A ‘Treacherous’ Art Scene?

The Louvre, Paris
Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin: Saying Grace, 1740

You pause for a moment in the fifth-floor lobby. There through the plate glass the Hudson River glitters, framed by converted warehouses, the traffic on the West Side Highway, and, on the far shore, New Jersey in hazy silhouette. Transported, your mind floats free of the business that brought you here. Which gallery did you just step out of? What claim was made on your eyes, and by whom? All is canceled by the bright water. But ping! here’s the elevator you summoned: just time to pocket away the sheet of blather vouchsafed by the snooty graduate behind the desk, before heading out onto the scruffy Chelsea sidewalk to enter some other doorway a few numbers along, ascend to some other postindustrial show-space, go through it all over again.

You—the art critic, that is—might need to remind yourself that properly speaking, it wasn’t mere business that brought you here. It was an obsession, it was romance, something tantamount to faith. At one time, art tugged at your heart, a range of creations that seemed as radiant and self-sufficient as today’s river through the window, yet effected by fellow human beings. For the sake of such magic, you strayed into this marginal, marabout career. And art hasn’t exactly deserted you. Human creativity proves inexhaustibly various: there is forever the prospect of fresh revelations. But to chase after them, you prowl a hunting ground that somehow becomes more alien the longer you remain within. The flashy new art museums, the international art fairs, and above all Chelsea, the district where New York’s major contemporary galleries cluster, seem to hide and deceive: the art world they comprise is a screen behind which art slips away. Too long an immersion in their affectless blather and aggressive cool is bruising to the soul. You want to reach for air. You want to rage and rail.

After some thirty years of art criticism, Jed Perl confesses to repeated Hudson River moments, one page into Magicians and Charlatans, his latest collection of essays. Those glimpses of the outdoor world “trump anything on the gallery walls.” Give in to such impulses, and you might end up quitting this line of writing altogether, as Dave Hickey, an equally characterful fellow critic, announced he was doing last year. Yet Perl remains at his post. (His pieces have long been a fixture of The New Republic.) There is a trust to keep, and it is best upheld here in Manhattan, the island umbilically linked to the European traditions he reveres. When duty calls, Perl may venture out to Art Basel in Miami or return to California, the scene of his teenage years, but his perspective has long been committedly metropolitan. His buttonholing commentaries—by turns sardonic and lyrical, pernickety and disarmingly intimate—keep mainland America and its concerns at a remove, the far side of the window and the water. New York, uniquely dense in its cultural history, is the definite somewhere in which Perl is most likely to encounter an authentic, content-rich something, a fresh imaginative revelation.

The chances to do so seem to recede, however. Returning in 2008 from the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles, Perl takes the measure of the rehoused New Museum on the Bowery, and deems it likewise a “nowhere.” That is to say, another set of big, unfeeling warehouse interiors put forward behind a gratuitously whimsical façade that supplies the institution with its architectural “logo.” Such arbitrary box structures have been built to shelter spectacles that are equally meaning-lite, not so much artworks as “stunts”: they amount to no more than “brands designed to contain brands.” Perl infers that he is witnessing “a global phenomenon”: that all across the planet, these nowheres are springing up to display “trophy” acquisitions from the contemporary art market, tigers’ heads bagged from a notoriously wild and lawless economic jungle.

There is nonetheless some economic logic behind this behavioral pattern. Dave Hickey, slamming the door on art criticism last October, reckoned he was quitting the court of the hedge fund managers—“All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people.” Perl similarly shakes a fist at the unbridled cultural power the moneyed elite now possesses. For him, a man such as Eli Broad, the veteran entrepreneur who paid for the eponymous extension to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art but who retained possession of the Warhols and Jeff Koonses displayed inside it, does not operate from any serious wish to nurture public art appreciation: Broad is simply a “steamroller” of egotism, devoid of sensibility but determined to flaunt his “high-end shopping.”

Such invective is hollered boldly, but inconsequentially: Broad inhabits a plateau of power almost out of hearing range. Perl’s more targeted remarks are for those who like himself claim a prime commitment to the cause of art. A piece written two years after the 2004 reopening of MoMA circles warily around Glenn D. Lowry—then as now its director—suspecting that his “diabolically savvy” exterior masks an aesthetic apathy and that he is intent to “stifle a debate” about the surrender of the institution’s once-lofty ideals to the imperatives of fund-raising.

