Restlessness and Reception: Transforming Art Criticism in the Age of the Blogosphere

Martin Patrick

To be just, or fair, which is to have its raison d’etre, criticism must be partial, passionate, political; it should be exclusive, but it should be written from a point of view that opens up the greatest number of horizons. —Charles Baudelaire, Salon of 1846 [1]

The lesson is: When it comes to art, always be ready to be surprised by anything and to be satisfied and exhilarated by surprise. The lesson is to want unwelcome surprises. And I think this is the way in which to get the most from art, whether new or old. … —Clement Greenberg, Bennington Seminars, 1971 [2]

Colleagues of mine will tell you that people despise critics because they fear our power. But I know better. People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar—flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music. It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone. —Dave Hickey, Air Guitar, 1995 [3]

Nearly a decade into the twenty-first century, art criticism finds itself directly pressured by the considerable impact and strain of new technologies that exist precariously on the cusp of being emergent and anachronistic. Although art criticism is not ‘dead’ exactly, pointed questions might be raised as to both its current health and future prospects. One could maintain that many of those skeptical about the relevance of criticism today are likely asserting the fact that the ‘old school’ premises which guided much extant criticism are simply not viable when asked to speak toward and elucidate the newer approaches, attitudes and configurations guiding much recent art. In particular this becomes the case when addressing work that involves collaboration and dialogue, mediated modes of communication, and the assorted hybrid forms that defy easy classification in terms of the discrete art object or enclosed site. The converse in a sense is also involved, in terms of those who seek to cordon off criticism either as a so-called ‘objective’ offshoot of academic writing or as purportedly ‘populist’ texts that serve the interests of various commercial institutions far more than their presumed audiences.

Moreover, as in the case of cultural production itself, the contexts in which critical essays are comissioned, written, and disseminated have shifted radically over the course of the last several years. As art criticism has been rather polemically termed by James Elkins (among others) as ‘writing without readers,’ I am increasingly interested in whether indeed this is an accurate assessment or not, and who is reading criticism, how are they choosing what to read, and how is this impacting contemporary practice. [4] An introduction to a recent anthology of texts by artists, critics, and theorists asserted: ‘the art that has been produced in the last fifteen years has generated virtually no theoretical reflection or historical contextualization.’ [5] This is a broad generalization made largely to contrast the current climate with in particular the trend of labeling (Pop, Op, Minimal, Conceptual) that tapered off to a degree after the1960s. But if we take even a grain of truth from this bit of overblown hyperbole, it might be interesting to consider whether the diversification and dispersion of contemporary art practice has been a major factor contributing to a relative dilution of traditionally ‘meaningful’—that is to say for argument’s sake widely read and accordingly influential—critical commentary.

Nonetheless, however one might attempt to sugarcoat the less than palatable diagnosis, here’s the bad news: current artwriting and criticism is often entirely dreary, tedious, and superfluous, reiterating the worst of the old, with little attempt to challenge or test its own largely self-imposed limits. What might offer a way out of this predicament? Potentially one could consider the significance of the shifting, mutable critical voices careening and chattering through the electronic ether in the form of blogs and other seemingly ephemeral phenomena. Blogs by their very nature facilitate collecting, collating, scavenging, sampling, collaging, assembling, suturing.

In place of these terms I often find myself using such increasingly dated metaphors as ‘getting in the way back machine’ or ‘rewinding the tape’ just as my students are involved in their ethereal electronic reveries, rather than the mechanically cumbersome processes I once lived and breathed on a daily basis; precarious stacks of mix tapes now transformed into an iTunes library overloaded with weeks of unheard music. But if the notion of ‘winding’ tape becomes ever more quaint, we are still charged with the following important tasks similarly prefaced by re-: re-searching, re-working, re-presenting, re-vising, and, one hopes, re-thinking the past. These associations also bring to mind a t-shirt design I’ve seen recently, depicting a cassette tape paired with the phrase: OLD SCHOOL. Its significance is relatively ambiguous, as does it signal an ironic reference to outmoded technology or a nostalgic embrace of the same?

