July 09, 2009

On Bernstein and Art Criticism

Following on Kevin’s post, I have to ask: Just what is Charles Bernstein going on about in that Parkett article (“Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry?”)?

Published earlier this year, his essay responds to the dismissal of Frank O’Hara’s art criticism by Clement Greenberg, and damns by association a “monological and hyperprofessional rigidity that descends from Clement Greenberg (who dismissed O’Hara’s art writing) to Michael Fried and… extends to the October brand, the epitome of, let’s just say, High Orthodoxical art criticism.” Let’s just say. One wonders at the belatedness of Bernstein’s response – and at the fact that the debate has long moved on without him. Greenberg died in 1994, and Fried has focused on art history – and pointedly not criticism – for nearly four decades. (Recent work on Douglas Gordon, Luc Delahaye and others may mark yet another shift for the writer.)

Michael Fried

Michael Fried

In the meantime, and perhaps ironically, considering Bernstein’s title, Fried’s also been busy writing and publishing books of poetry:  The Next Bend In The Road (University of Chicago 2004), To The Center of the Earth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), and Powers (London: The Review, 1973). (A recording of him reading at Johns Hopkins is here.)

I’ll leave it to others to judge Fried’s poetry, and whether it is fifty years ahead or behind his writing on art. I can say more about Bernstein’s picture of art criticism. I barely recognize it. I wonder if Bernstein could point to a single art critic under fifty for whom Greenberg is a positive model – or to any review in the last decade that would serve as an example of the  dominant “High Orthodoxical art criticism” against which he aims to do battle. October themselves held a colloquy to mourn the end of art criticism in the hallowed manner seven years ago (George Baker, “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism”, October 100, Spring 2002, 200-228). And there have been multiple publications and articles debating this subject recently – James Elkins frequently visits the subject, for example. None of these discussions appear to be on Bernstein’s radar.

Leaving aside the fact that October publishes primarily art historical, and not art critical, investigations, the journal is hardly as rigid or orthodox as Bernstein’s caricature makes out. (Full disclosure: I’ve published in October, and as an undergrad studied with Hal Foster.) Even a cursory look over “the October brand” will reveal a diversity in method, commitment and approach amongst the principal editors. See the introductions and roundtable that bookend their underrated Art Since 1900, where these substantive differences are discussed explicitly. There is no unity of style or method at October, that is to say. And their self-seriousness is in the eye of the beholder (maybe it’s a design thing). Foster can be cutting and hilarious in his critical mode (Design and Crime, for example, or his writing for New Left Review and London Review of Books). Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson have both been quite experimental on occasion, as has current October editor George Baker (“Long Live Daddy”). Perhaps Benjamin Buchloh resembles superficially the “self-serious vanguardist” Bernstein describes. Read closer and Buchloh’s droll half-habitation of a Frankfurt School-derived melancholia comes into better focus, as a kind of deadpan throughout his writing. But maybe it’s too subtle for a poet skimming pages.

Bernstein’s conflation of Greenberg and Fried (whose ideas have important differences) with October (which has rejected their formalistic approach, and which embraces no one “orthodox” method) exposes an ignorance of the field he’s pronouncing upon. Other misrepresentations dot the piece as well. Let me single out one. Bernstein writes that “[James] Meyer, in his introduction to a recent collection of the poetry of Carl Andre, never mentions the word “poetry.”” Carl Andre: Cuts 1959-2004 is not a collection of poems, but of notes, epigrams, statements, letters, excerpts from interviews, and so on, alongside some poetry. Divided up by Meyer, the book includes a chapter titled “Poetry” – based on dialogues between the artist and Hollis Frampton or Reno Odlin – and Meyer does discuss poetry in the introduction where Bernstein says it isn’t mentioned (pages 7-9, for example). Has Bernstein even cracked this book? What’s with the trumped-up offenses and imagined slights? A bullied victim early in the essay, later Poetry becomes heroic. Endowed with the power to “literarily devalue art,” now poetry can rescue innocent artworks from the “Aesthetic System” of villainous historians… like James Meyer.

