Interpreting ‘80s Criticism: Do We Still Mean What We Said?
Thursday, December 1, 1988
School of Visual Arts, New York
Moderator: Ronald Jones, artist and critic; Panelists: Peter Schjeldahl, poet and critic, 7 Days; Stuart Morgan, critic and editor, Artscribe; Donald Kuspit, critic and editor, Art Criticism; Roberta Smith, critic, New York Times; Peter Halley, artist and art theorist.
Moderator Ronald Jones began the discussion promising that “the ’80s changed theory and the function of criticism in major ways,” but the panelists did not address the history of ’80s art criticism. Instead, each discussed his or her own criticism as a personal quest.
All seemed to see their occupation as a solitary one; they did not allude to the community of artist, critic, and reader/viewer, nor discuss their position in an art world structure in which they saw all others embroiled. They seemed to see their project as happening in a vacuum, far from the currents of a commodity-influenced art world, a pure reflection of their solitary and romantic search for meaning and subjectivity in a world where this no longer seems possible. They cast their critical concerns as a search for what eluded them in the culture of the Reagan ’80s.
Peter Schjeldahl was searching for sincerity: “Speaking of personal truth is contagious…. Sincerity is a hard attainment in this society…. I look for the quality of the artist’s caring.” Stuart Morgan was seeking the self; he believes in “the intuitive and impressionistic approach,” is interested in whether he himself is sincere, and said, “I am surprised at the strange person I find in my writing.”
Peter Halley, looking for cultural continuity and connections, saw himself writing criticism “in reaction to the muddled state of affairs in the art world” at the beginning of the decade. He wanted to write a history placing art within an “interdisciplinary cultural matrix.” Roberta Smith, the only woman on a panel which never mentioned gender or feminism as issues for the ’80s, was seeking authority: “I want a sense of rightness, credibility, and integrity.” Donald Kuspit, the senior member of the panel, sought a sense of subjectivity which might overcome the feeling that the culture has turned into nothing more than the creation of capital: “Art is capital, we are involved in a capitalist system; to escape, we must deal with … the difficulty of subjecthood in this culture. [I] use a post-modern analysis on the problems of being a subject in our time.”
While the panelists described using their critical work to consolidate their sense of self—for example, Smith said, “I explore my own sensibility as I explore the art of others,” and Morgan said, “My project is my personality”—they seemed curiously uninterested in this aspect of their project in terms of history, theory, or the ’80s. Only Kuspit noted that capital creates a “glamorous hyperreality, a seamless image of selfhood.”
Panelists’ remarks seemed generally to reflect the crisis in personal identity and cultural meanings many believe stems, at least in part, from the cultural hegemony of the white Western male and the attendant appropriation, or disregard, of the subjectivity of the other, that is, everyone else. This hegemony seemed to be duplicated in a panel whose participants, except one, were white and male. The impact of race, gender, sexual identity, and feminism was not discussed; class was mentioned only in terms of the art market. These factors, which are key to an understanding of the self within society, seemed to be non-issues for these panelists and their critical practice.
Money and power, which most artists at least think of when they think of art critics, did not seem to affect the self image of these critics or their ideas of the critic’s role in the art world. They often spoke of their critical projects as a dialog with themselves. Indeed, it was sometimes unclear whether they were searching for meaning in themselves or in the art they reviewed.
However, as touching and old-fashioned as all this may have been, it was marred by a failure to acknowledge their own position of power in the art market, despite recognition of what they seemed to accept as an intrinsic antagonism between critic and artist—an antagonism that became apparent during the audience-panel discussion. While the artists were uncomfortable with the critics’ power to judge, the critics seemed to feel that the possibility of artists “making it” and achieving great wealth more than balanced whatever power they themselves had.
The artists in the audience, obviously not comforted by Morgan’s previous assurance that “a lack of critical attention doesn’t make an artist a bad artist,” challenged the critics’ apparently unquestioning complicity in the power structure of the art world. The critics gave no direct answer; rather, Kuspit, quoting Foucault, reminded them that “power is diffuse.” Smith added, “If criticism is the artist’s support system, then it is bad criticism.” A panelist summed up the critic’s responsibility, “to judge and to be judged by their judgements.” Finally, Morgan summed up the discussion period with the observation that, “Our embarrassment is the entertainment value of the evening.”
In Terms Of count: 2 (from the review itself).
Written by Flavio Rando, “Solo Searching” was originally published in Women Artists News 13, no. 4 (Winter 1988/89); and reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 284–85. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.