Hybridized responses to cultural production have been rapidly proliferating throughout various fields of artistic endeavor, particularly since the 1990s. Selected examples include: legal issues raised by Negativland’s aural collage works which bring together samples and satires of existing music and sounds; similarly composer John Oswald’s ‘Plunderphonics’ works; producer Danger Mouse’s mashup of 2003 Jay-Z hip hop and 1968 Beatles pop as the Grey Album (2004); Jay-Z’s own 2008 sampling of Sri Lankan-British singer M.I.A.’s 2007 song ‘Paper Planes’, which was already primarily based on a sample of the Clash’s 1982 ‘Straight to Hell’; Beck’s use of sixties rock n’roll (such as that of Van Morrison) as backing tracks for his earnest-ironic postmodern balladeering (Johnny Cash himself dubbed him a good ‘hillbilly singer’) [6]; artists Kelley Walker and Glen Ligon summoning Andy Warhol’s race riot silkscreens as undercoats for their differing approaches to twenty-first century critical practice; Paul Pfeiffer digitally altering and looping sporting event footage to draw out associations with Francis Bacon’s paintings; DJ Spooky—aka Paul D. Miller—reconfiguring director D.W. Griffith’s cinematic ‘masterwork’ Birth of a Nation which featured the Ku Klux Klan as its heroic protagonists. This brief list could be extended well into the next several pages (but a short breather is in order).

All of these examples involve high/low, art/non-art, historical/topical referents significantly juxtaposed and entangled with each other. We currently inhabit a climate of great postmodern distraction. Given this, it might prove helpful to return once again to consult the seminal observations of theorist Walter Benjamin, originally made in reference to cinema and its impact on the reception of the audience:

The technological reproducibility of the artwork changes the relation of the masses to art. The extremely backward attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into a highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film. The progressive reaction is characterized by an immediate, intimate fusion of pleasure—pleasure in seeing and experiencing—with an attitude of expert appraisal. Such a fusion is an important social index. As is clearly seen in the case of painting, the more reduced the social impact of an art form, the more widely criticism and enjoyment of it diverge in the public. [7]

Such is the case in the early twenty-first century, if one updates this commentary anachronistically to incorporate YouTube and many of the other phenomena which merge the social, aesthetic, experiential, within spectacular entertainment. We are light years on from 1939 and Benjamin’s own specific context, but as is generally acknowledged, his prescience in terms of recognizing foundational moments in modern culture has few equals. And when Benjamin speaks further of a ‘reception in distraction … [film] encourages an evaluating attitude in the audience but also because, at the movies the evaluating attitude requires no attention. The audience is an examiner, but a distracted one,’ [8] he seems to speak uncannily toward our newer era of intermingled distraction and reception exemplified by the technological model widely used for disseminating ‘amateur’ criticism. Blogs are at once consequential, archived, commented upon, and up-to-the-minute, mercurial, transitory. But this does not overwhelm the great number of potential effects owing to this phenomenon. To dismiss blogs as lacking in seriousness or importance is to miss the point entirely. To a degree we must proceed to welcome distraction and commence our analyses from that point on, without attempting to filter out or unduly restrict our responses. As Jill Walker Rettberg has recently noted: ‘A literary critic will rarely see the binding of a book as being important to its literary quality. A blog, however, cannot be read simply for its writing, but will always be seen as the sum of writing, layout, connections and links, and tempo.’ [9]

Hybrid forms of art making, writing, and dissemination have also opened up substantial questions concerning the legal ramifications of such developments. The legal theorist and writer Lawrence Lessig has been one of the most outspoken advocates for altering and reshaping the applications and structures of copyright law, particularly through the organization Creative Commons. In Lessig’s book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (2008), he writes:

