This week: James Elkins returns to Bad at Sports. Nuff Said!
Barbie and La Nouvelle Vague (part 3)
I’m on the porch rifling through Barbie posters and notes on what she would prefer when running away to a deserted island. I know Barbie would want to be with Ken. The way “Marianne,” played by Anna Karina in “Pierrot le fou” (“Pete the madman”), ran away with “Ferdinand,” played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, to live in the French Riviera. The couple ran away for two different reasons, and their fears kept them together. At the end of the film, I like to reinvent different outcomes. Perhaps they should have stayed in town.
This argument applies to play with Barbie as well. I take her outside of the box, adjust her arms and legs, and am free to imagine Barbie in a variety of ways. She is Ken’s girlfriend getting ready for date night when I put black high heels on her. She is Midge’s friend getting ready for brunch when I put strappy sandals on her. She is Skipper’s sister getting ready for a yogurt run when I put sparkly flats on her. I assign Barbie various identities, and each time the fictional truths may be compared to real-world cultural representations.
My adjustments to Barbie’s identity are necessary. For many she seems such a frivolous thing. Questions about her importance reinforce the idea that Barbie encourages the creative interpretation of identity. I cannot escape her. I have spent so much time alone with her. Some have not understood, but many have been supportive—my man included. (I say “man” because after a certain age “boyfriend” just doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the weight of an adult relationship.) Things changed along the way. I changed when I got close to the essence of Barbie. I got close to myself. I learned to trust myself. I learned about the superficial sting.
I also know that Barbie is “plastic” and “anatomically incorrect”—like some “real” women that I know. But, she’s gotten a “bad rap.” I know that I “just can’t change” the opinion of some. That sometimes it just “is what it is.” That Barbie is made for “art’s sake” and that some “art” is inspired by Barbie. That Barbie “inspired” the long list of female characters of La Nouvelle Vague. Consider Artist Nickolay Lamm’s “comparison of bodies.” Lamm suggests that the “average” woman’s body is “no match.” In fact, Lamm found “unrealistic measurements of 36-18-33, compared to the typical 19-year old girl’s 32-31-33” (Revealed: What Barbie would look like as a Real Woman). This explains why Barbie can’t stand-up on her own.
I’ll admit, I “agree.” She sends the “wrong message” to “impressionable” girls. Barbie is not for the “weak.” I learned this my “first year” in Chicago. We went to some “pop-up” art gallery on a Friday night and there was Barbie—“decapitated,” lying in the “middle” of the room, on the “floor.” I asked the artist “why” he’d done this. He calmly, “sipped” red wine out of a mason jar, said “I used to do this to my older sister’s Barbie when I was a kid.” He then joked about Barbie’s “power” to revert him to “childhood.” This has always stayed with me. Barbie brings out the angry adolescent in every adult.
Who is not disappointed, enchanted, or tempted by Barbie? Most days, in the world of Barbie, the view from the porch provides a narrow balconyscape which hosts the angular silhouettes of red-tipped bricks. Sometimes we have company and they join us on the porch. In these moments the table is cluttered with wine glasses, water crackers, cheese platters, Barbie, Midge, and Skipper. On an eventful evening, Barbie is a kaleidoscope twirling from hand to hand. Soon we are scampering. There aren’t enough hours. There is never enough time, just the way time ran out for “Ferdinand.”
Soon, I feel the twin twinkle of goodbye kisses. It’s just me at the door. At the heart of La Nouvelle Vague is a breathless, powerful glance because it is difficult to turn away from the beautiful tragedy. It is difficult to answer and dispute the fullness that Barbie deserves. I only rarely come close to completing the lanky jigsaw puzzle. I cannot really see the end. The journey is mine, this Barbie pink path that leads to the unknown, the pink purgatory.
Jamie Kazay teaches in the English Department at Columbia College. A California native, she holds a BA in English from California State University, Northridge and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Columbia College. She co-curates the Revolving Door Reading Series and is currently reading of a lot of Camus, Derrida, and Dorothy Allison. Her collection, Small Hollering, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2011.
