Saturday, June 10, 2023

Who Needs an Art Critic: Law and Art Criticism, Part I

The following essay was originally titled Who Needs an Art Critic: Law and the Space of Writing, and written for the 2010 CAA Conference in Chicago, Ill. I am now making it available in its entirety, and will appear in five parts, beginning today. The five part series will continue tomorrow, Wednesday, and Thursday, and conclude on Friday. Enjoy.

Who Needs an Art Critic: Law and Art Criticism, Part I

Art criticism, as it stands, is devoid of any substance and content. As if that isn’t enough, art criticism suffers from a lack of relevance, freshness and, most importantly, timeliness. But it is art criticism’s own arrogant ignorance of law which has led it to its own demise, for the practice and theory of law has affected, and continues to affect, the production and reception of art.

This past January, The Atlantic‘s Michael Kinsley wrote about why people are turning from newsprint media to the internet. In his article, “Cut This Story!,” Kinsley particularly bashed the New York Times, and although his criticism was aimed at newspapers in general, his thoughts are apropos to this panel. In a nutshell, Kinsley’s sharp critique confronts not only the fact that newspapers like the New York Times are politically biased, but also that this political bias is but one factor in making news articles lengthy and wordy—needlessly so. Kinsley points out that the other factor in making print publications near-obsolete is the fact that writers and journalists speak at length about everything but the actual story; newspaper articles are too long, yet internet news articles get to the point.

Kinsley notes that once upon a time this fluff was considered “an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means.” Unfortunately, providing “context” has become an invitation to provide the lowest form of hype, “horse-race hype,” which diminishes the story rather than enhancing it. As if this isn’t bad enough, adds Kinsley, “everything is filtered through politics.” Art critics fall well within this category. Point-in-fact, Hal Foster.

Last December’s Artforum invited “a broad spectrum of artists, critics, and curators to revisit the year in art,” to contribute thoughts about art exhibitions that had been profound to the writer and thus that should be profound to the reader (otherwise why would anyone care what’s profound to Artforum writers). I note that I don’t pick on this particular journal for a reason other than convenience. Artforum also asked art historian and critic Hal Foster to reflect on the decade that was. I’ll apply a bit of Kinsley and note that Foster spends two paragraphs (338 words) pontificating about the evils of Bush and Blair, Reagan and Thatcher, while sprinkling these two paragraphs with the usual theory suspects, Schmitt, Benjamin, and Agamben, before he first mentions anything remotely related to art (and at this point it’s of course Clement Greenberg). It’s pretty clear to me that if you’re reading Artforum you not only have $10 to spend on die-hard art advertising, you’re also already well-aware that (a) THERE’S AN UNPOPULAR WAR; (b) that most readers of Artforum agree and would whole-heartedly confirm that there was a “stolen presidential election.”; (c) that the last decade “targeted” the “most vulnerable” individuals in our society, the underclass, gays and lesbians, and immigrants; and (d) that you’ve already read, or at least been indoctrinated with, the writings of Schmitt, Benjamin, Agamben, and Greenberg.

It only gets better.

Artforum also searched for a token of political correctness, and found it in Okwui Enwezor. In presenting his “top ten highlights” of 2009, Enwezor willingly obliged. To no one’s surprise (at least certainly not mine), Enwezor highlights the election of the U.S.’s first black president peppered with a bit more Agamben; the “singularity and radicality” of Michael Jackson (although I believe we can agree that it was unclear if he died black or white); the “refighting” of Reagan’s revanchist culture wars, exemplified by the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and the nomination of our first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor; and of course a nod to the politically correct way to exhibit African art (by Foundation Beyeler, Basel).

Meanwhile, writing for the Village Voice in March of 2008, David Mamet explained why he’s “no longer a brain-dead liberal.” Quoting John Maynard Keynes, Mamet explains, “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?” In this article, Mamet explains the he was a child of the ‘60s, and thus took on a liberal view for decades, accepting as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart. However, he notes that that these ingrained precepts had become “increasingly impracticable prejudices” because he no longer applied them in his life. “No,” Mamet declares, contrary to popular liberal belief, everything is not always wrong. People are not genuinely good at heart. In fact, given the right amount of stress, he notes, they can certainly behave like swine. So how does one counter these pigs? The U.S. Constitution Mamet answers, “[f]or the Constitution, [written by men with some experience of actual government], rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes, to the contrary, that people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interest.” (One may note that Mamet’s keen insights on the U.S. Constitution mirror his infatuation with law via film and stage set, as seen in Oleanna, Homicide, House of Games, American Buffalo, and of course his most recent production, Race.)

Continued tomorrow!


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