Letter to the Editors

Lynn Zelevansky

To the Editors:

In his editorial “Art Without Criticism” [X-TRA, vol. 10, no. 2], Christopher Bedford posits a crisis in art criticism that he believes results from the many academics in the field. The roles of art historians and critics, he feels, are fundamentally different; art historians “parse” and “examine” while critics “judge” and “evaluate.” Bedford sees continuing interest in the work of modernist critic Clement Greenberg as an indication of what is missing in contemporary art writing. He asks whether Greenberg, a “front-line” critic, unafraid to state his opinions, could be a model for today.

In the interests of full disclosure, Bedford works with me in the department of contemporary art at LACMA, and what follows is part of an ongoing and multivalent discussion.

While I agree that there is a crisis in art criticism, I don’t believe that art historians are the problem, and I have difficulty accepting the autocratic Greenberg as a solution of any kind. Greenberg may not have been an academic but he was no ordinary Joe. He was a public intellectual, the editor of the Partisan Review among other publications. Contrary to what Bedford says, Greenberg was also an arch-theoretician, a committed formalist who spent his life developing notions of the purity and independence of each separate art form, giving shape to the same brand of mainstream modernism that Alfred Barr helped to define and perpetuate. That Greenberg used Kantian ideas to his own ends, rather than slavishly following them, simply indicates that he was an adept, rather than an inept, theoretician, not that he wasn’t one.

You see Greenberg’s influence in the way theory is used by preeminent critics of the generation that followed him, among them Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Yve-Alain Bois. They are all academics, but with close relationships to artists, and none of them shied away from making judgments in the manner Bedford suggests is characteristic of historians. At the Graduate Center of City University of New York, Krauss nurtured another powerful generation of academics/critics, among them Hal Foster, Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp, Tom Lawson, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Their theory-driven rhetoric reflected the concerns of the influential group of artists who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s.

Bedford acknowledges that today’s art world is far larger and more complex than Greenberg’s of the 1950s and ‘60s. As that universe has changed, so has the position of the critic. In the 1950s, figures like Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Thomas Hess wielded enormous influence. In an environment where there were few galleries and even fewer collectors, Greenberg was, by all accounts, a career maker. Today, critics write mostly about artists who have been vetted by galleries. The dealers, and the collectors they serve, travel far and wide to keep abreast of the latest trends, vying for the work of artists in international art fairs and biennials, and in graduate school studios. Most critics do not have the means to attain the perspective that results. The critic still has a significant role to play but the problem may be that we’re dealing with old models. The challenge is to figure out what’s at stake in the art and the criticism it engenders.


Lynn Zelevansky
Terri and Michael Smooke Curator
Department Head of Contemporary Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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