Criticism after Art

By Panero, James | New Criterion, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Criticism after Art


Panero, James, New Criterion


Discussions of art criticism never seem to go very well. Perhaps that's because there is no general agreement on what art criticism really is. For those of us who criticize art for a living, as distinct from those who practice art criticism for the university audience, we rather like it that way.

For the past few years, I have written a column for this magazine called the "gallery chronicle" The word "chronicle" shares its etymology with the word "chonology"; both come to us from the word khronos, meaning time. Art critics are the publicizers of a typically private journey through time. The gallery chronicle has been nay public record of private thoughts that develop in the hours I have to look at art each month, outside of my editorial duties for this magazine, and in the short time before the next copy deadline.

The business of art criticism is a great deal more practical than you might imagine. This is one of its great appeals for me. Art criticism is less Immanual Kant and more should I bring an umbrella. The discovery of far-off corners of the city, and a day on foot in New York, often excites me as much as, upon arrival, the art I see on the gallery walls.

In New York, the good gallery critic is set apart from the bad by how efficiently he steers a course from Chelsea to Fifty-seventh Street to the Upper East Side with a stopover in Williamsburg. How he finds shows to write about. How he calculates (as in my case) a way to feature exhibitions, with a three- or four- or five-week run time, that will still be open once the magazine comes out.

The days on your feet. The camaraderie of the galleries. The athleticism of aestheticism. A fellow art critic recently told me the story of an important figure who, in important tones, once asked him to explain how he goes about criticizing art. Well, the critic replied, I see art ... and I write about it! The response, he reports, was met with bewilderment.

A world of difference separates those who criticize art from those who seek to know about how art criticism is done, because art criticism is done by doing it. To ask after the details beyond the most practical ones is already a step in the wrong direction. Art critics who make the "criticism of art criticism" their business do not stay in the business of art criticism for long.

The 1960s generation of art critics, who did focus on the criticism of criticism, proved this to be the case. For a moment in the late 1960s, they invigorated Artforum magazine with a certain form of criticism--my colleague Hilton Kramer famously remarked at the time, "The more minimal the art, the more maximum the explanation" Yet the 1960s generation departed from their one commercial enterprise after less than a decade. In 1976, Rosalind Krauss, along with the editor Annette Michelson, left Art forum to found a hermetic quarterly journal called October.

In need of a power base, not to mention a livelihood, Krauss's generation also took to the universities--Krauss herself to the City University of New York, then to Columbia University--where it set about seeding and gaining control of an entire network of art history departments. Krauss became famous for her letters of negative recommendation against dissident thinkers. Her severe legacy is still felt in the universities, even if much of the art being produced today has departed from the minimalist and conceptualist formulations with which she and others once held sway, writing for Art forum those many years ago.

If Krauss's journey sounds distant from the practice of art criticism I first mentioned above, of writing about art in the galleries or museums for a daily, weekly, or monthly publication--it is. Yet Krauss has profoundly affected the way modern art history, art criticism, and art are taught.

An academic-based, anti-modern ideology now repudiates and replaces the high-modernist judgment of Clement Greenberg. …

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