“Other Criteria:” 1972/2022: Object Lessons on a Real Time Public Record

Leo Steinberg (Middle) at MoMA Pop Art Symposium, 1962.

“But these people, whatever their moral standards, are not the definers of art.” --Leo Steinberg, 1972

By MIKE MAIZELS, February 2022 

This March will mark the 50th anniversary of Leo Steinberg’s monumental “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” one of the most influential art-theoretical essays of the previous century. The nearly 10,000 word behemoth threw down a gauntlet. It argued for a clean break with the art of the past, particularly the recent AbEx school that had grown comfortable in its position as a semi-official Art of the Now.  The truly new work, Steinberg insisted, would have to be judged by “other criteria”—the title under which the piece was anthologized and later became indispensable reading for most with graduate education in the visual arts. I myself was assigned the essay by at least three separate professors.  

The piece, both its well-known contents and its shady backstory, herald remarkable lessons for the world of today. Then as now, we are moving through a phase change around ideas of inclusion, authenticity, High Art and popular media. Not to mention the corollary conflicts between the outcries of marginalized peoples, the ambitions of ascendant entrepreneurs and the structures of legacy power.  

Are we all gonna make it? What will do once we get there?

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram (1955-1959).

Within the essay itself, its best known section tantalizes numerous, important aspects of the non-fungible future. This key middle part of “Other Criteria” is dedicated to unpacking what Steinberg claims as the inventive genius of the artist Robert Rauschenberg. Prior to Rauschenberg, Steinberg declares, painting had oriented itself as a person-shaped hole opening onto another world.  That world might be the crisp, shadowless Kingdom of Heaven of Perugino, the fog-filled air of Rembrandt, the kaleidoscopic space of Picasso or even the ethereal color world of Rothko.  But always a transparent window onto somewhere. 

Rauschenberg, by contrast, had flattened the whole damned process into what the critic termed a “flatbed picture plane.” The FBPP, Steinberg notes, was akin “to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts [and] bulletin boards.” Different than a window, which is to be gazed through, the FBPP was a “receptor surface on which objects are scattered” or “on which data is entered.” It is worth unpacking the numerous allusions and overtones here.  Trained as an historian of Renaissance Art, Steinberg meant to insist that the pictorial system inherited from the Old Masters had drawn itself to a close.  What had finally killed a nearly five century old way of thinking about art was the pressure of arbitrariness and ubiquity of electronic signal. Paint spattered goat heads and electronic radio plays look out ahead to monkeys with laser eyes and octopus mouths. From the FBPP to the PFP and the POAP.

Hall of Fame Goat Lodge Goat, 3266/10,000 (2022).

This is not quite how Steinberg put it, but it is pretty damn close. Quoting from the original essay, what Rauschenberg had “invented above all” was “a pictorial surface that let the world in again.”  But “the world” (i.e. pictorial subject matter, the stuff that had been banished by the now-orthodox Abstract Expressionists) had changed in the interim.  As Steinberg saw it, Rauschenberg’s new world was

Not the world of the Renaissance man who looked for his weather clues out of the window; but the world of men who turn knobs to hear a taped message, “precipitation probability ten percent tonight,” electronically transmitted from some windowless booth. Rauschenberg’s picture plane is for the consciousness immersed in the brain of the city.

Not the physical world itself, but its registration through technological encoding.  Not out the window, but on the radio, or through an app.   

Lest one mistake the interpretative valence here, this move from the transparent window to the opaque technological receiver was a move in the right direction.  The new conception of art as a screen for popular and technological artifacts would be both democratizing and humanizing: it would open artmaking to  “admit any experience as the matter of representation,” not just those deemed worthy by the established tastemakers.  And in so doing, it would “readmit the artist in the fullness of his human interests” and create a new category of “the artist-technician.”  One can almost hear the inchoate promise of Web3 in his words. 

This is where the little-known backstory of this important essay comes into play.  The essay was originally published in 1972, but was first given as a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968, a site with enormous importance for Rauschenberg and his dealer Leo Castelli.  As I detail in a book forthcoming in September, Castelli and MoMA were entangled in an unholy alliance that leveraged organized tax fraud as a means to open the art world to new voices, and to make the process of that opening a financially self-sustaining enterprise. Key to the fraud were the services of academics like Steinberg, who lent their pens and their reputations to Castelli’s artists in exchange for silent payment in cash and works of art. If a blue-chip academic like Steinberg claimed that the work was groundbreaking, grossly inflated appraisals prepared for insurance or tax-donation purposes could find sudden justification. This is not to claim that Steinberg’s arguments for Rauschenberg’s art are invalid but rather to insist that they are not as disinterested as orthodox art history would make them appear.  As always, it’s imperative to follow the money. 

