The Myth of Criticism in the 1980s

Howard Singerman
<em>“Pictures” at an Exhibition</em>, Installation view, Artists Space, 2001.

“Pictures” at an Exhibition, Installation view, Artists Space, 2001. (Re-hanging of original Pictures exhibition.) Pictured: Philip Smith.

A year ago Amelia Jones graciously invited me to write about the 1980s for a book she was editing for Blackwell on art since 1945. Her proposal asked me to address “the mainstreaming of feminism, queer theory/practice and ‘multiculturalism’ and the rise of appropriation art and Brechtian strategies,” and to “attend” as well “to the burgeoning of the art market under the Reagan/Thatcher regimes and the commodifying effects of this mushrooming of art institutions and funding sources.” Or rather, it was simply assumed that I would address those topics, that those topics were necessary to a reading of the 1980s. I was, for the most part, responsible to her brief. While it was my sense that the mainstreaming of queer theory and the emergence of “multiculturalism” came late in the decade and began to matter only in the early 1990s, and I am still not sure what to make of the politics or the judgment embedded in the word “mainstreaming,” I tended to see and to fashion my 1980s in much the same serious and critical language as my marching orders: I assumed a conjunction of theory and practice-and a politics-around strategies such as appropriation, and I had no trouble with mistrusting commodification and the market. Yet the very presence of this essay-the one you are reading-suggests that I had other kinds of trouble. This essay is about things mistaken for history. At various points in its pages, I try to figure out how that happens: how and why-and for how long-1980s art criticism has been taken for history. I take it for history twice over, as both period criticism (and hence entailed by its objects, part of their discourse, as it was said) and as a history of those objects. At the same time, since I have a stake in it, I want to ask what it means to take a recent spate of artists’ recollections as setting that history straight, as being a truer and more central history than mine.

My essay opened with a line-something of a gambit-from Sylvère Lotringer’s contribution to the second of Artforum’s special issues on the 1980s, published in 2003: according to Lotringer, what we think of as “the ’80s began in 1983, with the publication of John Baudrillard’s Simulations.” Simulations is his starting point not just because his journal, Semiotext(e), was its publisher, but also because such trademark Baudrillardian phrases as “the ‘precession of the simulacra’ and ‘the desert of the real’ perfectly described the new landscape: The mirage preceded the image.”1 I countered with a long and pretty close reading of Douglas Crimp’s Pictures exhibition as a way to push the start date earlier, to 1977, and laid out Crimp’s argument with Michael Fried’s modernism as it appeared in the version of the “Pictures” essay that appeared in October in 1979. I pursued his argument against painting’s triumphal return and, in subsequent pages, turned to Craig Owens’s opening out to feminism as it was theorized in the crossing of Foucault and Lacan in the British journal Screen. I did acknowledge something like the mainstreaming, or at least the institutionalization, of feminist practice by the end of the decade, in Barbara Kruger’s arrival at Mary Boone and, differently, in Mary Kelly’s remark to Hal Foster that the “psychic consequence of the historical existence of the women’s movement [is] the word of the ‘other’ internalized in the place of the Law and the father. She sees you seeing.”2 The essay ends as it began, with Baudrillard, as he was both invoked by the artists assembled at the rather infamous 1986 roundtable “From Criticism to Complicity,” sponsored by Flash Art, and seemed to offer a perfect description of their predicament, of a moment in which “the commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as sign value, and where signs (culture) are produced as commodities.”3

While, as I say, the essay is only recently finished, it probably sounds very familiar; some of you must have read this in one way or another before. At the very least, you should recognize my citations: Baudrillard’s Simulations, Crimp’s 1979 Pictures essay, Owens’s “The Discourse of Others” or Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” These essays and a number of others by the same authors, essays that take on Michael Fried’s modernism or that take the politics of representation or the theorization of postmodernism as their subjects, have all have been collected in one way or another since the mid 1980s, alongside similarly themed essays by Rosalind Krauss or Hal Foster-and they have, no doubt, all been assigned at one point or another by most of X-TRA’s editors, and to most of its readers. Indeed, one problem that emerged with a vengeance from the special issues Artforum devoted to the 1980s last year-one I should have taken into account as I was writing-was that that criticism in its seeming ubiquitousness and those critics in particular have made seeing a different history of the 1980s nearly impossible. “I first encountered the art criticism of the ’80s around 1996, which made me a bit late to the party,” wrote Scott Rothkopf in the first of the Artforum ’80s issues. “By that time the party had moved to university seminar tables across the country and been neatly parsed for the syllabi….We swallowed whole an official ‘history’ of ‘the ’80s’ that wasn’t actually a history at all, but rather a selective corpus of mostly primary criticism canonized in anthologies.”4