"The Aesthetic System"

“The Aesthetic System”

What does “fifty years behind” even mean? And why does it matter if any form of culture is “fifty years ahead” of any other form? If poetry has made such a La Jetée-style leap, I want to see evidence. Beam it over. Surely Bernstein doesn’t mean O’Hara is “fifty years ahead” – of whom? Greenberg? How does any of this make sense?

It’s not like there aren’t interesting things to say about criticism today, when disciplinary forms of expertise are so much in question. Art reviews by people with PhDs sit alongside amateur and fan reviews of all sorts. Coverage is shallow (750 words and falling) and nearly ubiquitous. Reviewers are often invested participants in the culture, rather than neutral and critical observers. Reading criticism becomes a game of triangulation, between multiple descriptive reviews with little individual weight (the “metacritic” problem). In this anti-intellectual yet critico-philic universe, “poetic” and subjective criticism is one style among many. Bruce Hainley and Wayne Koestenbaum – two contemporary versions of the poet-critic as I understand it – get as much work as anyone else.

Bernstein’s article touches a nerve for those on a border between the two specialized discourses, poetry and art. As Suzanne Stein wrote to me in a private email yesterday, “What interests me is that here are two highly specialized languages (poetry and poetics, and art and art criticism) that traverse similar ground, are investigated, maintained, evolved by some of the most intelligent people you can ever hope to meet – and never the twain shall meet.” Yet in serving up this warmed-over conflict, Bernstein certainly hasn’t brought such a meeting any closer. What a shame.

Comments (12)

  • Much art today requires text to understand the art, art criticism picks up the language as well as the image to make their point. In many ways the artists have blurred the distance between the word and image, as if neither technique is sufficient to hold their meaning. Perhaps today’s art work describes where the forks meet and that is why art criticism maybe 50 years behind. We’re seeing what’s up ahead from where the forks are still separated, like two two lane highways meeting at an interstate. We’re not on the same road yet. Poetry doesn’t have that problem.

  • Julian Myers says:

    Hi Renny,

    So both poetry and art criticism took up with theory after their divorce in the 1960s; this is informative, but how does it trip up my nifty formulation? No one studying art (or curatorial practice) graduates without a sidebar of feminism, film theory, political economy, psychoanalysis, queer theory, Foucault, and so on; on the other hand, it is not just imaginable but likely that they have achieved their graduate degree having never been asked to read a poem.

  • Julian I think your otherwise nifty formulation falters because the poetry of the language poets was drenched in theory, was specifically a response to theory from a literary point of view. So to set it up as either poetry or theory as the center of the social world, rather than poetry as an underexamined, parallel activity to what has happened in contemporary art, is the key to the misunderstanding. In The American Tree is the anthology to check out to see “the new sentence” they talk about which at its best is quite wonderful and parallel to everyone from Dan Graham to Kota Ezawa…

  • Julian Myers says:

    Thanks, Jasper, for the notes on Goldsmith and Bernstein. My knowledge of the discourse around poetry is sketchy at best, so everything I hear fills in things I don’t know. About your last comment I have a thought. I agree that artists, art critics and art historians in the present are largely ignorant of poetry. Whereas this would not have been true, say, in 1900 or even 1950. The exceptions to this point are not insignificant, but they prove the rule. I am not sure it follows, however, that art discourse is at present necessarily more specialized or narcissistic. What replaces poetry in art’s social world and methodology, for better or worse (or, following your hunch re: money, for richer or poorer), is theory.

    You could rightly ask why we needed to choose; or which was more effective for instating regimes of exclusion; or, why a coterie between poets and painters is more righteous than whatever social structure applies to the present (the market, sure, but only that?)

    Brent, you say that “O’Hara manifests (for Bernstein) a useful model for creating some kind of borders or rigor to a critical practice that also manages to avoid devolving into negatively-defined, exclusionary hierarchies,” and say he evokes a “nearly utopian promise of a critical/social space that’s both definable/marked yet open-ended, expansive, anti-universalist.” I am sure you’re right – this is what CB’s after. But would that we were discussing actual practices rather than utopian promises. And while I’ve asked whether these qualities might not exist in contemporary art criticism, they assume there a different – and certainly not a utopian – cast.

