PRINT September 1993

*ARTFORUM ’80 - ’93*

Think or Thwim

Fairfield says: Why is irrelevancy so often taken for profundity?
—Elaine de Kooning

I WAS IN a hospital the other day and I saw a guy sitting in a wheel chair wearing a tuxedo. I said “What are you in for?” He said “I’m getting a vasectomy.” I said “Why the tuxedo?” He said “I figured if I was gonna be impotent I should look impotent.”

And that’s why every art critic should own a tuxedo, aside, of course, from gala openings at MoMA and the Guggenheim and part-time waiter jobs.

But seriously, folks, art writing. . . . No, seriously folks. Art writing is not what it used to be. I went to the psychiatrist the other day. He said “What’s bothering you?” I said “Nobody listens to me.” He said “What do you do for a living?” I said “I’m an art critic.” He yelled “Next!”

I’m not even an art critic anymore. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it. It’s certainly a lot cheaper hobby than golf. It’s just that it’s hard enough to get people to take you seriously these days. But seriously folks, when was the last time you read a good piece of art writing?


It’s not all the fault of the writers. Many of them mean well. And writing about the arts does require a certain devotion and a considerable amount of sacrifice. Art critics are giving up the high pay that they would earn if they were writers for Seinfeld.

And that’s just one reason art writers are mad. And because they’re mad they write Stygian impenetrable prose because if they’re not having any fun, why should you? Art writers are also mad because they don’t have much good art to write about. Actually the fact that bad art rules should be a boon to art writers, but they don’t understand that. This is not all their fault. It’s their parents’ fault, or the fault of the art dealers who raised them. This generation of art writers was raised to think “If you can’t write something nice it’s better not to write anything at all.”

Art writers should take their cues from Robert Hughes. Just because you don’t agree with him doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from the man. Art writing, at best, is a form of entertainment. So is teaching at its best. An amusing style doesn’t detract from the substance of one’s argument. Art writing is also its most amusing when it’s on the attack. And only if art writing is amusing, only if it works as a piece of writing, is it worth snuffing a tree for.

Muhammad Ali said, “Writin’ is fightin’,” and the best nonfiction writing often performs that function. The painter Norman Bluhm said: “If you’re in love, you don’t explain, you itemize. After all, the Song of Solomon reads like a grocery list. For myself I don’t like to talk about what I’m for. I like to talk about what I’m against.”

Sure art writing isn’t what it should be, but neither is art. Most art writing today is apologia for art that can’t stand on its own four feet. Most art writers write press releases. You could say that this is because of the depressed nature of the art market, but the fact is that it goes back to the days of the ’80s boom, the most kiss-ass period in the history of art criticism.

During the boom, reviews didn’t matter. Good reviews didn’t hurt. But they didn’t make artists either. The big money winners of the ’80s, generally, hit the big time without anointment from the critics. Dealers wielded whatever power the critics once had. But why? Why didn’t anyone pay attention to the critics anymore?

What killed criticism was its parochialism. Art writing separated itself from writing. It circled the wagons into a closed system of self-referential language studded with fancy opaque buzzwords. I’ve been reified till I felt refried. Art criticism began to look like it was written by lawyers. It was written in a clubby language and this club was pre-dated. Its semiotic shoptalk sounds like bellbottoms look. And despite the seemingly political correct posture of the most flagrant practitioners of this jargon. Collins and Milazzo for example; it was inherently elitist and obscurantist. It said considerably less than could be said in a similar volume of plain language, although with an infinitely more precious veneer. In short this sort of critical writing was a joke that didn’t know it was funny.

Art writing should expand the audience for art, expand the understanding of art and empower powerful art. Art writing should be written for a big audience, not an inner circle. Generally. today, it is written not to be read at all, but to frame the pictures in the catalogue with important looking markings, texts so impenetrable they seem intelligent by default.

Art should be a catalyst for the imagination of the writer, not a cryptographic problem with a predetermined solution. The art critic should come up with something new, not just reworkings of trendy formulas imported from France.

What’s the remedy? Art writers should be writers first and foremost, respecting the medium they employ. I might not agree with what Peter Schjeldhal writes, but at least I can read it. I might not worship the same geniuses that Rene Ricard worships, but at least I am amuses by his elaborate rites and precious liturgy. And Gary Indiana, well I’d read a can label or street directions by him because he writes right.

What’s the remedy? It’s not enough that art writers quit writing. I’ve tried that. It’s not enough. They should start speaking. Art writing should be replaced by art talk, art dialogue. The perfect replacement for the turgid, static monograph is the recorded live symposium. Absolutely live, ers and ums included. Plato got that idea right. And Burroughs expanded on the possibilities of the dialogue as the generator of a dialectical “third mind.” The technology exists to reproduce a lively exchange, should one miraculously occur. Perhaps this is how art criticism should have been working for the last twenty years.

The solo review should be replaced by the duel. The defender and the prosecutor. Or the panel of experts.

Tonight on our panel of experts we have Donald Kuspit, Jenny Holzer, Steven Wright, Stephanie Seymour, Tom McEvilley, Eileen Myles, and Andrew Dice Clay. Give them slide projectors and stun guns and let them work it out.

But if they insist on writing about art then they should live up to the standards of art. Art writing should be art or shut the fuck up you’re bringing me down.

Artists themselves should write more. For one thing they’d be putting it on the line at a time when the norm is to dissemble and cultivate ambiguity. For another thing, they couldn’t do it worse than the critics, and in many cases they would undoubtedly bring some creativity to an activity generally practiced by rote.

If art writing is to flourish it must subvert the cult of seriousness instead of sucking on it. It must resist the popular tendency to regard art as a true-or-false quiz. It must concoct more and nastier manifestos. It must use the vernacular. Do the vulgate. Get down. Get real.

I’m sick of credentialed dunces and hacks, holding, on for dear tenure. Publish or perish? You croaked already. I just won’t read it and if I do, by accident, I’ll find some way to make you pay for wasting my time.

Art isn’t what it used to be. It’s all aura and no clout. Its sanctimonious where it should be shocking. It’s silent where it should be stentorian. It’s safe where it should risk sorrow. And if art is ever to be as important as it was then the word will have to take the lead in that restoration process.

Let’s get busy. Let’s clean house and embarrass the shit out of the poseurs. Let’s knock em out. Let’s act as nasty as Jesus on a bad-hair day. Let’s write like a drive-by shooting. Let’s talk up a war of words that makes the world funnier and more beautiful. Let’s make everything that has to do with art—from the reviews to the sales pitch—into art. Art so fine. . . .

Glenn O’Brien, a contributing editor to Allure, is a former stand-up comedian. He recently edited Madonna’s Sex and is currently creative director of advertising at Barney’s, New York.