Art Criticism in Crisis? James Elkins Studies the Evidence

It’s a bit daunting to sit down and review What Happened to Art Criticism? , a slim book by James Elkins that has recently undergone a second printing by Prickly Paradigm Press. Not because Mr. Elkins considers art criticism “very nearly dead” as a literary discipline. (There isn’t a critic alive who hasn’t, at one point or another, voiced a similar sentiment.) It’s because Mr. Elkins is an uncommonly attentive reader. Throughout the book, he patiently and, at times, lovingly dissects the writing of a variety of contemporary critics, gauging the nuances of each adjective, metaphor and semicolon. Knowing that Mr. Elkins may be in the vicinity will compel any writer to firm up his craft-and watch his back.

Mr. Elkins also reads widely and deeply. Though What Happened to Art Criticism? encompasses only the last 50 years (its focus being the here and now), Mr. Elkins’ analysis is bolstered by an intimate knowledge of the history of art criticism-which figures, given that he is the chairman of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago. The 18th-century philosopher Denis Diderot (“effectively the foundation of art criticism”), the French poet Charles Baudelaire, the English critic Roger Fry and “the stubbornly conservative” Royal Cortissoz, critic for The New York Tribune at the turn of the last century, have the same immediacy for Mr. Elkins as Janis Demkiw, a Canadian artist who wrote “play-pretend” cultural criticism for Lola magazine, and, closer to home, Jerry Saltz of The Village Voice and The New Yorker ‘s Peter Schjeldahl. For Mr. Elkins, art criticism is a continuum of voices speaking to (and against) each other over time.

How vital that continuum is, or has become, is another matter. “Art criticism is in worldwide crisis,” Mr. Elkins’ treatise opens. He describes art criticism as “diaphanous … like a veil, floating in the breeze of cultural conversations and never quite settling anywhere.” At the same time, he writes that “[a]rt criticism is also healthier than ever … business is booming: it attracts an enormous number of writers.” According to Mr. Elkins, art criticism is so healthy, in fact, that it’s “outstripping its readers-there is more of it around than anyone can read.” Enumerating the dizzying amount of venues for art writing-art-scene organs like Art in America and Artforum ; a “blur” of glossy art magazines like Tema Celeste and Modern Painters ; gallery catalogs and brochures; newspapers; the Internet-Mr. Elkins rues its general lack of character, ambition and (most notably) opinion.

The infamous survey of art critics conducted in 2002 by the Columbia University National Arts Journalism Program was hardly surprising to Mr. Elkins-“infamous” because the survey’s findings confirmed what had long been obvious to devotees of the field: that aesthetic evaluation has become the least important and desirable component of a critic’s job. “In the last three or four decades,” Mr. Elkins writes, “critics have begun to avoid judgments altogether, preferring to describe or evoke the art rather than say what they think of it.” The turn away from an “engaged, passionate, historically informed practice” is “an amazing reversal, as astonishing as if physicists had declared they would no longer try to understand the universe, but just appreciate it.”

Mr. Elkins likens contemporary art criticism to a hydra with seven heads, each with its own particular (though not exclusive) set of characteristics; these include the catalog essay, the academic treatise, cultural criticism, the conservative harangue, the philosopher’s essay, descriptive art criticism and poetic art criticism. Mr. Elkins has sharp things to say about each category.

There are, he explains, “compelling reasons to be wary of tapestries woven of recondite allusions”-this observation coming on the heels of a discussion of the “collaged succession of interpretive methods” as practiced by Rosalind Krauss, a model of academic criticism. Arthur Danto, art critic for The Nation and practitioner of the philosopher’s essay, is on the receiving end of Mr. Elkins’ shots, too. After reiterating Mr. Danto’s well-known thesis-that the history of art ended in 1963 with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes -Mr. Elkins dubs Mr. Danto’s criticism ” illegible ” [italics in the original]: “He asks only that readers no longer take his art criticism as having historical force or interpretive power above or below any other critic’s efforts-but how can that be anything other than wishful thinking?”

How much you agree with Mr. Elkins’ commentary depends, to an extent, on whose ox is being gored. The ox most worthy of goring is descriptive art criticism. Of all the hydra’s heads, it is the one that takes up most of his time and energy: “Art writing that attempts not to judge, and yet presents itself as criticism, is one of the fascinating paradoxes of the second half of the twentieth century.” Mr. Elkins traces it to an array of causes-from the art market’s need for hyperbole to the “institutional critique” typical of the radicals-for-life at the journal October , to the ongoing vilification of Clement Greenberg-and offers analysis of its proponents, among them Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times : “The new non-judgmental writing can be pleasant, but too often the pleasure comes from having escaped from the burden of historical judgment.” This sentence fits Mr. Kimmelman to a T.

Mr. Elkins offers a set of guidelines for the rehabilitation of art criticism under the heading of “Seven Unworkable Cures”-a title that provides a clue as to where What Happened to Art Criticism? comes up short. Mr. Elkins is good at hashing out ideas, exploring their every facet, their failings and their benefits. He loves questions as well, savoring the possibilities inherent in merely asking them; the trouble is, he doesn’t much like to provide an answer . Early on, he poses two good questions: “First: does it make sense to talk about art criticism as a single practice, or is it a number of different activities with different goals? And second: does it make sense to reform criticism?”

The answers to the first question are, for all intents and purposes, “not really” and “kind of.” (You can almost hear the rustling of Mr. Elkins’ shirt as he shrugs his shoulders). The answer to the second question is-well, let’s let him speak for himself: “I do not think it is necessarily a good idea to reform criticism: what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment, and the attraction of description.”

Understanding is all to the good, of course, but sometimes a writer needs to take a stand or get off the pot.

Mr. Elkins’ anticlimactic conclusion comes on page 80 of an 86-page book. He goes on to proffer three qualities that “most engage” him in contemporary art criticism: “ambitious judgment,” “reflection about judgment itself” and “criticism important enough to count as history, and vice-versa.” By this point, the reader is beyond caring what Mr. Elkins thinks. His fair-mindedness-beyond-the-call-of-duty puts in mind the old line about newspaper editors preferring one-handed writers-the less capable a writer is of considering the other hand, the more likely he is to get to the point. Mr. Elkins gets to the point- What Happened to Art Criticism? is full of them. But what he believes in, I don’t know. He prefers chasing his own tail to figuring out which end of the dog will lead him out of the intellectual rut he’s dug himself into. And yet anyone who cares about art criticism will buy Mr. Elkins’ book and read it hungrily, after which it will be put on the shelf, remembered primarily for talking the talk but not walking the walk.