May 22, 2013
Posted on Jan 30, 2013
Of course when the poet Randall Jarrell, half a century ago, published an essay titled “The Age of Criticism,” he was not happy about what he saw, either. His complaint, focused on literary matters, was that there was too much discussion of the arts that fed on other discussions of the arts, and too little emphasis on direct experience and on criticism as a record of that experience. Of the better literary journals of his day, such as Partisan Review, he commented that “each of these contains several poems and a piece of fiction—sometimes two pieces; the rest is criticism.” Jarrell was not against criticism. How could he have been, considering that he was as devoted to his own criticism as to his own poetry? What he wanted to emphasize was an essential distinction between the visceral experience of art and the analytical experience of criticism. And he was opposed to any form of critical writing so absorbed in its own analytical operations that it drew attention away from the immediate experience of art. There is surely still much too much self-aggrandizing criticism. But in the art world the sad fact is that hardly anybody is any longer willing to criticize anything.
Among artists and committed gallerygoers there are now so many things that nobody is willing to argue about that it is difficult to know where to begin. Nobody any longer wants to make a case for or against representational painting or sculpture, or for or against abstract painting or sculpture. The old debates about the relative importance of form and content are seldom heard nowadays. And anybody who begins to speak about the importance of high culture in a democratic society, or who wants to make some critical distinctions between high culture and popular culture, is likely to be met by skeptical looks, as if there were something unacceptable about even the possibility of such a discussion. As for discussions about quality, about why some things are better and some things are worse, these are frequently dismissed as intellectually dishonest, as grounded in insupportable assumptions about the nature of artistic experience and the nature of art.
Now it is of course true that many of the old arguments—about representation and abstraction, form and content, high and low, good and bad— were academic or meretricious or both. The essential experience of art is a matter of emotions that can be powerful or elusive or any number of other things, and to the extent that those old arguments drew attention away from the fundamentals, they were symptomatic of the crisis that Jarrell described in “The Age of Criticism.” The debaters, as Jarrell might have pointed out, were often blind to all subtleties and nuances, or willfully ignored subtleties and nuances they knew existed. The old arguments, however, no matter how maddening they could become, had a way of sharpening the mind, if only because the weaknesses in the arguments meant that new arguments had to be devised. What is to be deeply regretted today is the eclipse of the dialectical spirit that fueled the intellectual debates of yore. The arguments that used to erupt on street corners and at gallery openings and at dinner parties and everywhere that artists and art lovers met, no matter how painful and even pointless they could at times appear, were in essence idealistic, an effort to understand better, to see with greater clarity: to penetrate to the essence of art. When nobody wants to argue about anything anymore—and that is where we are today—the likelihood is that nobody believes in much of anything. Or at least nobody is willing to admit in public that they are in fact a believer in some particular idea about art.
Welcome to the age of laissez-faire aesthetics. Anything goes, and the old modern rebellion against standards and distinctions has been replaced by a newfangled conviction that anything can go with anything else. Take, as an example, these words from Sabine Folie, in the catalogue of an exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Vienna, “Dear Painter, Paint me ...,” which toured Europe a few years ago. “Trash,” Folie explains, “has become a transcendental necessity.” In her essay, entitled “Meta-Trash,” Folie observes that “there can no longer be any painting without trash.” This statement is not meant to open a conversation. Folie is not asking if trash can in fact be transcendent (whatever that might mean). She is simply presenting an outrageous juxtaposition as a statement of fact. What holds the art world’s attention is the commingling of heretofore irreconcilable standards and distinctions, not high versus low but the shotgun marriage of high and low. “Trash,” Folie remarks, “hangs over our heads like a sword of Damocles.” The truth is far worse. The sword has fallen. “Meta-trash” is triumphant. The mayhem is almost indescribable. And if next season trash and transcendence get divorced and each marry something else, so much the better. The other day, in the catalogue of an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s late work, I read an essay in which Warhol turns out to be a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It took me awhile to get the drift of laissez-faire aesthetics. I was held back by my assumption that even the kookiest art world ideologues must believe in some sort of logic, or at least some connection between cause and effect. I am not sure I would even now understand what makes the laissez-faire aesthetes tick, had I not been struggling to come to grips with the skyrocketing reputations of a number of younger artists, especially Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin. I could not see why Yuskavage’s soft porn figure paintings, with their smarmy renderings of babes with big breasts and big hair, were praised, simultaneously, for evoking Giovanni Bellini’s altarpieces and Walt Disney cartoons. How, I wondered, could anybody mistake Yuskavage’s glib highlights and shadows, like something from a mid-century magazine illustration, for Venetian chiaroscuro? I was equally confounded with the press I read about the painter John Currin, whose slick, sleazy studies of suburban housewives were said to be channeling both the mythological narratives of the sixteenth-century Netherlandish painter Cranach the Elder and the raunchy cartoons in MAD magazine. What I eventually realized was that I was looking for emotional or intellectual coherence when in fact those were values that the artists and their supporters had rejected or perhaps simply lost track of, it is difficult to say. Classicism and kitsch are now nothing more than differently spiced sugary taste treats, to be picked out of the candy dish—and then sampled, consumed, or tossed in the garbage. Yuskavage and Currin can channel high and low with impunity, with no obligation to reconcile them, or indeed any idea that there might be a conflict.
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