In this essay, art historian Celeste Connor responds to and extends the Stretcher editor’s project on art criticism that began in June, 2006 with the publication of Meredith Tromble’s Taking Art’s Measure.
In “Taking Art’s Measure” Meredith Tromble succinctly points out one of the most fundamental dilemmas of the San Francisco Bay Area’s visual arts scene, the lack of published reviews. When I migrated to California from the East Coast I noticed this problem immediately. I was accustomed to New York, with its extensive media network so firmly in place to assess all the arts. But I welcomed what seemed like a vast wasteland, devoid of text and even of a comparable quantity of art, old or new. This very lack made California seem a land of great cultural possibilities. Alternatives to East Coast models in other areas of life had been discovered or invented here, why not in the arts?
Certainly the innovators I was working with at the University of California San Diego (UCSD): Allan Kaprow, Eleanor Antin, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Moira Roth, to name only a few, had in mind to create such alternatives, not only to the kinds of art common to New York’s commercial galleries, but also alternative modes of art talk and art writing. During my final term in La Jolla the New York Times, longtime arbiter of international art values and trends, powerfully decried art talk’s elitism. By 1980, when I signed on to the Grad Program of the University of California, Berkeley’s Art History Department, Marxian and feminist discourses about art were just beginning to intertwine with formalist views.
The San Francisco arts scene was and is marked with more traditional, East Coast-derived, forms than I had seen in SoCAL. Yet I vividly recall the frustration I felt trying to find periodicals, unaffiliated with commercial galleries, that could inform me about the local making communities. I found one, Artweek, (which I have written for occasionally for fifteen plus years) and very little else. Bay Area free papers tried to fill in the lull with reviews that were (and remain) as disparate in quality of writing as in criteria of evaluation.
I’d like to focus here on only one aspect of the trouble Tromble addresses in her essay. I want to propose that not only does there need to be more art criticism published here, but also that what is needed is informed, persuasive, and effective criticism. I have some definite ideas about where and how such competent critical voices could be encouraged.
When I attended UCSD, it was one of only two schools in the entire country where formal training in art criticism could be pursued. But because I also wanted to teach, it was necessary for me to pursue a higher degree than the MA offered there. Continuing on to Berkeley, I found surprisingly little interest in studying the art critical literature of the past or present, even among professors and students who considered themselves Modernists. Theory was coming into ascendancy (with its comically emphatic pronunciation of the ‘90s: THEO-ry) and, with it, less and less interest in actually observing images or objects with care. Seeing had been a mainstay of art critical evaluation, but it was being thrown out with the bathwater of connoisseurship.
As American appropriations of British and French discourses on the visual arts and culture began to dominate high academia, the attention of potential careful lookers veered to text rather than image. Article after article was published on the important social and political contexts of images that were, very often, not even reproduced as accompanying illustrations. To me, a visual artist, art historian and critic, this seemed an unfortunate turn. But that was the twentieth century.
How can eyes be opened again, right now, to address the visual arts here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and perhaps the entire state? Unlike some prominent national critics who retain an older, anti-intellectual stance, I do think one important locus could be in degree-granting colleges. I don’t mean those of high academia, but rather in colleges of art. Let’s enlist the cooperation of the many reputable arts colleges here to lead the way to an improved critical discourse.
Instead of awaiting a generation of art critics to earn reputations writing for the sports sections of newspapers before promotion to the art column (as has been the case in most of the American past), art colleges could consciously plan to solve the challenges of the inadequate breadth of coverage and unsophisticated quality of our art writing. They could offer courses in the historiography of art criticism, classes assessing the turn from literary modes of art writing to theoretical writing, and initiate a current evaluation of the continuing hybridization of art critical discourses. These would be valuable means to prepare not only future critics but also potential patrons as contributors to fresh, well informed, and effective discussions on the contemporary visual arts.
In the two decades I’ve enjoyed academic life in California, as a student and professor, it’s been in vogue to assume that visual artmakers themselves are necessarily ill-equipped to contribute to a productive critical conversation on the arts due their inability to remain objective. But after thirty-five years of revisionist scholarship that persuaded most of us that unalloyed objectivity is virtually unattainable, why continue to dismiss the potential contributions of sophisticated and articulate maker-writers? Why not, instead, put time and energy into educating generations of artmakers and, their allies in the visual studies field, to describe, interpret, and assess images with care?
What is needed is the creation of courses of study that prepare maker-writers to address, first and foremost, the contemporary image using subtle rhetorical strategies and methods deployed by effective art writers, past and present. Just as in the practices of the visual arts themselves, nothing comes of nothing. Until we seriously engage in oral and written experimentation based on significant, persuasive historical writings and conversations about visual images, we will guarantee that no present or future comparable worthwhile writing or conversations will be forthcoming.
And a few final thoughts about how 21st century art criticism might ignite a truly inclusive and effective discussion of the visual arts here in the San Francisco Bay Area. First, its very tone could be improved radically by being set in contrast to unproductive and arrogant metaphors, such as “the artist is dead.” Perhaps even more importantly, today’s visual arts critics must find in themselves the moxie to dispense informed judgements, rather than trying to palm the responsibility off on their readers, who, to the best of my recollection, have never been polled or proven to want to do the lion’s share of the interpretative and evaluative work.