Summer reading: The Art Critic

Just in time for late summer, Newsweek and Artforum critic Peter Plagens has started publishing his new novel, The Art Critic, in weekly installments on Artnet. The “book” is about a slightly cranky male critic of a certain age who has seen enough and done enough in the art world to call it just like he sees it. The writer clearly has the home court advantage on this one, and readers can look forward to some straight-up acerbic commentary on contemporary art. Here’s a teaser, a rumination on recent art in the voice of the novel’s proto-autobiographical protagonist, Arthur:

Worse, all those current artists who indulged themselves in actual words — paintings with words in them, “photo-text pieces,” video works stuffed with dialogue, and other works requiring more didactic printed material slapped up on the walls than you’d find in a science museum — weren’t the worst of it; the sin of language was a misdemeanor compared with whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus, installations with more electronic equipment than an arena concert, and hugely expensive wannabe architecture in which designer drugs were somewhat mitigated by the assistance of a structural engineer. Although the artists boasted in the accompanying press material that the art — what a big tent “art” was now! — “forces the viewer to confront” some geopolitical issue or another, the local stuff, at least, seemed to be made by upper-middle-class kids who could afford the tuition for a Master of Fine Arts degree and then a studio in some rapidly gentrifying quarter of Brooklyn. The bar for “oppression” had apparently been lowered to anybody looking cross-eyed at them on the subway. Between the lines, so to speak, their art told whiney stories about putative victimhoods, or self-congratulatory stories about their empathy for other people’s misfortunes. And they didn’t want their messages to be confined to mere galleries, either. You could feel them looking toward wider, more glamorous horizons. “Face it,” the film critic at the newsweekly where Arthur plied his trade had once said to him when he took her along to a couple of exhibitions, “they all want to direct.”

1 thought on “Summer reading: The Art Critic”

  1. Plagens allows his alter ego, Arthur, to disparage a lot of contemporary art as pretentious and laughable. He admits being stuck with a legacy of “high-end formalism” and abstraction from his graduate school days. Employing a habitually rueful and sardonic tone, voicing an almost obligatory impatience with Chelsea, he is “in desperate search of art with feeling rather than strategy at its core” and sick of “all that goddamned storytelling”. He is a sour, world weary pedant who prides himself on being nobody’s fool while remaining oblivious to many of his own contradictions. Yet even in denial, he can wryly congratulate his middle-aged sexual persona as “a good, clean, considerate fuck with few if any harmful side effects”.

    An elder statesman’s (or aging crank’s) rejection of the Unmonumental, Whitney Biennial aesthetic, which he labels as “Granny’s­-attic­-on­-crystal­-meth installations” or “whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus”, extends to the ponderous self importance and pervasive texts he dreads confronting in so much recent MFA work. He tends to rail against easy targets: a droll send up of an exhaustive (and exhausting) feminist catalog, a chuckle at jargon in gallery press releases, even the well peppered roasting of an academic realist painter revealed as a contentious blowhard.

    The Art Critic will please those readers looking for barbed observations of art world realpolitik as well as scandalous insider revelations. Because the ultimate guilty pleasure of any roman à clef is discovering real life equivalents for the pseudonymous roles in the novel. To his credit, Plagens tries to create composite characters, each inspired by a number of actual sources in the New York demimonde.This is a more imaginative and synthetic strategy than thinly disguised, one-on-one correspondences. For example, to identify the “Carol Gascoine” character simply as Laurie Simmons is to miss a lot of subtext drawn from other sources.

    But Plagens can also be crushingly direct. When he contemplates “huge Cibachrome prints of exquisitely posed suburban-gothic banalities, produced with budgets that must have consumed whole trust funds in a single gulp”, it seems aimed right at Gregory Crewdson. Similarly, conservative critic “Jonathan Hirsch” is a clear stand in for Hilton Kramer. As for other art world figures who pop up as naughty or nice characters, everyone can start making their own list and checking it twice. Or rather 24 times, the number of weekly installments that will appear in Artnet.

    Interestingly, Cindy Sherman is the only figure who appears under her own name, and in a fairly benign usage, as an historical marker. She might escape further gouging as the plot thickens. But everyone else, it would seem, is grist for the mill.

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