As I mentioned the other day, I read James Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism? earlier this week. I was not overwhelmed. It’s not that the book is bad, just that it doesn’t say much. Sure it’s only 86 pages long, but still, more could have been done. Elkins spends a large chunk of the pamphlet classifying what he sees as the different tendencies in art criticism in the past few decades – philosophical criticism (Danto), gallery essays, poetic art criticism and so on. At times there are what seem to me to be some errors: the fact that Michael Fried has published some poetry does not mean that his art writing is primarily motivated, as Elkins implies, by the desire to write criticism that has literary merit:
In the absence of methodological and theoretical interests, and for those less dedicated to descriptive work, writing – and sometimes just "entertaining" – is a high priority.
I call this category poetic art criticism to underscore the fact that some prominent critics are also poets, Peter Schjeldahl and Michael Fried among them.
A careless statement, at best. Still, one recognizes the broad lay of the land. His main beef concerns what he calls descriptive criticism, art writing that only seeks to inform the reader of the nature of a given work and avoid making judgments regarding it. He also has misgivings regarding critics such as Jerry Saltz, who reject commitment to any given idea of art but instead approach works provisionally, without regard to past theorizing but an eye toward the immediate experience.
Elkins considers a number of different improvements for criticism that have been offered – to become more theoretical rigorous, more formally so, to try to create more systematic methods of considering art, and others – and rejects them all. At the end he outlines his preferences: art critics should aim high, making judgments of value, but also should be historically grounded, measuring what they write against the great critics of the past and allowing their work to inform contemporary critical practice. A critic should be knowledgable about the historical discourse surrounding a work and take it into account; in turn, art historians should look to contemporary criticism, when done well, as something to include in their own discussions. It’s a nice picture, if a bit unrealistic, as Elkins admits. I do think his argument undervalues the virtues of a critic like Saltz. Still, one can agree that critics should have something to shoot for (for some of my thoughts on judgment, see here.)
The model that Elkins proposes does exist to some degree among the sort of art historian/critics that make up the list he offers of writers he enjoys. And it would certainly fit in and be welcome in certain venues for criticism. Elkins mistakes, however, criticism for a unified practice that operates always the same (or should do so) despite the differing situations in which it arises. The gallery essays that he discusses are arguably not functioning as criticism per se but as a critical argument in favor of the artist, a blending of criticism and advertising. While not unaware of this, Elkins insists on the need for these essays to be included in his model. I don’t think that an artist or gallery would object to a more historically informed discussion, but they would likely not cotton to one that put the work in a negative light. Writers who produce these essays may be critics, but what they are doing in them is not entirely criticism.
Something similar applies to a great deal of newspaper art writing. Elkins notes that one response to a survey by Columbia of art critics was “’we are paid to inform the reader of what’s in town.’” This won’t do at all, he thinks – but really, outside of a few major cities, the first function of the newspaper critic is exactly that. Most cities do not have an active enough audience or art scene to support the sort of criticism Elkins prefers, nor do the newspapers allow the space. I don’t think it unreasonable that the local critic, in such circumstances, should try to first inform the readership and perhaps educate them through some dreaded descriptive criticism. I wouldn’t call this the most advanced work in the field, but I do think it’s necessary to simply encourage potential viewers to see what’s out there. Art criticism happens on a number of different levels. Many people are intimidated by museums and art galleries. If the guy in the local paper is going on about Adorno and Meier-Graefe, they will not take heart.
I criticized Elkins’ book at the outset for not saying much, so it’s appropriate to note that it is only a part of what will be a larger work. Prickly Paradigm Press has published it as part of their series of pamphlets, and to learn of their project was one of the pleasures the book afforded. A little sideline of the University of Chicago Press, it seeks to publish “challenging and sometimes outrageous pamphlets...[on] academic disciplines, the arts and the contemporary world.” Sounds fun, and if I’ve been mostly negative on Elkins’ book, I’d like to say that it is an enjoyable read as well.