The Moral Impermissibility of Art

John Haber
in New York City

She said all I had to do was sit naked on a metal stool in the middle of the room and then, if I felt lie it, which she was hoping I would, dip my body into a vat of kosher cow's blood and roll on the large white sheets of paper provided.
     . . . I thanked her very much for the offer but said I was going to have to turn it down since I was scheduled to sit on my thumb and rotate in accordance with the movements of the earth around the sun. She was disappointed. But she seemed to understand.

     —Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Dumping on Art Since 1900

This site has dealt with more than enough diatribes against contemporary art—so many that I know the formula by heart. Forgive me, then, if I repeat it by rote. After all, Barry Gewen does, in The New York Times Book Review.

His own version may pass for a review of several books, one a weighty textbook on Art Since 1900. At its heart, however, it stages a morality play for the improvement of all. Gewen calls it "State of the Art," and he sees that as a state of serious disrepair. Hal Foster et al.'s (Thames and Hudson, 2005)

Criticism by rote

The diatribe starts, of course, with preposterously bad art, the kind that only those wimpy liberals and their sadly declining standards could permit. How about decapitated chickens, say, or that reliably annoying standby, Damien Hirst? Why, even the janitor in Hoxton Square knew enough to cart his installation out with the garbage.

Naturally wiser souls gave up on the whole thing years ago, back when Michael Fried denounced Minimalism as theater rather than art. Ah, but his voice fell on deaf ears, and Fried could do nothing but abandon criticism entirely for art history. He has taken comfort in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when artists knew the value of academic training, heroic subjects, and moral themes. Admirable conservatives as central to the contemporary scene as Hilton Kramer still press their warnings, with the persistence of Old Testament prophets. They alone remember when someone like Clement Greenberg or Harold Rosenberg could command respect for art's higher calling.

Graciously, God has not further punished the remnants of art's lost tribes. Perhaps mere gallery-going serves as punishment enough. However, things have grown so obvious that the left—yes, even the left—is catching on. The editors of October have joined forces for a major textbook, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. And they, too, end in despair, as Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh join for a concluding "roundtable." They see art reduced to a mere commodity, serving those with more means than understanding.

This part of the story gives the right-wing narrator a twofer. He can note their hypocrisy or resignation in conceding the cause to conservatives, while dismissing them as knee-jerk lefties. This requires no quotes, much less serious discussion. Everyone knows that the left would rather trumpet its politics than look at art. Reference to postmodern theories as "incomprehensible" or "jargon-ridden" needs no proof in this day and age.

Now comes the real story—a decline not just in art, but in criticism. Still not convinced that "anything goes," no doubt straight to hell? Arthur Danto runs the philosophical show now, and his "loosey-goosey" world will accept anything as art on the artist's say-so. "Hedonistic" as it sounds, all the critic can do is to echo the artist's intentions. Danto himself may sense "moral impermissibilities," but best not to dwell on them. Any weakness might bring back Greenberg's "coherence" and "stability"—and that would have to mean "standards" and "limitations."

Fortunately, even this sad story has a happy ending, as morality plays must. Some artists still display "personal responsibility." They may not please "art snobs" and other liberal elites who "refuse to experience" art. However, those willing to seek out a handful of artists, including one "little known in the United States," will find their reward.

The vicious circle

I wish I could say that I had made this up, including the words in quotes. I easily could have. I have already agonized enough over Anita Brookner's crisis of belief, Robert Alter's fear for common sense, Roger Kimball's suspicion of politics in art and his ignorance of real art-world politics, Raphael Rubinstein's demand for judgment, John Armstrong's fear of ideas period when it comes to evaluating art, Dave Hickey's deference to the market, and the wish of Jed Perl to preserve Modernism uncontaminated by its future—or its past. I do not like repeating myself, and I wanted to ignore this new incarnation of the debates entirely. I managed to keep silent this same fall when the Book Review gave rare cover attention to a much different modern-art textbook—one with the proper tale of decline and fall. Jed Perl wrote that book, which John Updike dismissed as "warm air," and Barry Gewen just happens to serve as an editor of the book section.

However, Gewen does more than compress a distressing number of fallacies into one brief article. He also adds an enlightening twist of his own. To his credit, his three closing examples praise just the sort of living artists that conservatives love to hate. I, too, found The House with the Ocean View, a twelve-day performance by Marina Abramovic in late 2002, "a gift of spirituality without the doctrines, rituals, or consolations of religion." I, too, returned again and again to The Gates to rediscover, thanks to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a sense of release in familiar, public spaces. I have never taken Sam Taylor-Wood seriously, but maybe next time I shall.

