What in the Word?John Haber
in New York City
A Decade of New York Art Crit
Every so often, I step back and ask what in the world I am doing. And is it even the art world? As 2006 comes to a close, suppose I ask if I have learned anything since this Web site began.
Where to begin?
I cannot actually tell you when this project began. I began visiting downtown galleries thirty years ago, but the first reviews on this site date to roughly 1994, and I started coding them for the Web only later. It started with notes shared with friends, with a particular interest in old painting and new media. It grew into something embarrassingly pretentious, like a home-made encyclopedia.
As of January 2008, the site has more than seven hundred artists, writers, and group exhibitions in its index and search engine. It has briefly reviewed many more. It has crossed and recrossed some names many times.
Had I known how far this would go, I might have chosen a less self-referential, more memorable URL. Has maintaining this site for more than ten years thus given me an inflated sense of my own worth, or has looking at art and listening to others cut me down to size? Have I necessarily become a part of the art world and artspeak—or rather their critical specter? Does it matter? How about when I contribute to yet another blog, ArtBistro?
I started with the idea that writing about art does matter, but only so long as it accepts judgments about art as just one more aspect of interpretation. When one sees something as art, one finds it good or bad, but either way one finds it interesting, and a critic can help by at once debunking and extending old habits of judgments.
An open-studio weekend will make a good example of how readily I, too, can fall into those habits. It happened this October at the tenth annual Dumbo "Art Under the Bridge" festival. At the same time, one could better describe the art world as many worlds, so long as one also remembers that even a plurality of choices leave some people out. The badly punning title of this essay refers not just to me, but to the untold artists I only wish I could know better.
I definitely did not begin this site as a blog. Rather, I wanted space for something less pressured by the length, deadlines, and rush to judgment of print or Web art writing alike. One of this webzine's first reviews, of Camille Corot's early Roman landscapes, billed itself as "A Preface to Criticism." There and more than once since, I have asked why words matter in front of a work of art—and indeed why critics matter. In two words, not much, unless a critical judgment arises from and justifies insights into the work that you yourself overlooked.
Art in fact—and value
As I put it first:
Criticism should help others find meaning, not fight a rearguard action against the meaningless. [This site] will not uphold standards.
Do I still think that you might sometimes listen to me? From the feedback I am getting, readers definitely distrust a critic's judgment, but they look for it all the same.
Worse, if the fact-value distinction is as overrated as I am suggesting, that creates all sorts of pitfalls. I may not have standards, as if art must teach to the text. Yet I want, like every critic, to promote passionate, meaning art—and passionate, meaningful looking at art. Every judgment labels a work, in effect singling out an interpretation, which can leave you or the art richer or poorer. And every interpretation invests a work with value. No wonder both art and criticism may make you wish to argue back.
Artists and dealers have thanked me effusively, when I thought I had given a lukewarm response. They have gotten angry at my dismissal of them, when I felt sure I had discovered an artist worth supporting. Other readers have sympathized with my quaint opposition to important arts writers—such as Hal Foster, T. J. Clark, Arthur C. Danto, or Barbara E. Savedoff. I thought that I had singled them out as the influences most worth heeding. I can only imagine what they might think of me.
One email excoriated my speculation on Picasso's sexual proclivity toward underage girls. I had said that he had none whatsoever. I was deriding those who still go happily along with certain assumptions—that great artists obey their instincts, that art at its best imitates nature, that women and children are closer than men to that natural purity, and that accordingly women may as well reduce to a passive subject matter for art. Moreover, those assumptions do not always sit easily together, at least when women make art.
Sometimes misunderstanding flatters me, because it lets me hope that I really am focusing on description, and after that readers can draw their own conclusions. At least as often, it makes me certain that I have betrayed artists, readers, and maybe the English language, too.
I like irony and one-liners more than perhaps I should. I also have a tendency to find an "on the other hand" to go with every expression of praise or dismay. I insist that I write only about critics and historians who matter to me most or those who really tick me off, often by their defensive reaction to living art. But will you spot the difference? Are Erwin Panofsky, Meyer Schapiro, and Jacques Derrida laughing at me from the next world for bringing them together to discuss painting? If other favorites of mine, churning out text in this world, have noticed me at all, they probably just shook their head.
Taking the heat
So what am I learning? First, people look for the bottom line, and with luck they may not always get it. Second, even when most reviewers look to the quality of a show, they often miss a better story, the show's point of view—including how the curators want you to think of the artists. No wonder visitors to galleries and museums may look too hastily, and I can tell that story, too. And, third, if people misread me, as a writer I still have only myself to blame.
I am not offering false humility. Yes, people often surprise me by what they think I wrote. They remind me about how people approach art as well, always looking for the bottom line. Writers contribute best to looking at art by addressing just that habit. And if habits of misreading raise pitfalls, no one—not artist or architect, new media or old, museum or critic—can put perception on a leash.
I may blame the nature of art and language, or I can blame my very ambitions as a writer. However, I still chose the words, and you still have to read them or flush them down the virtual toilet. As an editor during the day, I should know all that already. I earn a living by helping other writers to accept the blame and then to move on.
I have to take the blame, too, for judgments, even under conditions that I never imagined when I first had a quiet afternoon in the half a dozen respectable galleries then in Soho many years ago. How rapidly a critic can join the pack today, just as an alternative space like P.S. 1 can sometimes play it safe. I can almost sympathize with one insufferably arrogant dealer who boasts that he never looks for unknowns, since real art will find him.
Open-studio weekends have at least that justification: they instill a healthy sense of humility in everyone, visitors and artists alike. When it comes to Dumbo, toss in an ambivalent joy and shame at Brooklyn transformed. With "Art Under the Bridge," the neighborhood-wide party a weekend each fall, I can feel them all.
