Critiquing with clenched fists

clenched_fist.jpgBefore New Republic art critic Jed Perl penned his latest insights, he visited a good number of recent exhibitions, including

* The inaugural exhibition at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
* ” © Murakami” at the Brooklyn Museum
* Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, at the Museum of Modern Art
* “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century” at the New Museum
* “Jeff Koons on the Roof” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

and within his essay, he referenced a good number more–including some not-so-recent shows and installations (although when, if indeed ever, he visited each of these is not clear to me from his text):

* Damien Hirst in “Beyond Belief” White Cube, London
* Richard Serra at just about any museum of your choice, but in particular at Broad Contemporary Art Museum
* Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe” at the Guggenheim
* “Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today” at the Museum of Modern Art
* Tony Feher’s March-April 2008 exhibition at PaceWildenstein

and yet, he found precious little in any of them that seems to have moved him. Indeed, he goes on for nearly 6000 words explaining how all he can offer “after all this museumgoing and gallerygoing, is a series of postcards about nothing written from places that felt like nowhere.”


About three-quarters of the way through his opus, he does mention some artists he seems to like, though, including Ry Fyan, Carroll Dunham, Jess, and R.B. Kitaj (although with Kitaj, you get the sense Perl only likes him after he turned away from Pop art and embraced “tradition”). But just in case you’re not sure how he really feels about the state of contemporary art, Perl goes that extra mile to note that “you cannot possibly understand what a safe haven for frauds and con artists the art world has become.”

As fate would have it, I read Perl’s piece just after having slogged my way through Carlos Basualdo’s essay “The Unstable Institution” (from the collection of essays “What Makes a Great Exhibition?”) in which Basualdo berates the general and specialized art press for their “enormous disparity and lack of analytical rigor” in their published reactions to international art exhibitions, like Documenta and the Venice Biennale. It’s not fair to Perl, I know, that his essay was the first I happened upon after encountering this charge (and Basualdo is clearly focused on what international exhibitions are attempting to do, not other type of shows), but it did lead me to read Perl’s text with an eye toward judging the rigor of his analysis. I found several of his arguments rather convincing contradictions of his other assertions.

For example, Perl argues that

I find it interesting that many commentators are far more eager to criticize the collectors and the dealers than the art stars who produce this junk in the first place. […] The woes of the art world cannot be blamed entirely on the rapacity of a cadre of collectors, dealers, and curators. After all, it was an artist, Damien Hirst, who dreamed up the platinum replica of a human skull, paved with diamonds […] It is the artists, and a certain line of thinking about art, that have given the people with the cash permission to buy and sell what amounts to nothing, and to do so for ever larger and more insane sums of money.

But follows that later with

Those of us who are outraged that Koons and Hirst and Murakami now take up so much space in our museums are not angered by their work. We are angered by the significance that arts professionals are attaching to this work.


I wish more museum directors and trustees understood how hungry–and how disgruntled–museumgoers in America really are. Again and again, people are pointed in precisely the wrong direction.

Is it the art being produced today that’s to blame for the outrage or the people who champion it? Perl seem unsure. Overall, though, he seems to be arguing that if museums and contemporary galleries would just point people toward the art he likes–and the most passionate examples he can offer of that is the work by “Picasso and Giacometti” and “Watteau, Le Nain, and Seurat” and “Cézannes and key works by Seurat and Matisse and Renoir”–then things would be better.

Secondly, he offers this opinion:

[T]the place where we look at [art] is also under threat. This helps to explain the poorly defined character of so many new museums and galleries. These exhibition spaces, whether the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles or the New Museum in New York, are as incoherent as the art they have been designed to house. They are bland, generic warehouse-style spaces–places to dump expensive stuff. And the new style in exhibition design, especially at the Whitney Biennial, favors a chockablock look, with works set in front of one another so that nothing can be experienced in and of itself. Is it any surprise that, after decades in which aesthetic contemplation and the idea of the freestanding work of art have been under attack, the people who design museums have not a clue how to arrange an exhibition space?