Rothkopf’s problem is not only with the ubiquity of the theoretically driven criticism of Crimp and Owens et al, but also with its language and its power-precisely with that conjunction-and with where and how it appears. The classroom has long been a suspect place for those who believe in a living art or, lacking that, an active art world, and Rothkopf’s situating of that writing in the university-in the classroom and on the syllabus-does a certain kind of rhetorical work. Whatever his intention, setting criticism on the seminar table works to discredit or, at the very least, to defuse it. Rothkopf’s complaint that Octobrist criticism “wasn’t actually a history at all,” though, is worth heeding, since it acknowledges the power of the historical effects embedded in that critical language, effects which do point in certain ways to the classroom. In hindsight it’s not hard to see why it was taken as history, why it still is. The advent of an art criticism written by art historians and in the discipline’s form is fairly recent-it dates maybe to the 1960s-and one could argue, based on Rothkopf’s comment, that this criticism in particular has ended up in those classrooms because it emerged from them. It speaks their language, as Sande Cohen says, in an argument I will return to further on, “to historicize is to academicize.” In its appeal to such temporal markers as “postmodernism” or “late capitalism,” or even to such locutions as “critical” or “advanced” art, criticism at once plots and assumes a narrative trajectory for art and history, and thus, a set of purposes and necessities and impossibilities. It demands that we think and judge its subjects historically. “‘Historical thought,'” writes Cohen, “is a way of establishing the power of what is believed to be irreducibly social…. We have to say that past ‘victims’ nonetheless ‘resisted’; we have to say that a better future is possible; we have to say that we are not socially extraneous, but necessary agents of larger processes.”5

Rothkopf’s story of his critical missed encounter is the opening line of an essay, a series of “critical vignettes” entitled “Other Voices,” that is his attempt to hear something other than the “trenchant observations of writers associated with October and their like-minded colleagues.” While his introduction pays homage to those writers and it names the artists they are most closely associated with-Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer-he never mentions their names, names I imagine to be from the masthead of October-Crimp, Owens, Krauss, and later Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, but that might include others anthologized along with them in Brian Wallis’s Art after Modernism, Kate Linker, perhaps, or Rosalyn Deutsche, Mary Kelly or Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Perhaps critics go without saying, or maybe they are, like Lord Voldemort, so powerful that they must not be named. Rothkopf’s omission of critics’ names is repeated in a way, or covered for, by the names he gives his vignettes: “The Diarist” (on Robert Pincus-Witten), “The Painter” (on Tom Lawson), “The Poets” (on the Edit DeAk and Rene Ricard). It seems that Lawson, DeAk, and the others are interesting to him precisely insofar as they are not critics; they have earned their priority and their passage because they have other, realer identities. (Here let me note parenthetically one identity they share: they all wrote primarily for Artforum in the 1980s, while the critics Rothkopf doesn’t name for the most part did not. Artforum’s recent investment in revising the 1980s is at least curious insofar as they were not, as I remember it, the decade’s journal of record; that title might go to Art in America, where Owens and Foster were associate editors early on, or to Flash Art which made the most stylistically of the cult of theory.) The issue does have an essay on one of October’s critics, but James Meyers’s remembrance of Craig Owens might suggest a somewhat overdetermined link between criticism and death-or even that the only good, that is heroic, critic is a dead one.

