweek, December 19, 1983). Lipman is the publisher of The New Criterion, which Kramer edits. The yahooism of Lipman’s article was made explicit by the cartoon that accompanied it, which indicated that the article was as much a diatribe against unclear (Modern) art as against government support of art criticism. In the cartoon Groucho Marx is shown as an “NEA Board Member,” Chico Marx as an “NEA Critic,” and Harpo Marx as an “NEA Artist” making a Modern sculpture entitled Ode to Butey. Chico says “Otsa some nice-a-piece-a art, eh, boss?”, suggesting the dumbness and inarticulateness and “foreignness”(what kind of paranoia lies behind this implication that critics are un-American?) of art critics. Groucho, turning to a plump figure wearing an armband with a dollar-sign insignia, representing the dumb American government, says: “For an investment of a million or so, this boy could be to art what Philips is to screwdrivers!” From this cartoon it follows that in his article Lipman would dismiss “a brand of trendy exhibitionism going under the title of ‘The New Wave’” as an example of the kind of degenerate art the dumb government supports because the NEA is controlled by the “arts advocacy lobby.”

Kramer dwells a good deal on the supposed collusion between the panelists awarding the critics fellowships and the critics receiving the awards. The panelists of one year are the critics of the next year, and vice versa. In this point Kramer is partially justified. The fact of the matter is that—for a variety of reasons, from economics to education—the field is regrettably small, and like any highly particularized inquiry can tend to respect those with demonstrated commitment. But Kramer’s exaggerated attempt to depict NEA art critics as a cozy, self-serving, small in-group’s belied by the fact that from the start the critics fellowships went to a variety of critics, representing positions often at odds with one another. No cohesive group of critics ever controlled the decision-making process in the awarding of fellowships, because there simply is no such group. The panelists transcend their prejudices, practicing a typically American pluralism. Kramer attacks art critics in part because they are a small, vulnerable group, with no spirit of solidarity. Anyway, everyone attacks them. They can be pushed around easily, and they are the best scapegoat available on which to take out one’s discontent with contemporary art.

Donald Kuspit has written about art and esthetics for 22 years. He is a member of the Overview Panel of the Visual Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.



1. Quoted in Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, New York: Pantheon Books, 1979, p. 37.

2. Hilton Kramer, “Criticism endowed: reflections on a debacle,” The New Criterion, November 1983, p. 5.

3. Kramer. p. 4

4. John Beardsley, “The Art Critics Fellowship Program: Analysis and Recommendations,” report prepared for National Endowment for the Arts, Washington. D.C , August 1983, p.1.

5. Beardsley, p. 8

6. Beardsley, p. 12

7 Geoffrey H. Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980, p. 8.

8 Hinz, pp. 37–38.

9 Illustrated in Hinz, p. 41.

10. Kramer, p. 5.