What Is Constructive Criticism?

John Haber
in New York City

Old Critics and Young Artists

Big Words and Big Markets

On the Web, a young artist asked an embarrassing question: is constructive criticism really a good thing? Well, I pointed out, if it is a bad thing, then it is not constructive. Ever since, I have wanted another chance to explain, and this is it. It will take a detour into a critic's responsibility to contemporary art and art history as well.

In several past articles, I have pursued a theme of this site, why art takes words. I tried to explain why critics write, what they write about, and why they fail. I asked how an appreciation of Jan Vermeer emerges from the seemingly dry subject of attribution and what my own retinal surgery taught me about art and vision. This time, though, a fair answer might spend less time on the why and more on the how. What good is criticism, constructive or not, and how is a critic responsible for the state of the art? Contemporary styles inform judgments and understandings of the past, but historically informed criticism can illuminate both past and present. Dan Torop's Dan with Bird (Higher Pictures, 2002)

Take two cases—what one says to an emerging artist and how a critic or curator assigns blame for trends in art and philosophy. Jed Perl attacks a new museum in Los Angeles, while a photography exhibition, too, fears for critical standards regarding contemporary art. In a related review, I ask what can go wrong when contemporary reviewers judge past masters, including a recent retrospective of J. M. W. Turner.

Why say more?

Almost single-handedly, Gustave Courbet popularized an idea that still grips art, the rebel who does what he pleases. Still, Courbet loved adulation, and the longer the encomium, the more he liked it. Maybe he did not invent the whole idea of art as personal expression—as about you and nothing else. Still, the idea is a historical development. Many academically trained artists never accepted it, then or now, and it may not have outlasted modern art intact. Courbet already knew that a strong artist's personality and an artist's statement can define a career, but he knew, too, why art takes words from others as well.

Faced with that student, I wanted to say more, because he so obviously needed more than just an answer: he needed reassurance. He needed to know that he could keep making art. He needed to hear that teachers can never fit his art into words or his creativity into a mold. Maybe they never can, but that handy truism hides way too much about art and creativity alike. It can also stand in the way of an artist's putting old habits aside and stale clichés.

Art is a public act. Sure, you can create alone, leave stuff in your closet, and tune out the world. But almost all artists intend all along that their work appear in public. And once you make that commitment, art has become a form of communication. Maybe it was all along, as long as you relied on media and styles that others have shared, but people will react, whether you care or not. If you ignore them, you may miss something about yourself as well.

How artists respond is up to them. It can depend on the own stage in their work. Maybe they need to work out some things on their own. Maybe they have too much confidence in their style and imagery. But have they broken through or fallen into a rut? Artists will have to answer for themselves, but consider the kinds of critic that they often do seek out.

There is the audience, when you just have to share what you are doing, because you can no longer keep it to yourself. There is the mentor. Some go to school or to older artists to learn something specific, about technique, or to network. A lucky few can remember a special relationship, the kind that told them something essential about themselves. Still others have had the good fortune to find equals, sharing some aims but contesting and provoking others. They may find them in bars or in school, in collectives or artist colonies, in collaborators or the studio down the hall.

Sol LeWitt was there to tell Eva Hesse just to "do it." Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque knew what they meant to each other, and who really wants Paul McCartney's solo music more than the Beatles? Robert Rauschenberg recalled Rauschenberg's friendship with Jasper Johns as almost an obligation to bring something new each day. One of the most underrated living artists, Dorothea Rockburne, met Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College. They recognized the creative importance of their relationship even though their art has almost zilch in common. (Rauschenberg named his son Chris, and she named her daughter Christine.)

Breaking the spell

Beyond the good times, artists may want to hear what strangers think, because it breaks the spell. It makes them ask themselves whether what they want to say comes across. It should make them ask whether it even comes from within, rather than parroting sources from Salvador Dalí to Spiderman. It reminds them of the wonderful things that they can do but did not consciously articulate to themselves.

Every artist talks about others as well. You may, for example, love a local artist and hate the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and I may or may not agree, but the artist and the curators could easily call us both stupid. The easy part is knowing when to ask questions. The hard part is remembering not to hide from the answers—or to write them off as some obscure academic rule book. It could mean never exhibiting at all.

This article just happens to come near the start of a new season, with more than enough bad art and bad judgments to go around. Depending on your biases or your mood, it may seem like one extended installation or like "anything goes." Some compare the lack of a breakthrough movement to an academy, with academics aplenty to set its rules with their arcane talk. Yet an academy implies quite the opposite—a uniform ideology and style. By the 1970s, as "Action Abstraction" at the Jewish Museum brought thrillingly to life this summer, abstraction and figuration fought to claim the rights to just that. And the bewildering, fluid range of styles and media that followed responded to what artists felt as stifling constraints. I do not know the future of art, but it will not come by turning off one's brains or by following the Republican party platform in disdaining "elites."

Meanwhile critical theory hoped to break the grip of institutions, markets, and popular prejudices, by showing how closely they interpenetrated. If Modernism no longer delivered its glorious goods, perhaps it, too, fell into that grip. And of course institutions, markets, and prejudices responded by absorbing criticism, to the point that Postmodernism, too, can sometimes seem a period term from the last century. Donald Kuspit recently insisted on the conservative case yet again, dumping (so to speak) on Andres Serrano for his photographs of excrement. Kuspit does so by spotting the word "advanced" in both blurbs hyping consumer trends and art criticism. Even were he not unfairly putting that word in the mouth of critics, he would be privileging advertising language while exploiting a cheap play on words, like a tenth-rate imitator of deconstruction himself.