Rothkopf didn’t so much write against ’80s criticism and the conjunction of theory and institutional politics, art world and otherwise, as around it; it was both obvious-we all know what, or rather who, he meant-and in the end unexamined, merely assumed. There were, however, a couple of voices that spoke far more directly to the subject. For Richard Prince and Ashley Bickerton a theory-driven criticism was not only not central to the development of art in the decade, but in some sense it was never quite there to begin with. “I carried around Foucault’s Power/Knowledge for years, and I did skim it,” recounts Bickerton. “Certain ideas were just in the air. We had access to them via osmosis. But I remember Sherrie Levine telling me, ‘Whatever Douglas Crimp was saying, I couldn’t understand a word of it. But it seemed to work.'”6 Prince’s historical recollection is even harsher (but according to a set of letters to the editor Crimp and Levine published in the Summer issue, just as factually suspect): “I’ve never said this before, but Doug Crimp actually asked me to be in that show. I read his essay and I told him it was for shit….I don’t know who really ever read that essay. Those shows and essays are for other critics.”7 Perhaps because of how influential “Pictures” has been and how quickly it became an emblem of the decade, Crimp is singled out as a target, and not only in the pages of Artforum. In another recent reexamination of the decade, Richard Hertz’s Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, a collection of Goldstein’s taped reminiscences, stories and opinions, recorded just before his death, interspersed with recollections by a number of artists who were close to him at various places and stages in his career, Crimp-one the few critics mentioned at all-is portrayed as a visitor, at once opportunist and slow; “Pictures” is not prescient but come-lately. “Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens,” recalls Goldstein, “slowly came around to what the CalArts crowd was doing. They formed their careers around our work…. At first Doug would hardly even speak to me. On different occasions I showed him a number of my films, but it took a long time before he understood what I was talking about.”8

The comments of Prince, Bickerton, and Goldstein are part of, and maybe more than, the latest moves in the backlash against theory, the general redirection that began in the 1990s to unseat the dour hegemony of the critic in the name of beauty or freedom or art. The return of the real that for Foster announced the end of the 1980s was part of that backlash, insofar as the embrace of an identity-driven politics was a rejection of the more radically deconstructive, language-driven theory that emerged in the early part of the decade; but so too was the reaction against those politics as they appeared, say, in the infamous 1993 “identity” Whitney Biennial. Those who fought for art and beauty in the ’90s tended to lump theoretical criticism and left politics together in their calls for a return to order. But while Hickey et al lobbied for a return from the theoretical wilderness, the implication of Prince’s or Bickerton’s statements is that there was no such wilderness, that criticism was never there to begin with-that its hold over the art of the 1980s in the pages of Art after Modernism or The Anti-Aesthetic or on myriad college and art school syllabi, if it has one, is the power of fiction.

Given all that, it’s probably incumbent on me to explain why, when called on to address the art of the 1980s, I turned, as though without thinking, to Baudrillard, and worse, to Crimp and Owens. The simplest thing to say is that the version of the ’80s Prince and Bickerton remember doesn’t match mine…though that’s hardly a surprise. In my ’80s, thinking that works of art situated themselves in relation to other works and addressed something about the conditions and possibilities of art, and talking about art in relation to questions of language, subjectivity, and power, seemed important not only to a small group of critics, but also to a much larger group of artists. I think the people I hung out with took art seriously; they assumed that there was something that could be said about it in relation to something else, something other than gallery representation, auction prices, and real estate. I imagine everyone has this romance, though, and I don’t want to rely on personal recollection for reasons that I hope to make clear. I don’t want to argue that the truth of the ’80s is probably somewhere in between. What I want to do instead is to suggest that there are stakes now in arguing the wrong headedness of October criticism or Baudrillardian theorizing, just as I think there is something at stake in insisting that such thinking and writing did matter.

<em>Artforum</em>, vol. 41, no. 8, April 2003.

Artforum, vol. 41, no. 8, April 2003.