Guest Post by Faye Kahn
Every Sternberg/Semiotext(e)/Verso volume with Yale Design School layout is an impenetrable brick of ostensible magic that’s going to save the human race. I really think this for a range of 10 minutes to 10 years per book. Yet even though I have been reading October every day for three years on every NYC Transit route there was only one time I was ever confronted about it & the guy was laughing! Still, the mystery of the text is irresistible, though after chatting with other arts writers, there seems to be a concern about the future of art criticism; that it’s not as integral a part of the structure & motivational force of the art world as it used to be, & furthermore, there is confusion in identifying an audience. The source of this anxiety is varied & not everyone subscribes to it. Still, through my personal experience with theory I can understand why a frustration exists, both for authors & audience.
It’s difficult to read art theory & criticism. It’s impossible for me to know how other people interpret text, but as an a person of average intelligence I can describe a sensation of mental aimlessness & meandering when trying to parse an uphill paragraph. Putting on blinders & focusing intently on the words the I gradually collect rewarding instances of realization & perspective. This is enough of a carrot to keep me reading. Still, the going is slow. Theory is slow, the contemporary is fast: it’s entirely possible that this is the final conclusion. Like most professional fields, the barrier of slowness is a mental hazing method but the rewards here don’t seem to pay off enough for large-scale generation-defying fraternities. However, if it’s true that it’s losing connection or usefulness to its own field, the effort can start to seem myopic.
Barnett Newman famously said that “aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.” Birds are not only not interested in ornithology but they are incapable of being interested in it. Such a terse reading of that quote might be a little unforgiving, but it’s interesting to revisit this notion from late-Modernist times today in regards to the perceived identity crisis of art writing. All artists are certainly not unaware of it, but it is easier today to be an artist without a knowledge or involvement in traditional art theoretical discourse. Faster modes of communication than text (images) are more conducive to conversation today. The image response, as the most expedient & accurate modes of communicating quickly, is a much more handy tool. ASCII, Unicode, & Emoji: day to day communication is condensed (& the phrase “hard to follow” now refers to twitter), alienating the dry over-enunciated walls of text that make up theoretical contributions.
As Hal Foster points out, during ArtForum’s heyday in the 60s & 70s,”late-modernist criticism made fine distinctions on which the fate of art was thought to depend—the difference, say, between a ‘deductive structure’ by Frank Stella and a “specific object” by Donald Judd—and often it presented these differences as absolute.” This necessity for theoretical discussion is not totally absent today- but art dependent on by critical analysis has become a genre of sorts. Boris Groys says that
“A work of art is traditionally understood as something that wholly embodies art[…]When we go to an art exhibition we generally assume that whatever is there on display–paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, readymades, or installations, must be art. The individual artworks can of course in one way or another make reference to things that they are not, maybe to real-world objects or to certain political issues, but they are not thought to refer to art itself, because they themselves are art. However, this traditional assumption has proven to be increasingly misleading. Besides finding works of art, present-day art spaces also confront us with the documentation of art.” 
Although Groys is referring to the position of the artwork in the exhibition space as the documentation of the art itself, the statement is haunted by the situation of an exhibition space with placeholder artworks that function solely as referents to outside documentation & unstable explanations to be determined by later analysis. Movement away from aesthetic to conceptual merit is now common practice, though certainly more in some cases than others. Aesthetic attractiveness is more often seen now as a measure or capability of capitalist valuation of the object rather than an agent for a deeper social commentary or revolution. Thus, birds interested in ornithology & birds uninterested.
