February 2004

Clueless Critics (& Moderator)

by Michelle Marder Kamhi and Louis Torres

A panel discussion at the Dahesh Museum of Art last December on "Referencing the Past" promised to be a provocative consideration of important issues confronting the contemporary artworld. Among the issues to be dealt with, according to the museum's announcement, was whether there has been a shift in interest among younger artists away from conceptual and abstract work, toward figurative work--and, if such a shift is occurring, what the underlying causes are. From our point of view, equally interesting was the question (and here we quote directly): "How do modernist standards of taste influence the assessment of figurative, realist, or representational painting and sculpture? What is the intersection of critical taste and personal taste in the critic's work?"

Moderated by the popular WNYC radio talk-show host Leonard Lopate, the panel featured art critics from two influential publications--Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker and Ken Johnson of the New York Times. As it turned out, however, little if any effort was made to keep the discussion on track, and the theme of the discussion was virtually ignored. As a result, the exchange that ensued vividly revealed much of what is wrong with today's artworld.

Lopate's random approach to mediating the discussion began with a merely perfunctory stab at defining the key terms figurative, representational, and realist. How, he asked, could artists as disparate as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth [more], and Richard Estes be regarded as having anything in common? (Estes, we should note, is a photorealist painter whose work, though representational, fails to qualify as art, in our view, because no meaningful selection or personal sensibility is involved.) When Johnson offered the dictum that "All art is representation," a logical follow-up might have been, What is "represented" by abstract painting? That Lopate did not ask such a question is not surprising, however, when one considers that his own assumptions about art have been shaped in part by his having studied with the Abstract Expressionists Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko.

Nor did Lopate follow up on the provocative remarks by Schjeldahl to the effect that "abstraction seems more and more like an episode in the history of art" and that it is "serious art flirting with decoration"--as evidenced, in his view, by the work of Barnett Newman. (We would argue that abstraction, at best, is decoration.) At one point, Lopate observed with evident wonderment that there is "something magical about figurative, representational drawing," yet he did not seem to have any idea of what the source of that "magic" might be or of the fact that it might point to the meaninglessness of abstract painting.

Much of the often incoherent discussion at the Dahesh was devoted to the contemporary figurative painter-poseur John Currin [more] [more] [more]--whose work was then the subject of a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Schjeldahl had previously effused about Currin in a New Yorker review--declaring that he was "a longtime Currin enthusiast," and that he found, among other things, "manifold pleasure," "inexhaustible joy," and "mystery, sublimity, [and] transcendence" in the work of this young "master," which "puts art history in play" with its endless references to earlier painters' work. Now Schjeldahl suggested, less flatteringly and perhaps somewhat disingenuously, that Currin just wanted "to be with it," while Johnson aptly observed that Currin is simply part of today's "visual culture industry" and, more tellingly, that his work is "not about the experience of human beings but about mass culture." Yet neither ventured to conclude, as we do, that the painter is an opportunist whose superficial work, though "realist," should not be deemed art--not least because of his exclusive reliance on photographs [more] [more] lifted from books and magazines. Those would have been points worth exploring!

Instead, Lopate, who seemed to be striving in vain to come to grips with the declining status of abstract work, could only wonder what should be made of the fact that more than one child of a famous abstract "artist" has chosen to do figurative work. One example he cited was Kiki Smith, the daughter of minimalist sculptor Tony Smith. Yet he might have asked why her often bizarre, crudely rendered pieces (see, for example, Tale, a figure of a crawling woman defecating) have gained such broad critical acceptance. In our view, they do not even qualify as art, nor do most of the components of her recent project, Kiki Smith: Prints, Books, and Things (warning: one must have great patience and fortitude to slog through this "interactive" website devoted to its more than 135 works). For a sober assessment of both Smith and Currin, see James Panero's "Strange Fruit" in The New Criterion.

As is often the case, some of the most revealing comments--and nonresponses--by the panelists were in reply to questions from the audience. Asked by us about their view of the primary function of visual art, the panel fell deafeningly silent for a moment. Johnson then ventured that the not very illuminating notion that "Art is to the culture as dreams are to the individual." Lopate and Schjeldahl simply murmured their assent.

On a more concrete note--related to both the Dahesh Museum's exclusive concern with academic art and the attention the panel had given to Currin's nonacademic "realist" paintings--we asked Schjeldahl and Johnson if they knew of any academically trained contemporary painters, including "classical realists," whose work they admired for its skill and expressive power. The perplexed look on the two critics' faces as they struggled to process the question spoke volumes. It was as if they had been addressed in an alien tongue. Academically trained? Contemporary? Admired? Surely, those terms couldn't be understood in the same context. The customarily voluble Schjeldahl was, for once, speechless (though he might have mentioned Vincent Desiderio [more], for example, a painter whose work he surely knows and about which he has had one or two good things to say.) After some reflection, Johnson feebly speculated that David Hockney [more] might have had some early academic training--an irrelevant speculation, at best, since Hockney's flat photorealist paintings scarcely suggest any such influence. Needless to say, neither critic, when asked by us, had even heard of the contemporary academic painter Graydon Parrish [scroll down to second image and paragraph next to and below it] [more]--though he is co-editor of the catalogue for Charles Bargue: The Art of Drawing, an exhibition then on view at the very museum that was hosting their discussion. Nor did the comments of several painters in the audience, lamenting the neglect of academic art by today's critics, strike a sympathetic chord with either Lopate or the two panelists.

But perhaps the most telling remarks by these clueless critics were those in which they acknowledged that the realm of the purported visual arts, unlike the popular medium of film, has become a terra incognita, increasingly dependent on experts like themselves to interpret it for the masses. "I can't imagine movies that are not about people--"Johnson mused at one point, "how come it was so easy to get rid of the figure in art?" In response to which, Schjeldahl confided that, prior to his career as an art critic, he had reviewed films, but had decided to switch fields when he came to a rude awakening one day. "Why am I doing this?" he had asked himself. "In movies, there are no problems, in art [i.e., visual art] there are problems."

At the end of the evening, one thing was clear, however. By completely ignoring the evening's announced program, this trio had revealed their disdain for, and ignorance of, the academic art of their own time.


In the interest of full disclosure, we should mention that when What Art Is was published four years ago, we wrote to Leonard Lopate, thinking that he might consider interviewing us about the book on his radio show--which has a reputation for fair-minded and informed consideration of diverse viewpoints. Were we mistaken! Within minutes of receiving our e-mail query, and (evidently) without even examining the review copy that had been sent to him--Lopate fired back a rejection, dismissing Ayn Rand as a "troglodyte" and us as "latter-day acolytes." Ironically, a few months later (on February 16, 2001), his show was devoted to a confused and ill-informed call-in discussion of the question, What is art? As it happened, we phoned the station, but were too late to be included on the show. When the assistant who answered the call was told of our book on the subject, however, she urged us to write to Lopate again. Against our better judgment, we did. He replied curtly that he had "no interest" in discussing our "very limited ideas on art." Lopate's own more expansive views, we might add, have prompted him to interview such artworld charlatans as the would-be "visual artist" Matthew Barney [click on sidebar logos for more on his Cremaster Cycle film series].