One can hardly help picking a building on impulse, sticking one's nose here and there, and moving on. Sure, one does the same in Chelsea, but then an artist is not standing right there, holding back righteous anger or tears if I turn away with hardly a glance. I still remember one studio from many years ago, with rope sculpture suspended from above like a thicker and more palpable version of Eva Hesse or Janine Antoni on her tightrope, and now I shall never know the artist's name. Why did I take candy instead of leaving a card?
Just an hour or two of open studios can cut anyone down to size. With so many artists, all needing space, even Chelsea's explosion seems a provincial affair. Think of yet another Times feature on co-op "habitats." Think of art prices that takes no notice of most New Yorker's lives.
One wonders anew how even the most determined artists survive. One wonders, too, how many in just another few years will be making art. One learns the answer, raised by the 2006 Whitney Biennial, to where all the two-dimensional media have gone. It makes me that much more aware, too, of my habits of judging.
As those questions suggest, however, problems of fairness and judgment do not begin with a critic alone. I see more and more displays of emerging artists, but less and less seems to emerge. Opposition to this powerful, chaotic thing sometimes called an art world grows harder and harder every year. Was I alone in also finding the annual event in Dumbo growing just a little less festive?
Summer sculpture lingered in waterfront parks. Smack Mellon allowed a glimpse of its very fine studio program, and one could admire that the galleries at Front and Washington Street keep growing, if not necessarily growing more progressive. The studio floors above or on Jay Street remain as appealingly maze-like as ever. Besides, so many artists put up with casual visitors, whether too many to endure with a smile or too few.
Smack Mellon's gallery proper had perhaps the nicest surprise. Nothing interrupted its main space, with its beautiful long wall to one side and tall windows lining the other. It looked empty until the wall's shafts of white, broken by silhouettes of trees, popped out of nowhere. They appeared to have fallen naturally from the windows, as from an oversized camera obscura. Up close, as the image grew more palpable, I made yet another mistake, of backing away lest I mar something as fragile as chalk with my breath. Mary Temple—like, less effectively, Liza McConnell's planet projected over some packing materials in the back room—mixes up my understanding of nature and culture for good.
Still, so much has changed since Dumbo's first years, when I descended just a narrow stairwell or two. With each years, too, performances at street level look less like a celebration, more like the steps of the Met. Did I just imagine it, or did the streets themselves seem less busy and less like a community? The mazes of Washington Street have clean, attractive hallways. Residential housing has closed others forever. I grew less curious about which artists have the best work spaces, more curious about which condos have the best fixtures.
Am I an art world?
My day job should remind me of another lesson from the last year, too: I am not part of that art world—or am I, and does that allow me to define art? Sure, in a year this webzine has grown to reviews of at least six hundred artists, group shows, and arts writers, sometimes multiple reviews and sometimes reviews too long to appear in print, and that counts only citations sufficient enough to have caused me to enter the subject in my site's search engine. I get a good 100,000 unique visitors a month, several times that in page views or hits. In mid-2006 I accepted invitations to appear in print, in other webzines, and on a panel, and as yet no one has laughed when I lectured in public, except when I was actually joking. People have asked when I would be writing a book, which is when I start stuttering.
Still, I have to face it: this is a rogue operation. I am largely self-published, surveys of art critics skip me, and I have gone into the slush pile of major magazines. Like pretty much any arts writer, I lose money from it all, and I think of myself as an amateur who just occasionally gets to feel smug at remembering what I have seen. However, that raises an obvious question—and, as it happens, a favorite theme of this Web site. Has the art world itself grown obsolete, faced with so many outlets, including my own?
Now, the whole idea of an art world, an entity that defines what counts as art, has a fatal flaw: it defers defining who constitutes the art world—and every new work helps change the definitions, in an ever-widening, sometimes vicious and often virtuous circle. Other uses of the concept may also underestimate divisions between and within audiences. That includes even Postmodern critiques of economic and institutional power.
Conversely, celebrations of a new age of alternative journalism, alternative spaces for art, and niche markets can easily underestimate the variety and sincerity of supposed insiders, miss a fringe group's fragile existence or its own barriers to entry, or mistake commercial pressures for museum democracy. Capitalism's celebration of choice always depends on shifting niches, and even Modernism had shifting relationships to academic painting, commercial art, popular culture, and Sunday painting. Besides, thus far blogs like Artnet and Artforum.com lapse readily into the same old rote criticism and art-world gossip.
I do not think it is quite time to retire the term art world, although I mostly avoid it. One can think instead of multiple pressures and competing centers, if without confidence that a more democratic future will arrive any time soon. Dada at MOMA draws blockbuster crowds, but my office mates mostly have not heard of the word Dada. With luck, many more art world will blossom in just the next few years—and maybe a few of them will let me in.
That day in Dumbo typifies the dilemma. It shows the multiplicity of art worlds, but also the pressures on them to converge. It stands apart from Chelsea, as the changing Lower East Side may or may not (as "Lush Life" argues), but one naturally also finds a lot of fumbling, a lot of conservatism, and a lot of junk. It does not quite puncture the idea that Brooklyn alone holds countless undiscovered wonders, but it makes me grateful for any and every discovery. When the artists I admire can all actually earn a living, I can worry about whether I shall count as legitimate. Meanwhile, I had better not quit my day job, plus this more or less full-time second job, to write that book.
Mary Temple and Liza McConnell ran at Smack Mellon through November 12, 2006. The tenth annual Dumbo "Art Under the Bridge" festival ran October 13 to 15.