11 October 2006

I Heart Critics

I want to start by saying that I probably shouldn't even go to a Donald Kuspit lecture, because I have a deep personal distrust of psychology and I am irritated by all that gassy talk about artists being narcissistic and obsessed with overcoming mortality. It makes me feel so defensive... so let me get this out of the way:

Sure. The monumental, permanent nature of sculpture did attract me as an insecure, obnoxious twenty year old with a huge chip on her shoulder. But my mature work is an exploration of a sculpture's (and my own) mortality.

And yeah. My ego is enormous. But again, I can't keep playing this game unless I keep that ego-drive in check. Actually doing the work of being an artist requires much more humility than one might think, and humility is much more interesting than ego.

I don't know why I make art, exactly, and I might have gotten into it because I am self-aggrandizing and fear death. But as I continue to make art, I can say with certainty that anyone who continues to make art for these reasons is in for nothing but disappointment. Art is, unfortunately, just not that important.

So, while it did stir my passions, I did not sympathize intellectually with Kuspit's basic thesis. He posited last night that artists are driven to be singular in their vision and use that Singularity Of Vision to catapult over mortality, and that they therefore must hate the critic, because the critic destroys the Singular Vision Of The Artist. The critic separates works of art from the artist's individual ego, and plugs them into a larger social and art historical context. Half of this argument is essentially modernist (again, not surprising, this was a Donald Kuspit lecture) and entirely dependent upon Avant-Gardeism and his right-hand man, Individualism. The paper he gave spent the most energy defining the motives of Malevich, Gaugin, Duchamp, Johns and other Modernist heavyweights, and went no further into the present than Judd.

He had interesting things to say about Judd that I hope to write about separately.

What Kuspit says about these artists seems spot-on. But I question his reliance on the Modernist Avant Garde Individual because he's making a very general statement: "Artists Hate Critics." By going no further than Judd he just avoids the fact that the Modernist Avant Garde Individual With His Singular Vision is simply not a contemporary figure. He's still around, but he's vestigal.

The biggest and most important risk an artist can take right now is to orient oneself away from the bellybutton and away from the neverending quest for The New. The world is too full of people and too full of artists and too full of information to think in terms of the Avant Garde, which just collapses into more stuff. Individualism is a bit of a cul-de-sac, and some of the ballsiest and most relevant players today, like The Yes Men, are working away from individual expression.

On one hand, you could say that Kuspit's emphasis on the psychology of the individual just screams out, "I do not notice or care that I live in a world that is about the Corporate-Cultural Entity and not the Individual Human!" But on the other, to dismiss Kuspit's thesis is to write off the critic's role in "killing" the Singular Vision. Kuspit's definition of the role of the critic was quite beautiful, and I think it might offer artists a way out of all that individualistic genius myth bullshit.

According to Kuspit, the artist wants acceptance on her terms alone--to be recognized as a Singular Visionary. Okay, whatever. But this part I embrace wholeheartedly: The critic refuses an artwork's (often tyrranical) Singular Vision and replaces it with a meaningfulness that is not self-evident, that depends upon relationships and context. This critical work creates a social meaning of art. It renders an artwork more memorable and understandable than it ever could be if it remained a Singular, Self Evident Vision, but does so at the expense of killing the Singular Vision. The artist is exposed as one of us. Not a genius working in a vaccuum, but a social creature and a bit of a magpie, culling from here and there to create meanings that we can all share and participate in.

Funny... this is a definition of Artist that I feel much more comfortable with.

I believe that this is exactly why artists are filling the art criticism void these days. If art is not about the Singular Vision of any one artist, then it is about the meaning artworks create when they stand separate from the artist and are in dialogue with one another. I would argue that when artists participate in critical dialogue with other artists' works, they are separating their artistic identity from that Singular Vision problem.

Does it always work this way? No. Are we free of all the mythologizing about the individual genius artist? No. Am I being a little idealistic? Of course. But I do think that the artist who writes criticism has something to offer that is beyond the duality Kuspit delivered.

8 Comments:

Blogger onesock said...

I was looking forward to your report on the talk. I kind of expected a "Modernist" take by him in defining these roles. I agree with you that there is much more going on with artists than simply "singularity of vision" anymore.

This reminds me of the story of Mike Kelly who first read about a critics' reading of his doll and blanket works and started to use the child abuse explanation for his own work- he had not previously considered this.

