This week: A PULITZER PRIZE WINNER! Holy crap. San Francisco once again brings it with an amazing guest, Holland Cotter.
Holland Cotter has been a staff art critic at The New York Times since 1998. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, for coverage that included articles on art in China.
Between 1992 and 1997 he was a regular freelance writer for the paper. During the 1980s he was a contributing editor at Art in America and an editorial associate at Art News. In the 1970s, he co-edited New York Arts Journal, a tabloid-format quarterly magazine publishing fiction, poetry, and criticism.
Art in New York City has been his regular weekly beat, which he has taken to include all five boroughs and most of the city’s art and culture museums. His subjects range from Italian Renaissance painting to street-based communal work by artist collectives.
For the Times, he has written widely about “non-western” art and culture. In the 1990s, he introduced readers to a broad range of Asian contemporary art as the first wave of new art from China was building and breaking. He helped bring contemporary art from India to the attention of a western audience.
Born in Connecticut in 1947, and raised in Boston, Cotter received an A.B. from Harvard College, where he studied poetry with Robert Lowell and was an editor of the Harvard Advocate. He later received an M.A. from the City University of New York in American modernism, and an M. Phil in early Indian Buddhist art from Columbia University, where he studied Sanskrit and taught Indian and Islamic art.
He has served on the board of directors of the International Association of Art Critics. He is under contract with Alfred A. Knopf for a book on New York City modernism. He is also working on a study of contemporary Indian art, and on a poetry manuscript.
Who’s the most interesting art critic in the country right now? Nope, not Jerry Saltz. I might change my mind tomorrow, but today I’m pretty damn sure it’s Hennessy Youngman. Okay — Hennessy’s not actually an art critic. He’s not an art writer. He’s a thinker of Art Thoughtz who has described himself as “just an American nigga at the cross section of dissonant worlds, and I’m the chaos of those conflicting cultural spheres unresolved in all their wonderful madness.” His stuff takes the form of direct-address video monologues performed by Youngman himself, who sits in a white-walled “alabaster alcove” and proceeds to break down art world rhetoric into its constituent bullshit parts. Have a look at Hennessy’s latest, on Relational Aesthetics:
It’s a truly blissful feeling when someone says straight out loud what you’ve been thinking but were too cowed by your peers to say yourself, no? Youngman spreads this kind of bliss with each new episode of Art Thoughtz. But what he does is not exactly about speaking truth to power – it’s a bit more irony-laced than that. Check out this episode on Curators, for example. It’s pretty sexist (although the observation about Velma hair was frakkin’ brilliant), and I think Hennessey might be confusing, or at least conflating, curator with dealer here….
I love how in my YouTube stream, this episode is followed by a promotional interview with Rhizome executive director and New Museum curator Lauren Cornell (Free). This coincidental juxtaposition sums it up for me: at the same time that the young, blonde, attractive Cornell seems to exemplify the type of curator Youngman is caricaturing, she’s also one of the few out there who is actively thinking-through the social media practices that Hennessey himself is engaging. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cornell wanted to include Youngman in one of her next shows.
Point is, Hennessey Youngman is taking the piss out of everything and everyone; the layers of irony are too thick to fully pry apart and as a result we’re forced to assume a different posture, as it were, in our reception of Hennessy’s Thoughtz. If you read it straight, you’re going to get defensive or pissed off and thus totally miss the point, but if you think it all boils down either to comedy or simply an outsider’s attempt to take a giant shit on the art world, you’re not listening carefully enough. It’s one of those both/and kind of things that pushes us into areas that make us feel uncomfortable. And in my book, that is always a good thing.
Henessey is already something of an internet phenomenon, yet there’s surprisingly little out there about who this guy actually is, where he comes from, etc. I like that he’s a man of mystery and hasn’t yet been included in one of Ms. Cornell’s exhibitions. The dominant culture always manages to absorb its critics, though, so I don’t hold out much hope that he won’t be, sooner or later. I do know that in this interview Hennessy Youngman had the balls to respond to the question “Can you be successful if you’re a Muslim artist?” thusly:
Are you serious? Have you ever heard of this artist collective known as Al-Qaeda? They did this performance piece called 9-11. That was absolutely jaw dropping. They only performed it once, but luckily it was very well documented and can be seen pretty much anywhere on the internet. Highly recommended. Way better than anything them Fluxus or Dada motherfuckers could come up with.
