PRINT May 1988


Son of Sublime

CONTEMPORARY ART AND CRITICISM ARE heir to two conflicting parents, a duality that remains unresolved in our recent history. On the one hand we have seen art that emphasizes esthetic experience for its own sake, and on the other, art that deemphasizes or even spurns the esthetic in the name of social or cognitive involvement, or a combination of the two. And now, in an interaction of art and art criticism, there are signs of an inchoate urge to combine these dichotomous realms.

Much has been written about the art that has come to be called “simulationist,” and from many different points of view. One part of this response has been a criticism in the art’s own image. So much a partisan effort is this “simulationist criticism” that so far, anyway, most of it comes either from the artists themselves or from those who curate the work. It is not critical in the usual senses, then, but promotional, aimed at establishing a supposedly new artistic position.

Peter Halley, for example, has presented two critical approaches to his own work—approaches that seem to contradict one another. In early statements characterized by the influence of Jean Baudrillard, Halley said that his paintings of the time were not really abstract paintings of types familiar twenty and thirty years ago; rather, they were “simulations” or “simulacra” of such paintings. (The statement comes close to a definition of a certain brand of kitsch, but let that pass.) In more recent statements, Halley has invoked George Kubler’s idea that art-historical sequences once regarded as closed—like, say, the tradition of the abstract sublime, or of the color field—may be reopened after a time and extended into further, equally legitimate chains of solutions. On this model, Halley’s paintings are indeed to be regarded as authentic formalist abstract art, not as simulacra. Perhaps Halley found that he had buried his work too deep in the humus of death and is attempting to bring it back to life with Kubler’s theory; perhaps he is opportunistically attempting to change critical bandwagons, or perhaps he feels his work has changed. In any case, there is no mediating the two explanations. The question they raise by their contradiction is whether the work might have no real orientation one way or the other—might have either no clear impulse or no awareness of where its impulse lies.

Halley’s work has been written about by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo, collaborating curator/critics who have curated his work several times. In discussing a group of artists (not including Halley) in one of their exhibition catalogues, Collins and Milazzo propose:

From radical consumption to this new impoverishment, from the terminal to the nascent, from the late world to the recent world, from model to mortality, these tropes, this sense of responsibility, this disposition toward a less mediated experience of culture and art and less mediated or acculturated forms of experience, defy the reifications of critique, difference, irony, and the commodity discourse, as well as the strictures and sublimations of ‘correct’ ideology, and the ultimate irony of various ideological expressionisms, and reflect the universal or global character of this new work.

The sentence, while opaque, does have meaning. To paraphrase, it proposes that the art under discussion (by Michael Zwack, Joel Otterson, Joel Fisher, Lucio Pozzi, Meg Webster, and others) is so radically new as to provide a comparatively direct, unmediated experience preceding cultural coding and thus lying beyond criticism, commodification, and ideology, and that therefore the work is “universal,” its uncanny directness finding every mind open to it. The claim has a familiar ring. The idea that the artwork enters sensibility without cognitive or conceptual mediation, and that it is therefore universal, is a key element of the Kantian esthetics that were basic to formalism. It is what Clement Greenberg said about the art that he supported thirty and forty years ago. The first element of simulationist criticism’s attempted mediation of formalism and radicalism is this covert revival of formalist theory; the second is the claim, unsubstantiated in the argument, of radical newness in the work.

The claim of newness is enhanced in turn by a third element, the insistence on discussing the work in a void, out of art-historical context. (To insist on providing that context is denounced as “proto-reified.”) In discussing John Dogg’s wall-mounted car tire, with stainless steel rim, for example, Collins and Milazzo write with an excited sense of newness about the idea of the found object, without mentioning its history as one of the most venerable of 20th-century artistic tactics:

By taking an object that was not made or intended for the gallery, such as a tire (or soil or water, as opposed to a painting, photograph, or sculpture), and situating it, especially at this time, in the gallery, by displacing into the gallery an object that belongs primarily to the world and only secondarily to art, by bracketing the actuality of objects rather than fabricating or asserting (any) object as art, by literally bringing elements of the outer world into the ‘inner’ world of Value, there is produced, through these displacements and displaced functions, an axiological shift in perception.

Their analyses of Dogg’s tire could have been made of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel 75 years ago:

Dogg, for example, has taken an object that belongs fundamentally to the actual world, to external space, to a road or highway, to an extended environment, and repositioned or situated it in the mediated or internal space or environment of the gallery. Such objects do not merely refer to the Social, they encompass its actuality, the actuality and immediacy of objects in the world.

The question of how the work confronts its tradition—whether, for example, like much recent readymade art, it turns Duchamp’s hard lesson into easy kitsch, or how it evades that trap—does not arise here. The simulationist critics simply declare the art new, and then surround it with a rhetoric of newness. Advertising proceeds toward its ends in much the same way.

