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February 8, 2013 Repository 53: The Elephant in the Art Room Posted In: art practice, contemporary art, perspective

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Image from elephant show in Chiang Mai, Thailand, courtesy of elephant-photos.com

There’s been a recent slew of articles and missives online reacting to the overflow of and confusing melange of art speak in the art world from artist’s statements to gallery press releases. Somehow there is momentum in this topic, but it’s important to remember that the topic is over 30 years old. Critics such as Robert Hughes reminded us in the 80s that,

Jargon, native or imported, is always with us; and in America both academe and the art world prefer the French kind, a thick prophylactic against understanding.

He was fully aware of this language “that intimidates…subjecting the reader to a rite of passage and extorting assent as the price of entry”. Hilton Kramer (another peer critic of Hughes) preferred the term “academic twaddle”.

So instead of wasting any more time critiquing the words used, it’s fair to turn the table to another elephant in the art room. There are almost no true critics of the art world. Yes, there are critics of the institutions and systems that exist (mostly artists), but what I am talking about is a true critic of the ART – someone brave enough to stand up and call a spade a spade.

Monthly I read reviews in Artforum that neither inspire me, nor make any critical sense. They are generally glowing reviews of an either emerging, obscure or cultish artist whose work is generally mediocre. On first blush it’s almost fair to assume the true critics of art are to be found outside of the art world – people with the perspective and sense to notice that gee – that really is just shit on a painting, or a big flipping mess on the gallery floor, or wishy washy stuff that means nothing whatsoever.

The continual acceptance of the mediocre perpetuates the production of the mediocre. Until someone who writes for the New York Times, or Art Blah Blah magazine can stand up and say what they really see, we will be in for a century’s more worth of pandering to the advertisers. Galleries cough up a lot of money to have pretty full page ads in glossy art zines – don’t think their editors aren’t sensitive to this.

A nicely written article/obit by Mira Schor in ArtForum this month outlines the careers of Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer – both outspoken in their day, and not afraid to clearly delineate good from bad art. Thirty years ago Hughes wrote of Italian painters, “Most of the artists are obsessed, one way or another, with pastiche, allegory, narcissistic display, irony and side quotation.” Unfortunately, in varying degrees, I haven’t seen much movement from this across disciplines from painting to video to performance. There ARE exceptions, they are few and they rarely get media attention.

How is it that the art world/art history seems stuck in a 30 year rut? Who will be kicking its doors down – if not to progress (actually we never progress, we always recycle) then to revisit some of the more mindful and glorious days of art? Paris cafe in the turn of the last century? That would be brilliant. I guess you can’t really get out of an art history rut if you don’t acknowledge art history in your critique or practice.

A word of caution, whoever these next critics may be they must be steeped in art history – their “nays” and “yays” need to be backed up with a bracing stance. This is an incredible service for artists of all levels and mediums. The point of criticism is not to be a biting whip and collect thousands of friends on facebook because of your snarky comments and well heeled connections, but to bring clarity and inspire people to look more and understand better. If you know of any, please post links to their writings below!!

Only by demonstrating that he is on the side of History-aware of the laws of its unfolding, able to reconcile the art he likes with those laws-can a critic rise to seriousness, for otherwise criticism is merely the expression of subjective taste, and can claim no binding force. – Robert Hughes

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  1. emilymailloux • March 5, 2013

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