Tuesday, December 21, 2010

beating an un-dead horse

So, who is this Richard Dorment? Is he very influential? He says:

This year’s winner of the Turner Prize, Susan Philipsz, creates sound installations. Cue a long low collective sigh from art lovers across the country.

I guess what he calls art lovers actually means art market lovers. I took a look up what he listed as "Top 10 art shows of 2010." As Dorment himself admits, obviously he is not the ideal person to write something about Philipsz. As Marc Weidenbaum puts it, "It's equally fair to say that what Dorment wrote is not art criticism; it's a rant, a bullying and uninformed one that is more an expression of the author's personal taste than an investigation of the subject at hand."

I suggest that Dorment "deliberately" wrote that way: he knows that many support artists like Philipsz, especially in our times Cage against the Machine is so popular. On the other hand The Telegraph may have many conservative readers who don't care for contemporary art. He just wanted to tell such audiences "You're not alone." This kind of anti-intellectualism is popular everywhere. He didn't mean to converse with those who support Philipsz in the first place.

A long time ago, there was a well known conservative criticism against Minimalism in the 1960s: Michael Fried's Art and Objecthood. In a nutshell, he denounced Tony Smith's sculpture by calling it "not art, but a performance." It triggered massive counterattacks from the Minimalists' side: "What's wrong with being a performance?" In her essay Art History/Art Criticism, Performing meaning, which is collected in Performing the Body, Performing the Text (Routledge, 1999, edited by Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson), Amelia Jones revisits Smith's work and Fried's essay. She starts this way:

At the risk of being perceived as beating a dead horse (dead in the letter, but one still unfortunately all too 'present' in the underlying assumptions of contemporary art discourse), I would like to turn at this point to a particular, well-rehearsed example of the tautological reasoning that subtends modernist formalist art historical and art critical analysis. Michael Fried's well-known 'Art and Objecthood' (1967), a veritable manifesto of Greenbergian modernism (uttered just at the moment in which artistic practices such as Minimalism and body art were rendering Greenberg obsolete), is an important object of analysis precisely because it stages so obviously and with such rhetorical flair the oppositional logic and lack of self-reflexivity that continues to characterize the practices of art history and art criticism.

Fried's essay was oppressive, but worth rebelling against. His observation was indeed brilliant and articulated the nature of Minimalist art very well. He was irrelevant and political only when he explained why he was against that kind of art, and this part was seen as "performative."

But, Fried showed at least his intellectual spine. That's why Smith or Robert Morris could develop their own theories while rebelling against Fried. I actually like some conservative critics, such as T.S. Eliot (and Slavoj Žižek whose tastes are rather conservative when it comes to art).

These days this word "performativity" is obsolete, I've been thinking. But Dorment shows it is "still unfortunately all too 'present.'"

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