Rant of the Week: Art Critics Suck Edition

February 8, 2010 · Print This Article

Ah, I’ve been wanting to bring back this little Rant of the Week column for awhile now, but have been stymied by either a) lack of good material or b) lack of time to scour the internet in search of good material. But today’s rant is a two-fer, or a three-fer, or something…anyway it’s good, it’s still sorta fresh, and although it’s easy enough to find on your own via the art twit- and blogosphere I present the following, for those of you who are not already aware of the Jerry Saltz vs. John Yau smackdown.

Here’s some quick background: Last December Jerry Saltz wrote a column in New York magazine praising Jeff Koons’ Puppy as the art work of the aughts–or the naughts–or the whatevers!– and Koons himself as “the emblematic artist of the decade—its thumping, thumping heart.” Saltz goes on to argue that

All of Koons’s best art—the encased vacuum cleaners, the stainless-steel Rabbit (the late-twentieth century’s signature work of Simulationist sculpture), the amazing gleaming Balloon Dog, and the cast-iron re-creation of a Civil War mortar exhibited last month at the Armory—has simultaneously flaunted extreme realism, idealism, and fantasy. Puppy adds to that: It is a virtual history of art, recalling the mottled surfaces of Delacroix (albeit on ’shrooms), the fantastical fairy-tale beings of Redon, a mutant Frankenstein canine from Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, and the eye-buzzing Ben-Day dots of Roy Lichtenstein. As it emits the swirling amorphousness of Tiepolo and the pathos of Watteau, it is also a magnified, misshapen abstraction of Duchamp’s urinal—a similarly deliberate gesture of antic outlandishness, and one that, of course, was signed “R. Mutt.”

Koons’s work has always stood apart for its one-at-a-time perfection, epic theatricality, a corrupted, almost sick drive for purification, and an obsession with traditional artistic values. His work embodies our time and our America: It’s big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted—while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy. He doesn’t go in for the savvy art-about-art gestures that occupy so many current artists. And his work retains the essential ingredient that, to my mind, is necessary to all great art: strangeness.”

And so on. A few weeks later, critic John Yau responds to Saltz’s piece with an essay of his own in The Brooklyn Rail (where Yau serves as art editor), titled “The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine.“  Yau starts out with a reference to a bit by the late comedian Bill Hicks, one in which Hicks rips on Jay Leno for shilling Doritos, despite the gazillions of dollars Leno already has; the implied question being how much more cash does this bloated gazillionaire need that he has to sell us junk food, too? Yau says, of Hicks,

He believed that there are some things that you just shouldn’t do, and one of them was to be a spokesperson for bad or unhealthy products. I was reminded of Hicks’s routine when I read Jerry Saltz’s paean to Jeff Koons’s Puppy, which ‘assumed the form of a West Highland white terrier constructed of stainless steel and 23 tons of soil, swathed in more than 70,000 flowers that were kept alive by an internal irrigation system.’”
So, if I’ve got this right: John Yau likens Jeff Koons and/or his art (I can’t tell which, because Yau himself doesn’t distinguish between the two) to a “bad or unhealthy product.” Like a bag of Doritos with that weird chemical stuff they put in it that made some people accidentally poop their pants.  Okay, I can accept this as an argument. But if I’m getting Yau’s full meaning, not only is Koons bad for you — you, yourself, are equally “bad” if you happen to be a writer and you choose to write about Koons or his art in anything other than vilifying terms.

At least, that’s what I took away from Yau’s opener. And also from his closer, which goes as follows:

“I have a confession to make. I didn’t see Puppy. I didn’t feel like I had to. (Okay, I didn’t see Cloaca either, and for the same reason.) I think that there are some things you shouldn’t do, and promoting Jeff Koons is one of them.”
Let’s run through that last sentence again, just to make sure we’ve got it right: “I think that there are some things you shouldn’t do, and promoting Jeff Koons is one of them.”

Oh…kay. We’ll bracket for a second the fact that what John Yau calls “promoting” others might prefer to call “assessing”….but whatever, Mr. Yau: I gotcha. Art critics  should not write about Jeff Koons because…it just shouldn’t be done. Because Koons makes bad art. Which, by extension, means his art is bad for you.

But wait – maybe I don’t really understand Mr. Yau’s argument as well as I thought I did, because on second, third, fourth and fifth thought he seems to think that his own read of Koons’ work is somehow the equivalent of objective fact. That just because Yau sees Koons’ vacuum cleaners, skin diving tanks, basketballs, and cast liquor bottles in the shape of cars as having in common the fact that they are all “containers of dirt, air, and liquid: shit, flatulence, and piss” that that is indeed what they are. And that if Yau sees in the polished surface of Koons’ Rabbit an exemplification of the “act of withholding,” then, so it is, end of story.

But that’s just it: Yau’s reading is a story, a critical narrative, one that relies on metaphor to make meaning. It’s just one of hundreds of competing takes on the work of Jeff Koons, but it’s by no means the reigning one. Now, I happen to find much of Yau’s take on Koons’ work to be compelling and at times fairly persuasive. But let’s not confuse a persuasive argument with, like, “The Truth” or anything. It’s a read, it’s John Yau’s read, some may buy it, some may spit it out like a bag of rancid Doritos, but it ‘aint such a great argument that not buying it means you’re a “shill” or “bad” or you want to kiss George W. Bush’s butt or anything. It’s art criticism, for Goodness’s sakes–one can certainly read a work of art politically, but shouldn’t the resulting rhetoric be of a higher sort than the divisive talk we watch on Fox News every night? Do art critics really need to stoop that low in order to get their points across?

Yau seems to think so. By linking his critique of Koons and Saltz to the sins of the Bush years (oh yes, he does, go read the thing for yourself), Yau pushes his argument way past reasoned critique into hyperbole and hysteria. He strays a bit too far from the text, as it were, and makes the sad mistake of getting viciously personal in his characterization of Saltz, which seems uncalled for, to say the least.

But oh, it all gets even better, because Jerry, Jerry isn’t any more successful at taking the high ground when his turn comes. On his Facebook page, Jerry calls Yau “dickish” and “a terrible art writer” (I think that particular entry has since been removed, but I found a screenshot preserved for posterity via the link above) and uh, rails right back at him for being “SO incoherent, rambling, self-satisfied, priggish and irrelevant.” Take that, Paco!

The real “heat” generating this argument, with its nasty name-calling on both sides,  comes from an all-too familiar source of friction. Whose dick is bigger, Yau’s or Saltz’s? Let’s swing ‘em around some and see! Please. Guys, take it from this chick: you both look pretty small from where I’m standing.


This post has been edited by the author to remove numerous swear words that were unnecessary to getting her point across. No swaggering going on over here, nah uh.

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