Still, the ’80s essay I wrote for Blackwell didn’t argue for the centrality of criticism: it simply assumed it. I assumed criticism not only as a referent or stand-in for the content of certain works of art-representation, the image, the double, the “death of the author” after Roland Barthes, and so on-but also, and more stealthily, as a way of delimiting the field, starting with it already named and mapped. That is, and here I give aid to arguments like Rothkopf’s, I used Crimp to define the art world and its issues for me. I didn’t survey the art world in its fullness-the hundred or so New York galleries that exhibited avowedly contemporary art in the 1980s, much less the hundreds more worldwide-or touch on even a tiny part of the diverse practices that the word “pluralism” was used to describe by the late 1970s, the sort of work that Crimp rails against at the end of “Pictures.” Rather, I relied on “Pictures” to circumscribe the 1980s-from 1977 to 1987 in my conceit-and to describe its thrust and its issues. I used Crimp, then, as something of a native informant, to borrow a concept from anthropology: he has made sense of the moment for me, from the inside, or, more accurately, from a position situated between it and the future place I read him from. A different way to say this is that his criticism has done the work of “primary historicization,” Sande Cohen’s term for the process by which “interpretations ‘themselves’ … become ‘facts on the ground.'”9 Crimp, like most critics-like me most of the time-links the art he sees and the community he forges, or is part of, to history, to the machinery or direction of history, and to its rhetorical figures. As Cohen puts it, “the language on art” works “to historicize or make contemporary art ‘historically significant.'” That is how Crimp’s appeal to the revolutionary tradition of modernism in the first of his “Pictures” essays and to the breach of postmodernism in the second essay function: they work to make these products “historical” in the large sense, to make them meaningful and necessary in relation to a history that is already in train, rather than arbitrary or meaningless, or as moderns were fond of saying, merely subjective. It is here that the kind of confusion between criticism and history that Rothkopf noted is inscribed in the criticism itself, not simply in its having been anthologized: the historical (the being-historical, historically necessary or aware) is the site of judgment.

<em>Artforum</em>, vol. 41, no. 7, March 2003.

Artforum, vol. 41, no. 7, March 2003.

On one hand, history is a very familiar judge, as in: “Will anyone remember this artist 100 years from now?” And familiar, too, is the sense of historical necessity, the work impelled by history: modernism is the assumption that a work of art is historically cast, at once molded and thrown. As the Futurists said, “We stand on the last promontory of the centuries.”10 Criticism in the 1980s assumed the historical necessity of the work, but without the moment, the intensified present that an avant-garde modernism hoped to open up. The historicism of contemporary criticism constructs a past that has always already determined that a future will be produced, and stakes its claim thereby on both the past (in its blindness or failure) and on the future (in the sense that it must be done), a construction that at once enchains and elides the present. In this criticism, the task of advanced art-and of the critic-is to acknowledge the present as historical, and to produce knowledge about the limits and impossibilities of the present: what cannot be done, be painted, be escaped. The important or necessary work makes itself so by grasping the present historically, by illustrating and making clear its historicity; this knowledge is what is meant by “critique,” a position in relation to something else understood as less historically aware, less knowledgeable, blind. Or as Hal Foster put it, precisely around the question of the relation of art and politics in the present: “Historical specificity, cultural positioning is all.”11

Since, in this scenario, art and criticism are involved in the same knowledge project-one of making art always already historical-sometimes criticism can indeed get out in front. Which is how I take Craig Owens’s turn to Luk.cs, and his exasperation, very early on. By 1981, his frustration with the artists he had championed was clear: they had not moved quickly enough, had not acknowledged enough or situated their practice completely enough. “Criticism in itself,” he quotes Luk.cs, “has just as valid a place in the division of labor of our proletarian revolutionary movement as does creative writing with its special allotted tasks…. In no way can it rest content with simply following critically in the wake of our writers; it must seek-with the aid of our whole inheritance-to comprehend the necessary developmental tendencies of the epoch, independently, if need be, and struggle for their realization, when necessary even against the present practice of the writers themselves.” If one takes Luk.cs seriously, concluded Owens, “Criticism inherits a specific obligation: to unmask the residues of idealist philosophy that persist in even the most politically conscious works of art.”12

With my quotes from Cohen, Luk.cs, and Owens, this has gotten somewhat thicker than it needed to, and my discussion, I must admit, has only strengthened the case of those who have taken primary criticism for art history, and then tried to tell other histories instead of it, who have worked for other voices. Indeed what I have just spent the last paragraphs arguing is laid out in simpler and easier to follow terms by Rosetta Brooks, in her introduction to Hertz’s Jack Goldstein and the Cal Arts Mafia.

