August 2006

CRITIQUING THE CRITICS

Critique. To critically examine a thing with respect esp. to its conformity to standards--
of logic, for example, or common sense.


First Paragraphs

by Louis Torres

Contemporary arts criticism can be pretentious, unintelligible, sophomoric, ludicrous, or just plain stupid. The most egregious examples of such writing are often found in first paragraphs, giving discerning readers good reason to proceed no further. What follows here are classic examples of the kind. For the curious who simply must read further, I provide links to the entire piece wherever possible.

As a warm-up exercise, consider this brief specimen--a first sentence--from the field of dance criticism:

The Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin has specialized in works that can be understood, if not necessarily comprehended. [Anna Kisselgoff, "Ambiguity as Text, a Blackboard as Backdrop," New York Times, May 2, 2002]

Tweak it a bit--"specializes" instead of "has specialized--and it sounds like you know who. Either way, it would sure drive that lovable duck batty.

Here is an actual first paragraph by another critic:

Art by young artists should be about messing up things--beauty, craft, ideals and all that--tossing them in the air like so much unasked for baggage, just to see how they land. Later the artists can have all the old stuff back, neatly packed, if they want it. But messing up is the way to start. [Holland Cotter, "A Nightmare View of Antebellum Life That Sets Off Sparks," New York Times, May 9, 2003]

Time was when the New York Times would not publish such drivel. Never mind that one cannot mess up something one does not possess in the first place--such as knowledge of the craft of painting. And who in his right mind would do such a thing to his ideals? Later in life, these "artists" can have "all that old stuff back if they want it," Holland Cotter envisions. Nonsense. Craft is mostly learned, and ideals formed, early in life.

Here is another Cotter first paragraph--more clumsy metaphor, more drivel:

What was so wild about Cubism? Here's what. It took the soulful Chardin still life and cut it to bits as if with a buzz saw. It turned the classical Poussin nude into a column of open razors. It transformed the Ingres portrait, that last stand of ancien regime realism, into a stack of clattering planes in empty space. ["When Cubism Fractured Art's Delicate World," New York Times, December 30, 2005]
[Compare the above with these: Cubist still life (Braque: Still Life with Fruit Dish, Bottle, and Mandolin, 1930) / Cubist nude (Picasso: Nude Woman, 1910 / Cubist portrait (Picasso: Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910).]

Except to note that Cotter is writing not to damn Cubism but to praise it, I let his words and the kinds of work he cites speak for themselves, and I move on to a first paragraph by his esteemed colleague Michael Kimmelman--the chief art critic of the Times, no less.

Decades on, it's curious how much Minimalism, the last great high modern movement still troubles people who just can't see why a stack of bricks [Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966] or a plain white canvas with a line painted across it should be considered art. That line might as well be in the sand: on this side is art, it implies. Go ahead. Cross it. [Michael Kimmelman, "How Not Much Is a Whole World," New York Times, April 2, 2004]

It's not curious at all that Minimalism (in effect, a form of abstraction) still troubles people, who seek some sort of meaning in art.* It always will. As for that white canvas with a line painted across it, how about Barnett Newman's Onement IV--a plain black canvas with a stripe painted down it--instead? But that is not Minimalist, Kimmelman would protest, it's Abstract Expressionist. Does it make any difference? Not really. None of it makes any sense, not even to Kimmelman.

Now consider this first paragraph:

All high art originates in the play between organization and intuition. Fred Otnes brings to his collage paintings a classical refinement and control that makes poetry out of chance pictorial effects. He dips into early Cubist collage techniques, touches Florentine and Renaissance bases and reverses Dadaist chaos into gorgeous homages to order. This mini-retrospective displays a rare and joyous alchemy. [Maureen Mullarkey, "A Rare and Joyous Alchemy," New York Sun, April 13, 2006]

If anyone can figure out what Maureen Mullarkey means by "all high art originates in the play between organization and intuition," please let me know. For now, at least, I will stand by the notion that art originates in the artist's view of life and existence, in his fundamental values--and, in the case of painting and sculpture, in his concretization of them in visual terms.

Mullarkey has high praise for Otnes. There is Cubism, Florentine and Renaissance painting, even reversed Dada, in his work. All that plus "classical refinement and control" that miracuously makes "poetry" out of "chance" effects. I know that she is writing in metaphor, but she cannot just toss out the terms like these and expect a viewer to both grasp her meaning and agree with her when viewing his "collage paintings": "She's right! He's a poet!"

