e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

Robert Storr rips apart every living art critic (and some dead ones, too)

Robert Storr, image via Observer

Former Venice Biennale curator and current Yale MFA dean Robert Storr visited Yale Radio, WYBC last week, and spoke with Brainard Carey about what he perceives to be a crisis in art criticism, the longevity of artist careers, and his future career plans, among other things. While Storr comes off a bit cantankerous, his critical approach is pretty refreshing, especially considering people with this much insider information about their established colleagues are more reserved. Check out a portion of the talk transcription below, and listen to the full conversation on WYBC.

Brainard: I think I’d like to jump into the role of the critic. I’ve interviewed the late Arthur Danto, Barry Schwabsky, Dave Hickey – they all have a pretty varying idea of what it is that a critic does. What’s your perspective on that, here and in this context.

Robert : I think there are many different genres of criticism for starters and there are different audiences for criticism. And I think the first choice a writer who wants to write about art has to do is decide for whom or about what they would like to write because there’s no one size fits all definition of what a critic does. Arthur Danto was basically a philosopher who wandered into criticism because his wife was an artist, and he was interested in the visual arts. He was intermittently a very good critic and often really way off base because of the undertow of philosophy and the desire to make sweeping statements, that was just too great to resist. Dave Hickey is a very able essay writer who is actually not a very good art critic at all and has devolved from being interestingly, a spoiler in the context of the art world, to being a tea partier, basically. He mobilizes resentment against arts and he mobilizes people’s sense that it’s all a rigged game and plays off on that to give himself a reputation as an outsider but he’s an outsider with a PhD in English literature. He is not a tough Texan - he’s a kid from Fort Worth and he’s created this persona which is actually an artfully constructed persona, but he’s not at all what he pretends to be. He loves to go after academics and curators and assume that they’re all, you know, sold out and so on but he’s the guy with the PhD, not me. And he’s the guy who has advised Steve Winn and he’s not known as a great Medici. And in the meantime, he’s actually not very good about art. He wrote a whole long essay about Larry Pittman without mentioning Larry is half Hispanic and gay, which is an awfully big thing to miss when you look at the work. So he’s another type.

Barry Schwabsky is a poet and a successful poet, a good poet. I would say he belongs to sort of belletristic type of criticism and he’s terrific. At least he’s written nice things about me so what can I say? I mean as a painter, but you know, there are all kinds of critics there.

The theoreticians Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, and so on. I think they have a lot of problems as does Dave Hickey with actual art history. They know almost none. They’re technically art historians academically but they know very little art history. They’ve done very little primary research. They don’t know history very well because they read theory about history but they don’t read history. So they will write articles predicated on certain sweeping generalizations about the 1930’s in Europe and then apply them without any adjustments to circumstances which are not those. I admire all of the Frankfurt people but I don’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt school in contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody. That’s called being a critic of critics!

Brainard: I like that. I think, understanding the different roles to a lot of people is helpful. And then there’s someone like Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith.

Robert: Jerry is appalling. He’s the class clown. He was somebody I’ve known a long time since Chicago days and he’s turned into a travesty even of a travesty. And the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world and at the same time playing a game of the art TV show that he did - and that he should be championing women and then dissing the first African-American woman curator to do Site Santa Fe. All these things are about Jerry, long and short. And about Roberta, it’s all about Roberta, long and short- and it’s too bad because they are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness but there are no principals, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.

Brainard: And how does that figure in with the whole, these other schools of criticism? I mean, Jerry, he’s also achieved this popularity that’s…

Robert: He’s playing to the peanut gallery. He’s playing to an audience that actually doesn’t know about art, that doesn’t really like art. Roberta’s the same way. I mean, she’s writing for New York Times and she’s writing insider writing for outsiders. If you read her criticism carefully and I have for very a long time, she’s constantly playing into myriad battles about the art world - who’s in, who’s out and who she has a grudge against- but she’s publishing it as if it was information that everybody needed to know, does know, etc. which it’s not. If she should write about the art right in front of her, if she would suspend her own sense of self importance long enough to really give more attention to the complexities of being an artist she’d write better, and Jerry the same.

Brainard: But that’s not going happen because that’s part of how they are…

Robert: Because they get paid for it.

Brainard: I suppose that has something to do where journalism about art is at the moment.

Robert: Journalism now is at the lowest it has ever been. There was a time in the 50’s when you had Greenberg who was an empire builder but a very gifted one, Fairfield Porter, Donald Judd. Bob Morris. A lot of people were writing a lot of stuff that is still worth reading, you know, and I can’t imagine how much of this stuff anybody will read ten years now. Mostly, you can’t read it a week after it’s published.

Brainard: And why is that? What’s happening? Is it kind of the dumbing down of journalism? I was talking to a reporter not along ago who was saying everything is about comments now. How many comments can you get in an article, and the way that you get comments is by saying something inflammatory, so has this affected the art world, too and critics alike?

Robert: Totally, it is like, critics have gotten confused about the issue of what their role is. I mean, they’re there not just to admire or just to observe but they’re there to weigh and think and look better than the average person in order that the average person be tested and do it better themselves, right? So if you set a model of what it means to look hard at something, think a while about it before you open your mouth, and then articulate it carefully - you will have done your job as a critic and then you can write about anything you want. There are many critics I read who I disagree with fundamentally but I always learn from them. But this is about instant response. It’s about the number of likes you get on your Facebook page. It’s all about the ego popularity presence of the critic. And frankly, none of these people, are interesting enough to really merit being a presence overall.

Dave Hickey is basically Dennis Miller – his cocksure obtuseness and endless string of obscure references juxtaposed against some pop item was once entertaining and funny. Now he is just a sad old man using what is left of his wit to ostensibly lampoon some contemporary hipster, but he is really lampooning himself and defending an outmoded, mean and rearguard world view.

Having said that, poor Robert ought to think about “fighting long term battles” that actually matter, rather than fighting to preserve all the tired hierarchies of an art world suspended in amber.

1 Like

In the Facebook comments for this post, art critic Gilda Williams also said that Storr’s arguments felt Jurassic. She linked to an article she wrote on the so-called “crisis in art criticism” being over in Art Monthly, available here.