A Decade of Negative Thinking by Mira Schor, A Book Review
The idea is essentially repulsive, of a society held together only by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary interest. –John Stuart Mill
In 2006 a number of notable art critics were solicited to articulate the state and purposes of contemporary art criticism in a little compendium entitled Critical Mess. If any consensus was reached in these diverse essays, it was that the practice itself is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Among the reasons put forth were the entertainment-envy of spectacle driven artworks in which exegis is superfluous, the loss of a single Modernist mainstream trajectory that demanded debate, nuanced reflection, and art historical acumen, and the ADD nature of global culture. Raphael Rubenstein, riffing on a Mira Schor quote concerning contemporary critics’ fundamental lack of understanding or grounding in what really good painting entails, partially attributes criticism’s marginality to that inability to adequately assess painting, thereby reducing any expectations of the art and dialogue surrounding it. A lack of interest in the type of conceptual and formal rigor of critics Clement Greenberg or Harold Rosenberg partially fomented by postmodern anti-elitist tendencies and hostilities toward an “insider” art world have likewise contributed to the increasing obsolescence of criticism. The single most important factor in criticism’s dispensibility, though, has been the art market itself. Huge quantities of criticism being generated by a vast art press have, according to James Elkins, been rendered meaningless in the face of an art market that now relies primarily on “buzz” to fuel prices and gallery attendance. Ultra hyped press releases and seductive glossy advertising stoke high end consumerism, while art fairs, biennials and career-cementing magazine profiles channel artists to museum exhibitions thereby maintaining investments and museum viability (as well as all the ancillary businesses of real estate, publications, transport, and gallery personnel). The market now essentially substitutes for the sustained examination of the past. As Dave Hickey, writing in the February 2009 Art in America described it: “The noisy, ongoing quarrel about ‘quality’ that raged between collectors, critics, journalists, activists, publishers, dealers, curators, and scholars once generated a fairly stable consensus of relative value among players on the field,….a non-pecuniary consensus”…“Today we have a list of auction prices.” The Darwinian, neo-liberal economy reigns in today’s artworld, in which the improperly marketed, thus unrewarded, is assigned to garage sales while art that strictly adheres to the market’s orthodoxy tends to find its way into important collections. With his characteristic humor and insight, Hickey makes his plea for traditional criticism’s assessments of quality and states. “The invisible hand of the market is not the hand of God. Weeds spring up when you don’t mow, so mow…..to do this properly, commitments must be made. Cultural consequences must be mediated upon as if they mattered–because they do.”
While we are certainly past any lingering modernist sense that criticism has the power and authority to save civilization, A Decade of Negative Thinking, collected essays by critic and artist Mira Schor (who was not included in Critical Mess), is centered on the kind of art critical practice that fiercely and tenaciously probes what actually meets the eye and what other “artificial stimulations” or “market fundamentalisms” are propelling the work. Although not in any way intended as a comprehensive analysis of the deleterious effects of the market on the reception and perception of contemporary art in the manner of Julian Stallabrass’s brilliant Art Incorporated, statements such as “The market frowns on writing against anything,” with the press release having supplanted anything deemed as “resistant responses” position Schor as a critic who writes in opposition to the market’s colonization of our senses. Instead, she insists that we look deeply, honestly, with questioning and knowledge. Authoritatively focusing on such disconnects rampant in the artworld—from “post or anti-feminists” whose mega success has directly benefitted from its feminist antecedents, to preposterous claims in the art press about highly collected painters—Schor, writes as if criticism is a near political right. She is less bothered with the overall relevancy of criticism in a world of semi-literates and anti-intellectualism and more concerned with the essential role of criticism to confront and rectify the distortions in our sight and thinking instigated by the unquestioned logic and supremacy of the art market. Since we are at the point of knowing what things cost but having no idea what they are really worth, Schor writes because the consequences in not doing so are irresponsible to the way contemporary life is experienced and valued, and ultimately to the way history is written.
A co-founder of the journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G with Susan Bee she has been writing about gender representation and painting since the mid eighties, and in 1997 published a collection of essays through the mid-nineties entitled, Wet: On Painting, Feminism and Art Culture. Her stated aim was to “address artists who…explore the potential of critical but productive temporal counterpoint.” Given Schor’s emphasis on resistance, it’s not surprising that her critically formative years were spent at the California Institute for the Arts Feminist Art Program run primarily by pioneering feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Through her intimate diaries and letters of the early 70’s, we glimpse a 21 year old Schor wrestling with her personal idealisms and the realities of clashing with strong, ego driven goals of impresarios like Chicago. Perspicaciously, she wrote “..after a while it annoys me to put a painting up and hear myself criticized.” Founded in the frustrating experiences of attempting to solve the challenges and cope with the irritations within the program, the crucial practice of looking honestly and deeply, trusting perception, and articulating the apparent formal and conceptual issues in addition to contextual considerations of a work of art began to evolve.
