Art Attack

Modern art, which began to peter out in the 1960s when the fun of Pop defeated the hyper-seriousness of Minimalism, produced lively, vigorous art criticism. Such critics as Charles Baudelaire, Roger Fry, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg played a crucial role in promoting various modern-art movements to a public initially hostile to it.

Today, with no particular art movements to defend (artists no longer belong to “movements”), no hostile public (the public doesn’t much care about contemporary art), and a powerful, moneyed triumvirate of big-name artists, rich collectors and ambitious museum curators, contemporary art doesn’t really have much need for art critics.

Yet art criticism continues (albeit with less intensity), and major art critics are devoting their careers to reviewing contemporary art. Dave Hickey (author of Air Guitar, Peter Schjeldahl (art critic for The New Yorker), and Roberta Smith (art critic for The New York Times), are among the most prominent (mainstream) art critics writing about contemporary art, enthusiastically and with an open mind. Mostly, these critics write about art that they like. When they write about something they don’t like, they exercise considerable restraint.

For the most ferocious attacks against contemporary art, the best critics are usually conservatives. Today, the best attack critic is Jed Perl at The New Republic. (Before retiring, Hilton Kramer at The New York Observer held this honor.) Like Kramer before him, Perl likes art up through perhaps the last gasp of true modernism, Abstract Expressionism, but after that his taste is very narrow and his attitude quite negative.

Perl’s target isn’t just artists. He also goes after rich collectors who have no real taste and curators who permit big-name artists to have exhibitions that overwhelm whole museums. For these artists, Perl says, “having a retrospective at the Guggenheim is like being a Visigoth who has been given the keys to Rome.” Perl attacks museums for showing big, bad, shallow art, and architects for building museums designed to show big, bad, shallow art. His underlying theme, present in all his criticism, is that the contemporary art world has turned its back on stand-alone, hand-made, often modest works of art designed by artists strictly for aesthetic contemplation.

In “Postcards from Nowhere” (in the current issue of The New Republic,25 June 2008), Perl scathingly attacks a slew of recent exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles. He argues that contemporary artists “replace the there that constitutes a work of art with a nowhere.” To Perl, “there” means art that’s ordered and substantial, whereas “nowhere” means art that’s incomprehensible and all over the place.

For example, he describes the Takashi Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, with its super-flat colors and Louis Vuitton boutique tucked into the heart of the exhibition, as a “trickster’s trap.” As to Jeff Koons’ shiny stainless steel balloon doggie on the Met’s roof, he says there’s “no art here to enrage me — or engage me, either.” He assails the current Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (Eliasson is a Danish-born creator of spectacular installations, such as an artificial sunset in the Tate Modern in London) for its “belligerent glamour,” and dismisses the recent exhibition of Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition at the Guggenheim (his show included a bunch of automobiles suspended from the ceiling in the Guggenheim’s rotunda) as “follies.” The architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who designed the New Museum, are blamed for making “incoherent spaces” for “incoherent art.”

Perl’s most recent jeremiad is both powerful and persuasive. Despite the fact that I agree with just about every word he writes, however, I liked seeing the shows he mentions that I, too, happened to see. It’s a little like the news: You watch it to stay informed, and it delivers a peculiar, distinct pleasure even though it’s often very grim.

If Perl actually thinks that there’s any hope that significant contemporary art will ever return to being predominantly modestly-scaled, hand-made objects designed for aesthetic contemplation, he’s terribly deluded. It’s like thinking that Oscar-winning movies will return to being “little films” in black and white, with practically no digital special effects.

The reasons for this sea change in contemporary art are complex, but prominent among them is the fact that, compared to what it was in the heyday of AbEx, contemporary art is a huge global business. The amounts of money involved (not just at the auctions that make the news, but in simply running a serious gallery in a major city) are huge, the margins between profit and loss are razor-thin, and up-and-coming artists are as ambitious as aspiring movie stars. (They’re also frequently about $50,000 in debt from getting a Master of Fine Arts degree at one of the “hot” art schools.)

But for all their profiting and posturing, artists like Murakami and Koons, who dominate contemporary art, have the merit of being firmly planted in their own times — our own times — and there’s something to be learned from them. Artists like me — who devote themselves to hand-made objects designed for aesthetic contemplation — are foolish to look entirely away. Which is not to say we don’t enjoy reading jeremiads like Jed’s.

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