Here is an installation view of a current exhibition at the New Museum (source: The Brooklyn Rail)


I mean, is it any surprise after decades in which aesthetic contemplation … huh?

And here’s a link to an installation view of a current exhibition at the Whitney.

Psst…Jed, the Cherrypicker Emporium called…they want their vehicle back.

Finally, Perl guns for contemporary art scholarship (presumably in the spirit of faulting the institutions and not the artists at this juncture):

The anthropologist in me remains fascinated by the spectacle of MoMA, this grand dame of modernism, as it tries on all the new party dresses. They like to point out that the new party dresses are not entirely different from the old ones; this is what passes for scholarly probity. As an accompaniment to the Eliasson show, the Modern offers a brief survey of kinetic light effects in twentiethcentury art, beginning more or less with Moholy-Nagy. Eliasson, so we are being told, is in the Great Tradition, or at least in some tradition or other.

I assume he’s dismissing the “scholarly probity” of the 4-page exhibition brochure available for free (you can download it online here [pdf file]) and not the 275-page exhibition catalog edited by Madeleine Grynsztejn, with essays by Mieke Bal, Klaus Biesenback, Roxana Marcoci, Daniel Birnbaum and Olafur Eliasson, but that’s not entirely clear. I would think that viewers (let alone critics) truly interested in why the grand dame donned this particular Danish party dress would spend some quality time with the larger publication.

Perl ends his piece with notes on a trip to the Barnes:

When I was there, everybody looked keyed up–they looked happy, the way nobody looks at BCAM.

Personally, I’m always happy to spend time with familiar favorites as well…for a while. It’s comforting. I don’t understand being outraged that some wish to champion the contemporary artists working to push past such achievements, though. Perl notes that he’s “angered”…”angered by the significance that arts professionals are attaching to this work.” Really? Angered? George Jean Nathan once said of anger, “No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched.” I don’t think Perl should ever leave the Barnes.

Author: Edward Winkleman

New York art dealer (Winkleman Gallery : and author of blog on art and politics (

11 thoughts on “Critiquing with clenched fists”

  1. Jed Perl is easy game, and there are others like him that have no real business writing about contemporary art. But most don’t try too often, there are plenty of Cezanne’s and comfortable 20th c. abstract and figurative paintings to keep one busy, so it becomes a matter of knowing your limits: I wholeheartedly agree that the Barnes is bound to place, and not being able to drive up to that house and seeing the Lipschitz frieze that wraps around it is really going to be a shame. But this could have been written without “clenched fists,” and been far more effective as a campaign for saving what you care about.

    Carlos Basualdo places the challenges to the modern museum into a useful context by describing a gap between arts writing and those curatorial practices that extend beyond the walls of the modern museum and into the political imagination of an international world. While it is true that those writers he wishes for have not yet emerged, I would add that there is much to be said about the limits of art criticism as a form, and that the web provides for the imagination of new forms, ever more dramatically blurring the distinction between the curator and the critic. And this occurs in writing about what you love.

    When I think of the potential for blog art criticism, derided by so many professional arts journalists, I see some of the same interests that Basualdo raises quite relevant in their challenge to the institutional moorings of Modernism.

  2. While Perl’s anger is sputteringly obvious, it tends to provoke commentary (available at the same link referenced above by Ed) that also has its requisite claim to bitterness, spite and outright silliness. Opinions on the article might at first seem mixed, with “cantankerous relic … merely rehashing a formalist critique” and “litany of discontiguity and irrelevence” juxtaposed with “thank you for this latest installment in your continuing defense of humanism”. A young guy who’s being cute disses Richard Prince as a hustler, decries “bullshit hyper-theories … tossed off by the art-star crowd and their shoe-gazing intelligentsia” and admits to not enjoying contemporary art. A proud philistine. Then there’s the commenter named “reactionary” who states: “Mr. Perl wants to repeal the present and veto the future.” In this context, it almost sounds like a compliment.

