Who Am I to Judge?

John Haber
in New York City

Shelburne Thurber, Catherine Opie, and Christoph Morlinghaus

A Quiet Crisis: The Function of Criticism

Who am I to judge? Every critic should ask at least once in a while, but try saying it aloud while Sigmund Freud looks on.

Shelburne Thurber calls her project Psychoanalytic Interiors. One does not approach the photographs, then, without preconceptions. And a good thing, too, for otherwise one might not give them the time of day, much less the therapist's fifty-minute hour. But should that matter?

I mean both the preconceptions and the judgment. Some deliberately banal photographs this spring—by Thurber, Catherine Opie, and Christoph Morlinghaus—had me questioning the place of judgment in reviews, definitely including this one. Along with past articles on the need for attribution and interpretation, make this review my own sorry critique of judgment. Christoph Morlinghaus's TWA Brown Hall (Roebling Hall, 2004)

Criticism on the coach

Thurber has been all over, even before joining art's dash down to the Lower East Side well before "Lush Life." She lives in the Boston area, has exhibited in Texas, and the series began with a few moments of perception in South America before blossoming into an obsession. One would never know it, however, from her interiors. They look as rootless, perhaps, as the Freudian unconscious.

All contain an upright chair and a comfortable place to lie, in both senses of the word. In other words, they adhere strictly to psychoanalytic practice. In other regards, they have so little in common as to challenge the whole idea of therapy. Why must one invest so much meaning in the details?

The entire series, marked by repetition and variation, could serve as Jamesian varieties of experience. Some settings look like homes. Others borrow rooms in cheap hotels. They may have personal artifacts or none, the clutter of a desktop or the sterility of a modern office. They challenge one to construct one's own narrative, like the interpretation of a dream.

And people do. Favorable responses sound almost like confessions. Most identify with the patient and, through their associations, imagine the therapist. They see a plain, wooden chair, for instance, as the mark of a rigid, demanding session.

The photographs clearly invite that, by reversing expectations. They take a place for an intimate exchange and leave it empty. They take a scene of psychic imbalance, between patient and therapist, and level it of both. They take a place that demands privacy and let one in. The occasional office computer could stand for a third party even before the viewer, entering where no one belongs.

Art always comes with absences and presences, of course, mine included. Maybe I was just tired that afternoon, but I had trouble giving these photographs much weight. I saw too little that signifies therapy—or indeed anything else. They have too little in common to add up and yet too little to distinguish them as well. They look, in sum, like too much of the same old thing. At most, rather than a threat, I saw beds and couches, and I felt like a nap.

Conscious of what?

If Thurber's fans have over-interpreted, an ingenious critic might argue, that, too, plays into the work. It asks when a viewer enters into the work and when criticism, in psychoanalytic terms, becomes transference. My response comes with preconceptions as well, both those handed to me in the exhibition title and my own. Without them, I would never have come. After that, should my bottom line matter, so long as I felt prompted to think, to describe, and to write? Above all, should it matter to you?

In the Village Voice, Jerry Saltz reminded me of my own response, although, as usual, in a more sensible and generous review than I could have offered. He liked the idea, but he found the photos themselves "banal." True, he had qualms, I thought, but should preferring concept to execution matter after conceptual art? Should one mistrust banality after decades of painting, sculpture, and photography that make repetition the whole point? And again, who am I to judge?

At this point, art history class would compare slides on two screens, so turn to others this spring with a similar impulse. Catherine Opie focuses on surfers, but stripped of their risk taking and their joy. Some stand dully with their boards. Others, from a distance, appear lost in a cold, gray sea. The great wave has long passed or will never arrive.

I found the casual close-ups disarming. Yet I admired the distance shots more—more even than her work in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. I liked the emotional letdown. Brian Wilson has retreated into his room and gorged on Oreos. I liked as well the open compositions—disturbing the premise of Opie's stylistic repetition itself. Again, however, I felt my own distinctions on trial. At what point does formlessness become a productive entropy?

Christoph Morlinghaus also plays with repetition and frontality, and I admired his show even more. Some photos take façades, from the Duomo in Florence to a residential nightmare in Los Angeles. Others present neatly defined, relatively shallow interior spaces, from a television studio to the disused terminal at Kennedy airport by Eero Saarinen. On the one hand, they eliminate differences. The repeated LA balconies echo the intricate Italian pillars, and Saarinen's classic of Modernism stands devoid of purpose and humanity. On the other hand, they allow just enough depth to give each space a character and majesty of its own.

And they, too, call me in question. Morlinghaus, who came to America from Germany, looks not unlike one more variation on contemporary German architectural photography. But who am I to call him derivative, after reproducible media have put a fitting end to the "originality of the avant-garde"? His tribute to Saarinen, however loving, makes a passageway look like the entrance to Commes des Garçons clothing in Chelsea. Indeed, his agency makes him available for "special bookings." But should that matter, now that fashion photography has an exhibition at MoMA QNS—and a critical life of its own?