Lately I have found art theory exhaustingly cynical. I suppose the word “criticism” has a lot to do with this, however much of it seems to only a self-serving end. Often as a reader I approach the text with wonder & leave it feeling like a fluorescent light has been turned on to reveal all pleasant things have poisonous blemishes. A person can only take so much of this before becoming fed up or hopeless or annoyed that something prescient about how to live life is being ignored because the art community is busy circle-jerking to their exclusive & privileged (negative) perspectives on the world. That said, art theory ensconces beautiful ideas within its heavy labyrinthine walls of referential grandiloquent & excessively punctuated & footnoted jargon (“International Art English”?), & somehow this keeps me (us?) going. However, more & more, it has been exceedingly reassuring to go to the exhibition & realize that art has been growing & still grows around you when you & intellectuals aren’t looking.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Foster, Hal. “Critical Condition,” Artforum International, Sep2012, Vol. 51 Issue 1, p147-148
2. Groys, Boris. e-flux, December 2009, Issue 11, p1-11
Chicago Artist Writers hosted a workshop with Lori Waxman at Gallery 400 on March 14, 2013. The following is an attempt to collect some of the many illuminating moments of her two-hour lecture and Q&A session.
“Today I’m going to talk about a lot of forms of art criticism that don’t actually exist — yet.”
Lori Waxman has her feet in two critical worlds. As a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, she takes on the role of a traditional art critic: she has a large audience, keeps her distance from the artist and organizers of the exhibitions she covers, and maintains an objective viewpoint. In contrast, her personal project 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic takes a more experimental approach. The public is invited to come with their work for a review written by Lori live, in person, with a secondary monitor displaying her writing process as it evolves. The project has been featured numerous times domestically and most recently at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany.
Lori posited that criticism has largely not changed much since its first appearance with Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1765, and the writing that we see in major outlets like the Tribune or Artforum holds the same basic values of that style to this day. This default approach to art criticism doesn’t reflect the drastic changes in art and technology’s influence on the contemporary conversation as much as it could.
She used Documenta as a case in point–-it embodied a sprawling, time-intensive experience for the viewer, and the critical responses to it suffered as their structuring was inadequate to cover the exhibition’s curatorial conceits. Critics who were only able to visit 3-5 days and print 1000 words were ill equipped to critique the event in its totality. “Who goes to NYC for a weekend, and tries to see everything, and if they can’t, it’s New York’s fault?” Lori asked. She used Dieter Roelstraete’s review of the Documenta in Artforum as one example; one of his main critiques was that it had too much going on. Similarly, Roberta Smith’s review in the New York Times was schizophrenic, unable to deal with the scope of the massive three-month undertaking. Lori suggested that despite the stubborn precedent of “objective distance” in traditional criticism, she herself might be the best critic of Documenta, having spent her entire summer there.
Platforms for alternatives to the traditional model exist in small handfuls but some are promising. Lori noted that online versions of specialty magazines like Artforum fail to leverage the malleability of the web and stick to the values and format of their print counterparts. Websites like hyperallergic, the former artnet.com, and temporaryartreview.com (which covers cities off the major art map) may increase turnaround time and coverage of lesser-known projects, but again resist transforming the dynamic of the critical approach itself. Triple Canopy is a capable platform, for not only its scholarship but, in the case of David’s Levine’s take on the dissolution of the Rothko estate, its willingness to embrace an insider’s view at the sacrifice of traditional objectivity. Art Fag City features critical writing but is bolstered most importantly by the active comments sections as a new center of gravity in critical writing. This very blog (the Bad at Sports blog) also embraces the more diaristic, personality-driven, multi-tangential style of critical reflection over objectively toned assessment. In the early 2000s, Lori contributed to Fucking Good Art, a feverishly produced zine spearheaded by Pedro Velez and Michael Bulka. Critics would go out to openings, type up reviews as soon as they were sober (or not), and photocopy and distribute the zine for free the next day. The reviews, sometimes nasty and anonymous, were the main way apartment spaces were getting critical feedback.
