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The many masks of modern art

The Role of Recent Art Criticism The minute I saw Saul Steinberg's delightful drawing reproduced on this page I thought, "Aha! That is of an art critic advancing upon a brand new work of art."

Although I doubt that that was Steinberg's intention, this witty work does accurately represent the aggressive wariness, the anxious caution, with which many art critics approach anything new -- ready to crush it should it seem threatening and to coddle it should it appear friendly to their point of view.

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This is particularly true of many of the critics writing for our art magazines. One would think, reading the best of these art journals, that art had ceased being visual and had become an exercise in verbalizations. Or that it had become an esoteric religion with a theology so precisely defined that the medieval scholars who argued about the number of angels capable of dancing on the head of a pin would feel perfectly at home with it. Or even that it had become an exact science with studio-laboratories in which experiments designed to discover, once and for all, the true nature and form of art were continually taking place.

We read precise accounts of the orthodoxies and heresies of individual artists or of groups, learned discourses on the crucial distinctions between the casually drawn circle of one artist and the mechanically rendered circle of another (and why one or the other is more true, profound, and significant), and long dissertations on why this artist paints lines at an angle and why that one paints them perfectly flat.

There are arguments about who did something first. Did artist "A" see a particular new image in artist "B's" studio at 4:15 on Tuesday, or had artist "A" already come upon that idea all by himself two days earlier while walking in the park? Did artist "C" possibly backdate some of his early works to establish the legitimacy of his claim that it was he, and not artist "D", who was the founding father of Neo-Abstract-Ellipticalism?

As if all this really mattered! Hamletm is a great play, not because Shakespeare originated the plot line (he didn't), but because he transformed an existing story into a great work of art. Why we put such importance on which artist did something first I'll never know. An artist's stature depends on doing something best not something first. Art is not a science, the artist's studio is not a laboratory, and Paul Cezanne cannot be equated with Thomas Edison.

All this concern for historical chronology makes little sense. But then neither does the artist who paints Renoir-like pictures make sense when he declares that no one can really paint anymore. And the same applies to the portrait painters whose style can hardly be distinguished from that of John Singer Sargent's, or the landscapist who thinks Cezanne was the final word in art, or the sculptor who intends to make art by mimicking Brancusi.

But this is still child's play compared to the critics who yearn for a revival of the values and attitudes of Abstract Expressionism (and who advocate an updated version of it, something along the line of "Pre-Rauschenberg-ism"). Or the true believers who hold that there is only one true route to artistic glory -- and that all other forms of art exist in descending order from it.

If ever there was babble and confusion in art it is today -- not so much among the artists (they, after all, go about their creative business regardless) but among those of us who have the responsibility to help clarify and codify what the artists produce. One of the reasons for this is that we take ourselves much too seriously. From the lowliest critic and most junior museum curator to the powerful critical voices whose sustained approval or disapproval has set the course for much of the art of the past 35 years, we are the ones who have most self-consciously strutted the stage of recent art history and acted as though the actual creators were little more than extensions of our vision of artistic truth.

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The artists may be the public heroes, and their work may be hanging in our great museums, but it's the major writers on art, the critics, museum curators and directors, even the great collectors, who have the real power and influence.And they are the role models for clusters of younger writers and curators for whom power and influence are at least as important as art. Now, there would be nothing wrong with this if it were not for the jockeying for position that goes on as a result -- the parlaying for place that is made manifest, I'm afraid, in our museum shows, our art journals, our critical tomes, and in whatever other way we can direct the art world's attention to our point of view.

Most of these writers and critics write for one another and seldom for the artists or the general public. I know only a half-dozen artists at most who read anything but the reviews of their own or friends' shows (or possibly a piece on someone very "in" at the moment) in any of the art magazines. And the reason is simple: the writing is generally so dense and self-consciously convoluted, so full of allusions and references to obscure and even esoteric information, that reading it -- let alone understanding it --becomes a heavy chore.

It is not at all unusual to read an entire issue of such a magazine and to learn little except who is having a show and who has been appointed to what museum post, and --this is vital -- how truly clever writers A, B, and C are at theorizing why such and such an artist uses purple instead of blue, why artist "X" refuses to sign his work, and what profound philosophical implications lie behind those curious loops at the end of certain lines in artist "Y's" paintings.

Words become glittering objects strung together to impress rather than to clarify and communicate. And before long the poor artist, unless he has the good sense to forget most of what he reads, is bogged down by other people's words and theories about his work.

On the other hand, there are critics and curators whose avowed purpose it is to discover and help aspiring talent.A half-dozen of each of these, together with an equal number of like-minded dealers, are all that's needed to work miracles in fostering new art. These individuals encourage the budding artist to be himself, to grow according to his or her own realities and not according to the rituals and taboos current at that time. They usually spend as much time in artists's studios as in galleries and museums, and follow and discuss with all who are interested the work of anyone who has a spark of originality or the faintest glimmering of a new idea. They are in love with art, but cannot themselves create it, and so devote their lives to the furtherance of it in others.

I have the deepest respect for these individuals. If, at some point, they achieve influence and power, they seldom misuse them but continue to work toward stimulating and encouraging new art. We have been particularly fortunate, in the past, in having had a goodly number of such creative non-artists -- today. We need them, for without them many a talent would go undiscovered, would possibly even dry up and die.

The next article in this series appears on April 21

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