    I already suspected that New Republic liberals were passive/aggressive about contemporary art. It comes with their left-of-center, policy wonk territory. If art cannot be enlisted in service to their notion of the public good, they want no part of it. In their view, contemporary art is a fraud, perpetuated by the effete attentions of a small but fashionable elite, and hardly deserves serious attention. Whether or not they find Perl a curmudgeon, their essential distrust of the motivations of contemporary art is fairly pervasive. By retaining Perl as art critic, the NR acknowledges and supports this essential bias, pandering to the prejudices of its readers. Perhaps this is why I rarely read the magazine for its art reviews.

    Consider Perl’s recent obituary of Robert Rauschenberg, thoroughly hostile, vicious, and clueless, including this dismissive trope: “So far as his work is concerned, it has from beginning to end been nothing but bad news.” Then look at the fifty or so comments that follow. For the most part, his NR constituents are just loving it.

  3. This is a time of jeremiads. There comes a point in the course of events — when so much that once had seemed fixed and solid loses its anchor and becomes fluid and strange — that pundits fling their arms in the air and scream: “I am mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.”

    But jeremiads are not all the same. I would distinguish two kinds. The first, the Jerry Saltz variety, could be called a “jeremiad from within.” It consists, as the Hungarian saying goes, of “spitting in one’s own soup” (most Hungarian aphorisms involve food or barnyard animals). It is the exasperation of the parent, not of the scolding teacher. Our deepest wells of anger are reserved for those who are most dear to us. Who else could merit such emotional exertion?

    Jed Perl has given us a “Jeremiad from without” — his words ring with a hollow and detached abhorrence of his subject. You can almost see him wincing, like a tourist eyeing a plate of fried insects. Nothing could bridge the gulf between him and the art of the last half-century. This detachment may be intellectually honest, but it is emotionally simplistic and devoid of empathy.

    It also, as Steven implies, makes him a favorite in-house critic of a certain Upper West Side literary media establishment. In my many years of observing this coterie, I have come to believe that they are, on the whole, distrustful of visual art. Art isn’t literal enough: it is vague and messy and slippery, and this makes those who are committed to “objectivity” uncomfortable.

    To generalize further, the positions of power in our media establishment are filled, for the most part, by men (mostly men) who relate to words and narratives, not visuality. You can strike up a conversation about a book or a play with a typical newspaper editor, but raise the subject of art at your own risk. For these people Jed Perl delivers a soothing validation of visual illiteracy.

  4. Eric Gelber, associate editor of, writes:

    The people who watch the 24/7 news channels on television or listen to talk radio programming are thoroughly catered to. Their prejudices and ill-formed opinions and judgments get are celebrated and confirmed every day of the week.

    Partisanship has not only dumbed down political discourse. In the art world there are conservative critics, Jed Perl, a number of writers at the New York Sun, and Robert Hughes among others, and there are progressive critics such as Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, who would never dismiss contemporary work simply because it is new and who have trouble finding a contemporary artist they don’t like, or at the very least, feel ambivalent about.

    There are plenty of critics who are situated somewhere in the middle. The conservative critics mentioned above do or did write for fairly centrist publications, Time magazine, The New Republic, the New York Observer, and the New York Sun, which is conservative and not centrist. Readers have choices. They can read whoever they want to. Who in the art world doesn’t know what kind of intellectual product Jed Perl is serving up at this point? It might be a fun exercise in textual analysis, to pick apart Perl’s reviews, but it is like shooting very large fish in a barrel.

    What I find interesting is the way art critics bring other subject matter into their alleged reviews of art exhibitions. Making generalizations about the contemporary art world usually leads to sloppy thinking whether it is done by a conservative critic like Perl or a progressive critic like Saltz. What I would like to know is why can’t art critics, whose specific task is to write about specific works of art they spent time with in real time, can’t spend an entire review focusing on the work at hand, the content they are presumably looking at, hearing, smelling, touching, whatever. It would be refreshing if every insight the art critic had related solely to the art they were writing about.

