PRINT February 2005


the “Postartist”

ON A PANEL IN THE EARLY ’90S, I said that art critics come in three types: goalies, cartographers, and evangelists. Goalies—most often reviewers for the popular press—play “defense,” preventing undeserving art from being considered good. While goalies are generally regarded by the art world as either congenital dyspeptics (like me) or political cranks (Hilton Kramer), the best ones aren’t trying to defeat artists. Rather, they encourage artists to raise their games. They defend not against success but against sloppy, indulgent, imitative, witless, and expedient art. Bad goalies, on the other hand, defend themselves against the primacy of the artist. (What goalie save Robert Hughes is better known than the artists he dismisses?) Cartographers are apparently more permissive; they want to make the art landscape more intelligible. The exemplary cartographic essay is Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979), in which she lays out a new sculptural territory somewhere among deliberately useless architectures and almost imperceptibly altered chunks of nature. Still, cartographers make judgments before drawing their putatively neutral maps, deciding ahead of time which artists, which works, which “roads” between art and artists are included. (If they didn’t, the map would be the size of the territory.) Finally, evangelists: They are advocates proselytizing on behalf of artists they consider deserving. In the heyday of modern art, the evangelist fought for work that was in danger of being too advanced, too far-out, too shocking to succeed outside the garret. But today, bad evangelists abound: In the careerist present—and I write this knowing that all criticism, of any sort, is at least partly advertising copy—evangelism has devolved to the equivalent of A&R guys pitching garage bands to major labels.

It’s in this context that art criticism is so very often said to be in a state of “crisis.” The reasons given for the situation are as numerous as recent books on the subject—of which I’d like to discuss a few. For example, in his What Happened to Art Criticism? (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), James Elkins, chairman of the art-history department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, writes that art criticism is “practiced more widely than ever before, and almost completely ignored.” For Elkins, there are too damned many critics plying the trade: “The cloud of names . . . threatens to become infinite: Dave Hickey, Eric Troncy, Peter Plagens, Susan Suleiman, Francesco Bonami, Kim Levin, Helen Molesworth . . . there are hundreds more.” Elkins also finds that art criticism hesitates to take a stand and is often hamstrung in the imagination department while frequently being unbearably dry, having trouble (as he quotes art historian Robert Rosenblum) “correspond[ing] to the sensuous pleasures of looking at art.”

I have doubts about some of Elkins’s assertions. Whatever the number of critics writing now, I estimate that there is still only one art critic per every 4.8 million practicing artists. Yet Elkins’s expanding “cloud”—a byproduct of the size and scale of the art world—leads me to consider other problems confronting the critic today. First, take my example: Art critics get old. Eventually, we can’t take the physical pounding: up and down art-nabe streets, in and out of darkened video booths, over and across festival grounds, lugging fat catalogues and glossy press kits, hunched over the laptop on trains and planes. A longtime friend of mine, painter Walter Gabrielson, once said to me, “I’ve been to so many galleries today, I’ve got a blister on my pivot foot.” But I have less foot-and-knee trouble with an all-Saturday round of art emporiums than I do with its lack of psychic space. Whoever said about shopping for perfume, “After the first three, they all seem the same,” could have been talking about galleries. Maybe the same could be said of years. We older art critics are jaded. What’s startlingly new or profound to somebody who’s been around five years is moderately original to somebody who’s been in the business ten; it might still appear passably amusing to somebody whose expert gaze is twenty years old. Past that, it’s merely here-we-go-again (yawn).

Still, for me, mere numbers and size do not explain criticism’s situation now. I think of Irving Sandler’s informative A Sweeper-Up After Artists (Thames & Hudson, 2003), where the avuncular emeritus professor serves up fifty years’ worth of Boswellian tales about the Johnsons of the New York scene—Jackson, Franz, Bill, Jasper, Bob, Roy, et al., with some garnishes of Lee, Helen, Joan, and Grace. The book’s best chapter concerns the famous feud between Clem and Harold. Greenberg thought that art derived chiefly from previous art, that Abstract Expressionism resulted from painters trying to reconcile the permeable space of Cubism with the improvisation of the Miró wing of Surrealism, and that Jackson Pollock did it best. Rosenberg thought art arose in certain psychologically and culturally attuned personalities existentially situated on particular political soil, and that Willem (“Bill”) de Kooning was Da Man. Sandler’s affections waft more toward the respect-for-tradition de Kooning than the radical Pollock. But—and this is my main point regarding this passage in history—the tidal wave of Pop art beached both Greenberg and Rosenberg. And the subsequent sweeping ironization of most art-world art left the two critics high, dry, and—to all but a few Greenberg acolytes who actually believed Jules Olitski was our “best living painter”—irrelevant. Although Sandler never says so outright, his embedded chronicling of Pop art owed more to duty than to passion.

