Criticism and Art History

John Haber
in New York City

When Critics Recite the Press Kit

When it comes to art history, art fans can lose their bearings. Even savvy critics become oddly gullible or oddly critical. Either way, they can be singularly uninformed. Faced with a museum blockbuster, they want to rate the artist. Faced with biases, omissions, or obscure beauties, they often crib from the press kit.

Are they lazy, ignorant, or just doing their job? Maybe a little of each, and so I am, but one thing is for sure: when critics see the past solely through the eyes of its caretakers in the present, readers miss out. They miss why artists made it into the textbooks in the first place. They miss the power of museums and curators to shape what the public knows. Most of all, they miss the chance to help others, with the context that keeps both past and present alive. Tullio Lombardo, Bacchus and Ariadne (Kunsthistorisches Museum, c. 1505)

Consider two examples, from two long, hot, lazy summers. Reviewing little-known Renaissance sculpture, one of the best New York Times critics repeats a museum's boasts. Reviewing J. M. W. Turner the year before, the same paper's head critic sized him up like an emerging shock artist. Each has lost a sense of history, and each has fallen afoul of a museum's influence. Criticism can do more—and it matters.

Forget the High Renaissance

Take the case of a particularly knowledgeable and gifted critic. If he can let you down, you can guess how often others will. Chances are, unless you care deeply about the past, you skipped a review in The Times one summer Friday. If you did not, you must have felt it as a personal challenge.

Holland Cotter was praising wildly "An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture." Sound unfamiliar? Cotter makes a point of just that:

The sculptors who produced them were contemporaries and influential colleagues of Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian and that perturbed antiquarian Andrea Mantegna of Padua. And these artists were just as celebrated in their day, though their names are only vaguely recognized now.

How soon they forget—but just who is responsible for the forgetting?

As Cotter insists, "fashions changed." Fashions always do, and every era has its biases, including this one and its art critics—who I believe spend way too much of their time passing judgment rather than looking, listening, and explaining. Still, textbooks claim to reflect what the Renaissance itself thought about art. Are they lying? Or has art history recently discovered a new and startling fashion? And why do these sculptures all look half-asleep?

Warning signals should be going up all over the place—starting with Cotter himself:

We don't know whom most of the dozen sculptures in the show depict, or what they were meant to express, or whom they were made for. As often as not, we have to guess at the artists' names.

Yet patrons, artists, and what they mean define history, like the petty rulers with another forgotten court sculptor, Antico. They are also what people valued as their history. I once devoted a trip to churches with altarpieces by Bellini, and those churches and their worshippers shaped a great city.

Could these sculptors have had a broad public, too, but without leaving their mark on Venice's stones, towers, rituals, and myths? The answer is no, and The Times was all but repackaging the press kit as criticism. A show titled "Forgotten Italian Sculpture You Will Never See Again" would not draw crowds, and curators make a career by caring about what they do. That gives Washington's National Gallery strong reasons to make bold claims. It does not give a critic the excuse to take those claims for granted, any more than claims for a a supposed preteen Michelangelo. And yet it happens again and again.

Why does it happen? For one thing, even smart, diligent journalists develop cozy relationships with institutions, starting with an advance look at the scholarly catalog accompanying a show like this. Think of coverage of the Bush administration's run-up to war. A paper's dependence on galleries and museums for advertising can play a role, but upbeat news may not mean anything venal. I review more often the museums that invite me to openings and the dealers whom I have come to know. I try to watch myself, but it happens, believe me.

Forcing the past into the present

Sheer laziness plays a role, too, when critics quote press materials. That same day in The Times, Karen Rosenberg described sound art that "corresponds to the natural resonance of our planet." Now, the earth does have a magnetic field. Because of it, the earth's ionosphere has a series of peaks in its background spectrum. Finding that out takes work, though—and so does learning how that led to some very silly New Age music. There is always the press kit.

Besides, critics are not scholars, and their work may reflect an implicit assumption, widely shared by artists and the public, that they should not know more. Most of us got into this line of work because we love art, especially contemporary art, and love to write. It can cause us to review artists of the past as if they were emerging artists with some puzzling quirks, as The Times did for J. M. W. Turner the summer before. It can cause us to parrot the press kit. In fact, things can get worse when we go off on our own. Take the reviews of Turner.

Roberta Smith in The Times dumped on British art's signature Romantic, calling him prone to slick repetition. In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl wrote him off as the Damien Hirst of his day, with "arbitrary audacities" and "drawing like bathtub decals." Turner might even have liked the parallel. Still, it has a way of erasing history—including modern history, which once adopted Turner for Abstract Expressionism. It makes Turner sound downright postmodern. Not too long before that, Cotter interestingly praised art's premier classicist, Nicolas Poussin, as a proto-Romantic.

The real Turner evolved from startlingly light, crisp architectural studies to something that practically melts in one's hands. Even then, he emulated nature beneath the rays of light and gloom. The press of his day termed it all shapeless, course, and crude. It missed what his strange combination of styles means. He lent fire and mist the texture, density, scale, and sheen of history painting. And that remaking of vision as history helped define art right through today.

The real Poussin understood Baroque traditions of poetic, moralized landscape. He also spurred the nascent French Academy. Yet he felt growing estrangement from France and sought peace in the ruins of ancient Rome. And none of that foretells what did change more than a century later with Romanticism and then Modernism. Like Turner, Poussin just will not fit into today's categories of academic or alienated, rebel or careerist. Maybe he does need a boost from the press kit.