    If critics want to write about the scene, or the socio-economic-political climate of the art world, or to contextualize it, or historicize it, I wish they would do so within the confines of a separate essay, so that they can really focus on things, rather than run roughshod over various big topics, and inevitably embarrass themselves by providing scattershot commentary that comes off as silly or obvious when viewed in retrospect.

    That is exactly the problem I have with almost all reviews of these big international shows. The art critics reviewing them more often than not provide no insights or interesting analysis of the works of art included in them. They offer readers basic and usually snarky descriptions of the woks of art and a huge helping of snarky comments about the current state of the art world. If an art critic’s responsibility is the add something worthwhile and substantial to the experience of seeing specific works of art than many living art critics would receive an F or a D at best on their report cards.

  5. In response to the observation both Catherine and Eric make about Perl being an easy target, I would agree when it comes to how obvious his bias (and therefore how nonobjective his critique of the state of contemporary art) is. As Eric notes, he offers very little detail about the art he can’t stand and so calling him on the depth of his critique is indeed “like shooting very large fish in a barrel.”

    But whether one has a dislike for contemporary art or not is independent of whether one’s logic should hold up. I would have a lot more respect for Perl’s opinions, even though we disagree about most contemporary art, if he wasn’t so sloppy about offering them. Faulting the Whitney Biennial for its installation design is one thing, but to conclude that that one exhibition is evidence of a prevailing installation cluelessness brought on by decades of disdain for aesthetic contemplation, especially in the light of easily available examples that contradict that assertion (at the same institutions, no less) is simply shoddy analysis.

  6. Eric Gelber responds:

    As I tried to indicate in my previous comment Jed Perl is a pundit not a critic. His readers don’t want analysis, free from contradictions and logical fallacies. His readers want him to attack contemporary art and the contemporary art scene and he gives them what they want every time. But even they are not satisfied with this meager gruel. He is more like a stand up comic than a critic and his humor is aimed at a very specific audience that is mostly comprised of disgruntled artists. It should be noted that some readers of Perl that I have encountered on the Internet have said that they get frustrated with his writing because Perl can’t do much else besides provide these diatribes. Artists who read him, and who usually dislike almost all contemporary art that gets exhibited, regret the fact that he provides them with very little constructive and positive criticism. He exists to launch spitballs at art world icons, contemporary artists who are being exhibited and feted by the big name institutions. What else does he have to offer?

  7. I think one needs to be careful when calling on art critics to “focus on the work at hand, the content they are presumably looking at, hearing, smelling, touching, whatever.” This is likely Perl’s attitude exactly, because what he laments is gazing at a Koons balloon dog and finding any kind of “close looking” or attentiveness unrewarding.

    Lauding a urinal for its formal beauty will get you laughed out of most reputable organs of art criticism (except, perhaps, if it’s the New Criterion). The Matthew Brannon curated show, ‘Not So Subtle Subtitle’, at Casey Kaplan at the moment is a an object lesson (pun intended) in art that requires critics to bring to bear upon the work so much more than that which can be found within the work itself.

    Which is to say that much of this work, and this kind of show, can be extremely frustrating, but it’s the job of the critic to take this as a challenge to his intellectual creativity rather than as an exercise in refining his normative judgments.

    I don’t want to know that a work or a show is (no) good; I want to know why it’s (no) good, and that often requires that the critic lay out for the reader her rationale or method, be it contextual, historical, socio-economic, psychological, political, or what have you. And I think this is exactly the kind of thing one should get in a review (and it’s one of the reasons I like neither Perl’s criticism nor that of the so-called “progressive” critics named in this thread).

