It looks as if we are going to need a new term to describe the art criticism of the 1990s. It is not simply that the 1980s witnessed the proliferation—and enthusiastic critical support—of an extraordinary amount of bad art. By the end of the decade, the very notion that art ought to be judged by aesthetic criteria was denounced as a form of political repression, and the concept of artistic quality was banished to the realm of forbidden ideas. What we can presumably look forward to in the Nineties, then, is an official school of no-fault art criticism—as it might be called— that substitutes for all artistic considerations what are now to be regarded as “ethical” or “philosophical” issues.

For this new school of criticism there is to be only one basis on which art can be judged, and that is its adequacy or relevance “to a troubled society in a changing world,” as one of the critics of this persuasion recently put it. It must not be supposed, however, that just any old “ethical” or “philosophical” issue will be thought adequate to the needs of the moment. A prescribed index of acceptable issues for works of art to be “about” has been offered as a guide: “ecology, AIDS, feminism, ethnic identity, homelessness, the media, and so on.” In other words, the issues that now dominate the mass media’s coverage of American society. This list, by the way, is not taken from some left-wing journal or maverick art review but from an expensively produced exhibition catalogue published by one of our blue-chip dealers in contemporary art reputations.

Still another votary of this new mode of criticism has lately suggested that a certain form of art—easel painting, in this case— must now be understood to be an essentially male chauvinist enterprise, and for that reason denied the prestige that it has traditionally enjoyed. According to this view, easel painting “conjures up an image of a male presence dominating the canvas as his penile brush violates its white passive-ness.” Easel painting, in short, is now to be considered little more than a scenario of rape, which means (among much else) that anyone—man or woman—who continues to work in this tainted medium is deemed to be complicit in the subjugation of women. Somehow—we are never told on what “ethical” or “philosophical” basis—certain female artists who still work in the easel-painting medium are to be exempted from censure; but they have now been put on notice about the dangers implicit in the art they practice.

What needs to be noted about this no-fault art criticism is its role in the art market. While it makes large claims for itself as a form of social criticism that allegedly challenges the assumptions of our society, it serves—and is largely meant to serve—as a vehicle for the promotion of the most fashionable art now dominating the commercial galleries and the museums and private collections that follow the lead of the galleries. There is no mystery, of course, as to why big-ticket dealers in contemporary art hould wish to embrace this criticism, which consigns to oblivion the very notion that a good deal of what they are offering their affluent clients might, after all, be the sheerest rubbish. To be free of the burden of aesthetic judgment makes the dealers’ task and that of the artists they show infinitely easier than it would otherwise be. A criticism that agrees in advance and on principle to find no aesthetic fault with the objects of its scrutiny can be counted upon not only to support new fashions in art but also—owing to the “ethical” considerations that have now supplanted aesthetic judgment in this criticism—to do so in the name of improving the world.

Nothing quite like this has happened in American art criticism since the 1930s, when a similar wave of anti-aesthetic sentiment swamped the scene under the aegis of “social consciousness.” That movement, too, while on the one hand (like this new criticism) essentially political in content, had an important market function and succeeded in fostering a lot of bogus reputations. The ostensible issues have changed, of course—then artists were required to base their art on the imperatives of “anti-fascism,” American nativism, etc., whereas now it is demanded that they adopt feminism, AIDS, homelessness, et al., as their causes—and the financial stakes are now much greater. But the same cynicism and the same failure of taste prevail.

It is disheartening to think that in the 1990s we are likely to see a wholesale re-enactment of this assault on aesthetic values in the art world, but that is the direction in which we seem at the moment to be moving. We may take some solace, however, in the fact that it is only on the basis of its aesthetic value that any work of art survives the fashions—including the political fashions—of the moment. This will prove to be as true for the so-called “ethical” and “philosophical” art now swamping us as it was for the bulk of the art that claimed to be “about” class struggle and the American scene half a century ago.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 6, on page 2
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