The business of judgment . . .

A year ago, Raphael Rubinstein, a senior editor at Art in America, slammed criticism for failing to judge. What has gone so terribly wrong with art, he asked, in pointing to "A Quiet Crisis"? Critics got afraid to stick it to the art world and its phony star system. (Barry Gewen, like many other conservative critics, later makes a similar claim in The New York Times.)

The writer had surveyed critics about their work. Most, Rubinstein notes, insist that they are out to serve as teachers, not as tastemakers. They deserve what they get—and art deserves better. As his title puts it, "Should art critics get back into the business of making value judgments?"

The informal poll sounds credible. While no one would ask a mere Web critic, soon after I started this site, I posted a "Preface to Criticism." I meant it as a challenge:

Only favorable judgments matter much in the long run. Criticism should help others find meaning, not fight a rearguard action against the meaningless. [This site] will not uphold standards. It will dismiss out of hand neither formal considerations nor subject matter.

Judgments come cheap, I argued, and critical praise often comes at the expense of not asking the right questions. Worse, dismissive judgments necessarily miss the point. They ring true only if the artist did not have much of a point. Writing is a continuing exchange with subject and the reader, because for all three parties, myself included, the point of art is hard. If I play my cards right, readers will have enough in the end to judge on their own.

Nor did art get hard all at once with Modernism. I have found it particularly difficult to explain the Renaissance, exactly because people take its beauty for granted. One cannot easily understand what had changed, because one forgets why anyone would have wanted to make older art in the first place. Ironically, the late Renaissance may puzzle people most of all. What may look today like Mannerist distortion arose along with a private market of connoisseurs. The art got slippery because critics were learning to judge.

Modernism, in art and philosophy, has made understanding harder than ever, by putting any criteria under suspicion. Can it be coincidence that Rubinstein, in effect, repeats the myth of the Emperor's New Clothes, the same story that has served again and again to dismiss modern art? It should come as no surprise, then, that the most conservative critics insist most on values. It could include an editor of the quaintly named Modern Painters, who in Harper's calls the pretense of artistic skill by John Currin "a symptom of the disposition that has been cultivated for years, beginning at least as far back as 1863." It could include a Neo-Con's canon, Rudy Giuliani's religious certitude, complaints about "politicization" when art's necessary liberties extend to the public sector, a congressman's opposition to arts funding in the name of public decency, an English critic's distrust of intellect when it comes to art, or Anita Brookner's longing for the emotional truth in Romanticism. This site has ranted against them all.

. . . And the judgment business

Still, my "preface" sounds wrong to me today—or at least one-sided. I can share Rubinstein's reluctance to let personalities and high finance do all the judging. Rosie Millard calls her upbeat defense of the London art scene The Tastemakers, and she does not mean Artforum. Besides, who complains about influence more than progressive artists and critics? Postmodernism asks one to see more in art than formal constraints. It looks at culture, and it sees ideology and institutions.

One cannot help judging, as becomes painfully clear when I join a studio visit, as in Dumbo's annual "Art Under the Bridge" festival. My tastes show through all the time. And that is exactly the idea. Before, I tried to defend understanding as an aim in itself. Suppose now I start directly with the problems of criticism as a weapon. It may then turn out that judgment and understanding both still matter, but only as they emerge from the same arguments and the same charged debate.

For starters, the poll sounds to me self-serving on the part of both parties—the pollster and the critics. Try picking up the Friday paper or most arts magazines to see how much teaching is going on, amid the puff pieces and derision. Moreover, even to assume that the art world stinks begs the question, and to blame critics for the smell makes matters worse. It gives them at once too much credit and too little.

It gives writers too much credit by leaving out everyone else. I only wish that criticism could control judgment and interpretation by executive fiat. By ignoring dealers and museum curators, the article invites a naive, conservative view of art in which only taste matters, not real politics and real power. Conversely, by ignoring the public and purchasers, it treats them as mere passive agents, too easily swayed by politics and power. A reasonable critic of art and corporate America should sense at best a contradiction, more likely a deliberate blindness.

Conversely, it gives critics too little credit because it assumes they did not contribute willingly to the reputations that Rubinstein finds inflated. Even if they offered nothing but raves, they would be choosing their subjects. They may even go out of their way to promote their choices. One day I was reading a rave of MoMA QNS for its show of fashion photography. Two days later I caught the show, which I had been tempted to skip—and the writer's name all but leapt out at me from the museum handout, as part of an upcoming panel.

Suppose I do not buy into the adulation for Matthew Barney or Currin. I should at least admit that they got where they are because people, including critics, did speak up. In fact, they still are speaking up. In the case of Currin, one can see a backlash setting in, even before that article by Lance Esplund in Harper's. In the case of Matthew Barney, somehow his drawings still enter the Morgan Library.