But the ethical shadow of ’70s art, with its critique of media rhetoric, looms like Banquo’s ghost at the feast, with demands for appeasement. Much late-’80s work in both Europe and America, of course, is vulnerable to the charge that its apparent reversion to formalist practice has betrayed the legacy of the more socially and politically oriented ’70s. Simulationist criticism has mounted two lines of defense against this charge. One employs the simple tactic of declaring the work in question to be conceptual art, “the new conceptual work,” as Collins and Milazzo call it. (“What we mean by conceptual isn’t necessarily everybody else’s idea,” Collins has understatedly remarked.) This claim, like that of radical newness, is buttressed by a combination of rhetorical assertion and omission of art-historical discussion. The second line of defense is the declaration that the work aims “to effect a critique of culture and the social.” It would take special pleading to establish this argument on behalf of much of the work in question, but the claim does achieve an unstated reward: theoretically, it eliminates the need for criticism itself. Milazzo says:

Speaking in general now, the artists’ practice has suddenly made the critic’s function seem obsolete or superfluous. What exists now is only the critical function, which has become severed from the critic’s domain.

The claim that the critic has become obsolete because art has become critical makes as much sense as saying that the artist is obsolete if criticism is written artistically. These curators—who straightfacedly describe their own exhibitions as “commendable in every way” and “utterly uncompromised in their theoretical considerations”—propose that the work of the artists they show be accepted as its own criticism, thus avoiding critical discourse from outside—which is really the only valid place it can come from.

Finally, again taking on the mantle of the ’70s, these authors state that their writing is radically removed from “the commodity discourse.” Yet according to an article by Dan Cameron in Arts magazine, Collins and Milazzo “have . . . approached the economics of their work as artists would—i.e., charging commissions to dealers, developing a coterie of collectors, etc.” They usually curate in commercial galleries, according to Cameron, and receive commissions on works sold in their shows. In essence they are dealers, and the artists they write about are those in whose work they deal. Their writing, then, is not merely like advertising in some of its tactics; it quite simply is advertising.

Cameron himself, also a curator/critic, and at times an astute commentator on the art scene, has occasionally been lured into simulationist criticism. In an article in Arts on Halley ’s work, for example (which he too has curated), he attributes “universalism” to it (a claim impossible to substantiate about anything whatsoever), discusses it in terms of “the optic nerve,” and calls it “self-explanatory,” probably because of its alleged universality and bypassing of cultural codes. Though unacknowledged as such, this is Greenbergian formalism in a nutshell.

Cameron echoes Collins’s and Milazzo’s claim for the newness of simulationist work; he says that Halley’s work “looks new,” and discusses it in terms of the “use of a visual language in a manner that seems inherently new.” He gives only one clue as to what this newness might consist of: “Two Bars with Conduit,” he writes, “plays with receding and advancing illusionism. . . . the two black cells appear to assume frontality, then recede, depending on the direction in which the eye first penetrates the painting’s boundaries.” These words seem to describe what Hans Hofmann called “push-pull,” probably the single most commonly taught principle of abstract painting in art schools across America throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and into the ’70s. It could only be described as “inherently new” by neglecting history and omitting detailed argumentation. Again, advertising’s constant claims of newness work much the same way.

The urge to offer advertising copy in place of criticism is not a hopeful sign for the proposed simulationist position. It understandably dominates a recent book by Cameron, NY Art Now: The Saatchi Collection, an extended advertising brochure attempting to create art history in the image of the private collection of the world ’s leading advertising mogul. What is presented here as “NY Art Now” looks more like NY art thirty years ago: 17 male artists, 16 of them white and one Asian-American, all makers of easily commodifiable products—not a single woman, not a single black or Hispanic (though some of Tim Rollins’ collaborators may come from minority groups, none of them is named here), not a single figurative artist, not a single site-specific work. Most of these artists have Lower East Side backgrounds, as do most of Collins’ and Milazzo’s artists. (Simulationist art and criticism are the karma of the Lower East Side coming home to roost.) In fact, they are drawn from the same pool. The list of artists who have appeared in shows curated by both Collins and Milazzo, and Cameron is very long, including Ross Bleckner, Carroll Dunham, Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Philip Taaffe, Haim Steinbach, Halley, and others. Most of the 17 Saatchi artists have previously been curated, written about, or a combination of the two, by both Cameron and Collins and Milazzo. The problem is not the quality of the work of these artists; probably any of us may admire some of them more and others less. The problem is the criticism that has been tailor-made for it.

Cameron, like Collins and Milazzo, having tacitly revived formalist theory, completes the proposed mediation by declaring the work to be an extension of the ’70s ethic of art engagé rather than a reconnection to the disengaged art of the ’50s and early ’60s. Paralleling them, he calls it “neo-conceptual art.” Like them, he insists that the essence of the work is not its formal presence but its criticality. It is said to be innately critical, constituting an activist sociopolitical praxis, as much artwork of the ’70s strove to do.