We need to restore a copyright law that leaves ‘amateur creativity’ free from regulation. Or put differently, we need to revise the kind of outrage that [musician John Philip] Sousa felt at the very idea that the law would regulate the equivalent of the ‘young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs.’ This was our history. This history encouraged a wide range of RW [Read/Write] creativity. And even if the twentieth century lulled us into a couch-potato stupor, there’s no justification for permitting that stupor to sanction the radical change that the law, in the context of digital technologies, has now effected—the regulation, again, of amateur culture. [10]

In turning his attention to examples drawn from the contemporary artworld, Lessig cites the absurdist situation of Yoko Ono, despite her experimental art roots, becoming inordinately protective of the use of John Lennon’s music in a work by artist Candice Breitz, who was referred via Ono’s lawyers to Sony’s lawyers who initially quoted a $45,000 royalty fee for the right to use Lennon’s music in the context of Breitz’s month-long exhibition, which featured a video of twenty-five fans—amateurs, in both senses of the word—singing the entire 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. [11]

Here I would reiterate that arguably the most compelling connection drawing together the three critics cited in my opening epigraphs is the notion of the critic as ‘amateur.’ All three writers have privileged creative writing (i.e. fiction and poetry) above criticism but largely owing to their significant encounters with art and artists of their respective eras became immersed in their engagement with contemporary criticism. Even more specifically, criticism treated as a vocation, reflecting in turn the term Hickey has often used to refer to participants in the artworld: ‘volunteers.’ The blog—apart from the vast amount underwritten directly by corporate sponsorship—is most often an amateur/volunteer’s virtual space involving a greater probability of being generated and launched quickly, randomly, even haphazardly, and with more chance of rapidly ensuing back-and-forth discussions, responses, dialogue than a traditionally formatted journal, magazine or newspaper can generally allow.

 

Appropriating Anachronisms and Sampling Criticism

A recent American television drama set in the very early 1960s entitled Mad Men features well-groomed but boorish white men in the ‘creative’ area of a corporate firm, i.e.: creating advertising campaigns. [12] The rampant and undisguised misogyny and racism depicted in the workplace competes only with the executives’ considerable propensity for consuming drink and cigarettes. Above and beyond this, the production design is the primary star here: wood-paneled offices, highlighted in sepia, metallic and mustard accents, and adorning the walls are vague approximations of Guston, de Konning and Kline.

Don Draper’s office, set of Mad Men television series (AMC), featuring Michal Shapiro’s Butternut. Courtesy Michal Shapiro.

They act as stand-ins, surrogates (recalling artist Allan McCollum’s 1980s use of the term). It’s the era immediately preceding Clement Greenberg’s Post-Painterly Abstraction essay of 1964, in which he could be addressing these generic abstractions when he critiques the ‘mannerism’ of the ‘Tenth Street Touch’:

The stroke left by a loaded brush or knife frays out, when the stroke is long enough, into streaks, ripples, and specks of paint. These create variations of light and dark by means of which juxtaposed strokes can be graded into one another without abrupt contrasts. … Out of these close-knit variations or gradations of light and dark, the typical Abstract Expressionist picture came to be built, with its typical density of accents and its packed, agitated look. [13]

The appropriated use of gestural abstraction as stylistic trope cum window dressing continues the ever so ironic conceits upon which Mad Men constructs its narrative edifice. For example work by Warhol is not yet displayed in the boardroom, but his notions and his own background as a high-end designer-illustrator are evoked here instead. When the central protagonist of the series attends a Greenwich Village poetry reading, he displays tangible unease, and states ‘I’ve gotta go. Too much art here for me.’ Later one of his staff confesses to having made ‘artsy-craftsy’ photographs back home, and describes making pictures of handprints on windowpanes to evoke the caves of Lascaux, a description also recalling the standard fodder of the journal Aperture when helmed by Minor White during the 1950s. Bargain basement art history is thereby imported into premium television drama. Meanwhile in the actual—rather than simulated—period of 1960-64, Yoko Ono was writing and making many of the most astute criticisms of the accumulated assumptions around painting in her copious set of ‘instruction poems’ including the PAINTING TO BE STEPPED ON: ‘Leave a piece of canvas or finished painting on the floor or in the street Winter 1960.’ [14]

