[Reader-list] The Whitney

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Tue Apr 22 09:11:09 IST 2008

Why be understood when you can be a star...

>From the Wall Street Journal
The Lost Art of Writing About Art
April 18, 2008; Page W13

In certain circles, the Whitney Museum's Biennial exhibition of contemporary
art is known as "the show everybody loves to hate." Usually the criticism
comes in the form of negative reviews. But this year it's different, with
the brickbats directed at the exhibition's accompanying commentary instead
of the art itself. Texts written by the Whitney's curators and outside
contributors are being widely (and accurately) dismissed as unalloyed

What makes this complaint particularly significant is that it comes not from
the public, whom the museum might privately dismiss as benighted
philistines, but from insiders -- artists and critics who know their stuff
and are generally well-disposed toward the museum and its efforts.

When the show opened last month, artist and critic Carol Diehl blogged about
the "impenetrable prose from the Whitney Biennial." As examples, she offered
"random quotes" about individual artists and their work taken from the
exhibition's wall texts and catalog. Among the gems:
€ ". . . invents puzzles out of nonsequiturs to seek congruence in seemingly
incongruous situations, whether visual or spatial . . . inhabits those
interstitial spaces between understanding and confusion."
€ "Bove's 'settings' draw on the style, and substance, of certain
time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to
pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty,
where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings."

Ms. Diehl's complaint was quickly taken up by others. Richard Lacayo, on a
Time magazine blog, likened reading the show's introductory wall text ("Many
of the projects . . . explore fluid communication structures and systems of
exchange") to "being smacked in the face with a spitball." To combat such
verbiage, he recommended banning five words long popular with critics that
nonetheless say nothing: "interrogates," "problematizes," "references" (as a
verb), "transgressive" and "inverts."

On his Modern Art Notes blog, Tyler Green dismissed the Whitney prose as an
"embarrassment" and suggested that every candidate for a contemporary-art
curatorship be required to pass a writing test. And an art blogger known
only as C-Monster pleaded simply for "smart writing that is precise and
unmuddled," adding plaintively: "Making it enjoyable to read wouldn't hurt."

Once upon a time, art writing was all those things. Critics of an earlier
age, such as John Ruskin, had no problem making themselves understood, and
they are still read today. The same is true of the great art historians of
the postwar era, such as Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich. Panofsky, among
whose books was the definitive study of Albrecht Dürer, was a supremely
elegant prose stylist. Gombrich's 1950 survey, "The Story of Art," has sold
six million copies and been translated into 23 languages. By the way,
English was the second language for both men. And Alfred Barr, founding
director of the Museum of Modern Art, wrote catalogs on topics ranging from
Matisse to Surrealism that made the mysteries of modern art accessible to
the American public.

It was Marcel Duchamp who unwittingly launched art criticism on its current
path of willful obscurantism. His "Readymade" art -- mass-produced
commercial objects (most famously a urinal) that the artist removed from
everyday utilitarian contexts and displayed in a museum -- almost required
this development.

Until Duchamp, criticism was aesthetically based. The critic talked about a
painting's subject, the way the artist handled color, drawing, composition
and the like. With Readymades, the object's appearance and beauty were no
longer the issue -- indeed, they were irrelevant. What mattered was the idea
behind the work -- the point the artist was trying to make. So art criticism
moved from the realm of visual experience to that of philosophy. The writer
no longer had to base his critical observations on a close scrutiny of the
work of art. He could simply riff.

Conceptual art like Duchamp's took a while to catch on, but by the 1980s it
had become mainstream. Around that time, academics and critics drove another
nail into the coffin of accessible writing. They turned to areas outside of
art and aesthetics -- disciplines such as linguistics and ideologies such as
Marxism and feminism -- to interpret art.

>From the late 19th century to just after World War II, writing about modern
art was clear. It had to be. Critics from Émile Zola to Clement Greenberg
were trying to explain new and strange art forms to a public that was often
hostile to the avant-garde. To have a hope of making their case, these
writers couldn't afford to obfuscate. Today, when curators and critics can
count on a large audience willing to embrace new art simply because it is
new, they don't have to try as hard.

Still, there is no excuse for a museum letting nonsense of the sort quoted
above out in the open, particularly an institution whose mission includes
educating the public. If the Whitney continues to snub this public -- its
core audience -- by "explaining" art with incomprehensible drivel, it
shouldn't be surprised if people decide to return the favor and walk away.

Mr. Gibson is the Journal's Leisure & Arts features editor. Write to Eric
Gibson at eric.gibson at wsj.com

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