Talking Art Criticism With Derek Guthrie - September 11, 2012

"The corporate art system cannibalizes the artist, the art, and the critic."

In 1974, Derek Guthrie and the late Jane Addams Allen put out an eight-page gazette in Chicago called the New Art Examiner, which became the largest serious art journal published outside New York City. The NAE had a nearly three-decade run, gained a national audience, and produced a remarkable list of writers who subsequently found professional success and status. In 1995, ill health forced Allen into retirement and within a few years the publication folded. Returning to Chicago in 2004, Guthrie gave a lecture that inspired Kathryn Born to lead a publication effort by Northern Illinois University Press, which gave rise to an anthology—"The Essential New Art Examiner." In reviewing the anthology, art critic Donald Kuspit praised its contribution to art criticism. Mokha Laget spoke with Guthrie for THE magazine about art criticism, the gallery system, and the “powerful art elite.”

Mokha Laget: You were one of the founders of the New Art Examiner, a magazine that was a seminal publication of art criticism in the eighties and nineties. Last month the NAE anthology was published. Take me back.

Derek Guthrie: The NAE started because both Jane Addams Allen and I were fired from The Chicago Tribune after pressure from the powerful art elite, museums, and galleries. We refused to be part of the Chicago art cheerleading club. We were dead professionally, and Jane said, “If we want to be art writers we have to be our own publishers.” The anthology is the result of a renewed interest in the NAE’s legacy.

ML: The NAE’s editorial policy was different from that of other art publications—it wanted to take the difficult and controversial issues head-on. How did you find your writers? 

DG: We offered a freedom that was attractive to both new and established critics who couldn’t quite sing in the same way elsewhere. We wanted intelligent writing that was free from politics. It was about the quality of discourse that would not be dumbed down nor bound by jargon.

ML: You were one of the only venues to help young critics develop a voice. How have they fared after the NAE?

DG: I think Eleanor Hartley is a superb example; she’s written stuff for Art in America and other publications. By the way, I’ve got a great quote here, let me find it...  “In writing art criticism,” Eleanor says, “there are practical problems. The venues for art criticism today are limited and impose restrictions on what may be discussed. Art magazines that operate as trade journals and are dependent on gallery advertising for income tend to focus on reviews of artists or exhibitions that are in the public eye, while art coverage in most publications has a strong bias towards celebrity and entertainment. As a result, certain kinds of essays never get written, as there’s nowhere to publish them.” 

ML: Right, there are art critics and there are art writers. People often confuse the two.

DG: Let’s just say that an art critic is a thinking person, and whereas an art writer may just be writing copy, an art critic shares a response and an opinion. Intelligent discourse. Now that’s criticism.

ML: Which brings up the media outlets. There’s an increasing stranglehold on content in the mainstream press—and it definitely has an anti-intellectual bias.

DG: Yes, and it’s been gaining ground for a long time. It’s part of postmodernism, which questions the whole idea of people making judgments. And it’s a total failure of academia. Kids think success is a matter of social networking. The old-fashioned intellectual is obsolete in this modern world—except for people who really care about ideas and thinking.

ML: It’s reached crisis proportions. Anti-intellectualism is on the march to “manufacture consent,” as Noam Chomsky said. And the critic always depends on the editor who is dependent on the publisher… who depends on revenue.

DG: There is no critic unless there is an editor who has somewhere to put the stuff. A critic can only get in the pulpit where he’s asked to be. And obviously it will be a different kind of freedom depending on if it’s a niche audience or a larger magazine. So there’s no point in talking about criticism, you have to talk about the critical venue.

ML: The relevant venues like October Journal are small. Then you have the big three: Artforum, Art News, and Art in America. You are from England—how does criticism compare in Europe?

DG: I don’t know enough about France or Germany. It’s better in London than New York; we have Art Monthly there. Frieze is also a big magazine in London, and they’re very trendy. In Europe, you have a diversity of press that you don’t have in the States.

ML: What about museum catalogues?

DG: The academic who is hired by the museum to write the catalogue essay is like a lawyer hired to make your case inside the art jargon. It may be enlightened. But it’s not criticism.

ML: Have art critics become irrelevant? The gallery system is pretty much in cahoots with the art market, and art is big business now. They don’t really have much use for a critical framework.

DG: The system is so well oiled and the market so well fixed that they don’t need critics anymore. Art criticism originated to speak about the phenomena of looking and thinking, and there is still a need for that.

ML: So the problem happens in the “art distribution system,” as you’ve called it. The system takes a product, packages it, and streamlines it to pass through the culture to get bought and sold, or go to auction. In other words, does the corporate art system basically cannibalize the artist, the art, and the critic?

DG: Yes, absolutely. Forty years ago, you could look at the market and you could say there were a few dealers out there who were ready to stand by other work than the tried and true. There was a choice. I think that we’re going to have to reignite relationships with artists, and rethink the course of how art has developed—the history and the struggles. Otherwise, there’s no notion of a standard except what sells. 

ML: And critics need to become informed sources again. Today there is no place where critics can even be trained. Art students go to school, they sit in art history classes and look at a lot of slides, but they’re not told how to think about them. Art colleges in the United States have become very codified cookie-cutter environments…

DG: The art education system is totally stupid, out of date, and irrelevant. You can get your MFA without ever having read a word of criticism. You might as well graduate economics students who don’t know how to read the Wall Street Journal.

ML: It’s about learning to read on another level, to read what’s going on in your environment, to understand the meta-language.

DG: Absolutely. That’s why bloody artists ought to be taught criticism. They should be encouraged to read or think about what The New York Times says. That’s essential.