Critic Greil Marcus has written of a kind of thwarted potential of Mad Men as dramatic art stating: ‘Almost every episode gives up new detail and nuance on a second or third viewing, but in a second or third viewing of a Law & Order rerun a sense of high stakes remains and with Mad Men it’s barely present, smothered by exaggerated period affectations, mannerisms, costumes.’ [15] He goes on to discuss how multiple sources in the past from Mad magazine to novelist Philip Roth have more acutely satirized the excesses of the Madison Avenue approach. As this appears a dead end, he raises the question of how Mad Men might more succesfully engage on difference and otherness in the sixties by conjuring a scenario in which main (m-)adman ‘Don Draper’ emigrates to Paris to live out a James Baldwin-style bohemian writer’s existence.

Michal Shapiro, Butternut (2000) Acrylic on canvas, 24” x 48”. Courtesy of the artist.

Even more intriguingly, the canvas highlighted most prominently in the set of Don Draper’s office was actually painted in 2000 by the artist, music producer, and writer Michal Shapiro, whose artworks have been recently hired for use in many different film and television productions. Shapiro comments:

Butternut is a painting that I did not create with a consciousness to be retro, but it certainly references the past, as I am very influenced by the structures inherent in the work of Cézanne and early cubism (although I was not as interested in its spatial investigations.). It was an improvisation as most of my paintings are, done at a time when I had decided not to use brushes for a while and to see where that decision would take me.

Butternut has a very rich surface, as it was done entirely with palette knife. … For the full first season [of Mad Men] they chose to use only Butternut and they rented the actual painting, …For the second (and third) season they are using a giclée, instead of the actual painting, which they had me make for them, and which they now own. So in the first year, if you really look at the painting, you will see much richer color and even possibly some texture. The giclée is of course, high quality, but it is after all, a flat [ink jet] print on canvas. [16]

To extend our attention further to the ancient concerns of abstraction today—the continuing efforts of Gerhard Richter and a number of others notwithstanding—is an open invitation to humor, irony, if not complete ridicule. The recent exploits of the Canadian interdisciplinary artist Rodney Graham pursue the latter strand as in his recent revisiting of modernist painting. According to a Lisson Gallery press release:

[in] The Gifted Amateur, Nov.10th, 1962, 2007, a three-part lightbox, the artist takes on the persona of a painting dilettante. Graham is standing in his pyjamas, intent on pouring paint on a large stretched canvas in the manner of abstract expressionism. The setting is a spacious west coast modernist living room, the subject of many Architectural Digests. The highly detailed photograph weaves together multiple references, showing Graham surrounded by stacks of artist monographs and scattered newspapers protecting the wooden floor, whose titles and dates are clearly readable, placing the image at a precise historical time. [17]

Of course the time in question is the Cold War, which in curious fashion after much coverage up until the 1990s, has seemingly vanished as a topic for historical and popular discussion in the twenty-first century, its displacement only somewhat understandable by the current horrific wars more recently set in place by its ostensible ‘victors.’ The origins of the internet itself derive from the American attempt to establish a communications system in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack under the aegis of the the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) a wing of the Department of Defense, or ARPAnet[work].

