PRINT Summer 1984


Network: Art in the Complex Present, The Critic is Artist: The Intentionality of Art, and Get the Message?

THREE NEW BOOKS ARE WORTH noticing: three important retrospectives of the discourse on art. They stand out because in various ways and to various degrees they do not merely describe art, but make demands, ask for amends, hold out possibilities; they often describe nonexisting art or art that leaps out from the welter of ordinary art activity. Lawrence Alloway, Donald Kuspit, and Lucy Lippard construct their utopias on different plateaus of expectation.

Of the three, Alloway is the most generous. A populist-reformist, he wants a fairer hearing for unheard voices—the decentralization of museums, the de-commercialization of art magazines, a pluralist breaking-down of elitist barriers. If changes would come in art itself, they would presumably come from the changes in the objective conditions of art-making—and Alloway leaves it at that. Kuspit, however, calls art to task: he summons art to moral criticality. And Lippard—Lippard untiringly and passionately urges art to march with the revolution.

Alloway came to the United States from England in 1961. As critic, curator, editor, and educator he has since tried to bring to American art what another Englishman, Tom Paine, brought to politics during the time of the American revolution: common sense. There is a curious similarity between these two; not exactly expelled, they both left England when their unorthodox views and acerbic characters made them unwelcome in their respective constituencies. Since coming to the U.S. Alloway’s populist views (in art but not in politics) have made him one of the most democratic critics we have: he has written on the subject of black art, feminist art, folk art, regional art, “lay art.” As a curator he has hung shows at the Guggenheim Museum, but he has also hung shows at the struggling feminist co-op gallery Soho 20. This seems a logical development for the critic who recognized (and named) Pop art at its inception.

The 32 chapters in his new book include articles that previously appeared in Artforum, Art in America, Arts, Art Criticism, Art Monthly, Portfolio, The Village Voice, and The New York Times, as well as some catalogue essays. There is a need for another book of collected writings, which could be called “Alloway in The Nation”; it would contain the columns he wrote for that liberal weekly, where a nonart audience and an intimate literary ambience allowed him more often to speak not only with logic and clarity but with that beautiful blend of bite and wit characteristic of British polemics. The book under discussion here divides into two broad categories: sociological studies of the art world, replete with carefully researched data, and evaluations and histories of art movements as well as some individual artists (Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Isabel Bishop, Sol LeWitt, Alan Sonfist, Philip Pearlstein).

Because the surveys of “networks,” “systems,” and “support systems” in Alloway’s writing always have the aim of critical intervention, they are much more than statistics and facts. Yet the preponderance of these surveys tends to exaggerate the idea of long-lasting change in the ’60s and ’70s. Alloway himself writes that “artists and their work changed less than the system by which their art is distributed.” Among the best articles in the second group are two reportages on earth works, “Site Inspection” and “Sites/Nonsites,” the clearest, on-target writing on this facet of American art. “Artists as Writers, 1. Inside Information” and “Artists as Writers, 2: The Realm of Language” are equally informative and finely analytical.

A natural foe of mystification, Alloway is determined to be as clear as possible. He jolts the reader with “The first exhibition of a newly made work of art is in the studio”—this is the first sentence in the first chapter, “Network: the Art World Described as a System.” The article called “The Great Curatorial Dim-out” starts thus: “The role of the curator is different in different museums.” So we start at Genesis. Yet the simple entries are deceptive. As a master of language, as stylist, Alloway has no peers in American art criticism (though Kuspit knows more words and Lippard invents more). Simplicity is woven with subtle, trenchant wit; an observation, seemingly from the peripheries, takes the place of lengthy argument. For example, in his commentary about the sloppy usage of “Modernism” and “post-Modernism” he says, “In America the term Modernism, at least in the visual arts, has been largely preempted by Clement Greenberg to refer to a particular kind of painting: Jack Bush and Friedl Dzubas for example are Modernists, but Andy Warhol and Allan Kaprow are not.”1 And when Alloway wants to point out the essential difference between the chronological and stylistic uses of the “Post-isms,” he says, “My resistance to the term Postmodernism is not based on an attachment to the values of Modernism, a word I usually deal around. Use of the term Post-Modernism commits one to a definition of Modernism. The trouble is that we end up with two labels, one for early 20th century art and one for later.” He could have said “rebels” instead of “labels,” for Modernism and post-Modernism set up, if nothing else, a false battle of claims for vanguardism.

