Feature

Art Without Criticism

Christopher Bedford

X-TRA is a publication with a long-standing commitment to critical thought and to the work of ambitious critics willing to forward and substantiate sometimes-strident judgments of value in visual art. Though I am an art historian by training and employed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I also write a great deal of criticism for publications including Art in America, Tema Celeste, Artforum.com, CAAReviews, The Art Book, The Sculpture Journal, Afterall, and The Burlington Magazine. My hands-on practice as a critic and as an editor of this journal, in conjunction with historiographic work I have undertaken as an art historian has led me to the conclusion that the fundamental ontology of art criticism–if such a thing exists–differs markedly from that of art history, despite the fact that many of the most prominent critics writing today are also tenured academics. Working without the cautious qualifications, voluminous footnotes, and exacting historical consciousness of academic art history, I want to use this editorial as an opportunity to write freely, perhaps frivolously, and certainly idiosyncratically about the nature of art criticism, its value now and its value historically, and to argue for the status of criticism as fundamentally distinct from the practice of art history.

It should come as no surprise that my discussion begins with Clement Greenberg. In a recent review of Caroline Jones’ latest (voluminous) book, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (2006), published recently in this magazine, the astute critic and theorist Lane Relyea notes quite correctly that historians of contemporary art remain fascinated with Greenberg’s legacy, pawing over his every word and often bemoaning the lack of comparably substantive critical thinking today. “So what gives?” Relyea asks. “Why haven’t decades of contemporary art’s academicization (not to mention heaping helping of postmodern critique) succeeded in rendering obsolete this non-tenured journalist-cheerleader of the pre-Microsoft age?”1 To elaborate on this casually phrased but very salient point, we might bear in mind the following specific questions to help focus our discussion. Why in 2006 did Caroline Jones commit a whopping 544 pages to an analytical biography of Clement Greenberg? Why does Greenberg’s name so dominate critical histories of Modern Art in America? What sort of a model does Greenberg represent for today’s critics? If the criteria he employed to judge painting and sculpture are no longer valid, what constitutes his persistent relevance? His method? His rhetoric? His taste? Or something more basic? What is his value? What are we missing? When we mourn the passing of such a critic and the absence of a comparable ethic among today’s practitioners, what motivates our sentiments? Surely not a return to his agenda? So, what has been lost? “What gives?”

In his summation of Jones’ book Eyesight Alone, Relyea suggests that contemporary art historians are compelled to consider Greenberg’s work, even in 2007, because he is our origin myth, our founding father, the figure against which we can gauge our gradual “arc of self becoming.”2 In other words, our continual negation of Greenberg describes the self-sustaining, disciplinary evolution of the burgeoning field that is contemporary art history. But there is more to it than that. Greenberg, after all, is not a benighted academic, but an ambitious, journalistic critic with a scathing disregard for the pontifications and navel gazing of academia. Surely this simple fact is of monumental significance. Greenberg did not practice art history per se; he used his understanding of the conditions of art production in his own historical moment to describe retroactively the infra-logic of art history from the dawn of Modernism to the emergence of the so-called color-field painters. The specifics of this procedure are vital to note since it was Greenberg’s criteria as a critic that determined his view of art history. He did not propose a method, or rely on a theoretical lens to interpret works of art, nor was he interested in the social history of art; rather, he advanced a version of history suggested by his taste in contemporary art, which was itself built on a tight, vaguely Kantian system he enumerated on numerous occasions and in exquisite, crystalline prose to substantiate this position.

Unlike many of today’s most prominent critics, and contrary to popular opinion, Greenberg was not a theorist nor did he rely upon theory to render judgment or to describe the concerns of a work of art. Kant did not tell Greenberg how to look, what to look at, or how to assign value. Rather, Greenberg used Kantian ideas as a device to organize the work he saw in galleries, to define what painting was not, so that he could get closer to what he felt was modernist painting’s essential identity. Looking, for Greenberg, was not mediated by theoretical preconditions as is so often the case–explicitly or implicitly–in today’s criticism. He used Kant as a way to bear down on work he felt advanced the modernist cause–to look more closely at the distinguishing material features of works of art. Greenberg identified the work that matched his criteria simply by looking very closely–principally at painting–and by responding in his published reviews to what he saw. This process of looking and responding eventually allowed him to codify his ideas and publish “position papers” such as “Modernist Painting,” (1960) that generalize his criteria to produce a critical view of the art of his period.