Yet, much as Gewen may deride critics who substitute description for judgment, attention to detail may not hurt either aim. His awe at The Gates sounds impressive, but one not yet so inspired may still ask what he saw. Moreover, his closing just happens to circle back to his initial ridicule. Abramovic contributed mightily to the early performance art that still makes me squeamish, even if her latest "erotic rituals" make me laugh instead. Taylor-Wood, like Hirst, counts as a Young British Artist, and The Gates made all of Central Park into theater. Without wishing to tease out again in gory detail the difficulties of defining art and judgment, let me try at least quickly to see what goes wrong, and it all comes down to that vicious—or perhaps I should say virtuous—circle.

Abramovic does belong in both contexts. Like her extended fast three years ago, all that attention to the body decades ago—in performances involving cuts, blood, and those chickens—does break the rules, and the artists knew it. Their work disturbs the separation between art and the viewer and between art and life. It asserts an authentic ground for art, in physical experience, just when art seems lost in images, especially from mass culture. At the same time, by shocking if not threatening the viewer's way of life, it questions common-sense notions of authenticity and experience. When Chris Burden attempted a crucifixion or Ana Mendieta left traces in blood of her own body, they upset the terms of religion or gender that one uses to define oneself, too.

This art dares one to look without or within, and it insists that one might find something frightening and unexpected rather than spiritual. That something will not identify itself easily with subjectivity or hedonism either. This art may violate critical standards, but it already reflects on the state of the art, on the possibility that anything goes, and it does not provide an answer. I may not like this work myself, but I cannot hide behind to a ready-made definition of art. Even more, I cannot use the definition of art as a short-cut to understanding it or to judging it.

Hirst, too, stays one step ahead of many critics: he planned the trashing of his show in advance, say several reports. He was playing to a viewer's low expectations, he obviously succeeded in trapping Gewen's. He mocked the idea of an installation as art, and he called it art anyway. I find Hirst tedious, bombastic, and just plain silly, much like those earlier performances. However, I cannot dismiss him as ducking criticism or the hard questions.

Loading the dice

Gewen makes other misstatements, besides his slip about Hirst, and they, too, have a way of loading the dice. People did not ignore Fried's criticism, although it may not appear as topical as Gewen thinks some forty years later. Rather, they looked to his notion of the theatrical for insight into their own experience of Minimalism. Fried himself turned to art history in order to construct a narrative about the origins of modern art. He in fact extended theater, now shorn of pejorative connotations, to describe representational art before Modernism. Gewen sees only Fried's earlier happy separation between the contemplative viewer and the work of art, but Fried did more than anyone to erode that model.

A turn from criticism to history may mean more anyway than an abdication of the present. It may signal how critical insight is informing art-historical scholarship more than ever. Many of my favorite scholars, like Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg, have written about both past and present. They serve as a model for this Web site as well.

Gewen's race through art criticism loads the dice, too, by shifting casually from critic to critic, even when they positively hated one another. Hilton Kramer never had a central role, other than to keep New York Times readers out of galleries and, later, in creating an organ for a rising conservative political movement, since he despised everything he saw in postwar American Modernism. Rosenberg, who died back in 1978, had his own picture of decline and fall—with Greenberg's formalism as a culprit. Greenberg himself had his greatest influence as a theorist of postwar art. Once he lived up better to Gewen's ideal, as judge and delimiter, he became a monarch in his time but a period piece to many in the next generation. Thankfully, those early essays still stand, and so does the art he championed.

Danto's razor-sharp mind and roots in the Anglo-American style of "analytic" philosophy will not come across as "loosey-goosey" to most readers. He judges all the time as a critic in The Nation, and he does not back off from his opinions. He does not subordinate interpretation to the artist's intention, which sounds awfully like the old intentional fallacy to me, although as curator he has cherished his artists' personal responses to 9/11. Rather, he argues against tired definitions of art—in terms of an artist's self-expression, a viewer's spiritual discoveries, formal qualities, or anything else.

Those definitions fail, Danto argues, not because critics have suddenly become accepting. Rather, he questions the very possibility of distinguishing between an art object and an identical counterpart outside the gallery. The "indiscernibility" of art from other objects in the world may sound loosey-goosey, but it amounts to a loosey-goosey epistemology and not a loosey-goosey criticism. It even demands interpretation and judgment. Even when "all things are lawful," as Paul observed, they do not all "edify," and one had better give darn good reasons why or why not.

