The Frailty of Judges and Critics

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons

Ever since caveman-times, no doubt, people have tended to huddle around communal fires for warmth, for mutual comfort, for survival.  We would all like the support and good will of our fellows.  But if we covet those things too much, we betray ourselves, we fear being too original or honest, we shun certain people or ideas just because the group won’t accept them.

What many artists don’t realize is how much power such basic emotional cravings and fears have over the art world, including its leading critical writers, judges, gallerists, and curators.  My early mentor in poetry, a famous and “politically” savvy writer who had worked as the poetry editor for prominent magazines and publishers, shared with me this insight into the editorial process:  He said that editors, like other people,  are insecure and afraid to step out on their own, nervous about exercising independent judgment that might draw the scorn of others in the literary food-chain.

Whenever you make a submission to some judge or judges — for an exhibition, a grant, for publication or awards — and whenever you see the results of such judging, you should keep this in mind.

That same mentor of mine also told his students, in the first session of his class on Yeats and Joyce, “I know that these authors can be difficult at times, and I know that no matter what I tell you, you’re going to read criticism about their writings.  But when you do, I want you to remember that 95% of it is going to be pretentious junk that will muddy your experience of these works, not improve it.”

Some critics are more insecure than others, of course.  But too often we forget to consider their flawed and frail humanity when looking at reviews or juror’s selections.  Let me give you a couple of examples in which two of our prominent art critics displayed their fear and trembling when faced with the possibility of leaving the circle around the fire.

I’ve read pieces by these two critics that I thought were, in whole or in part, insightful or eloquent or gratifying.  My point here isn’t to condemn them, but to pull back the curtain of people’s unwarranted deference to titles and reputations like theirs.

My first case involves Roberta Smith, a visual arts critic for The New York Times.  With respect to two of the most notoriously successful and fraudulent characters in the world of contemporary art, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, she has, on more than one occasion, written refreshingly direct statements about what crap they’ve put on public display.  And you feel, “Great.  I’m glad that she’s telling it straight.”  But then, as you go on reading her review, there comes a point at which she starts to take it back.  There comes a disappointing “But” or “however.”  And her resolve starts to disappear in smoke.

If she held her initial course, she would likely offend not only the owner of the gallery that represents both Koons and Hirst — Larry Gagosian, one of the richest and most powerful gallerists in the international art market — but the many directors of art institutions and the many rich collectors who have spent millions of dollars on works like Koons’ basketball floating in a fish tank or Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (a kind of pornographic object for oligarchs).  She would also be insulting the many foolish, albeit erudite, critics who have praised Hirst’s severed cow-halves suspended in tanks of formaldehyde or Koons’ ceramic renditions of a plastic inflatable dolphin or the Pink Panther embracing a topless buxom blonde.  If you want a perfect, laughable, example of the profundity of Koons’ approach and accomplishment, follow this link to one of a series of his commentaries on his “works” (Koons provides only basic concepts, while an army of artists and art students “execute” his products), as published in the Times:   http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/07/03/arts/20090703-vogel_6.html

With respect to superstar Koons and his superficial art, Smith often seems confused, whether in her assessment or just in her concerns.  In one review, she burns him for his earlier prints imitating those old blacklight Kama Sutra posters so often seen in dorm rooms in the Sixties:

One approach is to consider the images of Mr. Koons having various forms of sex with his soon-to-be (and later ex-) wife, the Italian porn star and politician from Ilona Staller, a k a Cicciolina, simply as bad art.

The grainy inkjet images printed on canvas are repellent, offering a mix of startling anatomical detail and a kind of diffuse mechanical Pointillism in which grainy dots of color mingle confusingly with goose bumps and sign of irritated, freshly defoliated skin.  They give you nothing as objects, and little as images except a kind of ghoulish, elaborately gussied-up miming of the sex act. . .

Another possibility is to decide they are not art at all but elaborately staged documents of sex that didn’t actually happen, a cross between a scaled-up centerfold and a downsized billboard advertising underwear.  (Since Mr. Koons face is never visible within images that feature his supposed erection, rumors of a body double have been, well, rampant for years.)

Occupying some no woman’s land of female objectification, they are visual train wrecks. . . .

After referring to several later works of Koons’ that she likes better, and what she wrote was his rotten job in curating an exhibition called “Skin Fruit” from a collection owned by Dakis Joannon “Nearly all [the selected works] emanate from one stratum of the art world:  the one where the money is.”], Smith closes her review:

. . . they [the pornographic marital portraits and a later self-portrait based on a photo of Koons as a child] put us in touch with Mr. Koons’ out-of-touchness and the innocence that abounds in much of his art.  Perhaps the truth is that Mr. Koons makes a better child than adult, and that for all his genius, he is a kind of naif.

But it’s Ms. Smith who is, at best,  the naive.  To any more clear-sighted or less-personally-invested viewer, what is plain is that Mr. Koons has applied to the art market his cynical knowledge about financial markets.  The art market has come, in fact, to operate almost exactly as the contemporary financial markets do, and its leaders display the same attendant arrogance, status-seeking, empty investment in empty vehicles, and worship of celebrity, power and wealth that Goldman Sachs does.  (To see all this in action, you might want to read, with an airsickness bag by your side, Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton and I sold Andy Warhol [too soon] by Richard Polsky.)

