The (Declining) Power of Review by Jane Allen with a new introduction by Derek Guthrie

The quality of public discourse is the irrefutable evidence of the cultural health of the body politic. The following essay “The (Declining) Power of Review” written by Jane Addams Allen in 1981 documents the evolution and circumstances of critical writing that intertwined with the arrival and subsequent fate of the avant-garde as it became Americanized. Now, 30 years later, it is accepted that criticism has died. The implications are profound. ~ Derek Guthrie, July 2012


“The (Declining) Power of Review” by Jane Allen, November 1981 – – – Reprinted from the New Art Examiner and The Essential New Art Examiner

(The following was delivered as an invited lecture on October 2 at a symposium on “Criticism and Contemporary Art” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.)

When I first received the suggested topic of this talk in the mail, it distressed me. “The Power of Review.”—Somehow, it did not quite agree with the way I thought of myself. The “Power of Review” suggested something military to me. It called up the image of a cinematic sergeant striking fear into the hearts of a row of straggly conscripts.

As a critic, I did not envisage myself as a tough-minded professional soldier getting the troops in order. If anything, my view of myself as editor of the New Art Examiner has been rather anti-institutional—say the keeper of an underground railway station, helping runaway slaves escape from the domination of the plantation system. Decidedly, the title “The Power of the Review” did not appeal to me.

But then I thought, “this talk is not for me.” The mere fact that this is the topic reveals a good deal about the current state of the art world. This is the way critics are seen, and perhaps, I should examine the truth of that perception.

Certainly there are critics writing today who keep alive the military metaphor. Hilton Kramer of the New York Times is one, and with that paper’s vast circulation and influence he can afford to be more than military. I noticed in the catalogue for the Art of Our Time exhibition that curator I. Michael Danoff at one point makes a reference to on of Hilton Kramer’s articles, the title of which is, “The Best Paintings Jim Dine Has Yet Produced.” That’s not just a sergeant speaking. That’s the pope.

Most critics writing today have neither the power of Hilton Kramer nor, perhaps, even the inclination to acquire it. In fact, a growing number of critics want neither the perquisites nor the inconveniences of power. A few years back when I talked to Carrie Rickey, then an up-and-coming art critic who wrote for the Village Voice, she told me she never answered her phone because she could not stand the pressure from artists and dealers. Her phone number was unlisted, she said, but she still got 15 to 20 calls every evening. Since then, she has given up art writing and become a film critic.

The fact is there is a large discrepancy between the way critics are perceived and the way they perceive themselves. Most critics think of themselves as responsive intellectuals, coping as best they can with the plethora of material that the vastly extended art world presents to them. They attempt to keep faith with their won values, but also to evolve them in response to the evolving art they see around them. For the majority of critics, Lionello Venturi’s definition of criticism still holds true. He asks, “What is criticism if not a relationship between a principle of judgment and the intuition of a work of art
or of an artistic personality?”

This relationship is not always easy. Particularly in the twentieth-century, the critic had to be something of a masochist. In our era of the “tradition of the new,” the critic not only has his values continuously challenged by the individual work of art or by the outrageous assertions of the artists. He or she must embrace this challenge as part of the job.

As Leo Steinberg recently pointed out in a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, critics usually can only take this kind of punishment and integrate it into their critical value system for a limited number of years. By and large, new art demands new critics who can empathize with the artists because both are at approximately the same stage of emotional and intellectual development. Your developing Turners demand new Ruskins, your budding Delacroixs, new Baudelaires, who will not only sympathize with the new work, but will develop vocabularies and a world view to match it. This is criticism at its highest level, and it will continue to be the standard so long as we remain romantic in our conception of culture.

However, besides the dilemma of the romantic critic who rides the crest of the wave and then is thrust aside by the forces of history, critics today face other problems unique to the past decade. That is what I want to focus on—what happened in the seventies to undermine the self-confidence of critics vis-à-vis art and the art world and to erode their function as intermediaries between new art and the public.