Presumably Perl has reprinted this criticism because he sees a vacuum of visual sensibility still obtaining, where once Alfred Barr and William Rubin pursued their fervent curatorial idiosyncrasies. While major institutions have been given over to placeholders who view the world through dollar-sign glasses, he observes that a new style of dealer has risen to the fore: a sensation-seeker dedicated not so much to individual reputations or even to money, but rather to “the next new thing” for the sake of its own novelty. Such an “opportunist” operator—Perl cites Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian—is “an enemy of all fixed or even evolving concepts of value.” The opportunist entrenches himself in a scene animated by

apparently contradictory thoughts: that art is nothing; that art can be anything; that randomness and order are more or less the same thing; that art has no particular place in the world; that art can be found in any place in the world; that art is just another commercial product, like tennis balls and washing machines.

Between them, the megabuck art shopper, the fund-fixated museum director, and the trend-fixated dealer have now established a hegemony that wickedly shortchanges the viewer, in the eyes of Perl: he sees an American public that longs for the beauty and “particularity” of well-presented great art but that is left “hungry” and “disgruntled.”

And the crisis is mounting. “What is now in doubt…is nothing less than the freestanding power of artistic experience.” But for this, the blame must largely go to Perl’s fellow art writers, who are so willing to juggle those contradictory concepts. They do so on the familiar Duchampian premise that context is everything (since a urinal set in a gallery can become art) and that an artwork’s content and internal formal qualities count for nothing. Perl is reluctant to name critical culprits, but he coins a snappy catchphrase: “laissez-faire aesthetics.” It stands as the title of the volume’s opening essay, which bemoans the belief that “any experience that anyone has with a work of art is equal to any other.”

Perl argues that this ethos of random “emotional promiscuity” is lifted from pop music and cinema, “although without the democratic idealism that gives the best of pop culture its essential power,” and that its application to the fine arts is false, for a person’s contemplation of work conceived within the painting and sculpture traditions is of its nature intimate, incremental, and solitary. In another essay, from 2004, he turns to find that “beauty,” the very concept he imagined he was defending, has been shamelessly co-opted by the rhetoricians of the current art regime. He protests that their modish “return to beauty” is truly “chilling,” insofar as “it suggests that artists can in fact do without beauty, at least for a time, which is almost the same as saying that they can do without art.”

But many so-called artists, as Perl well knows, have long done without what he regards as beauty. Throughout his critical career he has been firing shots at Duchamp’s bastard heirs, the art market producers who take for granted the Frenchman’s disdain for formal excellence but have not picked up on his shrewd chill wit. Those in Perl’s sights have included Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, and Cindy Sherman. It goes almost without saying that in this collection of essays, his first since 2000, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst join them. All these present ready targets for a values vigilante. After all, none of them even pretends to subscribe to the traditions Perl believes in.

It takes greater critical mettle, perhaps, to identify those who are notionally signed up as “painters,” in the time-honored sense, but whose real commitment is to the economics of the stunt market—in other words, the “charlatans” of the book’s title. In his denunciation of laissez-faire aesthetics, Perl takes aim at John Currin, who has enjoyed phenomenal success over the past fifteen years with “slick, sleazy studies of suburban housewives” that amount to “in-your-face kitsch.” Another recent celebrity, Lisa Yuskavage, with her “soft porn figure paintings, with their smarmy renderings of babes with big breasts and big hair,” gets peppered in the same volley.

Most aggressive of all is the abuse reserved for Gerhard Richter, “a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter.” His 2002 retrospective at MoMA was “an experience of visual deprivation” that Richter and his curators foisted on the public by wanton intellectual imposture. Devoid of any “ability to construct a painting in the first place,” Richter has no right, Perl contends, to claim he is “shattering” the supplied imagery of the photographs his brushwork transcribes and then blurs. His superficial “trickery and gimmickry” are supposed to confront a crisis in representation and the “death of painting” debates that preoccupied critics during the 1980s and 1990s: but that was “a counterfeit crisis” cooked up by “know-nothing elitists.”