So what of today? Is this Greenbergian model adaptable to our period? Would such a model be useful? Is such a thing viable and if so, is it desirable? As has been noted by other writers including Relyea, James Elkins, Tom Lawson, and Thomas Crow, column space from Artforum to Art in America, from Frieze to Modern Painters is increasingly dominated by established art historians or by young art historians in training, frequently PhD candidates. This is crucial since the way art historians are trained makes them deficient in every important sense as what I will call “frontline critics” and therefore improperly prepared to replicate or even approximate Greenberg’s model. Most fundamentally, art historians are not taught to judge or evaluate works of art, they are taught to parse and examine, to research and contextualize, and in doing so reveal those works anew through their chosen analytical lens, be that Structuralist, post-Structuralist, formalist, feminist, psychoanalytic, or most frequently a heady combination of every applicable method. Election plays a part in art history to be sure–every art historian chooses what he or she will write about–but critical discrimination and estimations of relative effectiveness rarely motivate or anchor art historical writing. The object arrives in the art historian’s hands effectively a readymade, its efficacy–formal or conceptual–already established by critics, by the market, by collectors, and by museums. It is up to the art historian to illuminate the nuances, not to cast a “yea or nay” vote. Obviously art history’s tautology does not call into question the value of the object–its value is presupposed simply by its status as the subject of art historical analysis. A property as qualitative and elusive as taste, for example, does not even enter the equation.

Furthermore, while for Greenberg, rightly or wrongly, the work of an artist lives or dies based on its appearance alone, even the most third rate, pedestrian works of art can be made endlessly engaging in the hands of an adept historian. Additionally, while Greenberg and particularly Michael Fried came of critical age in the company of artists, formulating and recalibrating their positions in tandem and in conversation with the processes of those artists, art historians in training today generally operate at a complete remove from this milieu, rarely if ever going to galleries, infrequently interacting with artists, and often studying works, even three dimensional works of art, in reproduction. Contemporary art as it is understood ontologically by dealers, gallerists, artists, and some contemporary curators is emphatically not the contemporary art of the PhD student specializing in contemporary art or the practicing contemporary art historian–he or she is at least five or ten years off the pace–it is art history after all.

Art historians, even museum curators, spend more time formulating their theses than looking at the objects that anchor those arguments; works of art for most theoretically-inclined contemporary art historians are not generative, they are illustrative. But art, as Greenberg’s work implicitly demonstrates, is not benignly reflective, it is actively productive of theory. Works of art generate theoretical positions of their own that should be allowed to emerge unimpeded by a priori theoretical positions that delimit rather than open out meaning. Greenberg, after-all, did not produce the paintings that organize his now-famous modernist teleology; rather, the art he championed suggested and shaped that teleology and produced the historical phenomenon we now call Greenbergian Modernism. Visual art adheres to and produces a logic entirely its own and it is only through prolonged, unmediated looking that critics can access and begin to illuminate that logic discursively in their own creative practice.

The specific conditions under which art criticism is produced are also significant. Criticism, as distinct from art history, should be an urgent, even nervous “frontline” practice predicated on a close, unmediated encounter with visual phenomena. It should be a practice in which hasty, sometimes rash conclusions are drawn only to be argued against and possibly overturned. Writing to monthly deadlines imposed by the publication schedule of trade magazines is part of the fundamental ontology of criticism–it meets new visual ideas head on in equal terms. Just as artists must work to the date of their next opening, so the critic must think and write quickly to meet his or her deadline. There is a consonance, and equitability in this relation that is productive and urgent and provides a sketchy but informative map of contemporary thought. Quickly wrought critical thought reflects the contemporaneity of contemporary art. Art is made in and for a particular moment, even if that moment is destined to be pawed over and historicized in the decades to come. Criticism should, in its content and its form–indeed in the very conditions of its production–reflect the pace and urgency of contemporary art and offer judgments that respond to and measure in a timely fashion the myriad decisions and value judgments that are the precondition of producing a work of art. The temporal conditions of this ever-evolving discursive field are what most fundamentally differentiate art criticism from art history. Most importantly, criticism should be a real-time discussion between artists and critics–fertile and generative for both in the present, and discursively rich for the historiographers of the future.

So, since taste and systems of value are not fundamental tenets of art history, and since art historians now dominate criticism, how are the vital issues of the present to be identified and jousted over so that the art historians of the future have a sense of what is at stake in our period, or so that we have a sense of what is at stake now, for that matter? At present we return to Greenberg to frame our discussions not simply because he is a founding father, as Relyea suggests, but because he was the most convincing of an extinct generation of critics with sufficient audacity to propose a system of artistic value against which other critics and latterly art historians might react and argue. The dearth of criticality in today’s criticism will only become truly apparent when an art historian fifty years from now undertakes to measure the achievements of this passage in the history of art. In their historiographic trawling that person will find critical writing based on characterization and description, compounded by benign relativism, and garnished with an utter absence of criticality or established, broadly understood criteria. That same historian will also notice art historical texts returning over and over again to the words of Greenberg in order to provide a frame for art made during a period left murky and nebulous by critics who did not engage with art directly–who did not trust art production to guide discourse–but instead talked to each other around the ostensive object of analysis.

