Reviewing David Carrier’s Book, Writing About Art, and the state of current art criticism
On Second Thought: The Emperor's Attitude is as Ugly as His Clothes
David Carrier’s book, Writing About Art (Allworth Press, 2003, 194 pp.), as a procession. Generally, the passing parade is entertaining, occasionally even downright delightful, although sometimes, you might yawn. The book has three chapters on "narrative," (Beginnings in Art Writing, Endings in Narrative Art Histories, and The Presentness of Visual Art), an Interlude chapter (Read this first; it sketches out the course of the entire book), and then three chapters that explain the varying missions of the museum, the gallery, and the philosophy of aesthetics, as well as how to write about art within the context of those missions.
When the fascinating book end has ended, however, and you mentally relive the procession, your second thoughts might re-color the experience.
The book is broad in scope. Plato marches by, bumping against Hegel, Greenberg, and Danto, to name but a few. One of the book’s real joys is its links and contrasts among so many art writers. The history and relationships of art movements, art criticism, and philosophy of aesthetics become more clear. Combined with its very extensive footnotes, Writing About Art, is a fount of information, except for a strange exception: the Index is very skimpy. Only half the time could I find in it something critical Carrier had written that I wanted to revisit. Yet, one of the best aspects of the book is its abundance of information.
This abundance of information contributes to another strength, as well as a weakness of the book. Carrier revels in, and himself makes many "inventive connections." While creative and often enlightening, sometimes these are over imaginative and/or tugged in to make a point. Like James Burke’s PBS show where the gadfly/scholar links the invention of the stirrup, cabbage soup, and Columbus’ Italian nationality to explain the American cultureso Carrier’s connections are always fascinating, but sometimes chancy.
Another weakness occurs when obvious ideas go on boringly. For instance, the author separates experience and the contextualizing of experience ad infinitum. All postmodernists do this, as though the rest of us did not understand that there is no absolute objectivity because we all experience the world somewhat differently. Why they, and Carrier, rehash the point is a mystery, until you realize that they have to make the subjective experience of society the foundation of the whole philosophy. By trying to destroy any objectivity, they strengthen their polemic. Boring, and it does not relate to what most sensible people experience: certainly we see things differently, but we still can come to some objectivity (in science), and we occasionally can reach agreement or compromise (in socio-politics). The rest we are always working on. Anyhow, Carrier harps on this argument for subjectivity, probably because he wants to make writing about artworks an art object in itself. Who needs the object when the critic or artist can rhapsodize in words?
However, another strength eventually sandbags readers. Throughout most of the book, Carrier breathes acceptance; he seems like a genuinely supportive individual. His general reasonableness and his contextualizing the thoughts of a writer I disagreed withthese shamed me for my non-acceptance. Yet, just as I was feeling all aglow and warm, he sandbagged me with a harsh final chapter. Here he was, on the one hand asking for tolerance, yet calling people who just didn’t get or agree with the art of today and its supportive critiquing, eccentric, and essentially reading them out of the art world community. Don’t agree? You’re gone.
The idea of specialized communities is of course quite real. But can’t such a community ever be wrong? While Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Creativity, also presents clear demonstrations of a need for a community of peers, the current art establishment does not answer the question of its pretend infallibility. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, the scientific community has a better objectifying lens about what is useful creativity and what is insupportable. In art, there is no way of testing what is, essentially, a Faith. The current art establishment belief, which, in Carrier’s words aims to be anti-aesthetic, may be worthyor may not. The last chapter’s content echoes the self-assurance of the mid-1800’s Academic aesthetic, eventually overthrown by the the Impressionists’ Salon de Refusées. The pre-Impressionist art establishment formed a community from which art writers [and here one might also include artists] place themselves outside...when their beliefs are too eccentric. Like today’s art establishment, they too were convinced that they had covered all the bases, and that others just didn’t get it. They were, of course, wrong. Given that example, how can serious artists and critics disagreeing with the current establishment’s subjective wordiness accept being called philistine?
Demanding the right to resist this newest old guard, the esteemed painter Sean Scully said in a 1999 interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art:
Sam Hunter [the well-established writer and historian] said, 'You know, you always have to go with the new thing.' As a critic, there is an example of someone, who like Warhol offers no resistance. You can just roll over him without consequence and he will collaborate. To me, this is a little bit like living in France in 1940 and saying 'okay, this is the way the situation is now, let's see what we can make out of it.' I think resistance is a very important component of culture. Without this human capacity to resist, to have the mental strength to be in the minority, you can't bring it back again. It's always being brutalized. It's always being attacked, assaulted. The assault comes in many different forms, shapes, colors, and sizes. It's often subtle.
Carrier also mentions Warhol, defending him, Cindy Sherman, Danto, and the current pantheon of artists and critics who dialogue with each other. Do we really always have to go along with the new thing as Hunter, Danto, and Carrier suggest? Isn’t there a danger of circular argument? It seems yes, which then begs the next question, How does the art community keep itself from being like the 19th century Academy or the 1940 collaborators in France? Should Sean Scully and others offering resistance be considered eccentric, and therefore outside the art community?
As you may be hearing, other art critics are suggesting that art critics start making value judgments again. In the March, 2003 Art in America, Raphael Rubenstein writes, As a critic, lately I’ve begun to feel that something more than explaining and advocacy is called for, that qualitative choices must be madeand articulated.
Joel Weinstein’s retort (Art Papers Magazine, July/August 2003) to Rubenstein and to the Columbia School of Journalism survey of art writers does little to rebut the need for a criticism based on values. Weinstein doesn’t think the plight of art criticism is as dire as the Columbia survey reports. He is happy to find instances where visual art seems finally to be joining the Entertainment State, just like movies and arena football. This argument for art-promotional writing solves the issue of the insular art world in a faddish, not lasting, way. Arena football?
James Wood, retiring director of the Art Institute of Chicago, is quoted in the Chicago Tribune as writing, During the last 10 years, art has held a mirror up to life. These reflected images . . . speak of the end of a period of American cultural and political dominance. Ours is an international and pluralistic art world. However, the ‘values’ of this world are still decidedly American, with celebrity and its handmaiden, money, frequently confused with profundity and beauty.
Any real answer to the art establishment community’s narcissism would include abandoning the strange idea that beauty is evil. Roger Ebert recounts how the movie Ghost World lampoons the current art world: Illeana Douglas...has a perfectly observed role as the art teacher ... who has fallen for political correctness hook, line and sinker, and praises art not for what it looks like but for what it ‘represents.’ Because Carrier and Csikszentmihalyi fittingly affirm the importance of dialog within a community of peers, pages of clarification relating to current art would prove necessary to lay out fully the absolute need not to abandon beauty in things human and artistic. That point needs acceptance by the current powers, rather than dismissal.
Another part of the answer to the problem of an insular, academic art community would include the idea that Truth (grand truths, not personal whims) should accompany Beauty. Finally, this cure to the circular argument of art establishment correctness would love craftsmanship.
So, enjoy the procession. The Writing About Art parade is information-plentiful, has much sparkle, and some boring periods; but the reader will likely walk away pleased. When one sits down and thinks about it, however, the procession seems fairly limited, more like a circus parade. It is pleasurable, but not particularly reflecting real life. A public parade celebrates a neighborhood or a real achievement. By denying our human history that desires beauty and form, focusing on words over object, elevating writers to creative artists, and by being anti-esthetic, the museum/gallery/critic art community itself is not real. It’s not that the emperor at the procession’s end has no clothes; it’s just that they are ugly.