Indeed, the contemporary-art irony that started as a kind of Halloween costume with Lichtenstein became a full-body tattoo with David Salle. With the likes of Jeff Koons, it turned into a brain transplant. Not only does Koons make supremely winkwink, nudge-nudge works of art, he seems to play, 24-7, a HAL 9000–voiced sitcom character named “Jeff Koons” who makes deadpan art just like Jeff Koons’s. Today, in galleries from Williamsburg to LA’s Chinatown, and in MFA programs from Yale to UCLA, irony has seeped so thoroughly into the pores of young artists that they don’t even know anymore (or if they know, they don’t care) that it’s irony. Irony has mutated in current art into qualities that seem, deceptively, unironic. To take a few artists who appeared in last year’s Whitney Biennial: Banks Violette nudges irony toward eulogy; Jim Hodges makes it into something almost meditative; Kim Fisher uses it to channel Malevich; and Amy Cutler lends it a folk-feminist ingenuousness.

Pervasive, shape-shifting irony set loose in the art world hasn’t altered art’s timeless ratio of 10 percent good art to 90 percent crap. And I don’t mean to sound like those weary, even bitter critics who wonder aloud Where It All Went Wrong. (Naysaying critics often forget how they’ve been conditioned to the more commodious art of bygone days—i.e., “educated”—by glossy textbooks and bowdlerized university lectures.) But there is some truth to the thesis that contemporary art has fallen into a rabbit hole of, well, non-artness. In other words, any “crisis” in criticism may have something to do with—surprise!—a perceived crisis in art.

It’s this thought that brings me to Donald Kuspit, a prolific and heavyweight critic—and among our most prominent messengers of doom. In The End of Art (Cambridge University Press, 2004), he compares the well-known Duchampian put-down of “retinal art,” as the sly old Dadaist called it, with Barnett Newman’s nominally proaesthetic program. Though there is not much new in Kuspit’s dismissive psychoanalyzing of Duchamp’s motives for demonstrating that the effort to keep beauty alive in avant-garde modernism was fatally pitted with paradoxes, there is a revelation (at least to me) in Kuspit’s showing how Newman’s metaphysical aesthetic has been equally detrimental to beauty in contemporary art. If Duchamp said, in effect, that beauty is an unattainable pot of gold at the end of an ever-moving rainbow, Newman elevated beauty into The Word—as in, “In the beginning was The Word.” For Newman, beauty is a pre-big-bang godhead as unreachable in an icy past as Duchamp’s is in a quicksilver future. For Duchamp, artists laboring with aesthetics are hallucinating; for Newman, they’re gilding an already perfect lily.

Given that art has thus been chased away from deeper aesthetics—Kuspit contends—contemporary artists have sought refuge in the fashion, glitz, buzz, and spin that propel contemporary popular culture. To Kuspit, the consequences are both obvious and dire:

Contemporary culture must satisfy mass taste, which means that its form must not be too complex and its meaning must be transparent. It must bring us together in the crowd rather than help us become individuals, which may alienate us from one another. This is why mass taste, and the money, media, and entertainment that cater to it, has an entropic effect on culture.

It’s no surprise that “postmodern artists are caricatures of artists,” Kuspit goes on to say. “Disillusioned about art, they still have illusions about themselves—about what art can do for them (not what they can do for art), namely, make them rich and famous, or at least newsworthy if not exactly noteworthy.” And out of his discontent, Kuspit comes up with an idea encapsulated in a term that, for me, is the best gloss on the whole current situation: the “postartist.”

The majority of art promulgated by serious galleries and contemporary museums in major cities no longer has much to do with aesthetics. Contemporary art has abandoned its function as the visual wing of the house of poetry and morphed into a fecklessly “transgressive” subdivision of the entertainment industry. It’s now commercial pop culture writ esoteric, whiny and small. What Hughes long ago labeled “the shock of the new” quickly became “the academy of the new” (literally, in MFA programs), which has in turn updated itself into “the industry of the new.” At the same time, artists have cunningly made themselves critic-proof. A Jeff Koons can answer any accusation of expedience or banality with (via words, body language or publicity photographs) “I intended it.” The same goes for Kuspit’s archvillain, Damien Hirst, who plays dark Rolling Stones to Koons’s sunshiny Beatles, scary Stephen King to Koons’s happy-ending Danielle Steel. And the same goes in spades for younger artists who, schooled by the publicity-gathering agility of Koons and Hirst and their immediate imitators, arrive on the scene even more adroit at rendering art critics—and their criticism—irrelevant.

While possibly draconian, Kuspit’s reaction is understandable. After all, if we indeed live in a “postmodern” era and the canon of “art” has been blasted wide open, if the connective tissue between Manet and Minimalism no longer adheres to artists in the Whitney Biennial, if today’s artists are really that radically different from those of just twenty or thirty years ago, why, then, cling to the fustian terms “art” and “artist”? Stand up on your hind legs, Kuspit tells today’s artists, and accept the fact that the Duchamp-Warhol-Beuys revolution has succeeded and that you’re now “postartists” making “postart.” Quit clinging to the residual glory of something you don’t really believe in.

For the moment at least, I buy into Kuspit’s notion of postart and postartists. Sure, art criticism is probably in a sump hole these days because many critics write hilariously impenetrable gobbledygook, but it certainly seems to be in another, greater bind because contemporary artists have cleverly outflanked it. So it would probably behoove us erstwhile art critics to begin formulating, nurturing, and practicing our new discipline: postcriticism.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.