Summer Reading – No one cares about art criticism: advocating for an embodiment of the avant-garde as an alternative to capitalism
Today we continue our Summer Reading series with an essay on art criticism and poetry from our friends at Temporary Art Review. Author Steven Cottingham throws down a challenge: “How can art criticism be so close to art but fail to reflect any of its spirit? […] Maybe there is a future where art criticism is no longer a supplementary, reactionary activity. Maybe it can become revolutionary.” This article was originally published on March 23, 2015.
There’s an increasingly old adage, first invoked by Brion Gysin, stating that innovations in writing are fifty years behind innovations in visual art. But surely innovations in art criticism are a further fifty years behind.
In Parkett 84, Charles Bernstein argues that “art criticism, insofar as it succumbs to a paranoiac fear of theatricality that induces frame-lock, lags behind poetry at its peril.” I am going to argue the same: identifying professionalism—and therefore capitalism—as the key catalysts behind art criticism’s undying crisis.
In a 2008 feature for X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Damon Willick elucidates how art criticism has “seemingly been in crisis for at least the last fifty years.” I could list off a dozen other articles and a couple conferences vaguely articulating the “crisis in criticism,” (I’m sure you’ve seen them lurking out there) but I’d rather offer something else. Willick says that “today’s discontents have idealized [Clement] Greenberg and critics of his era as the antithesis of the noncommittal, jargon-laden art historians/critics they believe have guided art criticism to its current state.” But even the preeminent critic Greenberg himself opined that “contemporary art criticism is absurd not only because of its rhetoric, its language, and its solecisms of logic. It is also absurd because of its repetitiousness.” That was in 1962.
Art criticism, once practiced almost solely by poets, now has very little in common with contemporary poetry. Leaving the flamboyant realms of Guillaume Apollinaire, Frank O’Hara, and other dead white men, art criticism became stolid, academic, and serious. But I was reading about how William S. Burroughs looked to painting to “revive” his writing. Inspired by the likes of Hannah Höch and Nancy Spero, he borrowed techniques of collage, cut-up, and chance, and applied them to the written word. Poet and criminal defence attorney Vanessa Place draws from long-standing traditions in conceptual art when she moves words from courtroom transcripts, unaltered, to her books of poetry. Once, she tweeted, “Poetry is now fifteen minutes ahead of art.” I retweeted her. These conceptual techniques are increasingly interdisciplinary, en route to fully being embraced by a broader mass culture. Yet art criticism lags on, both the subjects and styles of its reviews as isolated and protected as an artwork in a white cube. All of it, ignoring so much.