Which brings us back to the titular “other criteria.”  Steinberg insists that new standards will become necessary for judging the work of Rauschenberg and his ilk because their art comprises “a symptom of changes which go far beyond questions of picture planes, or of painting as such.”  What began as a brushfire in aesthetics might quickly spread to disparate parts of culture, and from there, to politics, economics and to technology itself.  Eventually.  Steinberg cannot quite see that far, but he presciently notes that the “old standby criteria,” by which he means the markers of what today would refer to as privilege –will be left to “rule an eroding plane.”  A striking visual that Steinberg chose as his ending note.  He leaves his readers wondering not just what the other criteria will be, but even more importantly, who will arbitrate them?

Alan Solomon Telegram to Leo Castelli (1964), suggesting backroom deal making around Rauschenberg’s Venice Biennale win. Image from author research, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

At, the dawn of the new roaring 20s, the answer shouted from the rafter would be seem to be the DAO. Shorn of backroom deal making and inclusive of all community members, the denizens of the metaverse clamber to decide their own markers of quality. The eminent critic would not have stomached this auto-disruption very well.  He would have been reticent to surrender his position as a powerful tastemaker cultivated by extensive study and the substantial professional risk necessary for an academic to wade into the turbulent waters of contemporary art in the 1960s. Nor would he have looked favorably on the ethic of radical transparency regarding the money trail.

This question of tastemaking is still radically undetermined in the Web3 world. Apologists argue that the trustless domain of the blockchain will usher in a new social contract, one that constitutes a necessary response to the staggering power suddenly amassed by the reigning platforms of Web2.  The only way to speak back against the algorithms that suddenly rule so much of our lives may be to own them collectively.  This is a critical line of argument, and one that bears our important historical precedents. As scholars including Joseph Kelley and Julia Cagé other have argued, the voting structure of the joint-stock company did much to foster the creation of representative democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

And yet, there are strong reasons for skepticism. The promise of the DAO seems to trade against the fundamentals of human nature—to delegate responsibility outwards when the burdens of supervision scale faster than their rewards. Ask anyone who has ever suffered through a public town hall, a school board meeting or a condo association session.   Or as security researcher Moxie Marlinspike put it vividly: 

People do not want to run their own servers. Even nerds do not want to run their own servers at this point. Even organizations building software full time do not want to run their own servers at this point. If there’s one thing I hope we’ve learned about the world, it’s that people do not want to run their own servers.

And the more infrastructure creation that is outsourced, the less effective the exercise of collective ownership will be. We’ll merely be renting our own futures back from ourselves.

Rauschenberg Appraisal Form showing 15x valued appraisal of work, filed just days after Venice Biennale win rumored to have been engineered by Leo Castelli, Alan Solomon and Ileana Sonnabend. Image from author research, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

But renting from whom exactly? The optics look like a rehash of the current exploitation. As Scott Galloway has recently observed, less than one tenth of wallets own more than three quarters of NFT value, while the top 2% of accounts own 95% of all Bitcoin. And what follows from there? Pace Galloway, “every member of Forbes’s 2021 cryptobillionaires list is a man. A third of them attended Stanford or Harvard. Out of the 12 listed, only one isn’t white.”  Where have we seen this movie before?  

These are not the conditions under which effective bottom-up transparency can be exercised, and the stakes are enormous. Strikingly, most historical episodes of radical shared ownership and collective governance have tipped themselves into tyranny. One could run the gamut from the 17th century Muenster rebellion up through the cult of WeWork to watch subtle variations on a dominant theme. One shudders at the thought of ambitious DAOs disintegrating into seething mobs fomented by charismatic bullies and false messiahs.  And nothing turns utopian optimism inside out faster than the sense of being pwned by those who were once trusted guides.  

Which returns us one final time to the question of other criteria, but here I mean my own rather than Steinberg’s.  Perhaps the ground truth for the new standards will need to begin by bearing out an ethic of transparency as the public intellectual record of the next decade is created in real time.  The world of the very past has been characterized by the rise of “owned media”—investment firms, consultancies and other interested stakeholders have begun to produce voluminous white papers and analyses that overtly blur the domains of disinterested academic research and high-concept brand marketing. A model also happened upon by Castelli and Steinberg under different circumstances but for many of the same reasons. But as a Kantian ethic of neutrality—which is arguably a quasi-democratic gloss on the aristocratic privilege of detachment—gives way to a high dollar marketplace of ideas and investment theses, our best defense may be in the simple disclosure form.  At the start, our other criteria need only be open.

Interests only conflict when they are hidden. WM

Mike Maizels

Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures.  He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution.  He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics.  He is currently the Head of Research at Abra, financial services and technology company based in Mountain View, and an affiliate at the metaLAB, a think tank and creative technology lab at Harvard University. 

 

All views expressed are the author’s alone and may not reflect the views of Abra or of the metaLAB. 

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