That artists often despise critics (except, of course, the critics who praise them) is an old story. Yet it is a rarity for artists to strike back by ridiculing their critics in a painting or sculpture or some other work of art. It is not entirely unknown, however. In this century, Arthur C. Dove’s The Critic (1925), a collage that hilariously satirizes Royal Cortissoz, the famously reactionary critic of the old New York Herald-Tribune , is probably the best-known example. Yet such attempts at artistic retribution are still so rare that when an ambitious effort in that direction turns up on the current scene it is bound to command our attention.
About the ambition and passion-especially the passion of resentment-that the American artist Benny Andrews has brought to the recent paintings and drawings that comprise The Critic Series and a Musical Interlude , which is currently on exhibition at the ACA Galleries, there can be little doubt. This is an art born of a pent-up sense of grievance, and explicitly designed to even old scores. (Mr. Andrews will be 70 next year.) Yet, given the level of feeling involved, the result is remarkably cool. Too cool, perhaps, and certainly too gentle and too eager to be admired, for the work to wholly succeed as wounding criticism. For while these paintings and drawings are certain to be very entertaining for anyone who closely monitors the follies and fetishisms of the contemporary art scene, they are anything but shocking. This is not the kind of satire that goes for the jugular.
Part of the problem may stem from the artist’s decision to avoid specific, recognizable personalities in these satires. “These are not portraits of particular critics,” Mr. Andrews writes in a statement about the show, “but rather ‘generic’ bullies, snobs, gossips, racists and sexists.” Yet satire that settles for generic targets of abuse sets a distinct limit on what it can accomplish as criticism. It leaves to the viewer the task of matching the type to some immediately recognizable counterpart in the real world. And it isn’t as if the real art world of the 1990′s doesn’t abound in suitable subjects for satire-or, for that matter, that apostles of politically correct ideas about racism and sexism ought not to be included among them.
While Mr. Andrews sets the scene for his satires in the current art world, the frame of reference he brings to them is historical, and the history isn’t always reliable. That, too, has the effect of blunting the work’s critical edge. The only critic he cites as “exemplary” is the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire, who was indeed a great critic. But he wasn’t the kind of critic Mr. Andrews thinks he was. (For one thing, he paid little attention to the most innovative painters of his own time.) Baudelaire’s praise of Delacroix, who belonged to an earlier generation, is what Mr. Andrews especially admires, and what artist wouldn’t envy the praise that Baudelaire lavished on Delacroix? “M. Delacroix is decidedly the most original painter of both ancient and modern times,” wrote Baudelaire in his essay, “The Salon of 1845.” Never mind that this hyperbole wasn’t entirely true. Great as Delacroix undoubtedly was, he was certainly not the “most original painter” in the history of the world, and no one knew that better than Delacroix himself. It doesn’t help matters, either, that Baudelaire’s name is misspelled in every single reference that is made to it.
Baudelaire nonetheless figures prominently in the biggest painting in the show, the 1998 Judgment for Baudalaire [sic], in which we observe a realistic bust of the poet, who in this depiction looks either drunk or asleep or suffering from an overdose, set on a pedestal in the corner of a grotesquely antiseptic contemporary art gallery. In the foreground, a couple of art critics, a man and a woman, neither of them very attractive, are both taking notes on the same painting. The woman has a pet serpent protruding from the briefcase that is tucked under her left arm; the gent is distinguished by what I take to be donkey’s ears and remarkably bad taste in his choice of wardrobe. (We are not into deep subtlety here.) The same unlovely, note-taking couple also turn up in a smaller painting called-what else?- Predators (1998).
Michelangelo is another of Mr. Andrews’ heroes, and the big picture that is named for him, Interior/Exterior (For Michelangelo) (1998), is my own favorite in the show. For one thing, the areas of the picture that are meant to evoke Michelangelo’s pictorial style contain some of the best examples of pure painting to be seen in this series. Mr. Andrews’ standard practice of combining oil paint with fabric collage on canvas tends to produce a pictorial surface that I find highly rebarbative. This is not inappropriate, to be sure, when the main purpose of the picture is satirical. But when it isn’t, when the artist is depicting subjects he loves-as he does in the Musical Interlude pictures that are also on view at ACA-that same rebarbative surface seems very much at odds with the sympathetic feeling the work is meant to convey.
Another thing that makes Interior/Exterior (For Michelangelo) an interesting picture, however, is the bold contrast it makes between the heroic painting of the past and the kind of debased painting that is so chic today. In this picture, the note-taking critics have their backs turned on the great painting of the past in order to scrutinize an overscale contemporary painting of women’s underwear hanging on a clothesline. Does this make the picture sound a little like an old New Yorker cartoon? Well, all of the paintings in The Critic Series have a cartoonlike character, but that is inevitable in satirical painting of this persuasion.
What is sometimes more of a problem is to know who or what is being satirized. In the Michelangelo picture, for example, the critics are minor characters. The principal focus is on that stupid painting of women’s underwear, other versions of which turn up elsewhere in the show. In other words, it is the contemporary artist, not the critics, that is the object of satire. Similarly, in the pictures named for the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin, it is the artist who paints underwear that is under attack. There are times when Mr. Andrews’ real grievance is with the painters who are painting such junk. But it wouldn’t do, I suppose, to devote a show to satirizing one’s fellow artists. Blaming “generic” critics is a lot less risky.
If Mr. Andrews plans to continue on with The Critic Series , I have a suggestion to make: Forget about Baudelaire on Delacroix and turn instead to the essay by Baudelaire called “Of the Essence of Laughter, and Generally of the Comic in the Plastic Arts,” especially the passage that speaks of “a backward effort of mind which produces what is called ‘pastiche.’” It might also be worth pondering why, in the history of modern pictorial satire, Arthur Dove’s The Critic remains unrivaled.
The Critic Series remains on view at the ACA Galleries, 41 East 57th Street, through Feb. 27.