  • Emily Jane says:

    What is wrong with Abstract Expressionism??

  • Thanks to all so far for an enjoyable and thought-provoking discussion. A few mostly minor points I wanted to toss out there…

    First, I agree with Jasper’s points by and large, except for his sense that for Bernstein “theatricality” is bad–unless J. means it in some strict or narrow sense a la Fried’s definition of it. Value for theatricality is precisely what Bernstein is advocating in the penultimate sentence: “On the contrary, art criticism, insofar as it succumbs to a paranoiac fear of theatricality that induces frame-lock, lags behind poetry at its peril.”

    Secondly, and I don’t know what difference this makes, but wanted to say that I think Goldsmith himself may be using that “50 years behind” line as an oblique and possibly even ironic reference to Ezra Pound, who was really the original obsessive user of that conceptual shorthand well before Gysin, although Pound probably got it from somewheres himself. I recall Pound saying that before he went to London he was 20 years behind the times, but when he left he was thirty years ahead, or something to that effect, etc. I very much agree, Julian, that it’s a bizarre & confusing figure (time/history as a detached entity traveling at a fixed rate that people can somehow get in front of or fall behind by specific intervals) but by now I think it’s maybe better read, in the case of Bernstein and maybe also Goldsmith, as just a kind of light riff on modernist historicist megalomania.

    Maybe this last point is obvious, but my feeling is that the energy of these discussions isn’t really about the historical but largely about the present & future–there are lots of practicing poets weighing in, and I assume practicing artists. Thinking of it that way reveals that what Bernstein and Shaw are claiming is certainly not that ideas of “criticality, rigor, and discipline” should be jettisoned. Rather, as I read it, they seem to be arguing that O’Hara manifests exactly a useful model for creating some kind of borders or rigor to a critical practice that also manages to avoid devolving into negatively-defined, exclusionary hierarchies. They name the model “coterie,” or maybe “good coterie.” What drives the Bernstein’s piece is just such a nearly utopian promise of a critical/social space that’s both definable/marked yet open-ended, expansive, anti-universalist.

    Is that already the case in current art criticism, as Julian suggests? That’s lovely, and I’m intrigued. But philosophically speaking I’m generally skeptical of claims of this sort for either poetics or art criticism, and also of the political implications. It’s kind of the perpetual motion machine of aesthetic theory, this idea that there are ways to advance critical ideas that also don’t denigrate anybody or anything, or at least only denigrate those who deserve it. Still, what matters here is less whether Bernstein come to the debate belatedly or whether he is up on art criticism, but rather whether there really are approaches to thinking and opining that can help avoid “academic gate-keeping and market validation.” Practically speaking let’s talk about how to create conditions that cultivate artistic reformation and innovation rather than stifle it, and importantly how to measure what does and doesn’t cultivate that reformation. Maybe coterie isn’t it, maybe Elkins’ “criticism important enough to count as history” is it, maybe some third thing, maybe every kind of speaking aloud follows the same laws of power, etc., but the foundational question is really about criticism’s relationship to power & validation and how to exercise it.

  • Oh, now that I read Kevin’s lovely piece, I see that the bit about Goldsmith (quoting Gysin) is spelled out there.

  • Hello Julian,

    Your brief here readily paraphrases many of my own feelings about the Bernstein piece when I read it. You probably already know all this, but a couple of points of detail might bring things into focus a little bit, even if they don’t exactly explain what he’s on about:

    1)Bernstein’s title is a simple inversion of Kenny Goldsmith’s deliberately provocative claim that the reception of conceptual writing “is still fifty years behind art,” and that poets–even and especially language poets–never really took advantage of the radical possibilities of conceptual and post-conceptual art for writing. But given that Goldsmith’s references mostly consist of 80s postmodernism and poststucturalism–Baudrillard, Jeff Koons, etc.–he’s not exactly on the leading edge of history either.

