On art criticism (2001)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 6 October 2011
This essay was previously published as an editorial in Art Papers in 2001.

I first became aware of contemporary art in the heyday of the notion of art objects as things, not as pointers to something else either "real" or "ideal". But of course, the mute objects of the ’60s and ’70s were not really mute at all, they were at the center of a whirlwind of words. The art of that era was entangled in a web of text (much of it written by the artists— the art is hardly conceivable without the texts by Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, and others, much of it published in Artforum).

Art Papers was founded as that era came to an end. By 1977, the dialogue on art, among artists, critics, and others, was a widening circle spreading out past New York and into a number of cities that were seeing the birth of new art magazines. By the time I began to publish in Art Papers and elsewhere, in the mid-’80s, art-talk was well established and widely distributed around the U.S. and beyond. Theory had become important both to artists in the creation of their work and to critics and audiences in the reception of it. The magazines and the critics were essential elements of the art system, whether you thought of that system as a dialogue or a commercial transaction.

There are still a lot of words being spoken around art, but the situation has changed in the new century, a change that started in the last decade of the old century. A number of the magazines founded around the same time as Art Papers disappeared in the’90s, and others have changed considerably (Artforum now specializes in the Top 10 list, rather than the significant text). In the ’80s, the dealers’ influence eclipsed everything else, and the words surrounding the art were more like a PR campaign than a dialogue. And the art itself became very talky. This year, a correspondent I sent to the Venice Biennale complained of the inescapable chatter of the proliferating video installations there. Art is full of language: the languages of pop culture, the text on a computer screen, and the babble of art journalism.

Today’s art world, of course, is a direct descendant of the skepticism, the conflation of high / low and art / life, and the pluralism and the "smart art" of the ’80s and earlier decades. There is a lot of art being made and shown today, and a lot of discussion about art, from Rudy Giuliani to the popular press to the art mags. But does what you read in or about art startle you into a new way of looking at the world, or even a new way of looking at art? It’s not that there is less good art being shown (and certainly not less art being shown), but that the discussion in and around art now seems inconsequential, like noise. The sheer amount and variety of art being shown today defies anyone’s attempt to spin a coherent tale that explains what is happening, what is best, or what is important. A recent article in New Art Examiner blames the critics, accusing them of pandering to the PR needs of the artists and exhibitors. Others blame globalization for flattening everything out into McArt. Or should we blame artists for jumping into the real culture of today, the high-resolution, gleaming world of video games, product packaging, and the mall-ification of public space? In fact, we all are caught in the ebb and flow of images and words, the flash and chatter that characterizes the art world no less than the "real" world— both authorized by the social and literal machinery (and software) we are all shackled to.

So "what is to be done," to quote a Russian novelist dissatisfied with the social order. I’m certainly not nostalgic for a golden age, or even a "gilded age", to quote an American novelist dissatisfied with everybody. What we need to do is mine the most promising veins of contemporary art, exploit the resources for dialogue that are still available (like Art Papers), and refuse to limit ourselves to the role of the party-guest, praising the decorations on the virtual living room walls of the currently rich and privileged. Magdalena Abakanowicz recently told me that her refusal of decoration in art is related to her countryman Jerzy Grotowski’s refusal of entertainment in theater. Grotowski’s "poor theater" was also a model for arte povera, another instance of the mute-but-loquacious art object of 25 to 30 years ago, art that stays with you viscerally and inspires a mental effort to understand and grapple with— and discuss. There’s still art like that out there. Shall we turn our attention away from the flash and chatter, from the decoration and entertainment, and become not the passive audience for what’s happening, but active, engaged witnesses for what struggles and squirms out of the art world swamp?