Lori wondered if models like Facebook and Twitter could be used seriously as venues for criticism instead of flippantly; these platforms have a multi-directionality that could support a more nimble and relevant conversation to artwork being produced. In addition, their immediacy has the potential to be paradigm shifting–what happens if something is written in front of/within the work? “Gonzo” reviews — long form, unedited stream of consciousness reviews — also have yet to be fully realized in art criticism.
Perhaps criticism that leans towards more relational and embodied writing is called for by today’s art practices. Lori suggested “embedded criticism” – a term borrowed from journalism, in which journalists are “embedded” with soldiers – as a term for art writing that celebrates, rather than discourages, the subjective experience in order to strike a critical observation. In her piece Practicing Trio A in the Spring 2012 issue of October, Julia Brian Wilson spoke about taking a class with Yvonne Rainer in which she learned how to perform Rainer’s seminal The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I (Trio A) from 1973, and how this direct involvement in the piece changed her mind about it. Hannah Higgins is well known as a scholar and writer about Fluxus in part because of her upbringing in a canonical Fluxus household; her embeddedness creates a unique opportunity for scholarship and complexity. Later, during the Q&A, an audience member suggested Kathy Acker as an additional example of someone who writes about artwork while having a close relationship to it.
Art writing authored from a fictional perspective or persona is another area ripe for exploration. Lynn Tillman has written fiction at the artist’s request (perhaps skewing its definition as “criticism,” but an example of a new form of art writing nonetheless). Her short story “Madame Realism Lies Here” from 2002 is composed from the perspective of a woman who dreams she has turned into a Jeff Koons sculpture, experiencing life in a weird and grotesque way that mimics Koons’ work. Tillman’s series TV Tales about Barbara Kruger from 1976 also is another example. As well, we can look to novelists: Gertrude Stein wrote in a “cubist” style, coming out of a deep experience with cubist painting. This kind of art writing acts as an analog to the work itself. Stein’s unique, unexpected way of using language sidesteps “International Art English” altogether: it doesn’t even require a dictionary. One can hold up a piece of hers in front of a painting and see how they work together. The Family Fang, a novel by Kevin Wilson, consists of a fictional narrative about a family of performance artists. Philadelphia artist Jayson Musson’s satirical comedy as Hennessy Youngman occasionally offers thoughtful and to the point responses to art, although Lori noted that Youngman can be surprisingly conservative – here she reminded us that a new form doesn’t necessarily mean a radical idea, as form and content are extricable. But an outside-the-art-world persona like Musson’s can make it easier to call the emperor naked. Another example brought up by the audience was artist Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, who produced a collection of erotic fiction about James Franco.
Lori stressed that to write about museums and commercial galleries is to write about art that has already been filtered and processed, versus writing about experimental spaces showing lesser-known artists who have yet to be critically acknowledged. When writing about the latter spaces, one should remember that criticism of ephemeral or emerging practices may be the only record that exists, and so one must be intentional as his or her writing will eventually become historical fact. “Some dogged art historian in 20 years will rely on these reviews, and they will quote [them]; and if you got it wrong and weird, they’re going to think that’s what happened.” For this reason, she also suggested inventing a way to respond to a work instead of writing something explicitly negative.
Television shows such as Work of Art and School of Saatchi, whether we like them or not, are emergent examples of new forms of art criticism. While only persisting for four episodes, BBC’s School of Saatchi featured six artists, asked them to make interesting commissions, and gave them a decent amount of time and money to do so. The show rendered the actual process of making contemporary art transparent, “and was surprisingly accessible and intelligent.” After the work is completed, a good fifteen minutes of each hour-long show is devoted to serious discussion of the artwork that is then communicated to the artists. The judges’ remarks are often off the cuff and funny, speaking with authority but sometimes contradicting one another. Their multiple voices created a critical environment similar to a class critique. Bravo’s Work of Art, in contrast, equated art with other subjects like cooking or getting married. Artists were given $100 and 24 hours to make a series of asinine projects. Notable, however, was the involvement of Jerry Saltz, the most recognizable critic in the U.S. Most of the criticism on the show was demeaning, puerile, dumb and one-liner; criticism was consistently of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Yet, Lori said, Work of Art nevertheless represents one of the ways that art is being thought about today by the general public—and perhaps even some parts of the art world; this show is part of the public’s access to the art world, and it is sadly misrepresentative.
