A Preface to Criticism

John Haber
in New York City

Camille Corot and Writing for the Web

Once artists claimed to hold a mirror up to nature. Now they can make one feel trapped in a hall of mirrors. Is art attractive, frightening, or insular, in bad taste, or just dizzy along with me? Good art is itching for an argument.

My reviews have to argue, too. In particular, they argue for art in a postmodern culture. They ask how come "the art world" now means something tangible, Camille Corot's Genoa (Art Institute of Chicago, 1834)like a cross between a men's club and a public monument. They ask how art retains such power, even for postmodernists who think they know better.

My essays enter the hall of mirrors in another special way, too: they found their first readers online. I have filled not a book, but an online library. My tastes in art are pretty old-fashioned, but my themes are postmodern. This Web page will explain what that means to me, by visiting Camille Corot at the Brooklyn Museum.

For those who want to read more after this, a follow-up article (written fifteen years later) returns to why I write. I also point there to how a single review evolved, about Joan Miró. Related articles delve further into what critics do, what my own retinal surgery taught me about art and vision, and why art takes words.

I write for browsers

My channels of distribution have included the Web, e-mail, and even (I admit it) the printed page. Facebook and Twitter challenge any idea of historical and critical context, but I can live with that, too. I actually began, though, with CompuServe's former Fine Arts Forum around 1990. Whatever is good about my writing, I owe it to that small but insightful audience.

And, yes, the Web is a fancy, chaotic sort of vanity press. Even artists use it that way. I can take time to absorb art and ideas, without a deadline for publication.

I face some fancy, chaotic readers, too. They may have a knowledge of art history I cannot dare to match. They may be unconcerned for a critic's judgment—or all too pained by it. More than likely, they do not consider artspeak English, and they do not call New York the center of the universe. New York City will be in driving distance, but only on a virtual drive.

And they know where to find me to write back. Thankfully, many readers have become kind friends.

I can still offer a challenge

For them, I want to state tough ideas simply. I am in a long tradition. The New Criticism, Marxism, formalism, and psychoanalysis were buzz words at cocktail parties because they never minded the chatter. They hungered for a smart public.

Even the idea of a single humanity sounds odd to many now. Worse, the old guard no longer needs the word communist to write off ideas—or send creative minds into exile. If something violates common sense, it can seem like a violation of moral law. Hints of intellectual pretension, from deconstruction to academia, suffice as insults.

Can critics still be both philosophical and clear? I want to recreate long New Yorker articles when publishing cannot afford to print them. And I think I can.

I am not a journalist

In practice, art begins with lived experience. So look at some typical print journalism.

In September 1996, The New York Times reviewed an exhibition of Italian landscapes from the time of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Typically filed under Pre-Impressionism, Corot owes his popularity to soft-focus forest scenes. Before those works, however, he painted crisp, sun-struck views of Italy. Finished right on the scene in dry, extended strokes, they foretell Manet's pungent, airy plainness. They took chances with a young but vibrant tradition of open-air painting.

The Times recommended a show at the Brooklyn Museum, 130 works in that tradition, all scenes of Rome and its picturesque surrounding hills. Except for Corot, the critic found the names obscure but the oils instantly memorable. He wanted to take them home with him.

This was journalism at its best. It reported briskly, without gushing. It showed a taste not limited to an inner circle of artists and curators. It must have pulled visitors out to the museum, including the crowd that braved torrential rains along with me.

And I hated it. It told me absolutely nothing I needed to know. Worse, it did its best to ensure that I would never notice what I was missing.

I believe that critics after Modernism have to ask questions

Just what was going on at the Brooklyn Museum? Exactly why were so many plein-air painters unknown, and what were they doing at last in New York City? Had scholars been all that stupid? Was Corot working with other painters or against them, like Pissarro then joining younger men in the first Impressionist exhibition? Were academic traditions dying or giving young artists a chance? Or are those categories no longer even valid?

Modernism put faith in an avant-garde at odds with the art around it, and it began with landscape painting. Postmodern museums often set Impressionism alongside the studio art it derided or ignored. Or they try to revive other genres, such as still life and portraiture. Which story was unfolding out in Brooklyn? Perhaps neither. Perhaps Impressionism really stood for a forgotten mass movement. Or perhaps it marked a turning away from the movements of Corot's youth, away from their faith in visual experience.

Now, the paper's head critic, Michael Kimmelman, often reduces art to happy discoveries by outsize personalities. I do not expect The Times to give me answers, but I do expect to be provoked with questions. I want to know what it means to create works of new and lasting value. I want criticism, like art, to ask what a claim to be modern means.

I want to know how the beauty I see in a landscape collides with my expectations and with Corot's hopes. I want to know about the role of the museum in reshaping the past. I worry about who it once excluded and who it newly excludes, especially women as artists, self-possessed subjects, and viewers. I demand criticism in which "How nice!" is not a compliment.