In the 1930s and 1940s and even the early 1950s before the market for American art was developed, before art had acquired its current role as the last refuge of the entrepreneurial spirit, critical discussion took place in cultural and political arenas, not in the shadow of Wall Street. It is truly hard to imagine, but in 1939 when Clement Greenberg wrote his famous essay on the distinction between avant-garde and kitsch, the monetary value of the work of art did not enter into his argument. He assumed that avant-garde culture needed the patronage of the rich; the idea that the rich would get richer through the speculative promotion of avant-gardism never occurred to him at that time. In fact, he states flatly in the essay that “Capitalism in decline finds that whatever of quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence”. Good left rhetoric but poor prophecy.

Reminiscing later on, Greenberg said of the period when that article was written:

The artists I knew formed only a small part of the downtown art world, but appeared to be rather indifferent to what went on locally outside their immediate circle. Also, most of them stood apart from art politics if not from political politics. Worldly success seemed so remote as to be beside the point, and you did not even secretly envy those who had it. In 1938 and 1939, I was attending life classes run by the WPA, and when I thought of taking up painting seriously as I once half-hoped to do before I went to college, the highest reward I imagined was a private reputation of the kind Gorky and de Kooning then had, a reputation which did not seem to alleviate their poverty in the least.

Part of the attraction of Greenberg’s critical prose came precisely from his sublime confidence in the morality of him motivation, springing as it did from the intense discussions of a small group of friends, all equally poor. At the time there were no worldly rewards for writing as he did, and if a friend gave him a painting, he did not calculate its potential increase in value as opposed to real estate or money-market certificates.

A second source of Greenberg’s confidence came from his dependence on an already well-established European tradition introduced to this country in the Armory show of 1913, but virtually obliterated by American indifference and the Depression. By 1939, the European avant-garde had been in existence for half a century and had a recognized cast of heroes and a critical literature to support them.

Out of this originally disinterested commitment and the tradition of a social and cultural world view came the real moral and esthetic authority of Greenberg—and not just Greenberg. Rosenberg and Steinberg too, those other mountains of twentieth-century American criticism, carried the same disinterested authority. It became the norm for out expectations of criticism. Succeeding generations of critics during the sixties built on the critical language and tone of high moral seriousness established by these three.

The publication that most consciously capitalized on those expectations was Artforum. Its clean, sober format, in which the ads were rigorously separated from the editorial copy, the length of its articles, its preference for monographs all contributed to its air of authority. Founded in California during the early sixties, the magazine had the distinction of inflating critical currency to its highest degree in the late 1960s and then presiding over its collapse in 1976 when editors John Coplans and Max Kozloff were fired by the publisher, Charles Cowles.

If there ever was a time when the phrase “the power of review” applied, it was to Artforum in the late sixties. Power seemed literally to emanate from its shrewdly designed horizontal format, from the full-color reproduction on it cover, from the somber, pretentious fervor of its articles. I remember waiting for it each month to see what artist would be canonized on its cover, thumbing through the pages to look at the reproductions, putting off reading the formidable-looking prose. It was both supremely attractive and utterly repellent, and I was sure that its corruption fully matched the power and glamour it represented. Certainly, it seemed to represent a world completely inaccessible to me and to the artists I knew.

In his article “Ten Years Before the Artforum Masthead” printed in the February 1977 Examiner, Jack Burnham did a beautiful job of summing up the feelings of the regional artist in academia, which was precisely what I was:

Artforum vis-à-vis academia personified the perfect example of a Freudian love-hate relationship between parents and children. First it symbolized an almost omnipotent authority. It had taken a few dozen relatively young East Coast artists and had devoted incredible amounts of space and color reproductions to their work—something no other art magazine had done with the same éclat. It implied that New York City in the 1960s was the seat of an artistic revolution of considerable proportions. Artforum lionized the youthful artists in a way that dug at the core of each young artists fantasies for approval and love. And in the midst of all this youth-oriented egalitarianism Artforum generated a clannish in-group atmosphere of suffocating proportions. For the art student Artforum was the gate to nirvana, one that seemed incredibly inaccessible, if for no better reason that that it rarely conceded that artists outside New York were even worth reviewing.

But even at the time of Artforum’s apogee, doubts about the American critical enterprise were growing. I have mentioned my own skepticism. My colleagues and I in Chicago suspected that advertising played as great a role as quality in Artforum’s choice of artists to feature on the cover and that the yards of serious prose masked all sorts of financial and sexual liaisons. I think now that we were wrong or, at least, not as right as we thought we were. Our doubts were vague and unproven, and we were far from the center of power.

