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Readable but Stupid

July, 1996

AT A RECENT panel discussion in New York City, eminent art historian and philosopher Donald Kuspit opened the proceedings by saying, "…art criticism comes in two varieties: searching but impenetrable, and readable but stupid" (The New York Times, May 18, 1996). The purpose of the panel, sponsored, incidentally, by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), was to address the problem of "art criticism and a vanishing public." As a member of AICA, I ought to have attended, but, the truth is, I feel increasingly alienated from much of what happens in today’s artworld. In light of a good deal of what I see, read and hear, I suppose I should have stopped writing about art years ago. I have made an honest effort to keep current by keeping abreast of other arts publications, by perusing a fair amount of literature on the subject and by becoming a member of several organizations–most notably in this context, the AICA and the American Society for Aesthetics. In addition, there are several hundred press releases and gallery invitations from around the country and abroad which cross my desk each month, apprising me of who is showing what and whither blow the popular trends. I am aware of the exigencies of funding and can usually ascertain why certain things are considered ‘hot,’ why they are given gallery and museum space, so I can forgive most exhibitors for giving in to political pressure–in spite of my instinctive feeling that much of it is a frivolous waste of time, resources and money. In any case, I tend to discount a good deal of this foolishness and continue to seek out those artists and that art that I am willing to travel to see. It’s disheartening, to be sure, to see so much ‘stuff’ being touted as art, but I still manage to come across real art and serious artists. Enough to keep me hanging in there.

It is when I receive materials from my fellows, however–the journals and newsletters of art critics and art historians that let me know of lectures and panel discussions and calls for papers on art matters–that I tend to feel out of my element, or at least out of my time period. Kuspit’s statement that art criticism can be characterized as either "impenetrable and searching" or "readable but stupid" is particularly irksome to me. It is the kind of pronouncement that only reinforces my desire to be counted among that "vanishing public." When a noted scholar makes such a statement he does a great disservice not just to artwriting but to art, artists and the public as well–let alone making me feel irrelevant since what I do is "stupid" because "readable." Indeed, since so much of Kuspit’s own writing is eminently readable (and, I might add, cogent), he also succeeds in undermining himself. Part of the problem, of course, is that he is not so much referring to writing about art as he is about the art of writing. As the Times article (written by William Grimes) goes on to further quote Kuspit, art criticism–presumably worthwhile art criticism–necessarily "loses the public" since such criticism "redesigns ordinary language." In short, art criticism–the sort which is "searching but impenetrable"–is criticism about criticism and hence a kind of sub-species that is of interest to other artwriters and "impenetrable" to the "public at large." Well, of course. "Redesigning" the language of art criticism has more to do with the metaphysics of aesthetics, itself a study about art and of little interest to the layman.

But why, then, does it follow that artwriting that is "readable" ought to be dismissed as "stupid"? The implication of Kuspit’s pronouncement seems to indicate that what is understandable, i.e., "readable," is senseless, of no value, dull-witted. Such a statement not only renders his own writings suspect, as noted above, but calls into question the cogency of a great body of literature. Was Shakespeare "stupid" because the groundlings appreciated him? Are certain poems, novels, epics and dramas "stupid" because we can read them? Perhaps more to the point, is the Sistine Chapel "stupid" because its imagery can be "read" as stories from the Bible? Conversely, must I then assume that "Jabberwocky," certainly an "impenetrable" work, must be "searching?"

And what about this "vanishing public"? If the public steers clear of current art criticism, it surely makes its presence felt at certain exhibitions. One could hardly properly view the recent Rembrandt (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and the Vermeer (at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.) exhibits because of the crushing crowds. Certainly no "vanishing" public here. And the same might be said for shows on Magritte, Goya, Velázquez, Daumier, the Impressionists or the Hudson River School–all exhibits held in recent memory, and all attended by hordes of visitors. There are crowds because whatever the pundits might write, the handiwork of many artists is readable–to our eyes, to our hearts, to our souls. If you are able to "read" a work by Michelangelo, Goya, Rembrandt, Menzel or Matisse–and not be able to read Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German or French–you need not worry about criticism for to be able to do so speaks not to a stupidity of mankind but to a kinship common to all persons, artists and non-artists alike. The public–whether it can penetrate "searching" criticism or not–perhaps we should say in spite of whether it can read it or not–rarely feels lost when confronted by readable art. It is also my guess that a public that can read English but not understand all the hoo hah about a work by Warhol, Koons or Holzer still does not feel necessarily "lost" as much as put upon–especially when they wade through the "searching criticism" such works spawn.

I suspect that Kuspit’s statement was meant to be provocative, a spur to lively discussion. However, the fact is that it is given a cachet of validation coming as it does from a professor of art history and philosophy (at SUNY Stony Brook, New York) and given further weight by its appearance in the Times. The public–already "vanishing" when having to deal with impenetrability in both art and artwriting–can only raise its hands in disgust and feel further alienated by the "searching" verbiage in defense of it that it is expected to swallow. How can they not feel put upon? If they can read it, they are stupid. If they can’t, well, too bad. It’s supposed to be unreadable. An eminent artwriter says so. And, it was in the New York Times.