Most histories are stories, narratives told from a given perspective, using information selectively….[Such] selections, omissions, and deliberate distortions of interpretations have left us with a ‘grand narrative,’ one in which art criticism and critics have been complicit. The critical process is intimately concerned with making links (sometimes forcing them) between styles of expression and cultural concepts, establishing patterns of thought and processes in an attempt to make some kind of narrative out of art that, in turn, becomes our official history. (pp. 5-6)

Particularly, as Scott Rothkopf complained, as it has been anthologized and packaged. What Brooks asks for instead of an official history is a local one, something like what Hertz’s book offers: recollections about Goldstein by a number of artists and, indeed, a couple of critics-Brooks and Jean Fisher-interspersed with his own commentary. The format fits “how we experience our lives,” Brooks writes, “the personal and interpersonal experiences of the world we inhabit in our day-to-day lives.” (p. 11) This seems an odd claim to make on behalf of a “Pictures” artist, a curious way to understand a way of working that, at least in criticism (and that, of course, is the rub), insisted that our experiences of the world were mediated through a skein of repetitions and representations. Brooks wants a history that is closely attuned, finely figured-and figured against criticism-but the form at least of the Goldstein book turns out to be very familiar; its plot and its ending are borrowed from VH1 and imbued with a particularly mythic structure.

<em>“Pictures” at an Exhibition</em>, Installation view, Artists Space, 2001.

“Pictures” at an Exhibition, Installation view, Artists Space, 2001. Pictured: Jack Goldstein.

Goldstein was one of the most critically successful artists of the first half of the 1980s, but, as VH1 might put it, styles change, and by 1993 he had dropped out of the art world and was living in a trailer in East LA, supporting a drug habit and making what money he could delivering take-out food and newspapers and driving an ice cream truck. He was rediscovered in 2001, a full-fledged heroin addict, living in a dilapidated mobile home in the exurbs of San Bernardino. Goldstein’s films from the late ’70s were shown at the Whitney in 2001, and an image from one of them made the cover of Artforum that October, in relation to a set of articles revisiting the “Pictures” exhibition. He went back to New York for the Whitney screening, and later appeared at USC and CalArts as a visiting speaker. Goldstein’s situation didn’t change, however; he never moved out of the trailer in San Bernardino, and, clearly, his relation to the art world and to his own past was a difficult one. He began tape-recording his memoirs in January 2001 and, as Hertz dramatically recounts, “We finalized the contents, images, and layout on March 3, 2003. On March 14, 2003 Jack took his life by hanging himself at his home in San Bernardino, California” (p. 4).

Book cover: <em>Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia</em>, Richard Hertz, ed.

Book cover: Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, Richard Hertz, ed., (Ojai, California: Minneola Press, 2003).


Hertz’s Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia wants, quite sincerely, I think, to give the artist priority, the right of first history: “This is art history before it has been sanitized, censored, and idealized.” (p. 3) And as I’ve been arguing throughout, it is not alone in “righting” or rewriting the relationship of artist and critic. Since the second half of the 1990s artists’ stories have been a regular feature in the pages of Artforum, in its 2001 series on artists’ “First Breaks,” for example, or in the ongoing “A Thousand Words,” where the critic in the role of language-worker or publicist recasts the artist’s words as prose-which is not exactly “artists’ writings” in the old Robert Smithson sense, nor is it criticism. The role of the critic in pieces like those and, indeed, in the Goldstein book, is clearly a supporting one: The critic is a presenter or MC, a name mentioned when a show is being recalled or a review is cited in relation to the artist’s career. There is very little discussion by any of the artists interviewed for the CalArts Mafia, or by Goldstein himself, of the discursive embedding of works of art, of how or what they might mean, or even what Goldstein and the people who knew him talked about together. The critic’s role, such as it is in these recollections, is to smooth the artist’s way along a simple narrative trajectory toward recognition, fame, and, necessarily it seems, death. To make clear what I’m saying here: Taken together these vignettes assume the form of myth, those age-old stories of the hero whose passage across the landscape is smoothed or blocked-helped or hindered as literary theorists might put it-by whatever specifics are added to a form that is remarkably and insistently generic.

“Whose story is it anyway?” asks Brooks, as she calls for something “richer, more powerful, and ultimately more enduring than the neutered texts that would have placed Jack Goldstein and his art in a seemingly objective box in which it can now no longer be placed.” (p. 15) Besides wanting to ask whether objectivity might not be a good idea, and precisely the promise that a work of art might escape its solipsism, might be able to speak critically or historically or, indeed, at all, I would note that “richer, more powerful, and …more enduring” is not only mythic language, they are terms that describe the power of myth, its refusal to disappear, its insistent repetitiveness. Here is a story, a vignette from Jack Goldstein and the Cal Arts Mafia that could be true-in the sense that it might have actually happened-but that is clearly mythic in the way it is recounted, in the way it is made to mean, and, most importantly, in the fact that it is recounted twice: once by John Baldessari in his recollections, and again in the book’s conclusion by Meg Cranston.