At each step, Gewen conflates the problem of defining art and the inevitability of judging it, and he reduces each to a simple moral choice. That moralism underlies his loaded vocabulary, too, of responsibility, hedonism, and anything goes. Throughout, he allows labels to substitute for argument. Not surprisingly, his vocabulary echoes a particular moral perspective, that of the Republican noise machine, with its sneering at the left and pretend elites. Apparently one must judge, but not while disdaining the status quo.

Four-way street

Gewen never does hint at the definition of art that critics have somehow overlooked. It would have to encompass what he calls the "carnival" of The Gates but not Hirst's dyspeptic human comedy, Abramovic when she displays her starving, naked body but not when she pulls out the razor blade. Perhaps he wishes art to set human misery itself off-limits, but not a saintly self-depravation. Nor does he bother actually to review the rest of the textbook on modern art. He writes as if it bore the title Art Since 1960, and he does not consider the four authors' distinct approaches that come together in the concluding roundtable. Perhaps even to attempt it would subject art's foundations to scrutiny, along with his own moral foundations.

Oh, and speaking of scrutiny, what about that book under review? I do not feel competent to judge almost nine hundred pages of text on a hundred years of history, especially as a new acquaintance. I have only first impressions—just enough to see how much Art Since 1900 departs from the script. I cannot promise that it works other than as a provocative refresher course for people like me. Yet those anticipating a revisionist art history may feel let down, and those fearing leftist didacticism will encounter instead four authors with four sets of questions. Their points of view emerge strongly, but as part of a dialogue.

Foster and his colleagues stick to a kind of postmodern canon, with the usual textbook heroes, augmented by an austere selection from the last twenty-five years. It makes even the Museum of Modern Art, much less standard texts, look loosey-goosey. Such departures from Greenberg territory as Balthus or prewar American art, even Edward Hopper, pretty much disappear. Among the Abstract Expressionists, only Pollock and Barnett Newman get individual attention apart from the movement as a whole. The authors' Cubist-derived canon leads them to prefer quieter hues in the illustrations as well, although the photographs stand out for their fidelity of tone and color, even by textbook standards. (I do wish that the captions said where to see the originals.)

Almost as traditionally, feminism appears full-blown only in the 1970s, with Laura Mulvey's essay on cinema and Judy Chicago. Peggy Guggenheim has a sidebar as Pollock's dealer, but a feminist or multicultural icon like Frida Kahlo receives only passing reference, as do such distractions along the way as Lee Krasner. When feminist appropriation pops in, it comes under the more dignified heading of post-structuralism.

The text marches through the century chronologically rather than as a set of theses, but here, too, a traditional choice masks an untraditional austerity. Instead of large chapters on Modernism's movements, it presents grouped essays of just a few pages each. Most tackle a single year, often as the story of a single exemplary artist. Four opening chapters provide a thematic introduction. And yet already one should hear the authors talking to one another, and they like most to talk about ideas. Think of the points of view and the dialogue alike as ways of shaking the reader's foundations.

Those unsigned chapters represent the four authors' interests—psychoanalysis, the social history of art, formalism, and deconstruction. The postmodern choices closely follow the theoretical discoveries and rediscoveries that gave birth to October magazine. So does the alignment of formalism with structuralism rather than, say, Greenberg and an older school. They amount to a point of view, but not a single point of view or one closed forever to revision.

Falling into amnesia

Frequent cross-references from year to year, including past and present, return one to the theoretical trappings. They also pursue the relative novelty of starting the story as late as 1900 and ending with artists today. Other textbooks, too, could stand to catch up on the last couple of decades. Mostly, however, the cross-references, flagged with icons in the text and dates at the bottom of the page, suggest artists, past critics, and of course the authors constantly talking back. Such artists as Matisse and Picasso do not so much learn from or rival one another: rather, they "respond" to each other—or even, in proper postmodern fashion, "read" each other.

Like deconstruction itself, these features have a way of dispersing meaning and attention in every direction. The authors may have formed their canon some time ago. They really do take interest in contemporary art, however, and they really do ask questions. Personally, I still like the hoary old textbook on Modern Art by Sam Hunter and John M. Jacobus, just entering a new edition with the addition of Daniel Wheeler, for its breadth of scholarship. I also like the survey for general readers by John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art, for its generous judgments. However, others may find them complacent, and how often do textbook writers pose difficult questions beyond an end-of-chapter review?