Hacking and slashing every which way, Perl notes the little winks that Richter sneaks to the public behind his stern philosophic persona—pictures of his cute wife and children rendered “in a soft focus, dime-store Vermeer style that is apparently easily mistaken for the real thing.” For good measure, he blasts at Richter’s German colleagues too: “If Kiefer was phony Wagner, Richter is phony Kafka.” In the sheer brio of its fury, this Richter tirade is one of the two literary highpoints of the book.

What does Perl actually applaud? Well, there is equal pleasure to be had, in a converse manner, from an appreciation of a Chardin show at the Met two years earlier. The essay considers how Chardin preserves the “ordinariness” of the kitchenware and kitchen maids that he paints and yet lifts it to another plane, deploying all his powers “of color and design, of painterly touch and structural deliberation” in a balanced cooperation. Perl’s rapturous attention to Chardin’s canvases exemplifies the kind of intensity of experience that a laissez-faire aesthetics would seek to flatten. Another of Perl’s “magicians” is Bernini, although his eulogy of “the sanest genius who ever lived” refuses to concede that the great sculptor’s magic can have a cold coercive aspect. Perl is instinctively partisan: his thumb must be either up or down.

Arthur Mones/Estate of Arthur Mones/Brooklyn Museum
Meyer Schapiro, 1980

He doesn’t, however, attempt to set up these Old Masters as exemplars for present-day practice. Nor could he—however immediate the works themselves, the worlds they spring from are too remote. And the same rule effectively applies when it comes to European modernists, such as Cézanne, Picasso, Vuillard, Rouault, and Chagall, all of whom are revisited in celebratory essays. No, the practices that Perl finds most instructive belong to the America of his own lifetime. A disparate bunch they seem to present: the painters Joan Snyder and Bill Jensen; Isamu Noguchi and Ken Price as ceramicists; the experimental filmmaker Jeremy Blake; and, with reservations, the sculptor Robert Gober.

If anything unites them, it is a devotion to the physicality of their respective media, along with the complex cultural baggage that each transports. The kind of American artist Perl admires is apt to be struggling with a heavy history, a wrangle of traditions or agendas that gets resolved through a unique form of handling his or her chosen materials. He or she may need to resist the lure of a public arena that tempts the artist to stray from this achieved intimacy and succumb to the grandiose and the overblown.

Such creative originals are paralleled by critical originals: the last five essays of the book’s twenty-six remember exceptional observers, ranging from Edmund Wilson to David Daniel, a dear and obscure personal friend of Perl’s. Each of their voices adds something to Perl’s scheme of liberal values—a scheme animated by a love for individuality, but politically stoic to the point of pessimism. Democracy is desirable and debate is commendable (it is exactly the lack of forthright, principled disagreement that Perl deplores in this age of the laissez-faire aesthete), but these objectives cannot be confused with the justice—“treacherous, paradoxical, and even violent”—of high art. That belongs to a separate plane, one only recognized by a dwindling few, the veritable know-something elitists.

“I criticize because I care,” Perl likes to say. And unmistakably, he does care for things that anyone should care for: not just for Chardin, but for the value of making by hand and contemplating at length, for the endangered causes of the local and the particular. Having myself once encountered the empire-building museum director Thomas Krens and asked him what he would do with the twenty giant pavilions he was projecting for his Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and having received the reply that “Oh, we’re sure to find artists to fill ’em,” I am much in sympathy with Perl’s line in outrage. But how much substance can your critical detractions carry without a certain broad optimism to buoy them up? Or to put it another way, how does a segregation of art from the public plane affect the force of Perl’s attack?

My questions are not meant as complaints that Perl lacks an action plan for the art world. That’s beyond the remit of this permanent contrarian, who was already acting Jeremiah in 2000—the date of Eyewitness, his previous collection of essays—when he reckoned that everything good about the art world was “on the verge of extinction.” As it happens, Perl’s sometimes apocalyptic stridency strikes this European reader as parochial rather than metropolitan. However apropos it may or may not be in New York, a different mix—fewer super-rich, and institutions that are less beholden—lends the London art world a slightly sunnier complexion, and on the Continent matters depart yet further from Perl’s doomy model. Of course Magicians and Charlatans rightly rounds on London’s own parochialism, when Perl calls to inspect its annual Royal Academy Summer Show—“a ghastly obligation, like visiting a relative you were never really sure you liked in a dingy nursing home.” I relish the pungency of that, just as I enjoy the mockery of the po-faced, pompous, and dispiriting Richter. But the same account of a trip to London exposes just what goes wrong with Perl’s criticism.