“I remember having lunch with Jack and Natalie Bieser at Villa Cabrini,” begins Baldessari’s account. “Natalie said, Jack, I bet you would do anything to be a successful artist, even cut off your arms. Jack said, Yes, I would. I always remember that. Jack didn’t crack a smile. I said to myself, There is one dedicated artist.” (p. 65) When Cranston retells it, she recounts it as a Baldessari story. Natalie Bieser’s name is left out, and the cost of being a successful artist is reduced from two arms to one, from the plural to the singular. But otherwise both the details and the moral she has Baldessari draw are the same: “I had never heard such a dramatic declaration of mission.” (p. 205) Baldessari’s moral, that Goldstein’s imaginary sacrifice constitutes dedication and mission, seems a fairly protestant spin; his amputation implies labor and suffering. But there is another way of reading the missing arms, not as commitment or struggle, but as a bargain, a particularly Faustian one, with Baldessari as Mephistopheles. The artist’s trade with the devil is an old story, an oft-repeated legend, however real it may be, or-to use a term from the art historian Ernst Kris, who first theorized the mythic repetitions of artists’ stories in his Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist-however “enacted.” There are, Kris says of modern artists, “figures who live only for diary or obituary, whose sole purpose in life seems to be one day to become themselves biographical models.”13

“Success” is a curious word in Baldessari’s story: What does “success” have to do with dedication and mission; how does it fit with that other great artist’s story, the artist who follows his or her own vision against insurmountable odds? What constitutes success? One can pull from Goldstein’s recorded commentary that it is not money, or rather it is not only money, since there are other kinds of capital as well: “Boone represented big dollars,” he remarks disdainfully, “-cherries dipped in chocolate and champagne-while Metro represented integrity and hard work and whatever you sell is how much money you make.” (p. 101) Talking about his days in LA before CalArts, Goldstein is scathing about the most “successful” members of an earlier generation of southern California artists, Chuck Arnoldi and Laddie John Dill. They “wanted to be important artists. They became more like decorators, but that was not their intention.” (p. 20) If success is not quite money or merely popularity or the ability to make work people want to buy, it is also not or not quite talent or personal vision either-“At a certain point, talent is cheap,” says Baldessari. “In order to succeed you have to have sheer obsession.” (p. 66) But as both he and Goldstein make clear, sheer obsession is not the same as an obsessional art, an image or an art you have to make no matter what. For them obsession is formed in relation to others, in relation to success. “In a class John was teaching,” Goldstein recounts, “I remember showing slides of my sculpture; I looked over at John and I realized he was not impressed…. I figured if he wasn’t impressed then there was nothing to be impressed by…. I didn’t get the nod from him…so I dropped that work.” (pp. 53-55)

What does that say about the meaning of a work, or about the formation of an artist? Goldstein’s honesty here is refreshing: One is, quite simply, an artist for another. His discussion of Bill Leavitt in this regard is quite interesting. One of the first artists shown by Metro Pictures, Leavitt was “a real comer and then he backed off. I don’t know if it was because he had too much integrity; I can’t put my finger on what the problem was.” (p. 23) “Too many artists end up backing off.” (p. 199) What is the relation here between success and integrity, and is it the same as it was in the difference Goldstein drew with those same terms between Boone and Metro Pictures discussed above? “Years ago he told me that art making is a process, something unfolding in time…. I see art as something you put on the firing line or you don’t do it at all…. [O]ne reason his work never comes up at auction is because he doesn’t make monumental work…he should be making big pieces which say, Come and get me, come and fuck me-or something.” (pp. 199-200)

In each of Goldstein’s comments on Leavitt, each of his discussions of success, what becomes clear is that success is about recognition in a fully philosophical, indeed Hegelian sense: It is aggressive and alienating. Goldstein ends his discussion of Leavitt with an acknowledgment of competition: “To me making art is about being competitive. If it is not about being competitive, I don’t know why you would want to make art…. You want to make it to the top.” (p. 199) Or, more simply, “If you’re not on top of the pile, there’s no reason for doing it at all.” (p. 53) This might just be Goldstein’s paranoia, but Baldessari suggests much the same thing. “Where they came from, they were all the best; but when they got to CalArts, they were on the bottom of the heap. So they had to fight and claw their way to the top again. It was like gladiators.” (p. 66)