Because art is public, like speech, no one can fathom all that it says, not even the artist. People will talk, and an artist—or the market—can choose to listen or not. All this talk can miss the point, or it may not. Perhaps only the artist can say for now, but others may yet have the last word. Consider next one experienced and articulate hater firmly on Kuspit's side. It may seem paradoxical that a student fearing judgment and a conservative critic missing old-fashioned good taste should share a common enemy, but the paradox points to the mistake in both.

Perl's hallelujah

"Exhibitions of Keith Haring's paintings don't happen every day." I cannot speak for you, but when I read that in The Times one June Friday, I wanted to cue the "Hallelujah Chorus." But can the chorus ever grow too loud? Artists are not the only ones who wish critics would shut up. Jed Perl, for one, blames them for everything he hates about contemporary art.

Two interesting writers, Ben Davis and Johanna Drucker, have mixed sympathies for artists "complicit" with mass culture. Perl, however, blames one museum after another for having let art sink to the level of a tawdry spectacle. Writing in The New Republic, he dismisses the recently opened Broad Contemporary Art Museum, in Los Angeles, as the taste of a collector too easily seduced by fashion. (I have not seen it, so he very well could be right.) This leads him through a litany of bogeymen very much like my own. That includes Richard Prince and Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim, Takashi Murakami in Brooklyn, and Jeff Koons on the roof of the Met—and seemingly everywhere on Wilshire Boulevard.

I could just thank him, and then move on. The politics of art makes strange bedfellows. At least we agree that money puffs up private collectors and public fads. I have to wonder, though, what vision of art Jed Perl is so eager to protect.

At the very least, Perl is disingenuous. He asks how Renzo Piano, architect of the Whitney Museum expansion in the Meatpacking District and Broad's extension to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, could have betrayed his promise after the glory of the Menil Foundation. One would never know that Perl slammed Piano two years before, for his remodeling of the Morgan Library. Piano, Perl imagines, adds that august enclave to the decline of western civilization. One would never know, too, that Perl has criticized MoMA's commitment to contemporary art. If one hopes to wall off rare books from the twentieth century and modern art from the present, why even bother singling out Broad?

Piano has become the museum architect du jour—but to explore why would raise genuine issues about trends, influence, money, and institutions. Perl prefers to lament a decline in standards, with his article's only benchmarks a half-forgotten collector of early twentieth-century abstract painting and the Barnes Foundation. Now if only museums showed enough fat, pink nudes, civilization could right itself at last.

Is it really necessary to dismiss art since Pierre-Auguste Renoir in order to criticize celebrity artists. And is it really as simple as replacing critical equivocation with sound esthetic judgment? This simplistic scheme comes up again and again among critics like Perl, Roger Kimball, Barry Gewen, and Raphael Rubinstein. It will keep coming up, too, so long as conservatives refight the culture wars.

Deconstruction and design

They have to do just that, in art as in politics. They have to do it, because it papers over contradictions in their defense of wealth concentrated in free markets and private hands. "Cosmological Embeddedness," a fascinating and not in the least political summer group exhibition, nonetheless does much the same thing. It calls its photographs a tribute to what Charlene Spretnak has termed "the resurgence of the real," in opposition to deconstruction and intelligent design.

This has to be the first time ever that deconstruction, a philosopher's critique of metaphysics, has been allied with Christian fundamentalism. The curators worry that art and philosophy have put concepts so far above facts that they lose the right to criticize even creationism. They think that assaults on stale ideologies have made belief in anything impossible, especially in art. By this kind of reasoning, one could blame the scientific method itself for intelligent design. Hallelujah!

Thankfully, the show stands out for some heartfelt but strikingly conceptual photography. When Danielle Van Ark's stuffed man-monkey contemplates a museum cabinet, he could be speaking for many a critic or curator. Meanwhile Grant Willing's scientists open up a futuristic panorama, while Jerry Spagnoli's fish eye buries a protest demonstration in a avalanche of skyscrapers and artificial light. Sergei Sviatchenko's moose departs for an alien civilization composed of a woman's lips, Matt Ducklo's blind woman feelingly imagines a withered Burgher of Calais by Auguste Rodin, Dan Torop bonds with a pigeon, and Henry Horenstein treats a cownose ray as a sock puppet. If these are just the facts, Sergeant Friday really does work for LAPD.

These photographs typify contemporary art at its best—in the imaginative meeting of ordinary and extraordinary things. As it happens, Perl traces his problems to Rauschenberg's "stupid and incoherent" combine paintings. And there he has a point. Without Rauschenberg, such an imaginative meeting would be impossible—not only in those photographs, but in the best art of the last fifty years. Without so many disjunctions, too, one could not look critically on ordinary life. One might have to give up judging real problems in the art scene as well.

While conservative voices have ample access to the public, deconstruction is no longer all that pressing in academia. Yet it started as a close reading of philosophy and western literature—the same kind of close attention that critics and artists should be paying to art and institutions. Back in 1994, I named this webzine "Postmodernism and Art History," because I wanted to connect often-abstruse institutional critiques to the day-to-day experience of art. I eventually dropped that dated and pretentious title, thank goodness. When Perl complains that "exhibitions are now treated as if they were colonial occupations," though, he sounds like a postmodern critic of colonialism himself.

The student and Perl both try, not terribly logically, to blame thinking too hard for a giddy art market that excludes them. The job of critics is not to stop telling stories or analyzing what they see: it is to recover the narrative and to ratchet up the analysis. It is also why I write. Recovering past and present takes work and words, not just good taste or a young artist's dreams.

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The student posed his question online at ArtBistro, where I am a contributing writer. Donald Kuspit was writing in ArtNet for September 11, 2008, and Jed Perl's article appeared in The New Republic for June 25. "Cosmological Embeddedness" ran at Higher Pictures through July 3.


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