The preface to Kuspit’s collected writings of the last decade is headed by quotations from Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde; romantic 19th-century affirmations of the critic’s solitary, missionary role, they express the essential belief that criticism demands more “cultivation” than creation does. When I asked Kuspit what the use of these quotations signifies, he implied that while there may be no identity of views, he is “looking for ancestors.” More to the point, then, would be to quote Kuspit’s own statements of belief. He writes in the preface that “the true critic (not any journalistic reviewer, casual art writer, hack observer, poetic dilettante, disillusioned art historian tempted by living art as if by forbidden fruit) is as creative and imaginative as the true artist, and must be if art is to survive its own making and immediate history, its marketability and entertainment value.” One has to read the book before judging the statement. There is arrogance in it but a forgivable arrogance, for Kuspit’s writings do stand apart from the broad, lax phenomenon we call “art criticism.” True, the classifications he describes above can be easily challenged (Kuspit himself is a poet, an art historian, and a writer of reviews as well as articles), but he describes the territories of puff-, service-, and pseudo-criticism well.

The January 1974 issue of Artforum carried Kuspit’s first article on contemporary art, titled “A Phenomenological Approach to Artistic Intention.” (He had previously written on art history and philosophy.) Readers quickly divided, saying two things: 1. He is unreadable; 2. He is worth reading because embedded in his uncompromising language are some of the most worthwhile thoughts on art. The second perception clearly holds, for during the decade Kuspit’s writings found platforms wherever he wished to publish and his ideas continue to prod and provoke. He started to write on contemporary art when he was teaching art history in North Carolina, a job which enabled him to come to New York every week. The intensity of his commitment was clear: he would come down from Chapel Hill like a knight on a charger, carrying two spears, his doctorates in philosophy (Frankfurt) and art history (Michigan), and a determination to set art and the art world straight.

In the first article he said a myriad of things, but in essence he criticized what he called “the conventional methods of formalist and evocative criticism.” This critique focused on Max Kozloff— by acknowledging his contribution: “Kozloff’s importance to us lies in his having a more powerful grasp of artistic intention than the Dadas, although he fails to become fully conscious of it. Also, he is important because he is conscious of the uncertainty of modernist artistic intention, and because he ultimately does not know what to make of it.” Ten years later it seems to me that Kozloff’s reluctance to plunge into the analysis of intentionality was a sign of sensitivity to art. I believe that art and evocation lie upon each other like shadows which overlap but do not fully coincide. Like everybody else, critics are first of all viewers who must allow themselves the privilege of emotional and optical response. The criticality that Kuspit called for need not stand in opposition to the formalist and/or evocative approaches. Without that way-station on the road of cognition the intentionalist analysis loses its roots, dries up, and allows itself to be controlled by psychology, history, ideology. Thus evocative criticism (and its guardian, formalist criticism) are to its languorous flow, if the methodology of the analysis is patient, how can criticality change art’s course?

Kuspit’s point:

Critical consciousness is not simply a passive instrument for the description of particular detail (a recorder of fact), but an active creator of general ideas designed to articulate the aura of the work as a whole to which the sum of the details refers—but is not equivalent to—when understood in complex, changing unity. Critical consciousness openly takes command of the work. It does not humbly submit to the work, as description implicitly does.

Openly taking command (not standing in awe) need not mean waging warfare. Yet such a tendency runs, like a red thread, through Kuspit’s writings, and is most clearly articulated in the chapter “Civil War: Artist Contra Critic.” Kuspit cites there Paul Gauguin, who quoted Mallarmé in a letter to André Fontainas in 1899: “A critic is someone who meddles with something that is none of his business.” And Baudelaire, again, writing in 1859:

Despite his lack of merit, the artist is today, and has been for many years, nothing but a spoiled child. How many honours, how much money has been showered upon men without soul and without education! . . . But apart from these [Paul Chenavard, Antoine Auguste Préault, Honoré Daumier, Louis Ricard, Eugene Delacroix], I cannot think of any other artist who is worthy to converse with a philosopher or a poet.

Kuspit describes these statements as “mutual ventings of spleen,” but then goes on to say that in them “we have the issue, the horns of a dilemma.” Do we? Certainly these musings of the last century are of historical interest. Similar feelings, as we know, persisted: they were expressed at meetings of the Artists Club in the ’50s, one hears them at panels in New York of Artists Talk on Art and, surely, at meetings of the International Association of Art Critics American Section. But all this is essentially nothing more than amusing cracker-barrel grumbling. Why should Kuspit, who has the capacity for real philosophy, waste his time on such matters?