The internal doubts that wracked the critics of Artforum were more serious. In 1967, Max Kozloff, then contributing editor of Artforum (for which he still, incidentally, writes), made a plea for professionalization of the critic’s role. In retrospect, it seems prophetic. Cynically, he listed in Renderings the different kinds of activities that have been called criticism—daily journalism, partisanship for one’s friends, “riposte against change, discharge of vanity, occasion for philosophical theorizing, annunciation of the good and true, and erection of esthetic superstructures.” I can find nothing satisfactory in the format of any of this,” he said. And a little later, in his essay titled “Psychological Dynamics of Art Criticism in the Sixties,” came the real kicker. “It is sentimental to think of artists as friends, even if one is praising them, and it can be said that one has vested interests when devising, power systems of which works of art are the pawns.” What a devastating indictment! What a total dissolution of that cozy world of bohemian artists and intellectuals called up by Greenberg.

As Kozloff’s start assessment indicates, the convergence of critical power with market forces gradually eroded critical confidence. I think it is fair to say that the general anti-establishment fever that pervaded the country during the Vietnam and Watergate crises finished it off. Actually, it is still very difficult for me to writhe about the critical scene of the seventies with any detachment because I have such a stake in it. But I think that politics played a large role in the splintering of critical opinion, a far larger role than is usually accorded it by apostles of pluralism. The turn-off from the gallery/collector market system, which was seen as inextricably connected with the larger political and financial corruption, was very widespread. It was no accident that Coplans and Kozloff were fired as the result of the uproar they had caused with their frankly political attacks on the structure of museums and the way in which art was marketed.

It was a revolution—a non-violent and ultimately abortive revolution—but a revolution nonetheless. It took all sorts of forms and encompassed many shades of political opinion, but essentially it functioned as a massive withdrawal of spirit and energy from what had hitherto been called the mainstream of American art and the market system which supported it. The seventies was a decade obsessed by corruption of the human spirit and by pollution of the landscape. Often the latter becoming a metaphor for the former.

Some art critics, such as Jack Burnham and Douglas Davis, supported art that sought to redeem the human soul from its state of alienation through various forms of non-static art, performance, video, body art and the like. The artist was to play the role of shaman to society’s psychic ills. Others, such as Lucy Lippard, found redemption through feminism. Still others, such as Max Kozloff, Rosalind Krauss, and Susan Sontag, took refuge in consideration of the, as yet, untainted resources of photography. There was a virtual explosion of new publications, regional, political, esthetic and aritst-initiated, all claiming to bypass the corrupt ties between advertising and editorial copy in the New York glossies.

In the general attack on hierarchical values and claims to authority, the very act of writing criticism itself became suspect. John Cage , a major cultural influence in the seventies, told critics they were wasting their time. The best criticism, he said, would be to do your own work.

Even New York Times critics were not immune to the general frenzy of agonizing reappraisal. In 1977, Peter Schjeldahl, now critic for the Village Voice, read a poem to members of the Society of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, a fragment of which I would like to repeat here:

……What’s ghastly
is that on occasion I mistook my hand-me down taste
for the light of election, and poured ink on the worthy.
I still blush, hotly for those occasions,
yearning for a large bomb fall, directly on my head.
Like that supercilious dismissal of Baziotes—horrible!
And Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, for God’s sake, I patronized
your venerable ghost! And Susan Crile, estimable painter,
what full moon was shining when I sat down to review you?
Also Stanford University and redoubtable scholar Albert Elsen,
I sneered at your splendid museum,
behaving just like a paranoid’s dream of a New York chauvinist,
oh shame! James Brooks, you didn’t complain
those years ago, but even today you could flay me a look.
Jim Dine, how could I, and Joan Snyder, how could I
denigrate your indubitable value in the (unpronounced) name
of (non-existent) standards of acceptability?
Richard Hamilton, where did I get off
welcoming you to America in that disgraceful fashion?
and Gio Pomodoro, though you never will be to my taste,
that was no excuse for behaving like a fat-mouthed provincial!
All these atrocities in the Sunday Times, Each in a million copies
just whizzing off the presses, fanning out over the land
alighting in libraries-microfilm; oh God!!!
unkillable and infamous words! Just let me
take this knife and…

—New Art Examiner, June 1977

You might have thought from the forgoing description that during this period of avant-gardist retrenchment, critical doubt, and rejection of crass market values that the art market would shrink.

