Would it kill the New Yorker to find someone under 60 to write about contemporary art? Their hiring of Sasha Frere-Jones to cover rock music almost gives us hope. Almost. But reading that fuddy-duddy Peter Schjeldahl is so tiring! It doesn't matter how good a writer he is if he refuses to even consider the possibility that there might be good art being made right now, besides that made by (wait for it... no, you can't be serious) John Currin.
We're not saying that the Global Feminisms show over at the Brooklyn Museum is so brilliant or anything (more on that soon), but Schjeldahl's response in the New Yorker was a caricature of the reviewer as crusty old curmudgeon. However, we must give the devil his due: just as his knee-jerk dismissal of pretty much all idea-based art makes us want to lock him in a small room with a giant Jenny Holzer L.E.D. for eternity, some of his musings are actually making us think. Here he is in his 4/9/07 review, the least interesting part of which briefly addressed the actual art:
... The major factor [in the stalemate between the apparently opposing goals of individual female successes and collective feminist aims] is a natural antagonism between school-rooted institutions and the commercial art world, in which an individual's success distances her from the ranks of collective purpose. The market selects art that people like to look at, whatever it may be about. This is bound to exasperate partisans of any particular aboutness, whose goal is not case-by-case approbation but blanketing justice. The conflict cannot be resolved, because the terms on the two sides - politics versus taste, virtue versus pleasure, aggrieved conviction versus disposable wealth - sail past each other. The agon's usual form is an assault, by the party of politics, on the complacency of art lovers. It draws force from the unexceptionable truth that justice is more important than artistic quality. [...] Of course, no movement will admit the inferiority of its art. It will redefine the field to make pleasure appear to be at one with virtue. Many art lovers, for their part, like to imagine a socially salubrious tendency in their takings of joy. Both are wrong.
Genius and vileness can cohabit an artist's soul as comfortably as mediocrity and rectitude...
On that last sentence, um, Duh. But let's take that first paragraph one idea at a time because there are a whole lot of ideas in there. Sometimes it seems that Schjeldahl is just enjoying his lovely sentences so much, he lets them go on to say whatever they want even when they don't add up to anything coherent.
Firstly, can he be right about the unresolvable conflict between individual female artists and feminism? It sounds like a compelling narrative, but I don't think it makes any sense. When Dana Schutz or Cecily Brown are called geniuses for their work, although neither of their work is considered feminist, the cause of women artists in general is advanced by "genius" being pried open to include more female practitioners and this changes the way women artists in general are viewed by collectors, curators, critics, dealers and the public.
Schjeldahl's also wrong about the marketplace not responding to art with an agenda: just because some conceptual art may be bad doesn't mean it's not breaking auction records along with some equally bad painting. And does he really mean to assert that the art market responds solely and purely to quality?
Most importantly, Schjeldahl's brush is much too broad by the end; his pretty sentences are lulling his sharp mind with their siren songs. In those lovely pairs of opposing forces (genius/rectitude, pleasure/virtue, taste/politics, disposable wealth/aggrieved conviction) he inexplicably fails to allow the possibility for genius and rectitude, or virtue and pleasure, to coexist, however rarely it may happen. Really, where else should an artist with any sense of morality aim? Or is he actually implying that it is not possible?
- This Broad