  8. We get the message. Us art critics are out of touch, lacking in the facilities (both in ancient wisdom and new-fangled blogosphere technologies) with which to make definitive, concise statements on the art we see. But some of us are trying to see past our own prejudices to what’s really good or bad.

    I completely agree that neither the opinions of one cantakerous contemporary art hater (we have one here in London too, his name’s Brian Sewell) nor the clamouring voices of any number of the scene’s boosters make for the clear-eyed balance we all seek. We need the middle, Third Way – by which I don’t mean namby-pamby fence-sitting – but sceptical, engaged commentary and some good old-fashioned long, hard looks. That’s all.

  9. Again from Eric Gelber:
    I think you interpreted my comments incorrectly. I do not want more formalist criticism. “Duchamp’s urinal has beautiful lines and contours. The porcelain white finish is lustrous.” No that is not what I meant. Critics should bring whatever intellectual guns they have to bear into their criticism, approaching the art however they like, but they should stay focused on the art they are critiquing. it is their jobs to provide insight about what viewer’s can go and see on their own when they visit the gallery or museum. I don’t need another “Babylon” entry by Saltz or another sweeping dismissal of contemporary art by Perl. The art world
    is big and complicated and trying to encapsulate it with a snarky sentence or two injected in between descriptions of the art or a pat thumbs up or down is what I want less of.

  10. Ossian, as I noted, it’s not fair to Perl that his was the first text I happened upon after reading Basualdo’s essay. By that I meant simply that testing the rigor of Perl’s analysis as a random case example wouldn’t prove or disprove Basauldo’s thesis, nor should I imply that this was the context in which Perl meant his piece to be read.

    I was actually rather unconvinced by Basualdo’s assertion of widespread lacking on the part of the specialized press (he criticizes, for example, critics’ “numerous errors and omissions” while at the same time acknowledging that “many of these events are simply not designed to be seen in their totality” [leaving the question: then why are you criticizing critics for omissions?]).

    Then again, if Perl is going to imply, through the volume of exhibitions he’s citing to make his case, that he’s surpassed mere anecdote and is now discussing data, he does deserve to have his analysis examined in that context in my opinion.

  11. It’s worth thinking some more about what resonance Ed might have found between these two essays – Perl is failing in his attempt to make sweeping statements about the present conditions of art’s visibility. Nearly three decades ago Douglas Crimp described the museum’s Modernism as one of mobility – Perl’s postcards from nowhere. In Perl’s case, the eccentric distinction of the Barnes as a place is to Italy as Napoleon’s Louvre is to the New Museum. By this postmodern account, Perl never really understood Modernism at its “origin” – a pile of fragments from elsewhere.

    We can all spend our time like Fredric Jameson, wandering around in the shopping mall and trying to remember where we parked our cars. His image of the mists of postmodernism, in which we wait for the new worker to emerge, is a striking one.

    From the view of his airplane window, Carlos Basualdo wishes that we could see beyond the poplars and the mists to the mountain view beyond them – this would be the curator’s “highly differentiated form of knowledge.” He writes: “One gets the impression, for example, that many critics respond indignantly to any suggestion of subordinating the individual works to an overly complex thematic frame- as if the primary function of these shows were to free art from its intellectual overdeterminations. In other cases, it is the absence of theme itself, or its frequent extra-artistic ramifications, given serious consideration – in spite of the fact that, quite often, these side-programs are structurally constitutive elements in the explicit goals of the organizers.” (“The Unstable Institution”, What Makes a Great Exhibition, Paula Marincola, ed., Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, c. 2006, p. 53.)

    Like Perl’s nostalgia for an earlier model bound to place, isn’t Basualdo’s accusation limiting the field in his desire for a totalizing view – the “theme”, summed up in the form of the curator? This feels very much to me like the desire to jog emerging forms of criticism back into a form of all-encompassing knowledge generated by the figure of Alfred Barr in his new formation. Hardly a challenge to the mountains of Modernism.

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