Art Criticism in Chicago – Dazed and Confused. A review of the panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute on November 22, 2011 by Diane Thodos

I came to the auditorium at 112 S. Michigan with high hopes for an engaged debate on art criticism in Chicago and expected a lively discussion about the recent book The Essential New Art Examiner – a republication of seminal essays from the Chicago-based magazine which began in 1974 and ended in 2002. I had been a writer for the New Art Examiner in the late 90s until its demise and was rather itching for a conversation. But this was not to be. There were glints of subjects that could have sparked rich topics of conversation – Jim Yood the moderator had started out by saying the NAE had “challenged authority and power” – but for the most part the panel proved that art criticism in Chicago does nothing of the sort today, and worse still would simply have no idea of what this meant. As far as the conversation went the pot never got to simmering let alone boiling.

For me this is a rather sad state of affairs. I had to wonder how the “elephant” in the room – major issues surrounding art world power, control and impenetrable art theory – remained invisible to most of the seven panelists. What seemed more visible were the “emperor’s new clothes” – art writing that responded to the kind of and inbred art world thinking that pours out of art schools like SAIC. This is the situation that has displaced critical consciousness and inquiry. Perhaps I was wrong to be surprised considering the style of the media and blog-based writing reflected by most of panelists– Jason Foumberg of New City, Abraham Ritchie and Steve Ruiz of Artslant.com and Lori Waxman of the Chicago Tribune.

In saying so I do not wish to overlook the considerable efforts of two of the panelists – Kathryn Born and Terri Griffith- who do not profess art world training but whose indispensable efforts brought the recent Essential New Art Examiner into existence. Students in art departments all over the country retained their old copies of the NAE because they got dynamic art discussions and answers which they could not find on the pages of Artforum or Art in America. We live in a time of commercial and institutional – dare I say corporate – influence which makes independent structures with alternative points of view, like the NAE had once offered, rare and valuable particularly today. Creating the new book is an important step in sustaining this value. One of the panelists, the former NAE editor Ann Wiens, was thorough in discussing the particular 1980s art world background she came from. She was interested in bringing in “lots of peoples points of views” to the NAE and mentioned the time she spent working with the New York art critic Donald Kuspit. Her answers to questions were well grounded and brought a sense of Chicago art history that was useful, stressing the magazine’s importance to the city as the only source “chronicling the work being made at the time “and “interested people who mattered in our community.”

Aside from this most of the discussion was lost in space. I could not grasp the basis out of which most of the panelists interpreted art, and perhaps this is because they write for media formats and publications that don’t demand it. There was the sense that the younger writers are looking for answers but do not know where to find them. In an art world lacking critical consciousness and suffering from amnesia about its history it’s easy for writers to cling to self-reference and the centralizing mechanisms of the mass media. This makes the art world boring and complacent. Plenty of descriptive art writing abounds, but there is no stabilizing force which allows coherent meanings or interpretations to emerge. I could not discern how these writers linked art with human experience or life outside of the artist’s self-proclaimed intentions. Most of the writers on the panel had started their careers after the NAE had disappeared, which goes some way in explaining the loss of a “center” for the discussion of art in Chicago. The NAE was a “town square” to use Ann Wiens’ metaphor, where artists could meet and discuss – it was a focal point for debate. Jim Yood as moderator was talkative and humorous, but his questions offered no real challenges or issues of controversy. Conversation was mostly anecdotal and nostalgic, ever cycling around details of the New Art Examiner’s past without hitting any target of deeper interest or sparking debate. Finally things came to life during the question and answer session by a few older members of the audience. One question brought up discussion of the time when Kathryn Hixson, the last editor of the New Art Examiner, had mismanaged the magazine to the point of bankruptcy and how this continues to remain a sore spot for many who knew how important the magazine was to Chicago’s ever-fragile art infrastructure. The NAE was originally created as a bulwark against censorship “without fear or favor.” In its last days it looked more like an imitation of Artforum.

I was alarmed by the incuriousness of the panel as well as the SAIC students in the audience. The narcissistic attitudes of artists have been deeply inbred by countless art programs over the past 30 years. This has lead, for the most part, to a fairly uncritical acceptance of what is being taught. Donald Kuspit once said we have gone beyond self-censorship to self-ignorance, which makes for quite an Orwellian situation. The framework of power over what is considered art – disseminated from art school to gallery to museum – is effective because it is invisible. For all of the contemporary art world’s claim to being “liberal” and “progressive” it is deeply conservative at heart, and the panel discussion was point in case. Yes the doors to the auditorium were open, but in a sense the public was not really invited. We live in an art world – I would call it a “post-art” world – where meaningful human content and experience is ignored and where the purveyors of culture don’t seem to know the difference and couldn’t care less. That is the real crisis.

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She has written for The New Art Examiner Art on Paper, and Dialogue magazine among others. She currently writes for Artcritical.com and Neotericart.com and has written numerous artist catalogue essays. She is a 2002 recipiant of a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant and had a 2009 retrospective at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago in 2009. She is represented by The Kouros Gallery in New York City where she exhibited in 2011. The Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago, the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, and the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City also represent her.