It falls into whimsy, for want of conceptual cohesion. Reviewing an awkward experiment mounted in 2000, Perl wishes to berate some shaky contemporary artworks brought into London’s National Gallery to be juxtaposed to its Old Masters. He grabs hold of the sole piece that excites him, a moonlit nymph painted by Balthus near the end of his long life. He is fully aware that this choice is a taunt to many readers, given the painter’s conflicted reputation, but he longs to teach them a lesson. The canvas, he claims, “has a lot to tell us about what tradition means now.” But what “tradition” turns out to mean is a long chain of art-historical connotations that Perl clanks out of the image’s genteelly erotic content, a chain interlaced with reveries teased out of the artist’s glamorous career, and dragging forward what amounts to a parody of an old-fashioned critical close reading—“the small dark triangular space made by the overlapping of her two legs provides an emblematic center—an abstraction of a vagina,” and so on.

The cumulative silliness is that of a child who smashes a toy car because it won’t fly. Another thing Perl knows—although he sometimes forgets it—is that any painting worth regarding as a painting will slip from your grasp once you try to press-gang it into serving a cause, be that cause “tradition” or no matter what. In that light, the essay stands as an intellectual evasion: as does the attack on the American John Currin, which prefers to sneer at Currin’s clientele (“the guys in Tribeca, with their fashion-model girlfriends and steak dinners and cigars”) rather than to consider how Currin’s “slick, sleazy” pictures—so silken-textured, and often so twitchily pornographic—can lodge in the mind with an insidious disturbing force.

Paintings prompt the mind into reveries and vagaries: paintings fail to stabilize them; that is very much the problem. The art of painting remains the chief fixture in Perl’s hierarchy of values, as it was in Clement Greenberg’s in postwar New York. We prefer our fixtures to stand still, and thus critics such as Greenberg have assumed that the worth of a painting could be discovered via “an immediate intuition of the structure of the whole”—a stable formal coherence that the canvas holds in store for the discerning eye. But this phrasing of the assumptions that underlie Greenberg’s criticism comes in fact from a 1966 essay by Meyer Schapiro that judiciously sets out to undermine them. “We do not see all of a work when we see it as a whole,” argued Schapiro, noting how we cannot apprehend the qualities of a major work such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling all at a glance. “One must be able to shift one’s attitude in passing from part to part, from one aspect to another, and to enrich the whole progressively in successive perceptions.” Schapiro’s ideas are considered and developed in turn in the very fine appreciation of that scholar with which Perl concludes his volume.

Schapiro, suggesting that static perfection can never be more than a “hypothesis,” adds the dimension of time to the two on which any painting self-evidently relies. The burden of aesthetics is thus transferred to the individual observer, who has an ongoing life story—the person who might pronounce: “It was only later that I saw….” Such a shift implicitly puts in question any appeal to a communal experience of pictorial art. (It is not wholly for nothing, whatever Perl may say, that rhetoric about “the death of painting” would subsequently arise.) As a result, there can be less chance of any agreement over painting’s status in the public realm. If you buy into this revised post-Greenbergian aesthetic, if you accept—as indeed it seems that Perl does—that private experiences are what matter, then what grounds have you to criticize when people “believe that it is their privilege to respond to anything at any time in any way they choose”? As far as I can see, Perl’s adopted logic is on the point of dissolving into the very laissez-faire aesthetics he despises.

Reading Magicians and Charlatans, I overhear a squabble between two authors. One, hunkering down with the privatization of art, keeps thoughtful company with the ornery, unfashionable artist and the idiosyncratic collector, each in his little room. The other, a public-spirited man intent to tell truth to power, casts about for props: he finds himself resorting to words like “tradition” and to borrowing aperçus from his alter ego, who lends with a bad grace. I wish the latter luck: he is attempting what a critic should attempt, if there is to be serious criticism and serious art. But his resources are running low, and as the fifth-floor lobby window reminds him, he could use a change of scene.