ML: Looking forward, we can say yes, things are bleak, but somewhere there are still thinking minds at work, there are still pockets of resistance, as John Berger calls them. So how do their voices get heard?

DG: I think it’s very hard for us today to get out from under the toxic world that the media has created. And of course that’s a terribly tall order. Just to know how one’s brain is being deadened by the banality of the consensus. What Andy Warhol told us is that banality is fine.

ML: It’s also a tall order for artists who are looking to the media for recognition, and dealers who expect them to get exposure, because all of it fuels the system.

DG: I think the first thing you have to do is get competence back, which is the ability to have a discourse. You can start with "Critical Mess," edited by Raphael Rubinstein, or James Elkins’ "Whatever Happened to Art Criticism?"

ML: The art critic also has to be thinking and writing globally now. There are huge cultural hurdles there that need some form of mediation for different audiences, because the reference points aren’t the same.

DG: That’s why we like to look at art from other places, to find out what their values are. But the market of late capitalism flattens indigenous culture. Even Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were buying and exhibiting contemporary art from the West because they wanted to be part of worldly international culture. And that’s about buying icons of approved vitality. Now, whether they have vitality or not is a critical issue, because the market is not constant. That’s about how the money gets channeled and is the issue of patronage. They don’t need critics for that.

ML: And many of these countries in parts of the East or Africa have not been through this kind of art-critical discourse, but globalization is forcing a lot in their face.

DG: The Arab Spring was a revolution because of the cell phone, facilitated by technology, and by the kids that are into technology. The old regime that was kept in place by Western money was upstaged by populism. And that is an aspect of the Western idea of freedom that traditional, Middle Eastern Islamic cultures don’t have. So people will always go to the place where they think there is freedom.

ML: Yet here we are in the West and the East with extremist ideologies and religious zealots who hate the notion of an open society.

DG: Now that takes you to the philosophical question, What is freedom? That’s as old as the hills, but in terms of a society, it’s moving into a Westernized global market. Cars and Gucci bags are going to appeal all over the world. They’re status symbols. It’s not just simply an issue of art appreciation—it’s a question of the modeling of the image.

ML: Then who determines whose images become essential. It’s a war of persuasion, of propaganda—basically a culture war, which also targets science, women’s choices, and LGBT issues.

DG: Look, American art was subsidized during the Cold War as a battering ram to showa dynamic, heroic image. Jackson Pollock was like a genius. People living under Communist rule didn’t want to look at programmed revolutionary art. The American government had a stake in art criticism because the critic’s words became icons of freedom. And there’s always been social warfare going on around different identities.

ML: Let’s talk about who the critics are in the United States, what’s their position, what is meaningful and what is not. Take Donald Kuspit.

DG: Well, Kuspit is one of the major critics out there, and he fights his corner, and he is an old-timer now, but he is perhaps the most critical person on the art scene. He takes his cue from a kind of European thinking. Kuspit has strongly attacked some of the leaders in the American avant-garde, on academic and philosophical terms.

ML: Robert Hughes.

DG: Well, he did "Shock Of the New," and that was definitive, but he’s not very active. His book "Nothing If Not Critical "is worth a thorough read. Hughes was one of the first people to point out that the New York art scene was losing the cutting edge of being authoritative.

ML: Rosalind Krauss.

DG: She is an incredible influence on so many people, a great thinker, and with Benjamin Buchloh, Douglas Crimp, and Hal Foster they’re like the Vatican of New York, with the exception of Kuspit who is more like Martin Luther. (Laughs.) They’ve dealt with all the issues in a very scholarly way. They are the authentication of the New York avant-garde of the last thirty to forty years.

ML: Dave Hickey.

DG: Well, he raises issues of high culture and low culture. But Dave Hickey managed a rock and roll group for years and he’s looking to find a source of vitality inside the American culture that can be co-opted into making good visual art, even if it’s about a Las Vegas waitress. And he attacks some of the hypocrisy that goes on. But I don’t know if he’s very discerning.

ML: How do you rate critics who are writing for The New York Times, like Roberta Smith versus figures like Jerry Saltz who is pretty much a paid billboard to promote the system.

DG: Roberta Smith writes professional, straight reporting. She’s studious. By the way, she’s Saltz’s wife. Jerry Saltz is the Woody Allen of the art world, except he’s not as intelligent as Woody Allen. I’d rather hear Woody Allen talk about culture than Jerry Saltz any day. (Laughs.)

ML: LA Times?

DG: What’s his name? Christopher Knight. He’s quite good. I think he is one of the best, actually. He refused a job at The New York Times.

ML: The American concept of “culture” is Pop culture, not the European sense of intellectual and artistic knowledge. We talk of high/low culture, but those two concepts are still blended here, there’s little distinction. It’s tough for a serious critic.

DG: You have museum culture, and you have popular culture. What’s happened in recent years is that popular culture and museum culture have been moving closer together. Andy Warhol started all of that in the sixties. The lines between art culture and popular culture are now blurred. And God help anybody who wants to say they shouldn’t be blurred.

ML: Let’s fast forward 20 years. Give me your view of what art making and art criticism looks like here in twenty years.

DG: Well, everything goes in cycles; history tells us that. And nothing can live indefinitely.  And, you know, fashion has gotten into this business, and fashion is the market. So you’re either going to have intelligent commentary on it or you’re not. You have to decide what’s the intelligent commentary, and then you look to those people. The visual arts have always been profoundly affected by technology. And now images are machine-made. I think we will be debating the viability of this human business of making marks as an integral part of making art, because art can only exist in an object.

Mokha Laget is a writer, translator, and poet who lives in New Mexico. She travels extensively as an international French interpreter, was a contributing writer to the New Art Examiner, and has written art reviews for THE magazine.