If you did, you would be mistaken. In fact, it went through an unprecedented expansion. Not just in New York, but in Chicago, Houston, St. Louis, and in Washington, D.C. The number of galleries doubled and tripled. With them tripled the number of advertising dollars available for art publications and the number of art writers publishing.

There are two main reasons for the expansion of the art world in the seventies. One has to do with a great deal of pump-priming by the National Endowment for the Arts. I heard a figure the other day which put this into focus for me. During his five year tenure as director of the Visual Arts Program, James Melchert dispensed 27 million dollars on various visual arts programs and projects. By comparison with military expenditure it’s nothing. By comparison with public monies spent on the arts in the previous decades, it’s a lot. A good deal of this money, as much of it as Melchert could manage, went to the support of contemporary art and artists.

Now Melchert, along with many others, was interested in promoting alternative (i.e. non-market) systems for the support of contemporary art. He funded “alternatives” (non-profit galleries, such as N.A.M.E., Washington Project for the arts, and P.S.I, and non-profit publications such as the New Art Examiner and Afterimage), he gave out millions in small and large artists’ fellowships, he encouraged schools and universities to establish visiting artists’ programs, to build galleries and to start exhibition programs. He also encouraged museums to increase the number of exhibitions devoted to contemporary art and to set aside special areas for the informal exhibition of experimental art by younger artists.

The strange effect of all this was to build up a service industry and an audience for art that fed directly into the market system. The more money was poured into alternatives and non-profits, the more the market boomed. (Perhaps Reagan should study this phenomenon.)

However, there was another less quixotic reason for a booming art market. The seventies was the decade in which the public at large suddenly realized the profitability of collecting. At the beginning of the decade, a landmark was the much publicized Robert Scull auction in which Rauschenberg saw paintings which he had sold to the collector for a few hundred dollars sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Wall Street Journal began to tout art as an investment, a hedge against inflation. Collectors’ clubs at museums proliferated.

Now here is the interesting point I’d like to make. Do these collectors clubs invite critics to talk to them about art and to advise them on choices? Occasionally. But much more frequent choices of speakers are dealers and curators, for very practical reasons. Particularly in areas outside of New York, dealers and curators are in a much better position to predict future swings in the art market. They know what major exhibitions being planned in museums across the country would enhance the value of certain artists’ work. They know what the hot numbers are in the New York and European markets.

There’s no question that the “power of review” still exits. Young artists are still desperate for that first review that will recognize their existence in the art world. Middle-aged artists still tend to measure their success in terms of the number of pages devoted to their work in New York publications.

However, the game has fundamentally changed. Dealers no longer need the intermediary critic to sell new work to a reluctant public. In the heated-up market of present-day New York, shows sell out before the critic has time to lift his pen, sometimes even before the show opens. The consumer, not the critic is king.

It seems to me that critics have not yet caught up with this situation, so different from the fifties and sixties when critics manned the front lines and were the last authority on the “significance” of a work of art. We are still sorting it out, still trying to understand what it means, and trying to maintain our belief in the intrinsic spiritual value of art, while recognizing that the market forces are far more potent persuaders than our words.

Perhaps, however, this turnabout is a blessing in disguise. In many respects, the era of the omnipotent critic was an historical aberration, a function of America’s long-deferred reception of modernist art. When Greenberg began writing, he had no institutional or financial support, but he had behind him a half century of tradition. He conceived as his mission the selling of his own unique interpretation of modernism to the American public, and he was spectacularly successful in doing so.

Critics now have been relieved of the necessity of selling contemporary art. It is being done more effectively elsewhere. They have time now to thin, to observe, even to criticize, to look at the whole of society and the relationship of the visual arts to it and to reform their ideas. One might say that the critic/intellectual has landed right back down at the base of the art-world pyramid along with the artists. And perhaps that’s where the critic belongs.