I put my ideals—a feminist, postmodern art—on the spot

I believe I can do better. I know that critical judgment can hide some bothersome history. I want to make art exciting by making that history my own. I can favor art that is open-ended, contemporary, and creative—and give it a past. I do not have to stop at detachment: I can describe, and I can philosophize.

I say I can describe. If I communicate what I see and believe about art, judgments of taste will take care of themselves. From time to time art will impale me on them, but mistakes are productive of meaning too. I also say I can philosophize. I can give buzz words, like "shock art," a history.

Corot brought out some of my favorite questions:

These themes commit me to a skeptical modernity. They all share an ideal—that art and its viewers co-exist in a public space as well as in the private imagination. That ideal echoes throughout Modernism, Postmodernism, and their conflicts.

If a single argument lies scattered amid my essays and reviews, it is this:

Modernism and Postmodernism remain viable, but only because they retain the power to turn upon each other.

I fall between generations. Minimalism gave me my first exposure to art, structuralism my first taste of what it might mean. I absorbed a reverence for notions of high art, just as art around me was keeping the pedestal and throwing away the idol. I got happily lost in a new critical language, but just when art was making words sound slick and slangy. I want others to share my entrapment, because it stands for an entire period of art. If I have written clearly enough, they will not also suffer from any further befuddlement of my own making.

I am not a tastemaker

A flustered critic makes a poor tastemaker. Good! Newspapers offer short displays of good (or bad) taste—that "special something" added to the facts. They look for art pretty enough to take home, as if the gift shop came before the retrospective rather than at the end.

Think of The Times on Corot: its favorable judgment gives art decorative and spiritual uses unrelated to its origins and to its physical reality. Unfavorable judgments often treat art as for con artists or fools. In either case, the critics offer beliefs "safe" enough to allow 200-word reviews.

I think value judgments are a dime a dozen and mostly obnoxious. Opinions are cheap, and values floating free of the things they value have a bad flavor, like calls for moral values. No wonder Hilton Kramer, the insistent conservative critic, called his rag The New Criterion. Good criticism really is not primarily about judging. It is about explaining, starting with the hardest step of all, explaining things to oneself.

How can I stop myself from casual dismissal or awe before a work of art? I cannot. The instinct kicks in from street-corner art festivals to the Rothko Chapel. It fascinates even a video artist like Bill Viola. But at least I know that the artist, the reader, and the art, not to mention myself, almost always deserve better. I do not expect to drop tastes for theses, only to keep the two balls in the air at once. I want to pull the covers of judgment back long enough so that others may look beneath.

I do not believe in a criteria for art—only a passion

Everyone reads critics to find art worth seeing. Everyone wants a nudge, too, in figuring out why art might be worth seeing. Yet if values best emerge from conflict and confusion, it follows that criticism can have no "baseline."

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

What would a baseline resemble anyway? It certainly cannot look like any candidates I know—flatness or resemblance; goodness, purpose, or truth; multiform unity or lack of closure; liberation (political or spiritual) or truth. Not that the old dreams have lost their utility. Not at all. They continue to drive works of art every day. Rather, they have lost any serious claim to a clear, consistent, independent meaning that precedes the terms of the art.

Philosophers have dissolved baselines in many fields of thought. They have shown that any sufficiently rich system of logical rules contains paradoxes. Art resolves paradoxes, temporarily, but only by recasting the world in its own image. Conceptual art makes paradox its very subject matter.

Artists know anyway that their work is too complex for rules. With pride and regret, they see how little they resemble the creators they most admire. They handle the paradoxes every day, by attention to their art. A critic can handle them by keeping the conversation going or starting an argument.

In that limited sense, I do have a criterion: good art bears up well to being talked about, even hotly and repeatedly. If I have nothing to say, or if I can simply speak for the art, I soon turn away. I turn again to my themes—video art, art history, Postmodernism, politics, feminism, authenticity, and expression. And each time I ask again, why art criticism?, and why historians of art past and present?

I give the reader half a chance

Critics try too hard to avoid complexity, but they depend on it for a living. On the one hand, even monthly art magazines shy away from extended arguments. Besides, it is striking how few books by top art writers first appeared in Art in America since, oh, the early 1980s. On the other hand, magazines depend on a knowledgeable audience, just as do provocative, scholarly books.

My solution is shaped by the demands of an online medium: I give every reader a chance. I can hardly help it. I never managed to belong to the in-crowd myself. Artists I know personally, such as Christian Haub and other abstract painters, do not often get a show for me to review, but just as well. No doubt a good half of them would not read me to the end, and the other half would stop speaking to me.

