Crises of art criticism.
The end of the year is nigh and listicles are aplenty. The art sphere, no different, is passing around its best.
Many of the best on that list contain hopes for the future of art, after varied assessments of art’s presence. (Zombie) Formalism is out, race is in, flipping is here to stay, formalism is in, curation is out, curation is in crisis, formalism is out, flipping is here to stay, and critics are aplenty.
Here are some of my hopes for art and criticism of the near future:
First, I’d like to see more artists write about their work and self-publish it somewhere: social media is not self-publishing since you turn over copyright. I’d like the rest of us to prioritize those words in terms of authority, too. Earlier this year, after attempting to assemble a bibliography for a writing project on criticism, I began to realize how parasitic critics are. I don’t necessarily mean this in a pejorative way, though there are a gaggle of voices that dependably upset me. What I mean — and unfairly without providing examples (that project is a dirty work in-progress, alas) — is that I get the impression some critics are hopeful of presenting as a certain type of artist themselves, and their pigment is often ground-up artists and ground-up market and ground-level provocation. Criticism, artful or not, is always derivative of its subject. This is why I enjoy reading BOMB. Through printed dialogue an artist can, hopefully, speak naturally about their work, perhaps as close as we’ll ever get to a notion of “truth” through art. Critics, in general, certainly provide a service to the art community at large, often crafting third-party perspectives which sharpen and burnish ideas transacting though culture. Blaming artists for market problems, however, is only purposeful if we call them out for the deals they directly make and not solely their thinly conceived objects and experiences; and, even then, can we fully fault starving artists for assenting in alms-like moments proffered by the Madoffs and Ponzis and Enrons of the market? I’ll tell you right now I’d love nothing more than to sell all my work in storage for five figures and wipe out my college debt. I’d be hard-pressed to say no if confronted with the option, regardless of its proponent.
Second, this chatter about zombie formalism, it has made me recently rethink and reexamine everything I have written and published thus far. It has made me step back from my own studio practice (are we still supposed to stop calling it a “practice”?) and doubt everything and made me see all the work I’ve loved my whole life in a new light. I get what critics and writers and whiners are trying to say when they use a phrase like zombie formalism or crapstraction. I get the consternation about flippers, that is to say investors, they who buy a rundown house, one disregarded by neighbors on its block, fix up its image, and make a buck off the process and build a business therewith. Okay, I get those sorts of things, but here’s my real point:
All of the critical idealism against style and against market maneuvers is not going to change a damn thing, in fact, it’s the heavily philosophical idealism on which earlier formalist critics, interpreters and artists in-general have depended that leads to the sort of soulless quagmires I think anti-crapstractionists are against. There is nothing more absurd than listening to artists egoistically quote post-Marxist philosophy or simply revere idealist sensibilities, eschewing materiality or work-processes, as it underscores, immediately, their sophomoric grasp of that philosophical genealogy and how it hoped to change society. Or, rephrased, stop trying to justify object creation as an ontological revelation from your ideas in order to purify your shame about existing inside capitalism. Look around: Objects matter.
Plenty of chatter and criticism today feels hostile from within. We discuss artist starvation and one stanza later we chide coronated success. The latter ameliorates nothing for the former, and discussion of the former is, clearly, absent from the dialogues created by the latter. Maybe we’re discussing the wrong things and giving breath to the wrong figures.
This brings me to the one maxim that seems to restore my sanity in moments or weeks of doubt, and that is artists create experiences. The experiences of (“pure”) formalism I had in my adolescence are what led me toward exploring its practice; it was not because I wanted to make better lines, or better quadrangles, or copy my influencers. And, christ, I do not want to change the world or revive painting from the dead. Sure, I once thought of purity and balance, espousing art as a religion, but purity and balance are the evident first layers to works of earlier (or any) generations. But, and as I try to wrench into my own work, I believe great (“purely”) formalist work is more about tension and error — one thing we often want to overlook and another thing we directly overlook. Perhaps flippers never access this level, and neither do those quick to write off the — using the most simplistic catch-all I can — style, either. Yet, I am aware of a multitude who love new formalism as much as classic formalism, treating it not like a disposable, merely consumable soda, but as something else. They express a real appreciation for art history and new efforts accreting here and there. As much as there will always be a market for political work in and against which to be traded as it tirades, there will be interest and desire for seemingly apolitical work whose efforts encompass more than a singular statement or stabs towards incitement, but rather processes of confidence and results under reflection. Spraypainting a wreath over store-bought canvas is both apolitical and hoping-to-incite commercial interest, while the obsessive dedication of sitting in a gallery and shaping raw materials into ordered constructs is quite political yet reflective and igniting.
And this leads into my final point about criticism, particularly reading criticism, and it is a point Howard Hurst brings up in his article Who Has the Cure for “Zombie Formalism”?. Throughout the past several years of working in a process of painting through collage and now with paint and fiberglass, I have attempted to maintain a narrative. I’m not telling a story and I’m not writing an autobiography, no matter how self-reflexive processes remain. But, there are connections that, when works are taken out of their historical progression, become blurred easily; moreover, the consistently made point that judging work via JPEGs is like critiquing a restaurant solely through its menu deserves repeating. In any case, young successful artists might not deserve their acclaim for no other reason than the fact that only the first few chapters of a narrative have even been scribbled down. Nothing has reached a point of true editing. Critics, trying to craft their response into words, have little but the hot item-of-the-times to read from and some press releases or “history” supplied by the artist herself. I’m not saying emerging artists don’t deserve attention or critical response, but I do believe, from the articles I have read this year, some on that aforementioned list and no, fail to acknowledge progress as a process itself.
Finally, this bullshit about atemporality people love to rest upon — please stop. Idealists who claim atemporality are idiots in the philosophical regard since heretofore nothing has been proved outside of time. Everything in our lives is temporal, and that includes the chapters (tired metaphor, I know) of artists’ practice (oops, said it again) to judge experiential progress instead of manufactured excitement. Atemporality is looking at one artwork, one exhibition, a small facet of a larger process, and believing your reaction to it, no matter the effort of refinement and editing, somehow creates something that preserves a time. This, though, is the same reason we can accept progress and change from artists and thinkers who might renounce earlier positions, since we inherently realize nothing is static, especially idea(l)s. Critics who try to create a moment with and of buzzwords and newfound genres are no better than artists trying to go viral or investors looking for a cheap deal on the block. Can we revere the artists and thinkers, instead, who attempt to keep change in motion, who faithfully demonstrate long-term investment in art, and not those trying to chisel themselves into history? The latter, really, is a process accreted only long after we’ve returned to stones.