Of even greater danger in such a statement as Kuspit’s, however, is that it invites impenetrability for its own sake. If I am obfuscating, thinks the tyro art critic, I must be "searching." The next step is gobbledygook, pure and simple. Nor am I reaching here. Within a week or so of reading Kuspit’s comments in the Times, I came across an article in the June 3, 1996 Issue of Newsweek relating how a physicist, Alan D. Sokal of NYU in New York City, hoaxed a trade magazine (Social Text) into publishing an article of his that was pure gobbledygook–an article deliberately crammed with pseudo-scientific jargon that, in fact, said absolutely nothing. Sokal was trying to prove a point about the ready gullibility of those who ignore good old common sense and logic while in hot pursuit of their latest cause. Assuredly, no discipline has cornered the market on gullibility, the artworld and its patrons particularly taking a back seat to no one. Rich but uncultured people are buying junk art every day and curators with art history degrees are exhibiting it, but even beyond those glaring examples is that large, unnamed "public" who is "lost," most feeling that, when it comes to art today, gulling them is simply part of the package. When they compare what they see to what they read about what they see, they instinctively know that something is wrong. How can their senses, their gut feelings, be so out of kilter? After all, these same senses and feelings have gotten them through a life that is full of pitfalls and dangers. Some have even become successful in what they do. They read newspapers, journals, reports and books. Why should artwriting be so incomprehensible?

Then along comes Kuspit who proclaims that "readable" criticism is "stupid." No wonder the public gets lost–is content to be lost–when someone who professes to know tells them, through implication, that if they understood it then they, also, must be stupid. How easy, then, for the insiders, the cultural "elite," to fall into the trap of obfuscation for its own sake. How many Alan D. Sokals do we have lurking in the wings of those institutions and offices of art magazines that churn out artspeak? I vividly recall the snort of derision from someone I met at an exhibition when I responded to his query of what I do. "Art critic!" he huffed. "Huh! Take out all the adjectives in the stuff you guys write and you have nothing left!" In truth, I offered no rebuttal since a good deal of the stuff I read fits his description perfectly. Art criticism is insubstantial. It is elusive.

Part of the problem lies in the nature of the practice itself. Not a very old discipline when compared to literary criticism, art criticism is still attempting to find its way through the extremely difficult task of translating a visual language into a linear one. Translating from one language to another is difficult enough. Translating from one entirely distinct mode of expression into another perhaps an impossibility. I suspect every art critic worth his salt feels, at times, like a charlatan. How can you "speak" about a picture? Who really cares what a critic "feels" about a work of art–whether that feeling arises from an instantaneous snap judgment or from years of considered thought? Such judgments are, after all, nothing more than biases that can have no bearing on the artwork being judged. Does such art criticism serve a real purpose to either the artist or the public? No matter how well one writes, no matter how astute the perception, in the end one must go and see the artwork to really "know" it–if, in fact, one can ever really know what they are looking at, art or otherwise. The very act of seeing is fraught with problems, both physical and psychological. To then write about what one is seeing, merely exacerbating the problem. To write "impenetrably" about it, merely turning it into a game–and not a very worthwhile game at that since no one wins and everyone loses.

Writing about art is difficult enough without fellow artwriters pontificating in such a foolhardy manner. Again, judging from what I know of his work as a whole, I feel Kuspit was simply baiting his audience. If his statement contains any credibility at all, the reason lies somewhat deeper than he lets on. As pointed out earlier, the kind of art criticism he calls "searching but impenetrable" is not "art" criticism at all but art criticism criticism–artwriting about artwriting. To a large extent, what is impenetrable to our lost public ought to be impenetrable since it is strictly an in-house affair, a combat of words between critics and not an art criticism at all. When Kuspit writes, he does not write for the average art viewer but for his fellow critics, often intent on telling them what is wrong with their writings. He’s not writing for artists. In a very real sense, artists and their works are often left out of the equation of a great deal of today’s "art criticism." Critics don’t go to galleries to critique; they go to their journals and panel discussions to uncover faulty reasoning in fellow artwriters, to do battle with fellow "critics." I believe it was Philip Guston who once made the trenchant observation that art history and criticism was to artists what ornithology was to birds. How right he was! Nor was he alone in choosing to ignore a great deal of what "critics" have to say. Many artists (let alone a "lost public") have simply given up trying to make sense of contemporary art criticism, content to devote their energies to uncovering the mysteries in their own craft. They’ve correctly surmised long ago that critics write for each other, and certainly not for the edification of artists.

The hard truth is, art is difficult to write about. It doesn’t take long for a newcomer to the field to discover that it is eminently easier to bounce off other critics than it is to bounce off a work of art. Writing about writing is logical, more in the natural flow of things than it is to write about images. What’s to say? "I like it," or "I don’t like it." After that, it’s all uphill since you are using a linear discipline to explicate a visual one. As history will show, there have not been a great many who performed the task successfully. But to slough off any and all criticism of art that was "readable" as stupid, is simply too glib, too facile a dismissal of too much good work.

Critical–and readable–artwriting serves a purpose, performs a service that is far from "stupid." If even the best criticism cannot ever truly explain a work of art or guide one artist toward a clearer vision, good artwriting can still inform the public and whet its appetite to share–with the critic–the mystery of creative effort. Good artwriting–if readable–can turn a person from a trip to the mall to a trip to a museum. Good artwriting–readable artwriting–can help a lost public find its way back into galleries and artshows, can make them feel part of the discovery rather than made to feel like ignorant bystanders who deserve exclusion. Finally, good artwriting–readable artwriting–can open the doors and extend the wealth of art to all comers instead of making of it an arcane little cabal fit only for the initiated. The mystery of creativity may indeed be open to only a few, but the handiwork of those few belongs to us all.

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