Vanessa Beecroft, refuse to acknowledge and are even contemptuous of, the importance of a continuing examination of the discriminatory practices of patriarchal systems. The “condition for art market viability is precisely to abjure feminism,” Schor states, “the cost of admission into the art market and art history.” Moreover, as determined by a market that needs to render commercially palatable everything in its clutches, the soft “feminism” of Beecroft’s naked models that “flirt dangerously close to traditionally exploitive configurations”, has just the right amount of titillation and lack of real threat to ensure an artworld triumph. Schor’s solution to the appalling lack of feminist consciousness in female artists today lies in art historical education, in preserving the legacy of early feminist artists some now invisible in the belief that only “what is seen is valuable”, and in women continuing to publicly speak up against power. As opposed to the somewhat effective anonymous blogs with their supposed freedom to express subversive views about the art establishment without jeopardizing careers, Schor argues that this is a “moment when activism and political awareness is vitally important” and needs to be carried out with enough “gravitas to function effectively in a public forum.” In addition to protesting continued forms of patriarchy– in contrast to the early years of feminist art activism when the goal was primarily to gain economic advantages through a more level access to the market–Schor reveals in a number of essays here that the power currently invested in the art market to categorically define the quality and levels of art that are publicly seen and financially supported, and to control the discourse about those objects, must be equally challenged and examined.
Schor’s mistrust of the market is most apparent in her discussions of high profile art stars like painters John Currin, and Lisa Yuskavage. They “both specialize in representations of half naked young women, a type of Victoria Secret catalogue content reformulated and rendered with old master painting high value and high finish style to give it aesthetic legitimacy.” They exemplify that in our commodity-oriented culture, representations, in particular representation of sexually alluring women, are prized for its efficiency as a tool of commodification.” Yuskavage has been purported to paint like Vermeer, as well as Bellini, Rembrandt, Degas and other more contemporary masters, a ploy that Schor describes as an important mechanism of art historical validation as part of the overall marketing process in which patrilineage, unlike matrinlineage, makes work more collectible and strategically and speedily moves the artist to art reviews and museums. Ironically though, as Schor stipulates, it is not in any claimed similarity to Vermeer that Yuskavage’s work is important but rather that her work expresses rage at how the female body has been directed at the male gaze throughout history. Yuskavage’s denial of any connection to other women artists who work to expose the male gaze, keeps her out of the market margins. John Currin, likewise painter of watermelon-sized breasted women with Breck ad flaxen hair and simpleton smiles, is sold to the viewer as borrowing his subjects and technical expertise—including the cosmetic application of varnish (“like a veneer”!) – from Northern European Renaissance masters like Cranach. Such references are there to “signify Great Painting” for marketability and not, unfortunately, Schor relates, to resist “the spectacular production of femininity as a product that warps the lives of girls and women.” Confirming the essential “good” of the market over human values is one of the hallmarks of a free market economy. That artists should so readily conform to that rationale in lieu of the (traditional) modernist requisition to overthrow the status quo, reveals the extent to which the entire culture is embedded with these notions.
Gerhard Richter. Richter has always appeared to eshew a singular signature style by his 60 years of constant formal experimentation, leading to a kind of Richter effect of a multiplicity of styles as a strategy that could be branded: every new Richter development spawns its gallery ready imitators. With an exemplary critical address of traditions, Schor takes Richter to task for the moral, historical and contemporary art implications in his use of the blur in a 1965 painted interpretation of a photograph of his uncle posed in his Nazi uniform from the family photo album. Richter had previously claimed that blurring Uncle Rudi was designed to assume a neutral position through its ambiguity and lack of clarity, regarding the horrors and guilt associated with the Nazi past, a claim he has since repudiated. In comparing a real surviving photograph of her uncle Moishe who was murdered in the Holocaust, Schor reminds us how her family history is kept alive through remembrance of details, not repression. “True emotion comes from precision”, she quotes from Serge Klarsfeld who has made powerful Holocaust documentaries. Moreover, she describes how other contemporary artists from Christian Boltanski, David Levinthal, and Bill Jacobsen and Jack Pierson have used the blur to express very different sentiments than Richter in terms of loss and remembrance. Although reputed to signify a “critique of heroic portraiture” among other things, Richter’s roundly hailed and rewarded use of the blur facilitates what Schor asserts is a “deliberate blindness”, enshrined as an “effect of indifference” suppressing both collective guilt and killing the subjectivity of the viewer. The lack of emotional connection or engagement with the subject the blur enforces, can make this method of depiction seem complicit with the cold hearted, detached demeanor of the Nazis who, like Uncle Rudi may have sent thousands to their deaths. For Schor, Richter’s widely appropriated visual trope has contributed to a stance of coolness and distantiation, an on-going infatuation with mediated experience, endemic in the visual arts today. In the meantime, for Richter and those he has influenced, the blur becomes a “triumphant gesture in the history of painting”, another example of artworld success that need not answer to any investigation of motive or lasting effect. Although Schor’s claim that despite Uncle Rudi’s death and the defeat of the Nazis, the effective abstracting and erasure of details of place, time, and facial clues, imply the Nazis may have scored a victory afterall. She might have added that the market has also trumped emotional pain and suffering, at all costs.