The banality of criticism . . .

As my example of the panel suggests, Rubinstein's criticism may fail by not going far enough. It treats critical judgment in a vacuum, apart from the structures that place them in the public eye.

Take that panel again. On the one hand, the event promotes a museum's goals: it builds an audience. By making sense of the issues, it promises to make the art more accessible while, conversely, dignifying it as of serious intellectual interest. On the other hand, the exhibition as art-world event adds to the critic's résumé. They help not just validate but create one another. The "business of judgment" starts to have nastier overtones.

Even when both parties make an honest effort, criticism has entered the nexus of art-world institutions. The problem is not that the critic has too much power to shape opinion, like another Clement Greenberg. Rather, the problem is that critics are not able to shape anything. They have already slipped into an exclusive party. Worse, the media, too, provide structures that shape what the public reads, and artists read newspapers, too.

Newspapers and magazines sell by letting people in on the latest thing. They thus privilege snide remarks, like the ones about Currin, as well as puffery. Arts magazines cover a whole industry, drawing on dozens of freelance writers, none of whom can say it all or snap at all the trash. Each gets a small piece of the puzzle and space for a small insight. No wonder it adds up to almost endless praise, as well as to a fair amount of what one might call "Martspeak." Conservative magazines, with independent funding to make predetermined point, will not examine changing assumptions sufficiently to contribute, while Greenberg's own magazine, The Nation, now keeps up a tradition of distinguished criticism—but with a philosopher, Arthur C. Danto, who built his theories around Pop Art in the 1970s.

Fortunately, the interconnections run beyond politics and economics as well, to the very heart of judgment. Every judgment is an interpretation, a way to put art in its place. And every great interpretation grows out of an enthusiasm and communicates it to others. Deep feelings have cognitive significance, and language comes laden with feeling. Understanding comes with assumptions of value, while values remain subject to argument and interpretation.

Consider my puzzle over the three photography exhibitions. One can reorient a debate by choosing banality over everyday reality, formlessness over disorder, disabuse over disappointment. And once artists get going, the associations one has with banal or formless may change as well. Esplund means to damn Currin by making black "an inert and aimless void," not to mention by conceding him the inheritance of nearly a century and a half of modern art. Wow. That sounds interesting.

. . . And the critique of banality

The connections may sound overwhelming and discouraging. Yet by allowing critics to express institutional concerns, I mean to give them a place in criticism. By ending with language and feeling, I mean words to sound hopeful as well. They offer a renewed place for interpretation.

I want to stick to the ideas and arguments that make art criticism persuasive and helpful, while acknowledging as well the institutions in which criticism, art, and judgment live. I want to accept argument and judgment, but only as long as one acknowledges their interdependence. In the media or conservative journals, values and ideas float freely of one another, making them too easy to impose. Let them engage, and trust readers to fend for themselves rather than end up as collateral damage.

Suppose one returns to those photographers, in order to give them a critical context. A pocket history of photography might describe Modernism as gloriously conscious of its subject. With Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and others in the early 1980s, the medium then became postmodern: it became more self-conscious. Finally, after the documentary impulse of Bernd and Hilda Becher, Thomas Struth, and others, it yearns to be conscious of everything and nothing at all. Glib as that may sound, too, I mean it all as a compliment.

The three exhibitions in New York offer uniquely American twists on the German escape from art history, the American postmodern engagement with it, and decades of formal responses to the nature of the medium. Maybe it makes sense that the native European among them photographs a former point of entry, at the airport.

In America, repetition often means neither an existential condition nor centralized, social control of urban, postindustrial Europe. It describes the diffused space of commercial culture. A departure from flatness invites the subject, photographer, and viewer to tease out differences and to create narratives of their own. And once one ventures such an understanding, judgment sneaks back in after all. Thurber may look weaker than the others, not because she stays too conceptual and too banal, but because the banality fails to live up to the psychoanalytic and social promise of her concept.

To end on something as, well, banal as photography, repetition has an artistic and cultural history. Like any history, it remains diverse, divided, and contentious. When Thurber takes the photographer off the couch, I can ask whose couch and whether I should care. When Opie takes American photography to the beach, she immerses it in a time, place, and light I want to forget but now sometimes cannot. When Morlinghaus revisits icons of pop culture and art history in the same shallow space, I want to linger until I find my own way into those pasts.

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Shelburne Thurber ran at Participant, Inc., through April 4, 2004, Catherine Opie at Gorney Bravin + Lee through April 10, and Christoph Morlinghaus at Roebling Hall through March 22. Raphael Rubinstein's column appeared March 2003 in Art in America. Lance Esplund's criticism of John Currin appeared May 2004 in Harper's.


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