We the priesthood?

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What purpose does art writing serve?—a self-reflexive question for this forum to be sure; yet we can’t fail to notice that it is one begged again and again by cultural critics who every once in a while decide to turn their attentions to our modest yet flashy corner of the industry. But what to do when the swipes come from within our ranks? During an otherwise favorable review of Arthur Danto’s Unnatural Wonders from a few weeks ago, Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times, had this to say:

A system so needful of interpreters surely lays contemporary art, its makers and consumers open to the same abuse as medieval Catholicism, when an ignorant congregation depended on a substantial class of (mostly self-serving) priests and pardoners as intermediaries to the confusing, elusive concept of God…[Commentaries on art] are written by today’s priests and pardoners, each carrying a mix of truth-seeking, vanity, ambition and the conviction that their own big idea is the route to aesthetic understanding.

What are we to make of this? To my own ear, this dismissal echoes the sentiments of the “anti-theory” crowd which grew very vocal in the 1990s. But is it more than this? Why, for example, does it always seem to be writing about art, and contemporary art in particular, that is singled out? Why must art be more popular or, to push the point, more “lay” than either science or philosophy, the two disciplines with which it undoubtedly shares a genuine creative impulse? Or to push it even further: Is this a call for evangelical aestheticism?–i.e. the only way to true “aesthetic understanding” is through one’s own personal relationship with art?

3 thoughts on “We the priesthood?”

  1. Have we traveled some distance since Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg spoke from on high to an uncomprehending world, setting themselves up as unique apologists for Ab Ex? Or do we still require a Reformation to purge a parasitic, self serving class of pardoners and indulgence sellers, all too eager to exploit their intermediate position between Great God Art and the uninitiated?

    Martin Luther reacted against the worldly excesses of (what he perceived as) an entrenched priestly hierarchy, given to vanity, ambition and corruption, by proclaiming every man his own priest. Eliminate the middleman and you eliminate (or lessen) the opportunity for venality. If the contemporary audience was truly confident in its personal relationship with art, there would be no need for an exalted class of interpreters. That this class still exists gives some indication of its continued usefulness — and if not to the masses, then certainly to itself. Being inured to dining out on the art world’s dime, it might be loath to give up its special position, and therefore eager to proclaim the need for its continuing role.

    This privileged class goes well beyond art critics. In fact, critics per se make up a small percentage of the group. As more people with MFAs or other advanced instruction enter the fray, the unique prerogatives of criticism are inevitably subsumed into other art related professions, which include international curators, museum directors, art consultants, art fair and kunsthalle officials, super collectors with own private foundations, administrators of non-profit institutions. As well as art dealers and well connected artists. It is a finite set of characters, to be sure, but one whose names and faces pop up continually in the Scene and Herd section of artforum.com, gallivanting from biennial to Grand Tour to private performance.

    But does this ubiquity reveal a state of corruption, or merely the ostentatious display of a meritocracy, an elite of interlocking taste makers and facilitators, without whom the art world could hardly function? I dare say that, in our pluralistic times, there are nearly as many critics and types of criticism (or interpreters and schools of interpretation) as there are people who feel the need to consult them. Meaning the “Priesthood” suggested by Jonathan shows absolutely no indication of shrinking. We are now experiencing a bull market for punditry.

  2. I was so moved that anyone would have so captured my agenda as a philosopher and critic of art, that I was not, in the state of euphoria in which Jackie Wuhlschlager’s review of my collection Unnatural Wonders left me, inclined to cavil about anything she said. My own feeling regarding the passage that Jonathan Neil has singled out is that it would be wonderful if the stakes of being right or wrong about art today were as high as being right or wrong about God in the Middle Ages: eternal punishment if you get it wrong, eternal bliss if you get it right. For most policy makers, art is so frivolous, so marginal an activity, that its support is a waste of money and effort – and the “priesthood of art” is twice deluded in thinking that art merits the thought its members put into trying to get it right. The intensity of its effort would be laughable if the priests did not in their hearts believe in art’s value. So art is in immense debt to its critics, whose labor could only be justified in it had the importance the labor presupposes. And writing criticism, far from self-serving, serves the public in explaining, exhibition by exhibition, work by work, what truths are being conveyed so obliquely because they cannot be expressed directly. From her word, in any case, Jackie Wuhlschlager exempts me from charges she levels at the priesthood, and I would think she must exempt herself – or how could she go on as a critic if she did not think it was in the service of something of importance and value to get it right?

  3. I second Mr. Danto’s point about the relative importance of what’s at stake in the realms of art and religion. Even though I find art much more important/relevant/rewarding than religion on a daily basis, I’ve never once felt anxiety about “getting it wrong” when it comes to art (OK, so maybe a little financial anxiety, but certainly never any spiritual anxiety). I do, in moments of crisis, though, wonder whether I’ve gotten it right about religion (damn my Pentacostal upbringing anyway). All the same, Wullschlager’s conclusion suffers a bit from her overstated parallel here. Rather than view any critical response to artwork as the writer’s “conviction that their own big idea is the route to aesthetic understanding,” I tend to view art criticism as a researched opinion and judge its worth via two ever-shifting criteria: whether it rings true to my eye and mind and how often that’s the case with the writer in question.

    But I think there’s a new development in this arena since the days of Greenberg in that critcs are currently no longer the final word on what art is important. I wish that were not the case, but determined collectors can trump the most scathing/persistent of critiques it seems, suggesting Money is the highest power. I hope that situation is short lived, but I’m not betting on it.

    I’ve tended to share Jonathan’s puzzlement as to “Why must art be more popular or, to push the point, more ‘lay’ than either science or philosophy….” It might be that efforts to communicate the developments/worth of science or philosophy to masses always require them being dumbed down a bit (e.g., I can’t understand anything about quantam physics without such efforts). Scientists and philosophers seem to not mind this as much as the art world does. Efforts to dumb down visual art are often met with outrage by those of us in the system.

    Although I think you can make the argument that this rigid position serves to open the art viewer’s own imagination/receptiveness/expectations, rather than merely spoon feed them take-away sanctioned sound bites about the art, I do think this strikes many folks as wanting to have it both ways.

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