Sunday, December 11, 2005

Teaching Young Artists to Think About Art

Art critics are navel gazing these days. This New York Times book review asks where Art criticism has gone and where, in its absence, has Art gone.

The author wonders aloud if Art and artists have lost their way. In the context of high school art these questions are worth posing. Yes, young artists learn technique and experiment with medium. But what should they be thinking about? And who is their audience?

This article in many ways laments the extremist elements of art that have taken hold over the past thirty years or so - the masochism, shock, celebrity, and disenfranchisement of it all. When I see young adults tattooed, pierced, and desperate for attention, I cannot help but feel that these are artistic visions inspired by false prophets. The artistic community should not have to debase itself to get or deserve attention.

From the article [bolded text emphasis is mine]:

At the conclusion of "Art Since 1900," the four authors hold a round table, and their prognosis is equally dismal. Art, they believe, has become little more than "commodity production, investment portfolio and entertainment." Everything, they say, is turning into kitsch. But just as the formalist Michael Fried linked arms with the antiformalist Harold Rosenberg in their antagonism to contemporary art, so the oppositionalist October editors, with their objections to art's frivolousness and their insistence on the centrality of modernism, sound like no one so much as the traditionalist Hilton Kramer.

A single theme or complaint unites these otherwise disparate voices. Rosenberg lamented modern art's "anything goes" attitude. Ruhrberg writes that "in painting today, anything goes." By the early 70's, according to the authors of "Art Since 1900," "it seemed, as the song had put it, 'anything goes.' " Kramer has said: "With the eruption of the Pop Art movement, an element of demystification came into the art world, an element of cynicism, an element of . . . 'anything goes.' " If there is a presiding spirit over the art of recent decades, it is not Jackson Pollock, and not Andy Warhol. It is Cole Porter.

But how can art criticism cope with an ethos of anything goes? In an environment of perfect freedom, what is there left for a critic to criticize? For critics at newspapers and magazines, who astutely discuss current shows and exhibits, this is less of a problem than it is for writers who stake out theoretical positions. Some, like the writers for October, have turned to politics, interpreting art in terms of Marxism, or feminism, or gay activism or old-fashioned anti-Americanism (while the writers around The New Criterion have reacted to this leftist tendency with their own conservatism). Or they have found refuge in the higher realms of French and German philosophy, usually producing jargon-ridden criticism that is incomprehensible to anyone without a Ph.D. in European theory. We live at a moment when artists have been asking the kinds of questions children ask - What is art? What is it good for? - and critics have for the most part been giving answers not even an adult can understand. "Mommy, why have we come all this way to see pictures of soup cans?" "It's Andy Warhol, sweetheart, and he's wielding a sharp, insinuating heuristic chisel to pry at the faultlines and lay bare the sedimented faces of his surround. "

Mainly, however, critics who have not retreated into monasteries have often retreated in another way, according to the art historian James Elkins. They have, he says in his brief but heartily polemical book, "What Happened to Art Criticism?," given up being critics. They are expert at describing and evoking recent work, placing it in historical context, drawing stylistic and intellectual links among artists. But, with a few exceptions, they do not judge. A Columbia University survey of 230 art critics conducted in 2002 found that making evaluations ranked at the bottom of their list of priorities. Elkins calls this retreat from judgment "one of the most significant changes in the art world in the previous century." He writes that critics have become "voiceless," "ghostly," "unmoored." Art criticism, Elkins says, is in "worldwide crisis."

Worse yet, IMO, is an American public equally voiceless, ghostly, and unmoored who are incapable of making art part of the surroundng community. We too often settle for big city museums to intellectually insulate art from the public where no man, woman, or child can ask, "Why is this art? Why is this important? What does it mean?"

Maybe we need it as much as we need it. And maybe in a politically polarized society, it is the tie that binds.

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