    2)Bernstein has had a dialogue with Fried for a good, long while–his poem-essay “The Artifice of Absorption” and his short piece “On Theatricality” clearly have Fried as their main (though unacknowledged in the latter) inspiration, and as with many critical readers of Fried in art departments, his call for an anti-absorptive poetics essentially accepts the terms that Fried offers but changes the evaluative poles around: absorption is “bad,” not good. (“Theatricality” is also bad for Bernstein, so it’s not exactly a simple reversal of the binary). I’m not sure many people realize just how indebted Bernstein is to Fried, whatever their opposed stances.


    I will say, however, that I think Bernstein is correct about one thing: few art critics and art historians, and few working artists, take any direction from or interest in poetry of the last fifty years. . .It’s rare to come across a reference to a poet more recent than Apollinaire in the pages of a journal like Parkett or October. (Frank O’Hara is really the exception here). This is all anecdotal, of course, but in my experience, the reverse is not true, or not as true, and the people who write contemporary poetry and write about it are rather interested in (and sometimes even knowledgeable about!) recent and not-so-recent art. Why is this? I don’t know. I’m tempted to offer “money” as a short answer, though.

    Lastly, Michael Fried’s poetry is awful, just awful.

  • Julian Myers says:

    To follow the logic of Bernstein’s argument (I don’t question, by the way, Renny, his innovations or breakthroughs) it does seem as if he wants to shed specialization entirely, along with the ideas of criticality, rigor, and discipline that come along with it. He means to restore the value of an O’Hara-esque “poetics of adjacency, of queer juxtapositions,” where “meaning is realized through multiple, incommensurable, or overlaid discourses… within a single work.” I’d want to know exactly what value Bernstein imagines a poetics might present to the understanding of artworks in the present. And I’d question whether such a poetics isn’t put to work often enough in the very magazines and criticism he attacks. It’s common enough in Artforum, for example, and, as jmosconi implies above, in Frieze. That Jennifer Higgie (my editor when I first wrote for Frieze) should cite O’Hara with unmistakable appreciation, speaks to this – if not to her knowledge of the contemporary field.

    Is the bohemian lineage Bernstein sets out – the legacy of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Stein and (maybe) O’Hara – at all retrievable? Greenberg and Fried are taken to be a more or less “luminous” part of this happy lineage; it is their postmodern offspring who really get bashed in his essay. Perhaps one reason O’Hara’s status is fraught is that he sits with them atop a massive fault: a shift from poetry and art as the mutual productions of a bohemian social circle, to poetry and art as relatively disconnected professionalized spheres of activity with different institutions, public discourses, circuits of exchange etc. Conceived in this way, though, the idea that such a massive shift, which tracks across multiple spheres beyond art and poetry, could be the result of the efforts of Greenberg, Fried et al., seems wrong on the face of it. What is interesting then is the way that the force of this splitting off is registered in the texture of individual judgments and relations and productions. But this is an historical line of thinking – and not a poetic or critical one.

  • Specialization creates this kind of disconnection in any field. One group working against the trend is the SF Writers’ Grotto, whose residents include visual artists and filmmakers as well as writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Wonder what the Grotto’s denizens would have to say about this?

  • Having inhabited both sides of this conversation, my perception has always been that there is woeful cross ignorance. Most poets tend to still think of contemporary art as Abstract Expressionism, and visual artists tend to be utterly unaware of the often breathtaking and relevant innovations and breakthroughs of the so-called language poets of Bernstein’s generation.

  • This was put another way last Fall by Jennifer Higgie over at the Frieze Magazine blog: “Who, now, is writing poetry that knows about visual art in the way that Frank O’Hara did?”


    I answered, rather briefly: “Oh there are lots—perhaps not “in the way” that Frank O’Hara did (I’m not sure that’s possible), but there are certainly poets engaged with contemporary visual art. The first that come to mind are the poets associated with UbuWeb: Kenneth Goldsmith, Caroline Bergvall, Rob Fitterman, Christian Bök, Brian Kim Stefans, Barbara Cole…”

    What I didn’t say there was that I found her question rather irritating. It’s posed as a lament on poetry’s supposed ignorance of contemporary art; but strictly speaking, it reveals a lack of knowledge of contemporary poetic practice on the part of those (or at least Higgie herself) who work in the field of contemporary art.

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