Critics are not above bursts of excitement, as in this first paragraph:

Is it possible for another show of Jackson Pollock (1912-56) to teach us anything new about the Dionysian artist who dripped and flung paint before dying in a drunken car crash? That is the question I asked myself as I headed up to see "No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper," an exhibition of approximately 65 works that just opened at the Guggenheim. The short answer is a resounding "Yes!" [Lance Esplund, "An Artist Who Brought Every Line to Life," New York Sun, June 1, 2006]

Lance Esplund's brief characterization of Pollock's life and work is certainly apt. His claim that he wondered if he would learn anything new about his hero at the exhibition, however, does not ring true. There is no reason to believe that this exhibition of works on paper (any more than a similar exhibition 25 years ago) would reveal new depths to his work. As regular readers are no doubt aware, the editors of Aristos, unlike Esplund, take a dim view of Pollock. Whether big or small, on canvas or paper, his work--however expressive of manic physicality (your kid could probably not quite "do that")--is pathetically limited. Is it even art? The short answer is a resounding "No!" (For the long answer, see our discussion in What Art Is.)

I close this brief sampling of first paragraphs with the following amazing display of critical nonsense:

The rap against the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon (b. 1966) is that his work [video installations] is boring. Although this criticism gets at something, it is based on a misinterpretation. Rather than boring, the work of Mr. Gordon--who won the 1996 Turner Prize, the 1998 Hugo Boss Prize, and the Premio 2000 at the Venice Biennale, and is the subject of a midcareer retrospective currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art--is perhaps better understood as unwatchable. [Daniel Kunitz, "Unwatchable, in the Best Sense of the Word," New York Sun, July 9, 2006; review of Douglas Gordon: Timeline, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until September 4.]

What did Daniel Kunitz say--that Gorden's videos are "unwatchable"? Let's see now. Unwatchable. "Un": a prefix meaning "not." Not watchable. Unable to be watched! Does Kunitz contradict himself? Did he not watch the work under review? But how so, if it is not watchable? And why should readers care about work of purported visual art that is in fact unwatchable? About all those prizes: how is it that Gordon was able to win them if his videos are . . . unwatchable? Someone must have watched them! The mind reels.

The rest of Kunitz's piece is so utterly irrational that the temptation to venture beyond his opening is too great to resist. Gordon "sculpts time into a physical experience," or so the exhibition curator claims. (His videos are displayed on large screens set on gallery floors or hanging from ceilings, which is why they are regarded as "installations.") Gordon a sculptor? Of time? I thought he made videos. It gets even more insane. According to Kunitz, who does not disagree that Gordon "sculpts time," what unites many of his pieces is not their treatment of time but "the fact that they all explore the concept of unwatchability in the best sense of that word." I didn't know that it had a best sense, did you?

There's more. Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho apparently slows down the time of each frame of Alfred Hitchcock's classic film [Janet Leigh in car] [in shower] [open mouth] [head down] so that the viewing time stretches to--guess what?--24 hours!

Gordon also slows down time in other videos, as in one of coma patients (which Kunitz finds "gruesome" yet watchable), and another that records the "death throes of a housefly"--"at once fascinating and unbearably repugnant." The best, or "strongest," pieces in the show, however, are those in which "the artist's hand performs some action," as in Blue--in which his right thumb is inserted in a small crevice formed by his left hand, to mimic sexual intercourse. Such works, for Kunitz, are "more about gratifying an audience than illustrating a concept." To each his own, I guess.


* Kimmelman's finding "curious" that ordinary people are still troubled by Minimalism recalls a similar observation he once made regarding Abstract Expressionism. "It's remarkable," he complained, "that at the end of the 20th century, pure abstract painting . . . remains the most difficult art for many people to grasp . . . as if a picture with no recognizable images in it can't be about anything." Yet he also noted that the meaning of Jackson Pollock's abstract canvases "was unclear even to [Pollock]" and that it was "a fool's game to try to attribute specific meanings" to his work. As if unable to find meaning in Pollock himself, he wondered "Yet what is a Pollock about?" then repeated: "The question troubled even him" ("How Even Pollock's Failures Enhance His Triumphs," New York Times, October 30, 1998).