Monday, December 14, 2009

Good Thinking About Art

Critics write about music, books, theatre, and art, and they write using ideas and words particular to those fields and to ongoing developments in those fields. A review written using eigtheenth-century terms and concepts about a contemporary play would sound odd to us. But when writing about art can highlight one of two contemporary, but quite different, approaches, issues about art and writing can become confused with each other.

Eric Gibson, in his article in The Wall Street Journal - "The Lost Art of Writing About Art" (April 2008) discusses what he and others saw as the abysmal writing for the Whitney Museum's biennial exhibition of contemporary art (2008). He laments the change in critical writing about art since the 1950s and quotes other artists and critics who see it as "impenetrable" and insulting.

Gibson cites Richard Lacayo who writes in a blog for Time magazine and wants to ban five words from the critical lexicon because they are meaningless - "interrogate," "problematize," "references" (used as a verb), "transgreessive," and "inverts."

These five words exemplify the move away from earlier times when critics dealt with "art and aesthetics," to the present, when they "simply riff..." on philosophy. Art and aesthetics have been overtaken by discussions based on Marxism and feminism. (The Horror! The Horror!) Duchamp's Readymades inaugurated the shift.

The problem with impenetrable writing about art is not the real issue here. Bad writing is bad writing wherever we find it and is not acceptable. Good writing about art can and should include words that reflect how critics approach art. Gibson himself says that from Duchamp on, art required a different kind of writing.

Gibson's article should be titled "The Lost Art of Writing About Lost Values in Art." The issue here is nostalgia for a time when art was believed to be purely aesthetic and "real" critics knew how to write about it from the correct perspective. Gibson seems really to want a ban on a contemporary way of thinking about art, a way of thinking that needs its special words.

Feminism and Marxism both "problematize" the purely aesthetic approach to art, a change which, as Gibson points out, began with Duchamp and his contemporaries.

Whether one prefers the purely aesthetic approach to art or is an afficionado of conceptual art, appreciation increases with well-written criticicism. Well-written criticism requires the words and ideas appropriate to each approach.


askcherlock said...

Your analysis of the critique was done very artistically, and could well stand on its own merit.

ChrisJ said...

AskCherLock, thank you for your kind words.

angelshair said...

"Well-written criticism requires the words and ideas appropriate to each approach."
I agree, critics can't be writen the same way about a renaissance painting or a contemporary installation art.
What I find very disturbing is the problem of the "impenetrable writing" you can sometimes find on art critics. But as you said, bad writing is bad writing.

ChrisJ said...

angelshair, I'm sure that some of the impenetrable writing is academic and meant for a different audience, but there is some very bad writing out there.

Anonymous said...

In his article Gibson quotes as an example of critical hyperbole a passage with the phrase "where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings". I thought this phrase a legitimate description of what can happen in montage, though "adjacencies" strikes me as slightly precious. Criticism of this type is always marked by certain grammatical features: adjectives become plural nouns, nouns become verbs, sometimes going full circle to become gerunds: "His referencings of post-modern poetries are integral to his interrogations of the problem of excessive languaging."

ChrisJ said...

Exactly; I quite agree with you that Gibson's example of hyperbole seems legitimately descriptive.

Whether you mean that we should embrace the grammatical features of this type of criticism or not isn't clear. I do think that much of it could do with a kind of grammatical haircut - bit of a trim of some features.