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Artspeak

July 1st, 2012

BY OWEN ALEXANDER

[It] isn’t writing at all — it’s typing.
— Truman Capote on Beat Generation writers

It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought.
— John Kenneth Galbraith

More than twenty years ago I bought a dandy little book called Artspeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, by Robert Atkins. I bought it more as a curiosity than a reference, but over the succeeding years, I’ve found its categories and definitions accurate, despite the shifting nature of the art world.

Of course, it could use considerable updating; since its publication in 1989, a number of new terms have made their way into the mainstream of art journalism: Neo-pop, SoFlo Superflat, Steampunk, and Stuckism, to name only a few. As in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, where Wikipedia lists more than 200 “rock genres,” one suspects that nearly every artist or rock group constitutes a movement. One feels confident that “death metal,” “punk rock,” and “stoner rock” cover a multitude of practitioners, but “Grebo,” “Zeuhl,” and “Crustgrind”?

In the expansive world of the contemporary visual arts, the mere conferring of a label on an artist is less a gimmick than a form of validation. To belong to a group is to belong. Among the so-called artists who are also charlatans, such labeling is welcome: it brings them into the fold. But serious-minded artists, even ones whose works are bogus, have always tended to resist being labeled, despite the “honor.” They want to believe that labels ignore their work’s originality.

The tendency, however, to deny that one’s work is part of an historical continuum in the development of art’s subjects and methods is a fairly recent one. The “make it new” stricture of the twentieth century has too often been interpreted as “make it totally different from anything ever imagined before.” This impulse has been especially fruitful for those artists (painters, sculptors, installationists, and all the rest) who have strived to create in their art a break with the long tradition of painting pictures of people, places, and things or otherwise making objects of art that resemble or at least represent objects in the observable world. Thus we have abstract art in all its forms (the end of pictures and the advent of paintings), and also the elevation of other things once thought to be pieces of furniture or bits of interesting design, however beautiful and costly, into objets d’art. All of this has been driven by an insane market that sees works of “art” as investments, and all has been made possible by art critics, who have invented the labels and chosen which artists to enshrine as real artists. Just as the two Mountain Men (Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg) cemented into our consciousness the term action painting, so have countless other critics validated countless other art -isms, and, in so doing, made the harmless word accessible into a term of deepest opprobrium, at least when applied to contemporary art.

The art criticism establishment throughout the world has jumped on the bandstand, but it’s the American writers who have been the most insistent on divorcing new art from its historical antecedents. In England and in Europe, museums and prestigious galleries still exhibit accessible art, and not strictly as historical or outmoded art, but simply as art worth seeing for its own sake. Not so in the United States, where woe betide the poor artist who still paints pictures. The American curators and journalists have almost entirely stopped wondering whether a given piece of art is good or bad in favor of simply categorizing it. And they’ve also almost entirely stopped writing sense. Here’s where the term artspeak takes on a deeper and more pernicious character than when Mr. Atkins gave us his guide to buzzwords.

Take, for example, this review of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, “Not Like the Other Ones,” written by Peter Schjeldahl, which appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

“Enchantment becomes charm in an installation by the New York artist Nick Mauss… Also included are odd, piquant works, from the Smithsonian Institution, by an artist previously unknown to me, Eyre de Lanux: doodle-like drawings that exude Surrealist-flavored erotic whimsy. Viewing Mauss’s ensemble is like passing through an aesthetic car wash. You emerge with the borrowed sparkle of a delightful sensibility.”

Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux was probably unknown to Mr. Schjeldahl because she did not aspire to the title of artist but contented herself with designing art deco furniture and rugs in the 1920s, and thereafter nothing of consequence. “Doodle-like drawings” is inaccurate; they are simply doodles. As for Mr. Mauss, Schjeldahl falls back on inane phrase-making (“aesthetic car wash”) rather than offering any analysis, or even description.