If there was an artist who exemplified working against market considerations to follow her personal painting convictions, it was Alice Neel. In her essay on Neel, Schor assesses the appropriateness of abstraction or figuration when examining feminist issues in visual art. Postwar American abstraction was fraught with sexism and unquestioned male mythologies regarding painting, presenting feminist analysis difficulties with abstract painters like Helen Frankenthaler. As feminism became a force in the 1960’s, debates over how feminism should be framed in the visual arts veered toward representation in painting, and towards more explicit political statements. It would be extremely easy to reiterate Neel’s importance in essentialist terms, as articulator of the female gaze and constructor of the female body and subject, or as a maverick but marginalized, figure painter in a sea of abstractionists who gained prominence during the feminist art movement when illustration of gender theories and politics pulled representational painting from hiding. At the time many women painters still felt resigned to framing their work in terms of genderless Modernist universals that rejected overt political content or to confining their interpretations to what a distinctive female aesthetic looked like. Neel had been well appreciated in numerous high profile museum catalogue essays for her highly expressive characterizations, her compelling psychological insights into her sitters, and her democratic cross cultural, racial, and gender portraits. Schor brilliantly harmonizes all these tendencies by emphasizing Neels’ lesser appreciated skills as an abstract painter, painting not just in the service of representation and narrative, but in actual conversation with the act of painting. Schor helps us see drips, committed brushstrokes, “zones of abstraction”, “active relationships between figure and ground”, very much in the manner that Greenberg described the high modernist works of the 50’s and 60’s. This refusal to take for granted the accepted wisdom about an artist –Schor’s insistence on writing about “what she thinks” is relevant rather than serving the dictates of the art market…to think about “the questions raised by artworks and events after their moment in the spectacle’s bright light”— is at the very heart of the book.
One of the brighter aspects of A Decade of Negative Thinking is the suggestion by Schor, as an artist herself, that certain artistic practices can counterbalance the postmodern Western commodity fixation. In the essay entitled “Modest Painting”, she describes this initially as a sharpening of our perception of images by amping down, rather than the standard ramping up. Schor makes small paintings that “don’t aspire to historical importance through physical domination of the viewer”, a genre-like designation that could consign the work to anonymity and the shadows, as any visit to a contemporary art gallery confirms. “Supersized” is the ticket to the enormous spaces of today’s most sought after museums. But contrary to the thinking that modesty does not connote a lack of painterly rigor or ambition, a modest work can demonstrate the artist’s interest in the painting itself rather than for his or her career. As she so cogently revealed in the Neel essay, one has to slow down to see the private and personal “which has fallen by the wayside of progress” usually to service the more pressing needs of the individual artist. Using the somewhat naïf-ly styled paintings of her father as an example she writes how they are steeped in authenticity with an ego present “only in the form of respect and tenderness” for his subjects. She provides “case histories” of modest painters, some of whom went on to great renown and others who remained minor players. Most were concerned “less about constructing a career through a signature style than about enjoying the act of painting and sharing that enjoyment with another artist.” They were just good paintings that were preoccupied with, among other things, un-selfconsciousness, the non-heroic, a “sense of justice and a search for truth in painting”. Painters like Jack Tworkov (about who Schor has also written a book) and Myron Stout embodied these qualities in their perception challenging, sensual, and profoundly thoughtful works. More recently modest painters like Tomma Abts and Thomas Nozkowski have found deserved success, their motives not to be mistaken with a current artworld fave, Luc Tuymans whose paintings in their overt lack of ambition, their “insipidness” and seeming mediocrity have tactically and strategically carved out a highly successful (and now imitated) niche. In constrast to the “pictorial searching” of the earlier modest painters, the current slacker doodle art, and calculated simulations and appropriations of the abject play to an artworld that is so dependent on art celebrity status, that modesty of that sort has become a pose of disaffection and futility, “a face put on the commodity to sell it.” Schor acknowledges that returning to “self consciously modest” painting can be seen as either the truest type of expression possible or might be surrendering any of its lingering importance to more spectacular media. In quoting from Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows: “Were it not for the shadows, there would be no beauty” Schor has us ponder the place and worth of sincere, personally motivated painting that runs the risk, as it did for Tworkov, of embracing the returns of a long term exploration of painting’s potentials as opposed to instant financial reward.
Certainly a culture that has been wholly constructed on the tenets of capitalism will continue to regard the attainment of monetary value as an important part of its overall value system. Part of a market system, however, is accepting that prices can fluctuate precipitously, so revering a work of art based on its current price is an impermanent and unstable way of deciding what we might want to keep looking at and talking about. Discourse—the written or spoken record of the actual experience of an artwork—determines how effectively the ideas and convictions embedded in an artwork historically shape culture itself. The counterinfluence of criticism on the market introduces and integrates multiple facets of perception into the validating process. As the art market continues to contract with the present economic crisis—a situation not obtaining when Schor’s essays were written-the lack of commercial options might increase the levels of noise and spectacle required to survive as an artist. Or it might, as Schor has invited us to do through her lively and incisive criticism, cause us to pause and consider that the unexamined artwork may not always be worth doing.