John Canaday, for those of you too young to remember, used to be senior art critic on the New York Times, and hence, some felt, the most powerful art critic in the country. I remember a Sunday column of his about a woman in the art department of Appalachian State University who had put together an exhibition so fine that he praised it unstintingly. This was particularly impressive to a New Yorker because at the time the very name of the university conjured up an isolated pocket of insularity where it was hardly expected art would be taught, let alone exhibited—and abstract art at that. Canaday’s Appalachian connection appeared again at College Art, as we saw him on the panel, “Recurring Regionalism: The Southern Rim.” The title came from an earlier conference of the same name.
In academic art history, the single-author, single-subject monograph—an extended study on an individual artist, a group of artists, or a chronological or geographic range—is typically considered the pinnacle of scholarly achievement. A parallel to it in the hierarchy of subject matter in Western art would be history painting, a large work that addresses a biblical, historical, or mythological subject. To continue the analogy, a coauthored or edited book is comparable to a portrait, and an essay in a book is a genre scene. The article published in a peer-reviewed journal would be the landscape. The lowest form is the book review—the still life of academic writing.
Two years ago I stopped attending panels of art critics discussing the state of the field, mainly because the subjects such events would cover could easily be predicted: (1) money, and how there is little to be made writing about art; (2) a perceived loss of power in the art world, ceded to dealers, curators, and collectors; and (3) the differences between writing for print and online publications. Speakers overwhelmingly wrung their hands over problems that have existed for decades. The numbing repetition—I can’t even.
What do artists want from critics? Barbara Zucker answered for us all: “I want them to be my fairy godmother, champion my career, say I’m a genius, and stand behind me unequivocally.” Although she and others went on to discuss the importance of dialogue and the wonderful insights that artists might derive from criticism of their work, nothing rang as true as these opening remarks.
The fact that this panel of four male critics and editors drew the largest audience I have seen at any comparable woman’s event tells all about power and the perception of power in the art world today. Intellectual exchange was secondary, the audience being less interested in what the panel had to say than in what it had to say to the panel.
Carter Ratcliff, art critic, author, and lecturer, spoke at the New Museum on “Fads in Art.” His diagnosis, delivered in a dryly clinical manner, depicted a horrendous condition with tinges of sin, damnation, and guilt. Art faddism is like a “junkie addiction” in which neurotic need meshes with the market forces of our consumer society, he said. Stressing neurosis as explanatory structure, he touched only briefly on economics that encourage such phenomena.
“I was wondering whether anyone has anything good to say about age as an organizing principle?” someone asked during the audience Q&A for “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect,” a discussion hosted by the School of Visual Arts. Jenny Jaskey, director and curator of Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute, recoiled, “No one thinks it is.” When the next audience member rephrased the query—Is there an artist under 30 that you do like?—the five curators on the panel, all based in New York, were smiling but clearly looked uncomfortable. Alaina Claire Feldman, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International, said flat out, “I think that’s exactly what we’re here not to talk about…. I kind of refuse that question.” Then why, I scratched my head for the hundredth time, are we even here?
After being asked to participate on this panel, I wanted to know what kind of writing on socially engaged art is already out there. My conclusion is that there’s a lot of writing on socially engaged art out there. We have books devoted to the subject by Grant Kester, Claire Bishop, Pablo Helguera, Tom Finkelpearl, Nato Thompson, and Gregory Sholette, among others. We have essays by the above authors, as well as by Ben Davis, Steve Lambert, and Yates McKee. (Why so many men, I wonder?) They write on Project Row Houses, Theaster Gates, Suzanne Lacy, Tania Bruguera, Superflex, and the Yes Men, as well as projects sponsored by Creative Time, Art in Odd Places, and local and state arts councils across the country.
Titled “What Price Art,” and provocatively subtitled “The Economics of Art: An Agenda for the Future,” the conference promised to explore the economics of the visual arts market, with practical details on costs and price structure provided by “national experts in economics, finance, law, public policy, art and journalism.”
A recent talk by the Brooklyn-based critic Naomi Fry was as wide ranging—one could even say scattered—as both her interests and her curriculum vitae. “I always have to remind myself that I’m a writer,” she said, reflecting on her roles as a teacher of writing at the Rhode Island School of Design and New York University and also as a copy editor for the New York Times.