Donald Kuspit On Thinking About Art And The Critic’s Situation


By DONALD KUSPIT August, 2019

            One needs ideas to think about art—certainly to be able to interpret and evaluate it with critical acumen and, more broadly, to educate one’s sensibility, enabling one to attune to it responsibly.  I get my ideas—my thought patterns--from philosophy, art history, psychoanalysis, also called depth psychology.  I have doctorates in philosophy and art history, and four years training in psychoanalysis.  No one can be a responsible art critic—let alone properly responsive to a work of art--without knowledge of the history of ideas, the history of art and culture, and some understanding of human psychology, for one cannot fully understand the wish to make art, and the effort involved in doing so, without understanding the fantasies and feelings, often unconscious, as well as the cognitions and cultural assumptions that consciously inform it, and one’s response to it.   What I am saying is that critical consciousness does not spontaneously spring from one’s head the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus, but must be deliberately cultivated—and constantly renewed, that is, one must be open to new ideas, to new kinds of art, often from different cultures, and new insights and understandings of human nature.  One might also understand the reasons one is drawn to art, concerned with it to the extent of devoting one’s best attention to it.   

Mattei Athena at Louvre. Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor.

            Now, on a practical level, it is hard to write art criticism, especially art criticism that explores art in depth, and that reaches a large public, typically by way of art magazines, if also, more erratically, on various websites and through blogs.  These days everyone has something to say about art—there is a communication glut just as there is an information glut.  Reviews of particular artists have to fit into a rather small Procrustean bed, and are geared to the galleries that show them, and more extensive, interpretative and evaluative treatments—explorations of an art in depth--are usually reserved for trendy and thus automatically important artists, which generally means artists whose works sell for a great deal of money.  In both cases art criticism tends to become an advertisement for the artist—intellectual publicity, as it were, which is not the most sensational kind of publicity, but has its uses:  intellectual cachet tends to outlast social cachet, at least the intellectual critic likes to think so.    

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Dollar Sign, Price realised, USD 5,122,500, courtesy of Christie's New York, NY

            The contemporary critic is thus in a dubious position, not to say dire situation:  his critical consciousness—the knowledge and sensitivity he can bring to bear on the art--is constrained by the demands of the market, at least if he wants to get a hearing from “the people who count,” the people in power in the artworld, often enough the people with money.  In the Museum of Modern Art, one can see their names conspicuously displayed on the walls of the rooms they have “donated,” in the hope of being remembered and celebrated, like the art in the rooms.   These superrich, as one petulant critic put it, equate artistic value with economic value.   Indeed, having great economic value automatically means a work has great artistic value—so much so that it lifts it out of art history into a privileged realm of its own.   Thus, when a rich person paid $81,000,000 for a Modigliani painting of a nude, the painting automatically became “major,” so outstanding that it seems to stand apart from—and look down on—other paintings.  It had a built-in economic advantage when it came to comparing it to other paintings.  We are in a situation not unlike that in which movies are “evaluated”:   all that we need to know about a movie is that it made a huge amount of money when it opened.  If it did, it is a critical success; if it didn’t, it is a flop, not worth the trouble of seeing.  Are works of art that do not sell for millions flops?  From a money perspective, they are.  Years ago I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to interview the people lined up to see a Velazquez painting, purchased then for ca. $6,000,000—a small sum by today’s standards.  Every last person on the line had come to see the $6,000,000 not the painting.  For them it was a seriously valuable painting because it had serious economic value.  As the familiar saying goes, “we know the price of everything but the value of nothing.”  The value criticism gives to art—a sort of surplus value—is not regarded as highly as the value money gives to art.  One recalls King Midas, who wished that everything he touched would turn into gold.  The gods, in their ironical wisdom, granted his wish:  he starved to death, for the food he touched turned to gold, making it inedible.  You can’t eat gold, which has no value in itself.  If art is spiritual food for thought and emotional sustenance for life, then the Midas touch of superrich collectors turns it into spiritless, lifeless gold.  The Midas touch is self-defeating, for it devalues art by absurdly overvaluing it.  

   Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja (c. 1650), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

            I am arguing that critical consciousness is on the verge of being stamped out by economic consciousness.  Certainly it is being subsumed by it.  Even more crucially, money value is determining art value.  Indeed, art criticism cannot compete with “money criticism.”  In the December 2015 issue of The Atlantic magazine, answering “The Big Question” “What is the greatest comeback of all time?”, the financial journalist Felix Salmon wrote:  “Were it not for Andy Warhol, the current multibillion-dollar market in contemporary art would barely exist.  Last year, he broke a record for the highest annual sales of any artist….Yet in 1993, six years after he died, Warhol’s reputation was such that when 16 of his canvases came up for auction only two sold….Warhol’s recovery from the slump has no precedent in the history of art.”  There’s not a word about the art historical significance of Warhol’s art, nor about its social significance—nothing about its cultural meaning, let alone its emotional effect.  Nor about his attitude to art, considering that he said he passed through it on the way to becoming a “business artist,” the art of making money being the highest art for him, and as such more valuable than any work of art.  Warhol was beyond criticism—it would be wasted on him—for criticism has different values than he does, which is why it is beside the point, if not yet dying out. WM         


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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