The success that Goldstein sold his arms for is, in its simplest form, the acknowledgment by other artists that you are an artist-and more, that you are the artist, and (therefore) that I am nothing. But that acknowledgement is mediated through the market-not simply through money but through the market’s recognition of you, of your work or your name as the future. That’s why Goldstein brings up the auction market: What it measures isn’t how much money you have currently, but rather what the future value of your past is, and whether you yourself continue to underwrite that past-whether you continue to fill your “name.” (And that, perhaps, is not unlike how history works in recent criticism, in the demand that works of art know their place and, in so doing, position other works.) The struggle is to not be merely one name among others, replaceable or substitutable. What Goldstein wants, is to be singular, complete and only-“given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals,” as Clement Greenberg once described the goal of modernist painting.14 What that requires is the recognition of others; the recognition, philosophically one could say, of the Other. One could read Goldstein with Hegel who, as it happens uses the same image that Baldessari does-the Gladiator-as he stages the struggle for recognition as a struggle to the death. “The relationship of both self-consciousnesses is thus determined in such a way that they prove the mettle of themselves and the other through a battle to the death…. The individual who has not staked his life can, of course, be recognized as a person; but he has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self consciousness.”15 Losing is tough in Hegel’s scenario, but so too is winning-and autonomy nearly impossible. When the defeated gladiator is taken as a slave, the slave’s dependent consciousness makes his master an object of desire, and requires that the master make himself over in that image, to become a “thing,” an object for another. Objectivity, one might recall, is what Rosetta Brooks wanted to get away from; she wanted to get Goldstein out of the “objective box” he would no longer fit into. But being recognized, being an artist for another is also kind of objectivity. And if it is not an “objective box,” it is at least what Lacan described as the “orthopaedic …armour of an alienating identity,” figured in dreams “by a fortress or a stadium.”16

“Whose story is it anyway?” The answer Rosetta Brooks’s question calls out for is that it is the artist’s story. But the question “whose story” is particularly ambiguous: Is it asking who tells the story, or about whom is it told, or even to whom is told? One could, after all, read the exasperated “anyway” as addressed to her readers; perhaps it is our story. And even if one takes the answer to be the artist, is he or she is the subject of the story, its narrator, or its object? It might be that the story criticism tells is not theft, nor even merely misrepresentation; it might be a different story, or it might at least answer Brooks’s question and the questions that it raises, differently. Criticism, precisely when it is serious, when it takes its object to be cultural or artistic practice, plots itself out as history. Its project is to generalize and situate, and to enclose. The artist’s story in this moment, shaped or perhaps misshapen by that criticism, plots itself out as myth. Its project is to individualize, to make exceptional, which it can do only by repeating the same forms of exceptionality. The critic’s story and the artist’s are not just different and contending stories that can be right or wrong; they are instead stories in different genres. Even if their main characters have the same name-John Baldessari, Jack Goldstein-those names designate different sorts of actors, one constructed by the oeuvre, perhaps, or the field or the demand; the other by the anecdote or the encomium, but both, in a sense, finished by narrative, by the sense of an ending.

Another question, different from Brooks’s and addressed to it, is, “Why does it have to be a story?” Maybe the problem I’ve been working toward in these pages is not that other kinds of writing-criticism, anecdote, myth-have been mistaken for history, misrecognized by Rothkopf or Brooks or me. Maybe the problem is that these writings in fact do the work of history, or rather, of historicizing, of monumentalizing and selecting in the name of what must be done and must be remembered. The threat they pose is not to the historicizing project of indebting the future to the past, but to criticism, an act I would want to situate in the present and on the side of reading, perhaps, rather than writing or remembering. What they displace is a criticism that seems less and less common, a criticism that doesn’t historicize, doesn’t monumentalize or “select for the future,”17 whether in the name of the artist or the name of politics or “knowledge,” or history itself. The questions I would want to ask, in place of Brooks’s single one, would be posed to the work rather than to history or truth; they would go something like: What is it? How does it work? How does it produce autonomy or distance or ambivalence or criticality or historical inscription or any number of other effects as effects? These are old questions, and insofar as they are asked in and of the present, they are structuralist and even formalist ones. They are questions that have occupied much contemporary criticism as the other side, one could say, of its historicism.