The four introductions race through plenty of writers, sometimes stopping to scrutinize a quotation from one to see if it still makes sense. This approach can isolate passages unfairly, where the past deserves a more generous and sweeping analysis. It also may not give readers enough time to form an impression of the field before it slips away before their eyes. However, it definitely keeps one asking questions about the function of art. They would not easily tolerate an economist like David Galenson, with a market model for artistic genius.

Gewen will not tell you that the final roundtable ends with open questions, too. He will not tell you that the final question concerns whether a textbook's own urgent reminders of the past still matter, given the "amnesia" of culture now, driven by knowing the price of everything. He certainly seems not to have noticed a second roundtable earlier in the book. That one puzzles, among other things, over the continued relevance of MoMA's original mission. In other words, the authors never stop questioning their own commitments.

The point of view in Art Since 1900 must already seem left over from before 1990, back when one could safely describe the present as postmodern. More troubling, its openness to different points of view can grow daunting. Starting with theory may prove the worst of both worlds, both more close-minded than leaping into art and more difficult than teaching through example. A glossary at the back does more to underscore the occasional overuse of jargon than to make one comfortable with it.

I cannot imagine a newcomer figuring out the theorists or falling in love with modern art this way. Then again, for all I know some student of the future will find art and ideas alike as familiar as hypertext when presented this way. And the roundtables may get you talking, too. Regardless, these authors know enough to fear only one kind of decline and fall—falling into amnesia about the provocations of the past. Elsewhere, Foster has sharply attacked The Times and its head critic for just that.


No doubt every generation tells its own myth of the fall. For the Renaissance, a decline followed Classical art. For others, it began with Modernism—or perhaps with America's "stealing" the idea of the avant-garde. No doubt every generation needs a myth of the recent past in order to articulate its own future. No doubt, too, the myth will always find a receptive audience, in a broader public for whom art looks weird. In the best of worlds, this would encourage tolerance for critics with the clarity and insight to explain as well as to judge.

However, for many Americans, especially American conservatives, the very attempt to interpret art can look instead like an abdication of judgment. With the definition of art at best frayed around the edges, they look to good taste to stitch the fabric back together. They wish, too, to keep the past safe from the encroaching present-day decline, as when Gewen separates Fried the art historian from Fried the critic. They imagine art as a horde, like the barbarians at the gate, ready to flood the galleries the moment one lets one's guard down. The idea that some art thrives because someone, wisely or not, admires it seems never to have entered their minds.

The politics of fear accounts for Gewen's equation of dismay at contemporary art from right and left. One side dismisses irresponsible artists. The other attacks the commercialization under which artists work—and under which Chelsea grows to messianic proportions. Gewen wants the attacks but not the substance of that criticism. It might undermine his notion of fine art, as above all that, as "an invitation to people to be exuberant, open, childlike, naive, sweet." Perhaps an attack on commodity culture and concern for those who have to live on an artist's income would not sit well with the Times's advertising base.

I have had my own, I hope, respectful disagreements with Fried, Foster, Krauss, and Danto—without whom I would sound, if possible, still more clueless. However, I cannot restore the fabric. In fact, as part of its greatness, The Gates cannot either. In a review, I had trouble naming a definition of art that it supports. Abramovic might, too, given the mock title of her video at MoMA, Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful. She might call not certain art morally impermissible, but the whole project of esthetics that the morality play wishes to revive.

Perhaps Ludwig Wittgenstein first unraveled the threads, when he wrote about "family resemblances," and he did not even blog on ArtBistro:

You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. . . . For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!

When art unravels, it did not so much destroy its character as allow one to look at what was already there—to see the elements of the series as they endlessly recombine. Even The Anti-Esthetic can become an esthetic.

Starting with bad art always sounds silly. What makes some examples representative of anything other than the writer's contempt? Besides, when art takes chances, it makes mistakes, and reviewers may then also make mistakes in dismissing the unfamiliar. Conversely, artists and critics can make the biggest mistake of all by not taking chances. The sadness at the end of Art Since 1900 amounts to concern whether they still can. Gewen's perceptive ending makes me hope so, but everything else in his morality play makes me doubt that he will applaud when they do.

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"State of the Art" by Barry Gewen appeared in The New York Times Book Review for December 11, 2005. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh was published in 2005 by Thames & Hudson.


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