In an 11 April 2012 review called “Looks Like Rock ‘n’ Roll” of the show “John Chamberlain: Choices,” at the Guggenheim, The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Plagens takes on Chamberlain’s characteristic vertical assemblages and wall-mounted tapestries of twisted metal, composed mostly of bits of wrecked cars. Plagens is unfortunately not alone in finding both beauty and art in what appear to be piles of junk welded together. This is stupid, but fair enough. But praising this artist as a champion of color is certainly stretching things. Speaking of Chamberlain’s “almost-trademark [?] found color of crumpled auto-body parts,” Plagens asserts, in speaking of a large piece called “Three-Cornered Desire” from 1979, that “Chamberlain gives you more variety in his found rouges than most painters could stir up in a week of trying. Wonderfully contrapuntal bits of green and aqua punctuate the back side. The guy really knew his color.” Plagens then gives us the nearly mandatory cross-genre babble: “Chamberlain’s work is genuine rock ‘n’ roll sculpture; it looks the way a good [sic] garage band sounds.” Oy.

Two other Wall Street Journal writers, Karen Wilkin and John Wilmerding, when confronted with older art, rely on cliché and idiotic generalities. On 3 April 2012, Wilkin noted the differences between paintings of much the same scene by two Dutch painters, shown at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Both paintings, one by Govert Flinck from 1642 and the other by Bartholomeus van der Helst from 1655, are called “Governors of the Kloveniersdoelen.” Does the fact that Flinck’s group portrait is more staid, sober, and stiffly celebratory, Ms. Wilkin wonders, signify a response to the horrors of the Thirty Years War, whereas van der Helst’s more informal and even jocular picture reflects “a new sense of safety after the Dutch Republic finally achieved independence from Spain in 1648”? OMG! One might as well argue — pointlessly — that Jackson Pollock’s doodlings showed the hysteria of the McCarthy witch hunts while de Willem de Kooning’s ebullient use of paint portrayed relief at the end of World War II. Ms. Wilkin also omits mentioning that Flinck’s painting is entirely forgettable and van der Helst’s is pretty damned good.

In his April Fool’s Day examination of Edward Hopper’s painting “Second Story Sunlight,” Mr. Wilmerding gives us 750 words describing Hopper’s painting and noting its structural elements — pairings of windows, four trees-four windows, etc. — all to arrive at the breathtakingly banal conclusion that Hopper’s work is emotionally inscrutable: “Often simplicity of design shields a complexity of emotions, and an impending narrative yields only to inexplicability.” Describing the human figures on a second-story porch, Wilmerding writes that “Both women are relaxing in their own manner; are they vacationing? There is no indication whether this is a permanent residence or a second home for the season.”

Talk about pointless conjecture!

Because he’s talking about a sunlit scene, Wilmerding takes Hopper at his word that he was only “interested in painting sunlight on buildings.” But “light on buildings” would be more accurate because it would include Hopper’s night scenes. Why look for more, then, than the light? Hopper’s paintings have impact precisely because of their formal properties, particularly the way light is portrayed, and not because they pose unanswerable questions about the people in them, who in any event are always clumsily rendered.

British critics are not immune from the epidemic of silliness. In The Spectator of 17 March 2012, Andrew Lambrith, reviewing a Mondrian and Ben Nicholson show at the Courtauld Gallery, admits that “Someone asked me recently whether I actually liked Mondrian’s paintings. The implication being that his form of geometrical abstraction was too pure — or too antiseptic — to contain the necessary germ of human warmth required to engage the emotions: and that though one could admire his work intellectually, it was difficult to be passionate about it. There’s plenty of passion in Mondrian, but it is controlled fire, banked down to burn with a white-hot flame. Perhaps it should be termed the Higher Passion, as it does not immediately affect the ordinary emotions, but inspires instead to the spiritual ecstasy of the saint.”

Now I like Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” as much as the next person, but to infer from its colorful network that the artist who restricts his work severely to primary colors and rectangles achieves the “spiritual ecstasy of the saint” is going a bit far. Do Donald Judd’s simple boxes therefore signify enlightenment? Solipsism, perhaps, but “sainthood”? Besides, remove the title from “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” and you have merely a charming and colorful design, signifying nothing, like the rest of Mondrian’s paintings. Design, pure and simple. Wallpaper. Maybe a shower curtain.

Thus the state of artspeak. And I haven’t even mentioned the impenetrable, jargon-ridden, wrong-headed contents of the magazines devoted exclusively to art. The contemporary art critic’s relationship with his subjects, and his audience, brings to mind Charles II of Great Britain’s comment on a seventeenth-century preacher: “His nonsense suits their nonsense.” •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Alexander | Link to this Entry

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