I began some pages ago with Douglas Crimp’s “Pictures,” the 1977 exhibition at Artists Space and the 1979 essay in October. The widely anthologized 1979 essay was a significantly rewritten version of an earlier essay, written to accompany the Artists Space exhibition and published as its catalogue. In both of the “Pictures” essays, Crimp attended closely to questions of representation, to the “structure of signification” and the effects of “foreboding, premonition, suspicion, anxiety”-precisely as they are effects, the “conventions of a particular genre.”18 But it was only in the second essay that those questions and effects-and, indeed, those artists-were mustered against modernism and another version of historical necessity. They were only then made historical, selected for the future so as to make other presents inadequate, and other possibilities disappear. By 1979, theirs was a clearer view, a better position, and such “a theoretical understanding of postmodernism will also betray all those attempts to prolong the life of outmoded forms.”19 While I have learned much from both of the essays, and relied heavily on the distinctions and demands of the second, on its sense of urgency and claim, in retrospect, the questions it would have been interesting to hear Goldstein speak to-or better, to hear Crimp and Goldstein talk about together, as they might once have done-are those of the first “Pictures,” rather than the second, which might not be questions at all.

Howard Singerman is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Art Subjects, Making Artists in the American University, published by the University of California Press.



  1. SylvEere Lotringer, “My ’80s: Better than Life,” Artforum 41, no. 8 (April 2003), p. 194.
  2. Mary Kelly, interview with Hal Foster in Interim (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990), p. 58.
  3. Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981), p. 147. Passage in italics in the original.
  4. Scott Rothkopf, “Other Voices: Four Critical Vignettes,” Artforum 41, no. 7 (March 2003), p. 43.
  5. Sande Cohen, Academia and the Luster of Capital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. xxi.
  6. “Ashley Bickerton talks to Steve Lafreniere,” Artforum 41, no. 7 (March 2003), p. 240. Levine published a letter in the Summer 2003 issue of Artforum denying ever having said the words Bickerton recounts; published on the same page, Bickerton’s contrite response explained the work Levine’s purported quote was intended to do: “What she said to me merely placed artists back at the edge, driven by our own sublime curiosities, and reconfirmed that we weren’t followers at all.” Leaders and followers are what this paper is about.
  7. “Richard Prince talks to Steve Lafreniere,” Artforum 41, no. 7 (March 2003), p. 70. In his letter to Artforum in the Summer 2003 issue, Crimp quotes Prince recalling things rather differently in a reminiscence written in 1998 for Artists Space’s twenty-fifth anniversary: “I wasn’t aware of the Pictures show or what other people were doing….I thought I was doing something no one else was doing and therefore it couldn’t possibly be incorporated into anything that was going on.”
  8. Richard Hertz, Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, introduction by Rosetta Brooks, postscript by Meg Cranston, with reflections by Hiro Kosaka, Tom Wudl, John Baldessari, Nancy Chunn, James Welling, Rosetta Brooks, Troy Brauntuch, Matt Mullican, Robert Longo, and Jean Fisher. (Ojai, California: Minneola Press, 2003), p. 90. Further references to Hertz’s book are in parentheses in the text.
  9. Sande Cohen, “Hide Your Commodification: Art Criticism and Intellectuals in Los Angeles, or Language Denied,” Emergences 9, no. 2 (1999), p. 346.
  10. F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, 1909,” in The Documents of Twentieth-Century Art: Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio (New York: Viking Press), pp. 21-22.
  11. Hal Foster, Recodings: Essays on Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1985), p. 149.
  12. Craig Owens, “The Critic as Realist,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, and Jane Weinstock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 255-56.
  13. Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), p. 84.
  14. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1, Perceptions and Judgements, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 8.
  15. Howard P. Kainz, trans., Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, p. 55 (ss 187).
  16. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), pp. 4-5.
  17. Sande Cohen, History Out of Joint: Essays on the Use and Abuse of History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, forthcoming).
  18. Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Boston: David R. Godine, 1984), pp. 186, 180.
  19. Crimp, “Pictures,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Boston: David R. Godine, 1984), p. 186.
Further Reading