In different ways, great artists of the past find themselves measured against a present that they would never recognize. The problem only gets worse, now that Modernism is history. It leaves connections that run through art today more and more obscure. Do journalists stuck reviewing dead white males just need a remedial text in art history? Have they been bearing grudges since required college survey courses? Perhaps both, but the sloppy criticism reveals something else interesting about contemporary values as well.

Why ignorance is not bliss

Every so often, cultural critics take a break from complaining about art to complaining about art writers. The right finds them too politically correct to judge art honestly. The left finds them too busy celebrity watching. (Schjeldahl made his reputation at The Village Voice by hyping contemporary artists like Hirst.) One side sees artists and theorists lost in a rarefied world of ideas. The other sees an art scene too wrapped up in glossy ads for what I should do with my weekend.

It is easy to dump on critics as uninformed and markets as corrupt, because now and again they are. Still, could certain other habits of art criticism mess things up much more? First, the gap between arts practice and art history keeps growing. I know museum-goers who avoid the twentieth century, and I know living artists who find dead white males and females just plain boring. I created this webzine to bridge audiences like these. I am writing this article for the same reason.

Second, with contemporary work, one had better read the press release. After all, an artist can turn anything into conceptual art, and you need to know the intent before you can recognize the concept. In contrast, the historical record does not boil down to one double-spaced page. And the more tastes in modern and contemporary art change, the harder some past art is to boil down. Sometimes it pays to supply critical ideas—and a little history. Readers may not have patience for my attempts, but I try.

Newspapers, like blogs, are used to judging, when some things take explaining. A very fine comment from Edward Winkleman, the Chelsea dealer and author of How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery, reminds me why I so admire Roberta Smith and Cotter, even when I argue back. For all the pressure on them to track the new, Winkleman notes, Times reviews of his gallery generally appear late in a show's run. That gives Smith in particular time for a return visit and careful questions. Museum reviews, in contrast, appear on or before opening day, based on a press preview. Because critics have to meet deadlines, they just may not have time for more.

All that makes it hard for critics to empathize with Tullio Lombardo or Turner. It also makes it hard for them to step back from museum blockbusters. Why, a good critic should ask, does a show of Fra Angelico rely on photographs for his major work, and does it matter? Why must the Met celebrate the money it spent under its last director, Philippe de Montebello? Why does a show about Caravaggio in Lombardy include work neither by Caravaggio nor painted in Lombardy?

Artists always draw on the past, and they draw on it selectively. So do scholars and critics. They steal what they like and dismiss the rest, which in turn brings past artists in and out of fashion. Harold Bloom has made all that his theory of artistic creation. A more historically aware form of journalism can understand the changes in fashion. It has the potential to recover the past and to shake up the present.

Venetian art's fashionable future

Changes in art change how critics write about art history. But do past masters have bloated reputations that no longer speak to today, or can working critics no longer speak to the past? Sometimes, but neither version tells the whole truth. Writers do not have to accept what they are told or challenge it like the latest thing. Even when a review gets the facts right, it can leave important questions unexplored. It can also leave a museum-goer's experience poorer.

A little skepticism when it comes to the press release can rescue art from the museum. At the same time, a little skepticism can make one appreciate artists all the more—even dead artists. Take the real place in history of Venetian painting and sculpture. Sure, fashions change, and people forget. Yet the Renaissance left plenty of evidence about what it valued. Back then, memory was as urgent as making art.

As Cotter says, oil came late to the party, and it did change things. It thrived thanks to Bellini and Titian—but also thanks to the moist air of Venice, in which fresco peeled and tempera on wood panel cracked. And the portability of canvas did suit a private trade. Still, historians can at least begin to name the traders. Boston's Museum of Fine Art has recently compared two generations of Venetian painting, including Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. One can see rebellion and changes in fashion, but also influence and rivalry.

Paolo Veronese had enough of a public presence to get hauled before the authorities for his Feast in the House of Levis. The trail is even longer and clearer in Florence, where a young Michelangelo sketched after Giotto. Sculpture drove painting from the start, and painting did not erase its memory. New York got to see Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise just six months ago. Now the Met turns to work by, perhaps, a twelve-year-old Michelangelo. If, as I believe, someone else painted that panel about fifty years later, that, too, would attest to the hold of past generations on the Renaissance imagination.

Tullio Lombardo does not represent an unfashionable past: he had a jump start on a fashionable future. Venice was succeeding as a center of trade beyond its wildest hopes. That created new homes, along with a market for sculptural decoration, personal tastes, and private stories. That explains why the Venetian sculpture looks so languid, almost like a Pre-Raphaelite work of the 1850s. Sculpture was translating High Renaissance and Mannerist ideals into common tastes.

The National Gallery has latched onto a real truth but also a half truth, out of pure public relations. And once more a critic has bought it hook, line, and sinker. Readers are not scholars either, and they may not tolerate more of a lecture. For all that, a review can do better. I want to bring to art anything I can learn. In the process, I want to broaden a reader's enjoyment and experience—and my own.

BACK to John's arts home page

Holland Cotter was writing in The New York Times for July 17, 2009, and Roberta Smith for July 4, 2008. The paragraphs concerning her originally appeared as part of my own review of a J. M. W. Turner retrospective. A related review looks further at a theme of this site, why art takes words and not just looking, with the responsibility of contemporary critics for both emerging and overblown art.


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