As in the financial markets, value in the contemporary art market is determined very little by underlying merit, but mainly by the extent to which those playing the market are willing to pay for a given investment vehicle.  And as in the financial market, values in the art market are subject to many manipulations by those with stakes in given investment vehicles, by spin-doctor promotion, the spreading of misinformation, and bidding-up prices at auction.  The greater the number of idiots who invest in Koons, and the more they invest, the more the market perceives his products as being desirable and fittingly-expensive.

In a recent review of works by the sensationalistic and now-wealthy British artist, Damien Hirst, Smith gives us a stark example of critical self-protectiveness in the face of power, wealth, and trendiness.  She starts out with candor and ends up with pandering apologetics.  The review begins:

Thanks to the Gagosian art empire, a ludicrous number of paintings by Damien Hirst are on display right now:  331 of Mr. Hirst’s implacably cheerful ‘spot’ abstractions spread among Gagosian’s 11 galleries in 8 cities on 3 continents.

The good news, of course, is that they’re not all in one place.  And none involves dead animals, maggots, encrusted diamonds or vats of formaldehyde.  They’re mostly just grids of repeating, neatly made circles, each a different color.  How bad can it be?

Well, very bad at times. . . .

Then she prevaricates:

. . . and yet, at others, not bad at all, in fact rather good.  In New York, where 115 of the 331 are on view in the three Gagosian galleries in the city, the quality of the art — and the experience of it — varies tremendously.  Parts of Hirst New York are both visually exhilirating and accessible; you can take the kids, take friends who have never looked at art or acquaintances curious about the formal principles of abstraction.  [LR note:  Many were not painted by Hirst, but by assistants who had the choice of dot-size and colors.]  Then there are parts so redundant and oppressive as to appeal to only hard-core Hirst devotees.  The New York allotment, at least, is a sideshow but one with redeeming qualities, a spectacle with benefits, which is a lot more than can be said of Mr. Hirst’s previous attention-getting shenanigans, like the all-Hirst auction or the bejeweled skull.

Am I grading on a curve? . . .

You bet.  And that’s just a euphemism for perhaps-mild forms of dishonesty or cowardice.  And then reality starts to return, in the style of “I have a friend who had this dream. . . .”

. . . Probably.  Undoubtedly the usual knickers will be twisted by Mr. Hirst’s latest grandstanding:  He’s so unimaginative, so crassly commercial, not a real artist and so forth.  Mr. Hirst is the post-Warhol, post-Barnum epitome of the artist as impresario, public relations strategist, graphic designer and art director.  You can find precedent for just about all of his actions in previous generations.  Multiple-city gallery shows have been around since the 1980’s; many artists have overproduced, and most are publicity-minded.  But he has rolled all this, and more, into one big, messy contradictory ball of wax and pushed it to extremes in ways that regularly drive people nuts.

On one level, the Hirst a Gogo [LR:  See, she’s hip and no doubt chummy enough to know Gagosian’s adorable nickname] is a blatant promotion of both the Hirst and Gagosian brands, and a sitting duck symbol of the end-time, we’re-doing-this-because-we-can decadence that has subsumed so much of the art world — yet another instance of money celebrating itself.  The show is titled ‘Damien Hirst the Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011,’ and would that this were so.  There are more than 1,500 of these things in existence; evidently they will all be accomodated in the show’s catalog, which will live up to the title.  (This is not a tome I look forward to paging through.)

But now, again, comes the bullshit “But,” the escape hatch for the hypocritical:

But the spot-painting project is more complicated, even paradoxical.  It challenges you to hold opposing ideas at ther same time.  [LR:  Such as, for Smith, critical honesty and professional self-interest, no doubt.]  Alongside the promotional character of the undertaking is an aspect of goofy honesty, generosity and even full disclosure.  [LR:  No one who isn’t brain dead needs a comment on this.]  Mr. Hirst, or his assistants, have been making a lot of these paintings; so why not show a lot of them?

Given Hirst’s propensities, and given such nonsense from Smith, we should not be surprised if we soon have 300 square plexiglass boxes of the excrement “made” by Hirst and his assistants, with the same responsive remark from Smith.

For those of you interested in following Smith’s back-and-forth dance on the fence, you can find her full review at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/arts/design/damien-hirsts-spot-paintings-at-gagosian-in-eight-cities.html?pagewanted=all

In my next post, I promise that we will return to photography, with a different example of the fearfulness and unreliability of artistic “authorities,” as we see the Times‘ photography critic, Andy Grudberg, unsettled and positively angry at being asked to judge works of art that don’t come with a conventional pedigree or a history of received opinion.

In the art world, as in every other social arena, there are indeed costs for leaving the pack.  You may cease being invited to parties with other members of the art world “nobility.”  You may not get special invitations from galleries and museums, and courtly treatment at their functions.  You may not get interviews or studio access from offended artists.  You may be disdained and insulted in print and in other forms of public communication.  You may be shunned as Jane Eyre was at the command of the cruel headmaster at the boarding school to which she had been cast out.  We shouldn’t be too haughty about such matters, since they may affect people’s feelings deeply and painfully, may hinder their ability to work in their field, and may ultimately end their ability to make a living by doing what they’ve studied and been trained to do.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t encourage cowardice in others or in ourselves, because it can pervert all that is finally important in society and in life.  If no one is willing to get up and leave the group huddled around the fire, then no one gets fed.

About Lawrence Russ

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards by jurors including Judy Kim of the Brooklyn Museum and Eva Sutton, Chair of the Photography Department of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Posted on April 22, 2012, in Art in Society, The Art World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: