on criticism

too bad it’s not available via the web, but dave hickey has a witty, pretty great essay in the current Art in America. smart on recent artworld history, criticism in general, and the relationship of artworks to the marketplace. of course these days that last category is practically non-existent for literary works, i.e. there is no marketplace for it — but not the (current) point. (and anyway maybe we should be glad for it.) i don’t care particularly about the monetary value of a work, but hickey argues maybe i  should — because “the quality of an art object is directly proportional to the quantity of something that it gives to someone who belongs to some constituency of interest.” i had to read that sentence a couple of times, but if i read him generously as not saying that the best artworks are those that serve the lowest common denominator, then i think hickey’s saying not just that the value of art is socially defined — but that since it is you’re well-served to be environmentally-conscious of your particular art world’s biosphere… maybe i muddled that gloss — but the essay is worth picking up at the library or newsstand, the Feb 09 issue of Art in America, s’got a peyton on the cover… here’s a bit:

It’s not easy to revel in the twilight of one’s own relevance, but, these days, I look around and happily admit that no piece of art criticism written by me or anyone else contributed a whiff of pheromone to the fragrant panache that sustained the art world for nearly two decades as a market in luxury goods. Quality box office was quite sufficient to maintain your Ferraris, your ugly paintings and boring videos as objects of status and delectation. The fact that your Ferraris were less likely to be honored by a museum exhibition, a super gala and a spread in Town & Country made your luxury art all the more attractive as a social instrumentality, especially if you factored in the elevated levels of self-esteem derived from swanning around Sotheby’s waving your little paddle…

At first, some of cognoscenti reveled in this loss of transparency [in knowing the value of works of art]. It meant we knew and you didn’t. We got bargains. Occasionally, we could actually pass off good works of art as trendy objects. Eventually, though, many of my friends and colleagues who knew good from bad stopped caring, and after a decade or so of not caring, they didn’t know anymore, and, for a professional in the arts, the inability to tell good art from bad is a terminal condition. It’s no joke. Some works of art are demonstrably better than others, and, ultimately, it matters, because bad art disappears before our eyes. If you look and can’t see anything, there’s nothing there. It’s elevator music, hospital furniture, AM radio. There is, in fact, so much of this high-priced confetti in Chelsea these days that one must fear that the best galleries with the most honest prices will be the first to be undeservedly wiped out.

What I am suggesting is that the art world is going through its own version of the Wall Street meltdown. When things were moving fast on the Street, and money was being made, the complicated, time-consuming task of assessing the real value of complex financial instruments became an easy corner to cut, so it was cut. Then one morning, the markets opened and nobody knew what anything was worth…

All I can say is hold and pray, and, henceforth, apply the formula quality is quantity. The quality of an art object is directly proportional to the quantity of something that it gives to someone who belongs to some constituency of interest. Critics, scholars, collectors, dealers, curators, and decorators expect different things in different measures. The works of art that deliver the most stuff to the most people and serve the most complex consituences for the longest time are the very best ones. Period.

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…and a little bit from the believer interview that made me chuckle:

DH: Anyway, the art world is way too big right now. The art world I came up into was very much like the jazz world I grew up in, which is to say, a relatively small thing. If you got to go see Miles Davis in a little bar on La Brea, that was great, and you didn’t sit around saying, “There was no coverage in the New York Times! Miles is not going to get any reviews!” You know what I’m saying?

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