Saturday, October 03, 2015

Death of a Critic

This passage from his last review   exemplifies what set  Michael  Weinstein apart  from most of his colleagues at New City:

"The work is one of profound visual poetry that intensely personalizes one of the great themes of existence."

I doubt this photograph would affect me the same way. (the self dramatization in the reproduction feels stiff and frivolous). But the reviewer hazards to speak authoritatively about  "one of the great themes of existence".  He's not just writing about art.

His review of the Paul D'Amato exhibit at the  DePaul Art Museum was his most significant contribution over the ten years that I followed him.  Contradicting gallery signage, he confronted the politically correct "Black-is-beautiful" genre of photography.  That drew the ire of many concerned parties, producing the best online debate about a Chicago artist that I have ever read

So I appreciated the many eulogies and especially how his passing lead right into the art editor's discussion of the "death of art criticism".

 “In the last three or four decades, critics have begun to avoid judgments altogether, preferring to describe or evoke the art rather than say what they think of it.”  As an art critic who is also an editor, I admit that this descriptive mode is the most common and the most dangerous pitfall I encounter in my own writing and in the writing of the critics with whom I work.(Elliot Reichert)

Yes!  Even if the language, focus, and subjects of description are the consequence of prior judgments, it's the rare critic who owns and proclaims them.  Though, I would not call it a "pitfall".  It's more like an unwillingness  to climb the mountain of understanding to get a higher view. And I question whether those who exclusively apply the "descriptive mode" could offer a good discussion of judgment even if they wanted to.

Perhaps judgment is shunned by an  awareness of self limitation and the challenges faced by the artists being judged.  But time and money are not limitless. Everyone has to judge where to spend them. Some  kind of  art criticism is the unavoidable result.

In part, this move from judgment toward evocative description is predicated on larger shifts in the intellectual and political economies in which art has come to circulate in our time. Once the arbiter of good taste, the critic’s claim to expertise has been hastily discredited in the frantic rush to dismantle the hierarchies of power that became broadly perceived as the defensive barriers of art’s elitism. Criticism, a voice that was once conceived of as an independent mediator between public spheres and avant-garde cultures, is increasingly regarded as a quasi-contracted tool of the institutions and markets that exercise real power. (Elliot Reichert)

The need to arbitrate good taste disappeared with aristocratic culture, while avant-garde culture has been institutionalized within a global educational system.  It has been so successful at eliminating any kind of standard or expectation, it has rendered itself obsolete except for the inexperienced. Dada is now a hundred years old, though it is still presented as contemporary.

 The institutional theory of art best accounts for the cultural life of our age, and its voice can only be descriptive. Likewise, Science,   the most authoritative voice in the modern age,  basing it's assertions on reason and impersonal evidence,  can only speak of art descriptively.  There is no  credible ground from which market value can be challenged.

As a curator, I have witnessed firsthand how the available “knowledge” around an artwork is ossified in the various institutional apparatuses that craft the language of object labels, wall texts, elevator pitches and press releases. At the institutional level, the meaning of art is increasingly shaped by mechanisms that more closely resemble marketing schemes than scholarship, or even good taste. (Elliot Reichert)

An interesting testimonial.

An autonomous,  non-descriptive art criticism can be based on nothing more than personal  resources  and experiences with life, art, and other critical thinkers in a variety of disciplines. It is too flagrantly subjective to serve either academia or the marketplace. It will  always be inadequate and un-verifiable.

Without arbitration or explication, criticism is nothing more than a one-way conversation among art  lovers. Depending on the critic,  that can be enough.  Though I hardly ever find art criticism that reflects a wealth of experience, and much less that convinces me that something important was at stake. Blair Kamin, the local architecture critic, is a frequent exception.


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