Sunday, September 11, 2005

Initially this blog was designed as a place to share questions, thoughts, and discussions concerning the upcoming VAP Symposium. My hope is that after the symposium over, this forum will continue to address important topics in both Art Criticism and the larger artistic world.

9:23 AM


at October 19, 2005 6:53 AM Jim Elkins said...

[The Place of October]
An exchange between Jeffrey Skoller and Jim Elkins

This exchange began with a comment, inter alia, by Jeffrey, who attended the second roundtable and felt it was a “kind of ideological polemic against politically engaged or cultural studies oriented art criticism.”

Dear Jeffrey,
I beg your pardon? Where was that polemic? In whose statements? And do you mean you thought that was part of the book project?

Dear Jim,
You indicated that the discussion and people's remarks would be transcribed and put in the book. Is that not true?
The round table certainly seemed to be constructed like a polemic to me. The first part of the discussion was a round robin ad hominem trashing (with the exception of Michael) of October for hijacking art criticism and scholarship. Their focus on the social and political nature of art eg: the Frankfurt School (and other “Aryan theories of the aura,” !?!, as Hickey put it) as well as its integration of other cultural theory as a tool for criticism was blamed for moving art criticism away from judgement to description leading to the currently soft dispassionate forms of criticism and art.
• That current art history and criticism is now dominated by meta-criticism rather than the taking of bold stands and opinions about quality. (Stephen Melville)
• The discussion of the necessity of separating art criticism from cultural criticism which liberal art critics no longer do. (Panero)
• The criticism of the hermetic nature of dominating art criticism that no one outside of academia can understand and no one reads. (Ariella Budick)
• The problem of curators with PhDs turning museum exhibitions into academic and political statements rather than foregrounding the art works. (Budick again, I think)
There was so much generalizing going on, that it seemed simply ideological and polemical. Again, with the exception of Michael (who was really great), the tenor of the discussion was one of resentment about the current domination of left-liberal artists and scholars who insist on politicizing art world discourses using critical theory and institutional critique that has moved academic art criticism away from the discourses of connoisseurship and enlightened judgement to the appropriation of art merely for social and political critique. There seemed an over riding melancholia about the loss of an earlier art world that focused on art practice as object making, buying and selling, and the role that the critic played in creating value etc. This led to more ad hominems (of course dominated by Hickey) against, art professors insisting on the use of critical theory and shallow art students who make soft meaningless art while spouting empty theory. and curator whores (Hickey) with social and political agendas looking for hand outs etc.
There was very little discussion of the historical reasons why such changes have occurred other than a kind of cynical will to power. Who gets inside, who gets left outside etc. Little was said in positive terms about the changing concerns of artists and critics who are thinking differently about their roles in contemporary culture in light of mass and corporate culture and the emergence of new technologies. Or the ways artists and critics with different cultural backgrounds and references or others who are working in new art forms have become part of art world discourses and have enlarged, enriched and changed the terms of art criticism. For me and my generation for example, the importance of October was that it was the first place that really insisted on the idea that avant-garde cinema, video and photography had a serious place in art history. That one needed to know about the history of cinema and the ways artists were influenced by it and used it, to understand 20th century art. As an experimental filmmaker who wanted to make art, those discussions helped me find a place in art history, rather than as some sideshadow in the history of Hollywood cinema.
Other things that might have widened the important discussion about the ascension of curators over critics as taste makers: a discussion of the effects of the attack on arts funding in the 80s and 90s which led to the dismantling of not-for-profit alternative, artist-run spaces. This included spaces in which to make work, exhibit unconventional work and money to make work the wasn’t created to be bought and sold. The loss of publications to do criticism outside of the big art magazines. This loss of such a counter-art world has led to the centralization of art exhibition in those “contemporary art museums” that have been popping up in every city as the alternative spaces closed down in the face of urban gentrification, and defunding as local and state money was redirected to such emporia eg: MCA, Yerba Buena etc. This has made curators more important and powerful to the success of artists who more than ever, have to rely on them to have a place to show their work. In the face of the loss of arts funding, curators have become producers and benefactors who actually decide which works get made. This is particularly true for media art, where galleries and museums are becoming film producers.
Anyway, I think it was wonderful that you put together this discussion about the current state of art criticism and that there was so much interest. But it seemed that the vision of its impoverished state was so consistent that I could only interpret it as a polemic and assumed that this would be basis of the book.
Best, Jeffrey

