Response: Art and the Art of Criticism

April 27, 2009 · Print This Article

Unless you’re Jerry Saltz, art critics are rarely the center of attention, and I strongly suspect that most prefer it that way. There’s something unseemly about referring to oneself when writing about the work of others, isn’t there? That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. So I was really curious about the physical form that the exhibition “Response: Art and the Art of Criticism” (at I Space through May 30th) would take. The show is ostensibly about the relationship between artistic practice and the critical discourse that frames it. Its organizers—critics who are members of the Chicago Art Critics Association–aim to open up a discursive interplay between artists and the critics who are tasked with writing about their work (and, let’s not forget, with assessing its successes and failures). I wondered how its organizers might play around with the exhibition design, how they would choose to foreground that which usually remains in the background; most of all, I wanted to see how successful they would be at objectifying their own practices by making what are normally private thought-processes public while at the same time engaging audiences within a traditional white-cube gallery setting.

Although I didn’t attend the opening, I rushed out to see the exhibition the day after, as I am sort of a geek when it comes to things like art criticism and the general issue of cultural writing, and I’d been looking forward to this show ever since I heard about it a few months ago.  Further fueling my excitement was the fact that Chicago art people can get really fired up around questions of criticism, validation, aesthetic judgment, issues of power and how one goes about garnering cultural capital, and that interest, coupled with the no-bullshit, straight-shooting style of discourse I have also observed both conversationally and occasionally in print led me to anticipate something deliciously juicy—maybe even bloody—from this exhibition. Something raw, not cooked.

Suffice it to say what I actually encountered in the gallery was disappointing. I saw a very conventional-looking exhibition of art objects, all of which were accompanied by the standard wall labels that, save for Conrad Bakker’s, contained no explanatory text or any other critical framing devices other than object information. Clearly the organizers were at some pains to keep things kosher: to let the artists have their space, and the critics theirs, and then put the mix-it-up-part yet someplace else.  Aesthetically and pretty much on every other level however the works themselves don’t play well together -  it’s not that they clash, they just don’t speak or, as the case may be, ‘respond’ to one another in any way. I gather they’re not supposed to, as the show wasn’t curated along thematic or formal lines but instead according to the idiosyncratic selection process of each participating critic.

Indeed, the catalogue’s introduction posits the role of the art critic as central to this exhibition, and describes the show’s purpose as investigating “the critical process itself, by opening up the crucial ways that critics engage with artists’ work….The essays are not meant to be typical reviews, but rather self-reflexive expositions of the writing process and on the art that inspires them.” In this way “Response” is structured in a layered fashion, with the first layer of encounter (for viewers, anyway) being the work on display in the gallery itself, the second layer the exhibition catalogue, where criticality, writing, and aesthetic judgment are allowed to re-assert themselves, and the third layer taking place off stage, so to speak, and re-presented online via a series of recorded conversations that are available on the I Space website (and I think on cd as well).

But the problem is that that there is no actual ‘criticism’ per se and not much self-reflexivity happening anywhere in the exhibition—not in the catalogue, and not really in the online conversations either.  Really, the only thing that makes this show different from any other is that the so-called “responsive” material has been discursively incorporated into the ‘exhibition proper’ –but there isn’t any alchemy happening within that exhibition space with the potential to create new models of understanding or thought-provoking bits of exchange.

In order to assume the role of curators, the critics abandoned their role as critics, instead of—and this is where I thought it could have gone differently—figuring out a way, as uncomfortable though it surely would have been, to simultaneously inhabit both roles. It’s not like I wanted venomous exchange—that’s just as bad as being overly solicitous. But what if, instead of choosing artists whose work they admired, some of the critics had selected an artist whose work has in their opinion been uneven over the years, or about whom they’ve written critically in the past but have subsequently revised their opinion, or maybe even an artist whose work they’ve always avoided writing about because, embarrassed though they may be to admit it, they’ve never really ‘gotten it’ and so could never bring themselves to write about it?

To me, that would be really interesting, that would be sexy. I was expecting something sloppier, but this is all so darn polite. To be sure, there are a few revelatory moments. I liked how in the essay artist Adelheid Mers admits that she envies “quick witted historians and philosophers” and that her own work—“slow and clumsy”– is made in an effort to make sense of concepts that initially befuddle her.  Alicia Eler’s opening statement: “I never meant to be an art critic,” hints at a reluctance to embrace the role both professionally and personally, as if there is something slightly humiliating about admitting your identity as this schlumpy homely person that’s called an art critic as opposed to an artist, who is by definition a hottie. Lane Relyea’s rundown of Artforum’s descent into little more than punditry is illuminating, but there’s nothing personally revealing about it. How does he feel about the role that he himself plays in all this, as an educator, a critic himself, and a writer for that magazine? Relyea remains conspicuously silent on this point, preferring instead to swathe his words in the comfortably familiar rhetoric of the academician-as-critic.

My own words here may come off as snarky, but truly, I speak from love. I think art criticism is a dying form, hell, it’s probably already dead, Saltz and Roberta Smith notwithstanding. Professional art critics are the auto workers of the culture industry, as a friend of mine put it over a beer last weekend: outdated, irrelevant, and almost certainly on their way out. I’m not happy about this, and I surely do hope that criticism morphs into something new and exciting and, most importantly, equally valid and as relevant as it once was, a long time ago, as it tries uneasily to find a place in online discourse. But I still kinda think ‘the art of criticism’ is going down in flames. And if that’s the case, why not go down in style? This was supposed to be the critics’ moment in the limelight – why not loosen up a little—or maybe a lot? Use the “I” word more often? Embarrass yourself with your enthusiasms, confused lusts, and occasional flights of fancy, even if it means feeling a twinge of regret the next day (and also maybe a little thrill of relief)? An exhibition like this is your chance to get shitfaced at the office party and cry on the janitor’s shoulder, spill red wine on your pinstripe suit–hell, fuck your boss in the supply closet, nobody really cares what you do anyway.

Everyone’s so afraid of offending each other, and I don’t blame them. Chicago, I gather, has a small and friendly art scene where everyone knows everyone. Maybe that’s the problem with criticism in this city—no one really wants to do it right because what do you say to that person when you inevitably run into them at an opening the following week? It’s an argument for remaining friendless if there ever was one.

A panel discussion on this exhibition will take place at Art Chicago a week from today, Monday May 4th, 1-2:30 pm at the Merchandise Mart Conference Center. In spite of myself, I can’t wait to see it.