The more important capacities of philosopher and critic of range and depth is evident throughout Kuspit’s collected essays. The book is both topical and lasting, illuminating and provoking. Countless ideas are embedded in it, many deserving lengthy comment, many needing to be challenged. The articles about individual artists (Joseph Beuys, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Sol LeWitt, and others) reveal that in spite of the critic’s propensity to see the work as a jumping-off point for the higher realms of thought, Kuspit understands the impulses and the results in art well indeed and is totally at home in art’s internal complexities and subtleties. Kuspit is a better formalist and evocative critic than he cares to be.

The strongest chapter in this category is on the work of Joseph Beuys, written after the November 1979 show at the Guggenheim Museum, a show I found eclipsing, at least for a while, all art of today. Kuspit writes:

I still experience Beuys’s objects as resistant to codification as art—and yet as saying something about what art can be, and what it was when it was more integral to society, in some unspecified but long-past time. His works, albeit newly fabricated, hark back to an era when “art” objects were fetishes, functioning in a communal, magical way. After this sense of art, strongly evoked if not fully restored to Beuys’s objects, I felt the triviality of most of the esthetically self-conscious objects of today.

(The subtitle of this chapter, “Fat, Felt and Alchemy,” is in a different spirit than the piece and would seem not to be the author’s.)

“Uncivil War” and “Betraying the Feminist Intention: The Case Against Feminist Decorative Art” deserve attention for different reasons. In the first Kuspit elaborates (among much else, as always) his well-known stance that art today must move from a “generalized” (or “esthetized”) abhorrence of war and address itself to the specificity of “modern war” or “total war” which he sees as qualitatively different from earlier warfare. He distinguishes between “traditional interest in the human effects of war” and “the modern sense of [war’s] total domination of the life-world.” But we know the “life-world” (a term signifying grandiosity but meaning little) only through human effects, the only arbiter of human cognition.

The article on feminist decorative art, the only chapter in the book where feminism as a subject enters, is a failure. The case Kuspit makes against women’s decorative art is that it is authoritarian and that it does not live up to its pretensions, but the accusations do not hold up. Pattern and Decoration was a movement, proclaiming its superiority no more and no less than other movements. This is an axiom in art history: the manifestos and proclamations that movements create, the needed mythologies (Baudelaire created one for critics), need not be, would not be, manifestos if they were factual. To the extent that decorative art was allied with the women’s liberation movement, it placed itself as the bunting in the convention hall, the celebratory detachment in the line of march. Some competitors inside the movement and outside may have been aggrieved that decorative art sold in Cologne. But that is hardly the issue. Since Kuspit has shown considerable interest in feminist art, has appeared on many panels organized by women artists, and has written about the work of separationist, socialist, and mysticist feminists (Nancy Spero, May Stevens, Mary Beth Edelson), this chapter hardly represents the range of his understanding of feminism. Alloway devotes two chapters of his book to the women artists movement, as well as a chapter on “Isabel Bishop: The Grand Manner and the Working Girl.” “Women’s Art in the Seventies” is a well-researched piece on a subject with which Alloway is familiar indeed. “Women’s Art and the Failure of Art Criticism,” the second chapter on the theme, shows the same familiarity, but here the ice is thinner—discussions about the appropriateness of this or that iconography for this or that ideology have always had a ring of futility; Marxists have been at it for more than a century. However, if one understands the women’s movement as a liberation movement, the search has to be seen as a way of building not so much theories as mythologies.

While Alloway’s book is a sifting of logic and facts, and Kuspit’s book a feat of articulating the dialectic, Lucy R. Lippard’s new book makes a long leap into the arena of action. Lippard thinks that a moral commitment requires inserting oneself into the dialectic, unbalancing its process, becoming part of the reality others will later study. In an introductory note Lippard outlines her development as a writer and lists books that signaled the stages of this development. Between 1965 and 1968 she wrote essays that represented what she calls her “formalist” or “art-educational” period. These appeared in 1971 in a volume called Changing. In 1973 she published Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object, in which her hopes for societal change were still being linked with an alternative, nonobject art. In 1976 she published two books, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art and Eva Hesse—the first a theoretical classic, the second a tribute to a classic young artist. In 1979 she published I See/You Mean, which she described as “abstract feminist fiction,” and in 1983 Overlay, a book of romantic art history.

