Artcriticism-Writing, Arthistory-Writing, and Artwriting

By Carrier, David | The Art Bulletin, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Artcriticism-Writing, Arthistory-Writing, and Artwriting


Carrier, David, The Art Bulletin


I speak of artcriticism-writing and arthistory-writing to emphasize differences between two modes of writing about visual art; and mention what I call artwriting to allude to shared concerns of critics and art historians. Compare and contrast, for example, two samples of artwriting:

1977: a college sophomore, naive, addicted to obfuscation, I visited the Jasper Johns retrospective . . . with my friend, a violinist with the eyes of a Bellini Madonna. . . I wished to impress her . . . I wanted to be straight, to be a guy. Could the museum help?

The painting that galvanized me was In Memory of My Feelings-Frank O'Hara, 1961 ... primarily because it prompted me to read O'Hara.

The format ... a horizontal rectangle with a smaller rectangle marked out in the upper left, suggests the design of the American flag; as if it is meant to be a "memory" of the original 1954-55 Flag....

Picasso is the only artist prior to Johns . . . who actually focused attention on silverware in some of his works. The hinges joining the two panels are references to previous still lifes .

The silverware and hinges are most likely intended to be Duchampian references as well. 1

The differences between Wayne Kostenbaum's art-critical and Roberta Bernstein's art-historical accounts are so striking that it may seem surprising to find that they describe the same artwork.

"Experimenting with voice." a critic has written, "is one of this job's greatest pleasures."2 Any number of art historians are excellent writers, but I cannot imagine an Art Bulletin contributor saying that. One real, too little acknowledged pleasure associated with artcriticism-writing is perversely enjoying writers whose voices are opposed to one's own. I enjoy the voices of Benjamin H. D. Buchloch, Hal Foster, and Hilton Kramer in the way that Roland Barthes loved reading Ignatius Loyola, Charles Fourier, and the Marquis de Sade. This is not to urge that criticism can be read apolitically, especially today when much art is explicitly concerned with politics. But it is to point to the literary aspects of such texts. Like a lyrical poet, Kostenbaum creates a convincing voice. Who wouldn't read on to learn why he found In Memory of My Feelings-Frank O'Hara so special? By contrast, Bernstein, who elsewhere mentions her long friendship with Johns, writes as an art historian, distanced and objective.

Writing as an art critic, Linda Nochlin responds subjectively to the work of Lucian Freud, whose "representation of the male genitalia makes one wonder why his grandfather believed so fervently in penis envy: why would anyone not already encumbered with one want that pathetic, flaccid, droopy excrescence?"3 Since she has championed Philip Pearlstein, how unexpected is her reaction to what a less imaginative reviewer might identify as relatively straightforward nudes. When, by contrast, Nochlin writes about Courbet, she writes as an art historian. Acknowledging her subjectivity-"I am a woman quite consciously reading as a woman"-she identifies Courbet's woman in The Painter's Studio "as a Baudelairian type," setting this painting in relation to various nineteenth-century paintings and photographs.4

Art critics will find it surprising that in a collection of writings on "the new art history" an essay by the feminist film critic Constance Penley is praised because "one of its most notable features [is] . . . its refusal to enact the familiar kind of distance between inquirer and object of inquiry that is normally expected of scholarship in the humanities."5 Surprising because such a refusal comes naturally to the critic. When, for example, he writes about Courbet, Peter Schjeldahl says: "Sex is the key to Courbet. Like Whitman ... Courbet kept the business of life simple: possess everything that possesses you. When he painted The Origin of the World . . . Somebody should probably have punched Courbet in the jaw."6 By contrast, when in her account of the Arnolfini Portrait, Linda Seidel adopts a personal tone-a natural procedure nowadays in discussing a painting about marriage and property-her subjective engagement with these issues builds upon traditions of commentary: "Having argued throughout against the notion of detached scholarship, I acknowledge in conclusion . …

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