Backtracking

Interestingly, my interest in criticism and post-criticality is also leading me in a very different direction: namely, when critics get it wrong. And here I’m not referring to factual errors, or some gradual reneging on a judgment of an artist. I’m talking about the god-awful, crazy errors that become shockingly apparent with the passing of time. I’m interested in about-turns, and how they are verbalised and defended.

In 2012, art critic Peter Schjeldahl publicly backtracked on A Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (below, 1909), a famous and well-loved painting by Gustav Klimt. Six years prior he had deemed it ‘exquisite and brazen, compelling and brittle’ and ‘transcendent in its cunning way’. Now that verdict had changed. Instead, the work for Schjeldahl was now an almost obscene illustration of both economic and formal excess, of narcissism. In his own words:

The content of the gorgeous whatsit seems a rhyming of conspicuously consumed wealth with show-off eroticism. She’s a vamp, is Adele; and for whom would she be simpering but the randy master, Herr Klimt? The effect is a closed loop of his and her narcissisms. They’re them, and we aren’t. I think we are supposed to be impressed. And let’s be. Why not? Our age will be bookmarked in history by the self-adoring gestures of the incredibly rich. Aesthetics ride coach.

Quite a change. Other examples would be Greenberg – no surprises there – changing his mind about Monet, indeed coming back to it through his own justification of abstract expressionism. Another example would be Greenberg’s hyperbolic valorisation of Jules Olitski as ‘the best painter alive,’ the enthusiasm of which has been definitely undermined. I’m interested in Krauss ditching Greenbergian formalism, and how she justified that (1). I’m interested in the mutability of criticism, and how that plays alongside judgement – of the black and white variety, in particular.

Krauss wrote of her practice as a ‘perpetual inventory,’ the implication being that it is a shifting one. Some things run out, but maybe they don’t need re-stocking. In such a way, the work of writing criticism keeps itself open to change, contradiction even, in the face of a certain demand.

300px-Gustav_Klimt_046

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1909)

In respect to Schjeldahl’s reappraisal of Adele, we can put it down to two possible reasons: one, that his taste changed, and that those six years effectuated a kind of aesthetic hardening or maybe refinement: the second, and the more likely I think, is that the painting now meant something different in 2012, that its context had changed. Its ostentatious character was no longer able to differentiate itself from its own lurid context. In fact, maybe it even reproduced it.

By such an understanding, there’s actually an imperative to change your mind, no matter how committed that initial judgement was. Anyway, just a few thoughts here, hopefully I can develop them at some point. I really need to find Lucy Lippard’s 1970 essay Change and Criticism: Consistency and Small Minds, so if anyone has a copy please do let me know.

1. See Rosalind Krauss, 1972, A View of Modernism in Harrison, C. and P. Wood, eds, 1992, Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford & Malden, Mass: Blackwell, pp. 953-957

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