The history of modern and contemporary art relies to a considerable degree on contemporaneous criticism–specifically lively polemical criticism–to tell its story. One might even suggest that the careful, studied language of art history, the cautious qualified conjectures, and the thesis-proof-reiteration-of-thesis structure is defined in opposition to the more capricious style native to art criticism. Art criticism is the meat and potatoes of contemporary art history, as vital and revealing as a newly discovered contemporaneous liturgical text to a scholar of medieval painting. The more vigorous and contested the criticism, the more compelling and searching the historical account of that period will be.

Naturally, given this formula, historians seek out writers who propose and maintain radical critical positions, passionately embracing certain artists and rejecting work that does not fit their criteria. Whether the historian agrees or disagrees is not at issue; the more strident and emphatic the position, the more probing and engaging the historical account. Pamela Lee’s Chronophobia: On Art and Time in the 1960s (2004) is a case in point. Exploiting the argumentativeness and intellectual rigor of Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” (1967), Lee uses this essay as the basis for her own analysis of the relationship between time and art production in the 1960s, adroitly incorporating into her text a motley group of thinkers and artists including Bridget Riley, On Kawara, Andy Warhol, Thomas Kuhn, Martin Heidegger, Marshall McLuhan, Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson. As academically trained art historians as opposed to journalistic critics increasingly dominate criticism, however, the drive to judgment has steadily yielded to an insipid, milquetoast brand of descriptive/poetic criticism more concerned with accurate characterization than thoughtful critique. The result of this condition will be–or already is–a lackluster historical record of art made, described and sold, with nothing at stake. Lack of judgment, therefore, impoverishes the historical record.

Most vitally for me as a critic, informed judgment predicated on explicitly stated, clearly enumerated criteria represents the foundation for the most advanced, productive critical discourse. Similarly, those same positions provide practicing artists with ideas against which to push, and with limits to test in their practice. Though strongly held positions may appear arrogant, dogmatic and single-minded, to adopt and substantiate a critical attitude is in fact the most humble of gestures since such positions pre-suppose their own negation, either at the hands of another critic or at the hands of an artist. To be explicit in one’s position is an open invitation to dissenting critical thought, while to hedge one’s bets and simply describe and contextualize may guarantee an inoffensive, safe review, but it is also an impossibly defensive posture that does not provide other artists or writers with anything of substance to respond against. Brave, fiery critical thought is nothing less than the lifeblood of discourse. It feeds the practice of fellow critics prompting more adventurous thought; it lends vital texture to the historical record and encourages more nuanced, insightful historical accounts; and lastly, and most vitally, it can drive the creation of challenging visual art that in turn demands new criteria and criticism. It may be true that Greenberg is the founding father of contemporary art history, but it is important to remember that that nascent voice belonged not to an art historian but to a critic. If we are to recapture the spirit (if not the terms) of Greenbergian criticism, critics must start thinking and working as critics again, even if they have been trained not to.

Greenberg’s value is not constituted through his willingness to offer brazen value judgments. His value lies in the fact that he offered those value judgments as reflections of sweeping, carefully enumerated critical criteria that he used to organize the world of contemporary art and argue for the work he found most challenging and relevant. Whether we agree or disagree with him is self-evidently not the point. The point quite simply is that his taste was predicated on a well-organized, well-argued, and clearly explicated system of value against which critics and artists could and did react. Constructive dissent is the key to lively discourse and well-argued positions are the necessary precondition for such a discussion.

What we need today is not harsh, unqualified judgment, since there are numerous critics more than willing to provide just that. What we need are tenacious public intellectuals in the mold of Greenberg willing to generate systems of thought that organize and codify the discourse of contemporary art, identifying central questions and inviting–or inciting as the case may be–further discussion. If a group of modern critics do not emerge with sets of criteria against which we might measure the sundry achievements of our era, in fifty years time we may find ourselves in the discouraging position of circling back to Greenberg yet again in an effort to come to terms with an era–our era–of art without criticism.

The art world is much bigger and vastly more complex and varied today than during the 1950s and 1960s when Greenberg and Fried were most active and influential. No single medium-specific criteria could possibly account for or speak to the sundry practices of the many artists working in the United States, let alone those from the world over represented on the biennial circuit. Furthermore, no single agenda can hope to generate a vital discourse in isolation. Though, as I have argued here, polemical agendas do presuppose their own negation, that animated cycle of negation and assertion, obsolescence and renewal is completely contingent upon the willingness of critics to engage with the ideas of other critics and to have the courage to formulate and forward their own dissenting positions. The art world is far larger than during the middle decades of the 20th century, but the forums for the discussion are abundant and more far more accessible. So while the art world expands, so too does the industry of criticism. Ours is a multifarious, de-centered world to be sure, but by developing a discursive field of shared and contested terms we can ensure that de-centered does not become synonymous with disconnected.

Christopher Bedford is an art historian, curator and critic based in Los Angeles. He is a PhD candidate in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Footnotes

  1. Lane Relyea, “Clem Everlasting,” X-TRA, Volume 9, Number 4 (Summer 2007), p. 13.
  2. Ibid.
Further Reading