I reread what I write dozens of times. I cut words for insiders alone. I chop sentences in half and keep paragraphs short. When I rely on other writers, I take it as an opportunity to explain their ideas and promote their books. I avoid footnotes, I hope without denying my indebtedness. Most important of all, I take off from a particular work of art, just as the art I most admire begins with concrete images and materials.

Occasionally I rush through a gallery, with time for a flippant word or two. Some art looks just too funny to pass by in silence—or too moving to speak about for long. Sometimes I indulge in extended book reviews. Arguments take time to unfold—like the art I love the most. However, my primary form, the review, runs about 1500 words or so. I think of it as having friends in for the weekend.

Oh, and what about Corot and the museum?

Corot's contemporaries make more sense as a footnote to his full retrospective (unmentioned by that Times review!) a month later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They follow a sharp turn toward open-air painting and flatter perspectives. It began well before even the great English painters, John Constable with his cloud studies and J. M. W. Turner with Turner seascapes and sublime. The artists on display in Brooklyn similarly laid down oils like watercolor, in large areas of blue and rapid cloud studies, beginning around 1750.

However, Corot also had to find a way out of English Romanticism, much less the academic heirs of Romanticism in France. Critics who paint Modernism as a crossroads leading back to the Romantics have it dead wrong. That is why he traveled to Italy in 1826, broadened his strokes, took less care for subject matter, and heightened his palette. This art brought the urban scene to landscape painting, with geometric Roman buildings that all but cry out "modern art!" It gave Corot's career a shot of adrenalin at age 30. Yet it also marked a dead end, and what Corot learned not to do in Rome had as lasting an impact as the art he embraced.

To the other artists in Brooklyn, a trip to Italy still stood as the mark of a complete education. They clung to traditional notions of landscape, a genre all but barren of human activity. Only in Paris and Gustave Courbet's Ornans would landscape come to represent modern life.

Inspired in part by Corot's late, cloudy forms, Monet was to create depth without underpainting. Corot's contemporaries in Rome start instead with outlines and overall tonal effects. Unable to see their sketches as finished art in its own right, they scumbled in trees that look weirdly like shrubbery. Their high vantage points and low horizons stand in sharp contrast to Impressionism's increasingly "all-over" images. Their all-male cast contrasts noticeably with the Impressionist circle.

Oh, yes, the Brooklyn Museum does see itself as on a mission of recovery. Its show, held in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, takes pride in forgotten names. Taking the myths head on, it places modern art in an unbroken tradition. Wrong! I saw lovely oils, but in the arrival and departure of Corot, I also clearly found a pair of sudden breaks.

I mean not a single, decisive break with tradition but a succession of broken purposes—all within Corot's lifelong aim of "truth to the landscape." And that is what Modernism and indeed history are all about. I think of evolution as the Stephen Jay Gould describes it: "punctuated equilibrium."

The museum's tactics beg for attention, and so do the origins of Modernism. Ironically, the museum begs for revisionism, but its story depends on a uniform tradition. That credo comes suspiciously to resemble Modernism's own planned agendas and elegantly crafted manifestos. It starts to turn museum holdings of art into (you guessed it) tradition.

The difficulty is to stop

I try simultaneously for clarity and complexity. I may instead fall between two stools. I am just an amateur philosopher and a weekend gallery-goer. I just hope that someone enjoys the combination.

In fact, I do not altogether mind if someone hates all the theory. I do not mind either if a tougher public finds my work pandering. Street-corner prophets do not pander either.

I am certainly not the first to write about ideas, and others have succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I cite my favorites—such Meyer Schapiro and many feminist critics—in other essays. I owe Tim Cooney thanks for developing the connections and disconnections between opinions and careful arguments. However, I have to mention that I take as a model Arthur C. Danto's criticism in The Nation. I do not know Danto, and he may not share my beliefs about the art world, but he squeezes so much into an ordinary exhibition review. When we both wrote about Cy Twombly, I took pride in finding that he too had focused on the artist's calligraphy. He was the first to send me back to Rauschenberg and Warhol, artists I had found glib in their later years.

Like the writers I cherish, I do not want pat judgments about the beautiful, and I do not want silence in front of art. I think of both extremes as sentimentality, two kinds of the ineffable. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, was addressing an entirely different problem, but he could be defending the kind of criticism I want to create:

Here we come up against a remarkable and characteristic phenomenon in philosophical investigation: the difficulty—I might say—is not that of finding the solution but rather that of recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only preliminary to it. "We have already said everything. Not that anything follows from this, no this is the solution!"

This is connected, I believe, with our wrongly expecting an explanation, whereas the solution of the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our considerations. If we dwell upon it and do not try to get beyond it.

The difficulty here is to stop.

I diverge from him only in thinking that one need never stop. Art never will.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

The exhibition of Roman landscapes ran in the fall of 1996 at The Brooklyn Museum, where Michael Kimmelman reviewed it. The Corot retrospective that same fall ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

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