I think for the most part artists understand they are not in a vacuum as you say and welcome the ambiguity involved. To say that artists hate critics seems odd (except if one gets a lousy review of course:))

11 October, 2006 17:30  
Blogger chrisjag said...

Perhaps I am naive, but I never thought of modernist artists as having a singular vision, but rather, as Hickey put it, "having the ability to tolerate high velocity temporal change, psychic discontinuity, and symbolic distortion." I'd be curious to hear how Duchamp is in any way "singular."

Seems the opposite to me. Artists must be very open to the world and its complexity, (while saving time for focused experimentation). Expand/Gather in mulitiplicity and come down/execute in singularity.

I'm suspicious of anyone who defines others. Seems like a power play to me. Maybe that's why artists are uncomfortable with critics, because they so easily segway to realms outside of criticism.

11 October, 2006 20:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DF says: "Am I being a little idealistic? Of course." NOT. Holistic, certainly.

12 October, 2006 01:47  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

Well folks I was at that lecture though not taking notes like DF - and yawning a little- but Chris I think Kuspit argued that Duchamp was singular in his anomosity towards all. His was an obsession with tearing down according to Kuspit. He was glad photography devoured painting and couldn't wait until something devoured photography - to paraphrase the quote of Duchamp by Kuspit. But again I think much of the artist bashing is largely hyperbole and spin for the sole purpose of creating some momentary notoriety.

12 October, 2006 17:34  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Hey HL,

Thanks for going with me, twas a good time to be sure!

For the record my notes were like 87% doodle and 5% repeating the phrase "i hate psychology" and the rest just vague words that mean nothing to me now, but yes. I concur with the diagnosis of Singular Animosity.

(At least that's what the big DK said)

And yeah, I think that he thinks artist bashing is spin, too.

12 October, 2006 17:55  
Anonymous Eric Larsen said...

Hello, Deborah Fisher,
Whatever may be the case with art criticism, I'm certainly glad you're still writing it. Yet again, bells ring all over the place, for me, when I read it. You wrote: "I don't know why I make art, exactly, and I might have gotten into it because I am self-aggrandizing and fear death."
Yup. I once wrote this (it's on my site as part of "Food for Thought3"): "And the final, irreducible truth will be revealed that, refined to its uttermost, literature in fact says nothing, means nothing, teaches nothing, is nothing—whatever its other and attendant complexities—but small reminders and exquisitely living whispers of meaninglessness, nothingness, and death, and if the case were otherwise, there would be no literature, since those who struggled to create it would have been content, instead, with life, and afterward with silence."
A lot of people refused (when I wrote it, and now still) to accept the argument, since they took it to mean that art (literature) isn't important. The way I see, and mean, the argument, though, is that there's nothing in the universe more important than life--and therefore to MAKE SOMETHING out of the fear of death is almost by definition to MAKE SIGNIFICANCE. I mean, there are other measures of merit in art, but for me that's the top argument in the WHY of art.
And so, Deborah Fisher, I get all side-lined and blue and down again when you go on to say, "Art is, unfortunately, just not that important." Maybe not to the "blinded" culture, a la ANGB, but yes, yes, yes it is to any real culture and real people inside that real culture. What's more important than life? And if art resists death, what's more important than art?
As usual, ideas pop up all over in your writing. Like here: "I believe that this is exactly why artists are filling the art criticism void these days. If art is not about the Singular Vision of any one artist, then it is about the meaning artworks create when they stand separate from the artist and are in dialogue with one another."
Yes. And in dialogue with all and anything, including life, death, nature, loss. Can't resist recalling the Wallace Stevens poem "The Anecdote of the Jar." What do you think? Pertinent?

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Your sculptures, too, are like nothing else in Tennessee--with Tennessee meaning, what, not just nature, but--everything?
Also loved seeing your NY Times slide show under "press." Wonderful.
Thanks for all your thinkingmaking.
Best, EL

15 October, 2006 09:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's more important than life? And if art resists death, what's more important than art?

How about helping others.

16 October, 2006 10:57  
Anonymous Eric Larsen said...

Anonymous asked,
"How about helping others."
Um, doesn't that go without saying? It's a part of life, no? If art is "in dialogue with all and anything, including life, death, nature, loss," that would include everyone, seems like, to me, all "others." But if you mean social work trumps art, well, yes, if you're a social worker, not if you're an artist. Different sort and sorts of help in each case. No?
EL

17 October, 2006 08:56  

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