So I’ll hold out just a little bit of hope that Hennessy never cleans up his act enough to grace the museum’s white walls.
Our big thanks to Julia Hendrickson for last week’s superb series of posts on printmaking and print curators, Sonnenzimmer, Spudnik Press and Corbett vs. Dempsey. This week Thea Liberty Nichols, a Chicago-based arts writer and arts administrator, is guesting on the blog. Starting today, she’ll bring us a series of posts exploring issues in contemporary arts writing.
For these posts, Nichols conducted interviews with friends and colleagues, all of whom are either artists, art writers and/or art administrators and who shared their insight on the various forms their writing takes. They’ll talk about how they define their written work within the constellation of their expansive practices, and how writing can be a tool for expressing themselves and also engaging with others. Chicago folks will remember that Nichols recently organized a panel on the form and content of arts writing in conjunction with Nomadic Studio – an audio recording of that conversation will be available later this week, so check out Thea’s posts for the link when it becomes available.
Here’s the bio scoop on Ms. Nichols, the woman who I’ve always said has a name befitting a rockstar superhero fighting machine – which no doubt she is, in her spare time:
Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator and freelance writer. Formerly, she served as Director of 65GRAND gallery and Study Center Manager at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Presently, she works for The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Visiting Artists Program which selects, hosts and facilitates opportunities to engage with dozens of international contemporary artists via lectures and symposia.
I was wondering why I was getting some strange Facebook and Twitter friend/follower requests from the NYC-area….I’m sort of (okay a lot) embarrassed, but Jerry Saltz put a note responding to yesterday’s “Superstar” post on his Facebook page. Our blog doesn’t get tons of traffic, so when I write here I feel like it’s aimed directly at the ten or so people I know for sure actually read it. Suffice it to say, it was kind of a shock to see that Mr. Saltz had read it and responded (I learned of it via someone else’s Twitter). I appreciate that he took the time to do so. Now it is out there in a format where people can respond to it–and at least the people who participate in Saltz’s Facebook discussion don’t seem to be the troll type (I’m pretty sure). Dear God, though, many of them sure are the fawning type. One comment in particular made me laugh; it was something along the lines of, ‘maybe Claudine should actively post on Jerry’s wall for six months or so before commenting on what’s happening here!” Um….wait, wasn’t the importance of NOT doing just that pretty much the point I was trying to make, and the crux of James Panero’s New Criterion critique of Mr. Saltz’s Facebook exchanges too?? Plus, I would never get anything else done if I spend the next six months hanging out on Jerry Saltz’s page.
He really does seem like a nice guy though – but what the hell do I know? It’s a frakkin’ Facebook page, we all put on our best Faces there.
Anyway. I’m going to resist the temptation to get all defensive and just not say anything further. I don’t want this blog to become all about Jerry. But now y’all have chance to respond…if this is an issue you care about, that is.
(This one’s for Dmitry).
Okay, yeah, I know — to describe Jerry Saltz as a “superstar” as I just did is to engage in more than a bit of hyperbole. But when it comes to Jerry (since everyone seems to feel like they’re on a first-name basis with him, I guess I can be, too), “superstar” doesn’t seem all that off-the-mark, given Saltz’s relative media fame versus the utter obscurity within which most art writers/critics labor. This has always been the case, even in the days when art critics actually played a hand in shaping the discourse–and they haven’t done that in quite awhile. So, you know, we should be happy that there is at least one art critic famous enough to hobnob with Sarah Jessica Parker and her ilk. Jerry seems like a genial guy and a kind enough spirit and so personally, I don’t begrudge him his fame.
I was surprised, however, that Ben Davis (newly of Artinfo) didn’t mention Saltz at all in his column on the state of art criticism. Asserting that “art criticism isn’t dead, it’s just in eclipse,” Davis argued that
“If you had to name the major development in art discourse during the 2000s, it would undoubtedly be the ascent of “art news,” which has definitely replaced “art criticism” at the center of discussion. There’s been an enormous proliferation of writing about the art scene. Artforum.com’s “Scene and Herd” was founded in 2004. Artinfo.com, the publication I write for, was founded in 2005. And of course, there is the tremendous excitement generated by the art blogosphere, which draws its strength from attitude and outrage.”
Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City, who’s a pretty good examplar of the developments Davis is describing, didn’t seem to think much of Davis’ analysis. Responding to his post on her own blog, Johnson wrote,
“I feel like I’ve been reading about the problems of the 24 hour news cycle for fifteen years or more, and the problems are the same. Davis’s piece doesn’t bring much new to the table past what we already know: news is a large component of many blogs and websites — particularly the ones he’s worked for — and criticism isn’t doing that well.The trouble has less to do with news per se than the reality of publishing: it’s a volume industry and professionals need more time than we’re given to produce good work. But there are some ups to these downs, so I don’t believe it’s been as eclipsed as Davis thinks — it’s just not where he’s looking. Some of the best criticism on this blog appears in the comments section, and it’s no different for other blogs or even Facebook pages like that of Jerry Saltz.”
Johnson made good points. Like Saltz or hate Saltz–or rather, like/hate the style of critical engagement Saltz represents–you cannot ignore the behemoth that is the Saltz/Facebook/Social Media machine. His Facebook groupies, his TV stint as a judge on Work of Art, his “Ask a Critic” column for New York magazine–all of these represent fairly radical shifts in the relation between critic and audience. One that is more open, more “radically vulnerable,” as Saltz himself has so memorably put it, and one where, to some greater degree than before, the art critic must answer (and answer and answer and answer) to the statements he puts out there via his reviews and other published pieces.
The problem is that all of these radical shifts in the critic/audience relationship apply only to Jerry Saltz. Saltz hasn’t changed the state of art criticism one bit – he’s just upped his own name-recognition value within it. To be fair, Saltz has argued repeatedly that his own experiments with open-ended interactions with his readers, “friends,” and “fans” is something that can and should be duplicated by others. And that’s certainly true. It’s just that most art critics are way more boring than Saltz is and nobody really cares enough about what they have to say to want to have an ongoing conversation with them, virtual or otherwise.
James Panero, writing in the New Criterion, has described his own “Jerry Saltz problem.” To my mind, Panero’s critique is the most persuasive I’ve yet read, though I could have done without some of his prose, which seemed to border on jealous personal attack. I think this is the strongest section of Panero’s argument:
Another problem with Saltz’s “accidental criticism” is that he has not leveled the playing field at all. He has instead flipped the traditional critic’s role from peripheral character to central actor. His comment writers, many of them wayward artists, are now the critics, while he has become the new art star around which they circulate. Jerry Saltz has become “Jerry Saltz,” a socially networked performance piece of art criticism. His online work is not unlike the performance art of Tino Sehgal, who took over the objectless Guggenheim rotunda earlier this year to ask questions like “What is progress?”
The lure of interactive performance art is that it shares the stage equally with the viewer. Marina Abramovic’s staring contest at moma became a sensation because it felt like we were the art, just as online comments make us all feel like we are the writers, or through Facebook we have 5,000 “Friends.” Following Andy Warhol’s dictum that “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” and Joseph Beuys’s pronouncement that “everyone is an artist,” Saltz has wondered “if all of our interconnectivity and social networking also made everyone a critic.” But this fame game can become a pyramid scheme. In exchange for the brief rush of recognition that you might feel sitting across from Abramovic or posting to Saltz’s Facebook page, you grant them much more than their fifteen minutes. You end up ultimately diminished—another brick in a 250,000-word wall—while adding to their cumulative luster. You “need to partake of the blood of others to grow,” Saltz writes. And he should know.
(Oof! That last line had to hurt, didn’t it?).
I find the notion of the critic-as-performer to be a really interesting one. I’ve always been an advocate for a criticism that incorporates the subjectivity of the writer into the form and content of the critique, in certain appropriate contexts. Jerry Saltz now does this in every context, and that’s no doubt why many observers have grown weary of him. It’s too much Jerry. In the same way that Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and, ugh, even Sarah Jessica Parker can’t be considered real actors anymore–they’re merely celebrities, whose every new role offers a new format in which to play themselves–Jerry Saltz has become a celebrity critic who’s finding it difficult to talk about anything but himself, even when he truly does want to be talking only about art.