In interviews with the artists in NY Art Now, Cameron investigates the nature of the political activism of their work. Halley, once again, is happy to explain. First, seemingly accepting Cameron’s suggestion that Halley’s imagery of “cells and conduits” is a social imagery—that the cells are individuals, the conduits relationships between them—the artist notes:

The conduits are no longer going up into the cells as much. I guess my work has moved again towards a more directly defined area of alienation. I’ve been reading Guy Dubord [sic] lately, and he’s so close to Baudrillard. But Baudrillard describes the simulacra as somehow not alienating, while to Dubord, the spectacle is a highly alienated situation. So if the cell represents some sort of individual or self, this self is now either being seen as bypassed, or no longer connected with the social system that’s going past it.

Secondly, Halley says that by portraying the heating and plumbing systems that are usually hidden within the walls of buildings, he drags out into the open what society wishes to conceal.

There have of course been artworks that effected this kind of exposure: Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky work, 1971, for example, or Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, 1964, Leon Golub ’s “White Squad,” 1982–84, Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women, 1976, and many others. But Halley’s work does not do this. It merely presents a stylish logo form that may be taken as symbolizing this process, or may be taken in any number of other ways. Perhaps one can see Halley’s designs as suggesting that there are hidden things in society; but what these might be is not indicated, and there is surely no sign of their being wrestled out into the open. Furthermore, the attractive color-field surface of the work suggests another political statement: that although there may be alienation and hidden things, art can still be esthetically pleasing, and that is sufficient. Elsewhere Halley openly articulates the art-for-art’s-sake position that his work has seemed to many to evoke:

To make a work is an act. I think it’s perfectly legitimate. It’s an act with a kind of significance. I think it’s a sufficient act. I don’t see why an artist has to go the next step and posit a political action based on those perceptions.

NY Art Now also gives us Taaffe’s explanation of the politics of his work, which at first sounds quite grand:

I am actually trying to lay the groundwork for some kind of paradisical situation on earth. I think about what’s going on in the world, and whether my painting can conceivably have any impact on the situation. And I guess I have a hope that when they are in the hands of powerful individuals, people who make profound decisions with respect to the direction of the world, my paintings could enable a more humanistic perspective to emerge and evolve. That’s a problematical expectation, but I’m trying to shape a situation that would support a more beneficial social existence for all of us on this planet.

Perhaps this credo does not fully express the artist’s intentions; as it stands, it says plainly that the artwork is meant to be in the homes and offices of powerful men when they reach for the phone to exercise authority, and that it aims to have a socially beneficial effect, not by changing the system, but by esthetically mellowing powerful individuals within it. The claimed activism, in other words, is nothing but the work’s attractiveness, which, one might suggest, could sway a great leader in one direction as well as another. (Both Nero and Hitler loved to be influenced by art.) Not all of the artists represented in the Saatchi book, or by Collins and Milazzo, have expressed themselves so fully on these points as Halley and Taaffe; perhaps some of them would not wish to be represented by this set of claims and tactics.

Daniel Buren summed up the art ethic of the ’60s and ’70s by saying that all art is political and most art is reactionary in its politics. What Buren called “reactionary” included art, such as Abstract Expressionism, that conceived itself as a protest but actually functioned submissively, or apolitically, or in an easily cooptable form. The seemingly disengaged nature of Taaffe’s work is partly explained by the conviction, typical of the ’50s and today prominent again, that art is politically powerless and should not waste its time fighting this powerlessness. One’s art will be art and one’s politics will be politics. What is absent from this discourse is the question of wholeness. Many artists of the ’60s and ’70s were aware that artworks do not usually have a direct effect on the big stage, but they did not wish to alienate their art from their politics, or from their feelings about other people or about society. To sever one’s politics from one’s art was of course the counsel of formalism. It produces an art that may be critical of society—Abstract Expressionism was—but that is, in Buren’s terms, reactionary nonetheless: having lost the idea of praxis, of the inner consistency of one’s actions, it has no defense against whatever use the surrounding world may put it to.

Since plainly there is a revival of formalism going on today in some art and some criticism, it would be useful to acknowledge it as such and see what happens. The breach between the achievements of formalist art and criticism and of the art and criticism that came after, say, 1968 is like a gaping wound in our art consciousness. One can sympathize with the impulse on the part of these curator/critics, and of some of the artists they represent, to combine the esthetic ideology of late formalist art and the social ideology of the art that came after it. Perhaps one might even allow that the first clumsy and dimly understood steps toward the solution have to be taken in this surreptitious way. But nothing good can come from forgetting or falsifying history. This is at best a simulated solution, in which the verbal gestures toward both conceptualism and social engagement seem for the most part laughably detached from the work for which they front.

Thomas McEvilley, a contributing editor of Artforum , is a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.

Collins' and Milazzo’s writings can be found in a number of catalogues and exhibition statements, including the catalogue for “The New Poverty,” at the John Gibson Gallery, New York, in the fall of 1987. They are also interviewed in Artscribe , November/December 1987. NY Art Now: The Saatchi Collection was published by Giancarlo Polite Editore, Milan, in 1987.