While Overlay is poetic and meditative, reflecting Lippard’s interest in nature, mythology, and art that respects the earth (she spends time walking the moors of Devon, England, as well as the seashore of New England), Get the Message? is a manifesto for a better social order and for art’s alliance with the people who struggle for it. The last section of the book carries a banner headline: “Collaborate! Demonstrate! Organize! Resist!”. Behind the slogans, the message is more complex. In her prefatory note to the first section, “The Dilemma,” Lippard quotes from a statement she wrote with Robert Huot and Ron Wolin in 1968 about 14 nonobjective artists (Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Ryman, among others) who participated in a peace exhibition she helped to organize:

These 14 non-objective artists are against the war in Vietnam. They are supporting this commitment in the strongest manner open to them, by contributing major examples of their current work. The artists and the individual pieces were selected to represent a particular esthetic attitude, in the conviction that a cohesive group of important works makes the most forceful statement for peace.

Then Lippard adds, “As this book demonstrates, I have since come to think that artists can also make art directly involved in social change.” It is this “also,” the search for it, that is at the core of the book.

Lippard scours the pathways and byways of art-making and art-thinking to raise our awareness of a world full of misery and injustice. To many readers, unused to an activist approach to art, the theoretical structures she builds may not seem solid: there is no tranquillity—she opens the windows, she opens the doors, she raises the roof . . . But a closer analysis of her writings shows that the consciousness is constant.

The stages are described: In 1968 she “fell belatedly into that pocket of the art community that was actively protesting injustices.” Then she “fell into the arms of feminism in the summer of 1970.” In the summer, no less—like a young lover! I find her openness admirable. One reads her chapters at the beginning of the book, the histories of the Art Workers’ Coalition (“The Art Workers’ Coalition: Not a History” and “Charitable Visits by the AWC to MOMA and Met”) and of other radical art groups, with a feeling that she is recounting not-too-distant events as if they were sagas and lessons at the same time. From the Art Workers’ Coalition, Artists and Writers Protest, Women Artists in Revolution, Art Strike, Guerilla Art Action Group, and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, to PADD (Political Art Documentation/Distribution), The Alliance for Cultural Democracy, Heresies, Upfront and Block (London) magazines, and Lip (Australia), she is in the midst of groups and publications of radical cultural ferment which the rest of the art world tends to exclude. Has any American art critic noted the existence of B.U.G.A.U.P. (Billboard Utilizing Graffitists Against Unhealthy Productions), described as an “ongoing and hilarious program of altered billboards,” active in Australia? Lippard has traveled to China, Cuba, and Nicaragua, and written about the art she saw. She has written on artists working with unions (while organizing an exhibition program at District 1199 of the hospital workers union, in New York), on antiracist protests (against the show “Nigger Drawings,” the film Fort Apache, etc.).2 But Lippard’s strength lies in her deep caring for art as well as her activism. What she describes as her formalist past is not really in the past—it lives in her insistence that art be not only combative but also innovative as art. That has sometimes created dilemmas for her, as it has for other progressive thinkers in art. I recall a symptomatic event: she was hanging a show in solidarity with Chilean democracy after the people’s rule there was brought to a bloody end by Augusto Pinochet and the U.S. She arranged one wall of beautiful Minimal, holistic, and other abstract works, mostly black or white, and she arranged another wall of expressive protest images. She looked at the first section and said, “I like the wall, but I don’t like the works.” Then she looked to the other wall and said, “I like what the artists do, but I don’t like the wall.” Ten years later this is still her search. It is expressed well by the Cuban poet Nelson Herrera Ysla, whom she quotes in the chapter “Some Propaganda for Propaganda”:

Forgive me, defender of images and symbols. I forgive you, too. Forgive me, hermetic poets for whom I have boundless admiration, but we have so many things left to say in a way everyone understands as clearly as possible . . .

Get the Message? was written by a revolutionary romantic, by a New England abolitionist who came to the Mudd Club. The language is breezy but it carries a clear message which should be heard.

––Rudolf Baranik is an artist who lives in New York.


Network: Art in the Complex Present, by Lawrence Alloway, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1984, 324 pp. The Critic is Artist: The Intentionality of Art, by Donald Kuspit, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1984, 418 pp. Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change, by Lucy R. Lippard, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984, 352 pp., 103 black and white photographs.



1. In “Necessary and Unnecessary Words.”

2. “Nigger Drawings” was the title of an exhibition of works by “Donald” held at Artists Space in New York in February through March, 1979. A committee of artists and critics (Carl Andre, Amy Baker, Rudolf Baranik, Edit deAk, Cliff Joseph, Kate Linker, Lucy Lippard, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Ingrid Sischy, May Stevens and Tony Whitfield) protested against the racist title. Fort Apache (1980), a film starring Paul Newman, purported to portray realistically life in the South Bronx, but Hispanic and black activists saw the film as distorting and racist.