Some of Lori’s more experimental ideas—stolen, she willingly admitted, from her students at SAIC—included gif criticism (what can a gif do that words can’t?) or criticism using image combinations (like on tumblr). During the Q&A, the audience pitched in: we suggested hyperlink criticism – a review composed entirely of links, in line with the ways we read, think and click; another participant proposed a review composed over Skype, where one person views the exhibition at home, one in the museum, highlighting the differences; or a (live/recorded) performance positioned as a review. Does criticism need to be site specific to the work – like the precedent of dances that directly respond to artwork?
If criticism can be art and vice versa, how can one be sure these forms don’t stray too close to art and too far from criticism? Where is that line placed and is it important? Lori pointed out that studio experience might be valuable for a critic, “and who thinks criticism is so objective anyway?” 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic attempts to take some of the agency that the art critic normally assumes away, and to see what happens when it’s given to the artist him or herself. The agency Lori gives up is the ability to choose who and what she writes about. But if this critical agency we assume is important is taken away from the critic, can something of substance still materialize? What happens if criticism is available for the asking? Is it still interesting, critical?
Another participant asked Lori about What Happened to Art Criticism, the 2003 panel discussion and book in which Jim Elkins and others complained that the majority of art criticism being written today is “descriptive.” Lori responded that she believes there’s no such thing as a truly factual description” of something. She pointed out that one can’t recreate a painting backwards from a description, no matter how detailed or “straightforward” it is. A good piece of description, she noted, can do “almost anything.” One can’t have criticism without description; and in shorter lengths, these combinations can be powerful — look at the New Yorker’s 100 word reviews of exhibitions in the Goings On section.
An audience member asked if art history helps or hurts art criticism. “If you love October, you should stay in art history and not try to be an art critic,” Lori responded. Most critics come from art, not art history, and there’s “plenty to make of that, in terms of experience and commitment.” She relayed the under-discussed fact that most of the notable art critics working today do not have art history degrees. Peter Schjeldahl started out as a poet; Saltz was a painter and truck driver; Robert Storr and Matthew Collings trained as painters.
How about artists criticizing their own artwork as an interesting new form of art criticism? Lori responded with an anecdote from her husband, the artist Michael Rakowitz, who had recently been part of a discussion in which the moderator complained afterward that the panel’s artists hadn’t talked more about their work’s problems. Her husband countered that he didn’t know of a professional artist who would do that, that it’s not their job: let the critics take issue, and the artists deal with the problems in their own way. One takeaway for us is that the space for self-criticism in between the artist statement and the art review is ripe for experimentation.
We left thinking about the burgeoning potency of crowd-sourced criticism. Mimicking the current form of value-production bolstered by the Internet, where value is dispersed into tallies, “aggregate,” rhizomatic or crowd-sourced criticism may be starting to replace the good old New York Times review. One audience member wondered if all types of feedback to an artwork could be located in a single place, including documentation, short and long reviews, responses on Twitter, Facebook, etc.? Although Google might seem good for this on its own, it isn’t organized: someone should take advantage of this opportunity for a new start-up.
We found this sentiment the driving force of Lori’s presentation–an implicit and collective call to action:
“Technology has changed and art has changed, and that should be radically impacting the kind of art criticism that we write, how it gets published, how it gets received and who we write it for, and how it gets commented on.”
Chicago Artist Writers is a platform that asks young studio artists and art workers to write traditional and experimental criticism that serves under-represented arts programming in Chicago. CAW was founded by Jason Lazarus and Sofia Leiby in 2012. This is our first guest post on Bad at Sports. www.chicagoartistwriters.com
Click here to download an mp3 of Lori’s lecture.
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.