The Terror of the Naked Critic – Part 2 of 2

This post concerns a rare sort of case in “big market” criticism, and a rare opportunity to see what often goes on behind the critic’s mask (even when that mask stays more firmly in place than it did in this instance).  In this instructive case, the critic was Andy Grundberg, writing in Aperture (#199, Summer 2010) about the photographer Robert Bergman.

Mr. Grundberg has credentials to burn, including years of writing reviews for The New York Times and various awards, including the prestigious Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography.  Part of what made this case exceptional was that Grundberg was being called upon to judge a photographer who did not himself come packed in the usual steamer trunk plastered with the names of recognizable schools, galleries, former teachers, commendatory reviews of past exhibitions, etc.  As Grundberg himself was to point out in a lame and irrelevant defense of his critical misdeeds in this matter, Bergman didn’t come entirely out of nowhere:  he had published a book of his work in 1998, with an introduction by the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison, and, more importantly for an art critic, with an essay of praise from one of the greatest art historians and writers on the visual arts of the 20th Century, Meyer Schapiro.

Nonetheless, these were sparse pickings compared to the usual graduation from a trendy art school like CalArts, the usual history of representation by AIPAD galleries, and the usual list of solo exhibitions on several continents — the kinds of things that would almost always trail behind a photographer that someone like Andy Grundberg would be reviewing for a journal like Aperture.  In Grundberg’s frame of reference, Bergman “spr[a]ng] onto the art-world stage like Athena from the head of Zeus.”  Bergman, already over 60 at the time of the review, was only just then having his first major solo exhibitions, at the National Gallery of Art, the Yossi Milo Gallery in Manhattan, and the P.S.1 branch of MOMA.  In relative terms, and in Grundberg’s estimation, Bergman’s resume left Grundberg naked in judging the work before him.

To understand my reactions, you’ll want to read the full text of Andy Grundberg’s review:

http://www.aperture.org/exposures/iss199.pdf

One of the curious things that will strike you about this review is that, in fact, Grundberg never gives his considered response to the quality of the work itself, and, therefore, also gives no substantive reasons for such an evaluation.  But that central omission isn’t the major vice of the review.  What Grundberg’s remarks remind me of is a common emotional phenomenon that we’ve all witnessed any number of times.  A person does something hurtful or harmful to another person for petty reasons — of insecurity or jealousy or suspicion, or just for the pleasure of wielding power over another human being — and the perpetrator, consciously or semi-consciously, feels ashamed of himself for doing it.  And then he resents the victim whose very presence now discomfits him so.

What we see in Grundberg’s review, I believe, is anger at the artist for “coming to him” with so little respectable baggage, “expecting” him to take a critical stand with little by way of badges or prior testimonials that might prop up the critic’s position.  And so the dubious review, though void of genuine critical judgment, is full of petty sniping at Bergman for the crimes of asking to be praised without having climbed the usual rungs of career advancement, for achieving some notoriety only at an “advanced age,” for using less expensive equipment than do most current critical darlings, for photographing (and failing to label for Grundberg) people whom Grundberg regards as foreign to his own social circles and station.  Sarcasm and scorn run through Grundberg’s piece like sewage through a drainpipe.

Grundberg disdains Bergman for his “ink-jet-produced” prints and for their being “moderately sized.”   I expect that Grundberg would deny his haughty tone and intent, but anyone who reads his review attentively can’t miss it.  He implies that no one who was any good could have escaped greater critical attention and approval for so long.  Really?  Melville after publishing Moby Dick?  Dickinson?  Kafka?  Charles Ives?  Eugene Atget?

Bergman has been on the scene since the 1960s and been taking color photographs since 1985. . . It seems a tad curious, then, that scarcely anyone had heard of Bergman before this show, much less seen one of his pictures.

Perhaps the photography world is larger than we think, or perhaps there’s still room for genius to emerge at a late age.  Both are comforting thoughts.  Nevertheless, there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter day Bowery Bum photography.

Grundberg can’t even keep himself from insulting Bergman’s subjects, repeatedly.  “For the most part, the people appear to be downtrodden, or at least on the outs with conventional society; more than a few seem afflicted with a wasting disease.”  He talks as though they are a bunch of derelicts, far outside the pale, no doubt, of tony galleries and the holy precincts of monied Manhattan.  Yet I would venture a guess that Grundberg himself has known more than one friend, relative or colleague with a wasting disease.   And I would bet that he’s seen, as we all have, bitter, disappointed, addiction-addled, depressed people in every walk of work and life, including “the art world.”

(And, please, for heaven’s sake, anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the arts should know how often the majority of contemporary critics not only have missed genius when it appeared before them, but have disdained it in proportion to the degree of its greatness.)

At the same time, the floundering Grundberg resents Bergman for not helping him out by labelling his subjects, by telling Grundberg enough for Grundberg to know what he should think about them.  “Unfortunately it is impossible to verify any of the questions a viewer might have about these people, since Bergman calls each image ‘Untitled’ and provides it only with a date.  No name, no location, no facts except those given by the lens. . . .”

Grundberg condemns Bergman in part because Grundberg himself apparently hasn’t considered the possibility that Bergman saw these people, or that someone like me would see these people through his photographs, as fellow human beings, as people with loneliness or disappointments or bitterness or sorrows like our own — not just pathetic victims of “foreign” wars or fates.  Grundberg’s talk of Sontag and critical “issues” are quite beside the point.  I would bet that, at least until the fashions change, he’ll think that we should all be applauding those “deadpan” portraits in which the living are posed to resemble corpses or cardboard cutouts.

In Grundberg’s view, it’s bad enough that a nobody like Bergman should want his work displayed prominently despite his age and his relative lack of social success.  But Grundberg is equally incensed that a respectable institution like the National Gallery would put Grundberg himself in a position to have to use his own eyes and judgment and whatever humanity he possesses without the armor and aid of received opinion:

Is it any wonder, then, that Bergman’s professed ambition was to launch his exhibiting career at [the National Gallery], and with a one-person show no less?  [Quelle horreur!]  But the real wonder is that the museum collaborated [String the both of them up together!] in this willful and seemingly quixotic enterprise.  [Hey, we can’t let people into the club when they haven’t played by the rules!]

Yeah, let’s flog this Bergman bastard in the public square, along with late bloomers like Julia Margaret Cameron and other mere 35mm-shooters like Cartier Bresson and Josef Koudelka.  For that matter, how dare the likes of Munch or Goya ask us, from the grave, to concede their greatness after years of their contemporaries’ critical neglect?

My main purpose here, though, isn’t to pillory a particular critic in a particular instance, but rather to give a warning against blind concession to artistic authorities, a caution to be wary of the hidden insecurities, confusions and pretenses of credentialed experts .  Let this be another call to careful and wary examination, to reading between the lines, to giving no due to mere uniforms and medals.  Trust your own response to the pundit as well as to the art.

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 November 29, 2012, in Art in Society, The Art World and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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