What is the State of Art Criticism Today?

September 2002

With regard to this question, it was fortunate that 2002 was the year of Barnett Newman’s retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Tate Gallery London , curated by Ann Temkin. Newman developed an exceptional body of writing along with his paintings and had very definite views on what criticism should be. He distinguished between two types that he defined respectively as, on the one hand, ‘the creative’ and, on the other, ‘the scholarly or academic’. The latter described a criticism written to explain art to the widest audience possible, while the former attempted a dialogue with the creative process of the artist. It is usually assumed that the attempt to reach a wider audience is laudable. The problem is that it runs the risk of reducing art to misleading rationalizations. The creative approach, in contrast, seeks to open up the rich complexity of artistic experience to those who want to receive it.

The philosopher George Bataille's writings play an important role in the development of what Newman termed a 'creative' critical approach.  Bataille is, of course, first and foremost a philosopher and is now a familiar name on college circuits.  It seems that the attraction of concepts is irrestible. However, Bataille is important for us because he surveyed the conceptual landscape of modern thought with a methodology that undermines the piety of concepts. He is, by definition, an anti-academic thinker.

The post-war American artist who understood and shared this outlook was Robert Smithson. This is clear when one reads his own excellent writings on art. I wanted to acknowledge and emphasize this point when I invoked Smithson, along with Richard Serra, who was closely involved with Smithson's work and thought at the time and who has since continued to develop his ideas in his own work, as the inspiration of ‘3000 Degrees’, this year's summer exhibition at the gallery. I had two distinct purposes in mind here. First of all, I wanted to make the point that there is documentary evidence, based on the fact that Smithson's library contained the first translation of Bataille's writings to appear in America, that Bataille's thinking entered American art through one of its leading creative practioners. Secondly, by showing works of four contemporary sculptors who are involved with the themes of energy and its expenditure, I wanted to support the idea that this aesthetic line of thought is alive and well among younger artists.

Paul Rodgers