Monday, March 19, 2007

The Second Coming

Peter Schjeldahl cuts to the heart of the crisis of contemporary art in his review (not online) of the Robert Ryman exhibit at PaceWildenstein and the Comic Abstraction show at the MOMA in the March 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker.

What I love about Schjeldahl is his ability to take specific exhibits and make resounding observations about the general art scene. Talking about Ryman, he says

Ryman is a favorite of certain academic critics who, loyal to intellectual adventures of avant-garde art in the fifties and sixties, ignore most contemporary art and seem to mark time until a new development, or Second Coming, merits their engagement.

Schjeldahl justly points the finger at critics for some of the failure of contemporary art to have any impact on mainstream culture. Pollock had Clement Greenberg and De Kooning had Harold Rosenberg (and long before that, J.M.W. Turner had John Ruskin), but what critic today finds an artist and champions him to the public. Does this disengagement simply reflect the larger disengagement of our passionless, mindlessly mercantile society? In the 1950s, the U.S. government actually took an interest in promoting artists, albeit usually to show some superiority over the Russians. Could you imagine today's government doing something similar? Where is the critic willing to risk and engage?

But Schjeldahl also places blame on contemporary artists, judging Comic Abstraction to be

...a mite thin and forced... along with almost everything else of recent vintage in an art world where frenetic production has outrun any substantial supply line of ideas... What's lost... is a sense of risk at the frontiers of convention.

Paraphrasing Picasso, Schjeldahl sees contemporary artists as simply "mix[ing] and match[ing] stock elements, with ever less drama and with intensity dwindling away." The public's lack of enthusiasm (including, often, my own) for contemporary art is a product of poor critical championship joined with very little to champion.

But who will be the "messiah" of this Second Coming? And who will play the critical prophet to pave the way?

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