The main purpose of this roundtable, and the other one in Ireland, was to have as wide-ranging a talk about art criticism as possible. Previous fora have been limited: hence the invitation to Hickey. He does not represent anything I agree with -- and I'd say the same is probably true of most of the other panelists. I can see from the quotations you chose that Panero and Budick might seem similar: but of course they aren't!
Then, the reason I brought up "October" is that in the first roundtable, I talked at some length about the "October" roundtable on criticism, quite sympathetically. I have attached the transcript so you can see. And yet no one wanted to talk about it. And (note!) the people who did not want to talk included Irit Rogoff and Jean Fisher, two peope absolutely committed to social action and visual culture. So I was puzzled by that refusal, and I brought it up again in this roundtable to see if people might want to be more sympathetic.
Part of what you're registering here is widely typical of journalistic art criticism, which Hickey represents (much as he would deny it). I'm actually glad to have gotten a panel that could voice such positions because of their uniquity. However your assessment is mainly of James, Ariella, and Dave, who are very different politically and as writers. Note, too, that of the panelists, Steve is closely aligned with "October" contributors and interests.
In regard to the lack of interest in responding to "October": it seems to me it might be symptomatic of an interesting moment in current criticism, in which some people who are committed to politics find their genealogies in "October" and others don't. I was skeptical of the disengagement of the first roundtable, because I doubt that interesting models of political commitment and cultural intervention can be as free of the influence of "October" as Irit and Jean suggest.
You write, “There was very little discussion of the historical reasons why such changes have occurred other than a kind of cynical will to power. Who gets inside, who gets left outside etc.” Here I completely agree. The reasons for the changes are the subject of my booklet, What Happened to Art Criticism?, which is something all the panelists had read, and that might be another reason the subject did not come up.
My interest in this book is twofold: (1) I would like to represent the entire field of art criticism, and I think the two roundtables together do a fair job of that; the 40-odd assessments will make this one of the most representative books on the subject. (2) I want to understand everyone's positions. The things that went unsaid here are therefore of interest to me for that fact alone.
You observe that “little was said in positive terms about the changing concerns of artists and critics who are thinking differently about their roles in contemporary culture in light of mass and corporate culture and the emergence of new technologies. The ways artists and critics with different cultural backgrounds and references or others who are working in new art forms have become part of art world discourses and have enlarged, enriched and changed the terms of art criticism.” Much was said about that in the first roundtable, by Irit and others. I won't add anything else; these are all open issues, which I hope the book as a whole will develop.
I am sending the transcript of the first roundtable, together with some of the texts that were preirculated.

Thanks for your responses to my screed. I read the transcript to the Ireland roundtable with great interest. It was the kind of discussion I was hoping for at the SAIC roundtable and most upsettingly, I didn't find. It would be interesting to try to figure out what made the one in Ireland so ranging and forward thinking and the one here so polemical and filled with resentment and nostalgia?
As to the question of it all being a polemic: I would ask, why with all the talk in Ireland about new paradigms in art criticism and art as research as well as the need for a more politicized activist criticism, in the ways Whitney or Abigail spoke about; or the reasons for the emergence of Third Text as a way to deal with emerging post-colonial art that Jean spoke about, why weren't there those kinds of critics or scholars included in your discussions? It would have been an extraordinary experience to have had the voices of the likes of Lucy Lippard, Moira Roth, Kobena Mercer, George Baker (you mentioned in the first roundtable you had planned to invite him and Helen Molesworth. Why didn't they make it?), Hilton Als, Greg Tate, Michelle Wallace, Douglas Crimp, David Deitcher, Coco Fusco, just to name a dozen or so critics and scholars who immediately come to mind. All have tried to expand the terms of art criticism to include new models for criticism and have engaged artists from other communities with different cultural approaches to art practice. Given the discussion of the emergence of the artist as critic in the first round table, it would have also been valuable to have had an artist/critic speaking about their practice and those issues. The exclusion of these kinds of voices is what gives the roundtable such an ideological cast. I, for one, and I'm sure others would like to know why such voices were not included.
Best, Jeffrey

There's a reason why the roundtable was like that, and it's a reason that I hope to explore in the book: I wanted this book to be truly inclusive. The James Paneros, Dave Hickeys, and Ariella Budicks of the world outnumber the Steve Melvilles and Michael Newmans. I am interested in the sum total of criticism, and how it might cohere (or not). So, even though George Baker and Helen M. were invited (they couldn't make it), I still had hoped the conversation would be -- as you say -- nostalgic, because that reflects the tenor of the critical world.
Most interesting to me, so far, is the emergence of the fact that some politically active critical thinking disavows October...
Best, Jim

Yes, I think the centrality of October in contemporary progressive art criticism has been over for a long while. As far back as the late ‘80’s when Douglas Crimp broke with October over the issue of the AIDS crisis and the ways he felt it needed to be responded to actively and critically, signaled for many of us, the end of October’s importance as a politically engaged forum for art criticism and theory. But that moment opened onto an extraordinary period of art practice and criticism that attempted to engage the cultural and political crises of the 80s and 90s. Importantly there were many attempts to integrate art practice with cultural critique and art criticism. The counter-history of art in the 80’s was an unprecedented joining of artists and critics, theory and practice to engage the public sphere. This was a movement away from the academicization of art criticism as embodied by October. As Irit alluded to, there were extraordinary experiments in collective critical practice—PADD, Gran Fury, Group Material, Repo-history, Paper Tiger TV (and this was just in NYC where I lived). A different approach to art criticism emerged. A journal like “Afterimage” was very important in the ways it combined aesthetic, theoretical and activist concerns across a broad range of art forms. For examples of this kind of criticism that has little to do with October, see anthologies such as Art, Activism, & Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage. Grant Kester ed. 1998 and Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America. Brian Wallis etc. eds 1999 for the range of artists and art critics doing activist, non-academic art criticism. But this kind of melding of artist/critic, criticism as activism, theory and art making was too promiscuous for the mainstream art critics like Hickey et al, who can’t stand the idea that artists and activists are also engaged in art criticism. Connoisseurship was now being displaced by politics and collective work between artists and critics. No longer was it one man in front of one painting deciding on its importance. Of course this was an intolerable situation for most professional art critics. What is an art critic to do? Well in the case of Hickey, Panero, Budick etc., you trash everything going on around you while pining for the good old days of yore, when one man’s judgement could still sell a painting….

Best, Jeffrey