Friday, May 9, 2008

Watch What You Say

I’ve been meaning for a while to respond to a post written by TIME Magazine art critic Richard Lacayo on the sorry state of writing on art, spawned specifically by several doozies cooked up by the curators of this year’s Whitney Biennal. “Why is so much curatorial writing so dreadful? Why is it so clogged with the decrepit formulations of academic artspeak? Why does so much of it sound like it was written by an anxious schoolkid delivering a labored term paper?” Lacayo asks before going on to blame Deconstruction, Cultural Studies, and the other critical philosophies prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, when said curators were learning their craft. Lacayo modestly proposes a moratorium on his top five “artspeak” catch phrases: Interrogates, Problematizes, References (as a verb), Transgressive, and Inverts.

Reading Lacayo’s lament brought back memories of my own days in graduate school in the 1990s, surrounded by the ghosts of French philosophy’s past: Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and, perhaps most menacingly, Michel Foucault (shown above, pontificating). If you tried to do “straight” criticism—just you and the text, with some historical context—you found yourself left behind. The closest you could get to that was some flavor of New Historicism, usually a pale imitation of Stephen Greenblatt, who himself usually channeled Foucault. I’ll admit that I played along and actually found Foucault to be useful when delving into texts that were sexually charged or dealt with issues of control and submission. Herman Melville’s Pierre, to give one memorable example, really resonated with me when I finally decoded Foucault’s ideas for myself to the point that I could apply them to other texts. Although some critics argue that ALL texts involve control and submission, I found that Foucault couldn’t be applied to everything, but that never stopped some of my colleagues from stretching the Frenchman and his philosophy like so much deconstructionist Silly Putty until their arguments grew so thin as to fall apart. That gamesmanship and its willful impracticality turned me off from pursuing a doctorate and teaching. I was old school in wanting to find some meaning in the texts rather than juggle them like playthings for higher academic standing and eventual tenure.

As I write this blog, I try to avoid the heavy philosophy except when I think it’s relevant and enlightening. Sometimes Foucault can breathe life into a text or a painting. The key is to accept Foucault and any other philosophy as tools and nothing else. The people who have only one philosophical tool in their toolbox are one-dimensional. If all you have is a hammer, the whole world starts to look like a nail. If all you know is Foucault, everything starts to look like a bondage narrative.

I had a good chuckle at Lacayo’s list of his top five catchwords. On one hand, I understand the need to use certain terms as shorthand, or else you’d always be defining your terms over and over. I try to link to definitions of such terms in my own blog as much as possible. However, some people never define their terms, hiding their own intellectual laziness behind the catchwords they’ve picked up along the way, building up a façade of fancy lingo to cover over the emptiness of their thought. That’s where Lacayo’s “anxious schoolkid delivering a labored term paper” appears in the hallowed halls of museums and universities disguised as curators and academics. That laboring comes from having nothing to say when it’s your job to have something to say. The next time you find yourself laboring over some opaque text, rather than automatically assuming that you’re missing something, stand back and ask if there’s truly anything worth reading there. You’ll be surprised at the results. I’ve always promised myself that if I started writing something and found myself laboring at it, I’d step back and ask myself the same question. If it wasn’t saying anything, it wasn’t worth writing (or reading). That’s called “editing,” which is the true essence of writing. If there were a little more editing in the art history world (and all of academia and, for that matter, the entire endless stream of communication in the world today), there’d be a lot more worth reading and a lot less sound and fury, signifying nothing.


Anonymous said...

My sentiments exactly - thanks for the validation. Ironically, I'd just read this great interview of Richard Schiff on criticism and theory - if you've not seen it, you may be interested:

Thanks, as always, for the intellectual stimulation.
Lisa in Reading.

Sally Big Woods said...

Don't worry, Bob, you're doing great!

I was in college at the same time you were in grad school, and it was more than a little frustrating hitting the wall of po-mo all around me. You appear to have come out the other side unscathed.

Sally in Philly

Bob said...

Thanks for the link, Lisa. I'm going to see if I can score a review copy of his book "Doubt."

Thanks for the affirmation, Sally. Sounds like you're a survivor, too.


Anonymous said...

Have you read T.J. Clark's The Sight of Death? Interesting that he of all people has made the plea to return to the object as the focus of art history, rather than art history as the study of social constructs with the object as evidence first and art a distant second.

Bob said...

Yes, I have read T.J. Clark's Sight of Death, and even wrote a post about it:

I agree that Clark's an unlikely suspect for a "return to reason" in the critical world, but I think that he recognized the need for some relevance in the art world in response to current world events.

Thanks for reading and commenting!