Rodney Graham, The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962, 2007. Backlit colour transparency triptych. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery

If one looks at the ARPA map it can induce a similarly dizzying vertiginous feel to another key modernist diagram, the links between Cubism and Abstract art as recorded by Alfred H. Barr for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 exhibition and catalogue. As Edward Tufte has noted:

Set in appropriately modern Futura type, the art chart simultaneously served as a beautiful cover for the catalog, a table of contents for the show, an organizing history of the art displayed in the museum, and a symbol of the entire enterprise. [18]

The contentiousness of the critical wars in abstraction are still proferred up in cooler, virtual form if one turns toward a site simply titled ‘Clement Greenberg,’ although an accurate subtitle might be Night of the Living Clem. Here one can watch Greenberg’s lectures once again and read major essays such as the one cited above and hear out witnesses to the critic’s greatness. [19] Still living ones, I would add. The site seeks to function to some extent as a historical corrective, an attempt to make Greenberg less purely horrible and horrifying as he was made out since the 1980s, most often as the exemplary foil to postmodernism. Now if there is anything more incongruous than listening to Clement Greenberg, author of ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’ via streaming video I don’t know what it is exactly. The web becomes a tool for ‘housing’ certain materials, indeed a virtual archive, or in Andre Malraux’s famous phrase a ‘museum without walls’ but then it is more important to ask how can newer arrangements, actions, conversations be created on the basis of these contextual settings.

Intriguingly in a late interview (1994) Greenberg was asked his opinion of Gerhard Richter, widely acknowledged as one of the most significant international living painters. He had the following to say:

I saw some by Richter in Chicago and I can’t understand why he has become so well-known. I must admit that I have seen only a few of his paintings. I am acquainted with the rest of his work only through reproductions. At the same time he goes in different directions. I really need to see more of the actual paintings. For example, I know one of his original works in the Museum of Modern Art, and it is not good. But since I have no faith in reproductions, I can’t say much about Richter. Nevertheless, I’m amazed how much he is talked about. What I’ve seen is nothing special.[20]

Greenberg’s judgment of Richter is unsurprisingly negative. However the remark about his distrust of reproductions and candor about his need to see more works firsthand is disarming. Perhaps he was especially courteous and mindful of the fact that this was a German interview, but it’s unlikely that he was pulling his punches in the slightest. Today thinking of how much work in the artworld is for very understandable reasons often only seen in reproduction, there is an anachronistic but also encouraging aspect to Greenberg’s remark, in that indeed one can’t offer a full appraisal of almost any work without confronting it in actuality.

However bereft of a certain kind of prescience Greenberg’s criticism may have turned out to be, for longevity of criticism, that is to say, whether it still might be worth reading when we are less interested in its specific focus, one might argue that poetics trumps prescience. For all the overheated and fervent claims often proffered about art these will get sorted out, and it’s the ways of analyzing, interpreting, and describing in evocative, carefully constructed texts that make a difference.

In terms of Greenberg’s criticism, its truly impressive aspect (particularly in the late 1940s and early 1950s period) is that his brief essays erupt into bursts of description and analysis that seem almost of a piece with what was emerging from the artists’ studios as he discovers:

[a] hallucinated uniformity. Uniformity—the notion is antiaesthetic. And yet the pictures of many of the painters named above get away with this uniformity, however meaningless and repellent the uninitiated might find it. This very uniformity, this dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation, seems to answer something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other. [21]

This is a description that travels a great distance from the observable to the incalculable, even the unrepresentable in less than one hundred words.

But there is a curiously odd feeling that arises when regarding much of the retrospective material constructed in contexts such as artists’ reenactments, the Clement Greenberg site or the Mad Men series, a mood of selfrighteousness somewhat distanced from critique, more congratulatory in manner. Almost as if to try and dispel any notion that we are still “like those people,” when invariably in certain respects we certainly are.

A bracing fictional allegory for the ongoing predicaments of criticism is offered up in writer Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel Chronic City (2010). The most vivid character in this postmodernist satire is the critic Perkus Tooth who conducts a modest (rent-controlled) existence in NYC at the beginning of the narrative, which quickly unravels. Lethem exactingly and lovingly describes Tooth as a prematurely aging cult figure of the downtown scene, a shabby and reclusive dandy, prone to longwinded rants:

Perkus’s spiel encompassed Monte Hellman, Semina Culture, Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, the Mafia’s blackmailing of J. Edgar Hoover over erotic secrets (resulting in the bogus amplification of Cold War fear and therefore the whole of our contemporary landscape), Vladimir Mayakovsky and the futurists, Chet Baker, Nothingism, the ruination Giuliani’s administration had brought to the sacred squalor of Times Square, the genius of The Gnuppet Show, Frederick Exley, Jacques Rivette’s impossible-to-see twelve-hour movie Out 1, corruption of the arts by commerce generally, Slavoj Zizek on Hitchcock, Franz Marplot on G. K. Chesterton, Norman Mailer on Muhammed Ali, Norman Mailer on graffiti and the space program, Brando as dissident icon, Brando as sexual saint, Brando as Napoleon in exile. Names I knew and didn’t. Others I’d heard once and never troubled to wonder about. [22]

Moreover, in Perkus Tooth, who becomes ever more obsessive, paranoid, and ultimately homeless and gravely ill over the course of the novel, we have a chillingly representative ‘last critic standing,’ a former contributor to Artforum, Rolling Stone and Criterion Collection liner notes who virtually disappears into thin air.

The critical model still used currently, and actively engaged with by the likes of Lethem’s Perkus Tooth, was for the most part in place by the nineteenth century. When one writes criticism today one returns to the previous formulaic styles and tropes characteristic of the field, making much new criticism recall the old. A different attitude toward variegated approaches and forms is definitely needed. I am in sympathy with critic and historian Matthew Jesse Jackson who writes:

We must encourage art criticism that performs labor on the very possibility of the critical act. … We need a new range of critical identities and authorial voices, or, to paraphrase Hickey, we need art criticism that does not look like art criticism. … We need spoken criticism, performed criticism, silent criticism, criticism of criticism, criticism of the criticism of criticism, sung criticism, anti-criticism, painted criticism, CRITICISM, “criticism,” filmed criticism, environmental criticism, geological criticism, afterlife criticism (that is, criticism from beyond the grave), criticism that destroys the objects of its criticism, and so on and so forth. [23]

Furthermore, from my point of view, we are often involved in myriad acritical acts of sampling the past and not getting much closer to the future. This is where my own hope lies, in new critical acts, such as in those potentialities raised by Jackson’s above litany, and most likely in more untested forms such as blogs and other arenas which haven’t as yet become altogether saturated in scope nor exhausted in force.

 

Rapid Response and Pranks as Praxis

‘This is amazing. I know it’s fake, but this is amazing.’ —Videotaped reaction to the New York Times satire by the Yes Men.

On November 12, 2008, in a handful of cities spread across the United States, over a million copies of a mock New York Times were freely distributed. The 14 page newspaper had been created and planned over the course of eight months leading up to that date by The Yes Men collective, which adds and subtracts collaborators but was founded by two core members both featured in a 2004 widely circulated documentary. The prank simulacrum featured a boldface headline proclaiming: ‘IRAQ WAR ENDS.’[24]

Fake” New York Times, November 12, 2008. (Newsprint and web versions) Courtesy of the Yes Men.

This work has many antecedents such as the Yoko Ono-John Lennon billboards from the Vietnam era which read ‘WAR IS OVER if you want it’ or the Plastic Ono Band’s Sometime in New York City (1972) record featuring both topical songs and a satire of the Times as its cover, which included a montage of Nixon and Mao dancing together naked. In addition it brings to mind many other activist artworks and statements from Ant Farm and Emory Douglas to Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Hans Haacke. But it is also cut from the cloth of artists’ writings from the heyday of conceptualism published as magazine pieces and parodies of mainstream presentation. It is little more than expected that any critical comments provoked by this event at this early stage have been minimal, light, and jovial so to speak, lessening the import and significance of the action itself. The artist Martha Rosler stated in a 2004 Artforum article:

I am ambivalent about the return of “political art” as a flat field of action or analysis. Fashionability makes it susceptible to dismissal. Much worse, artists are hailed as merry pranksters, as some curators actively celebrate the frivolously empty riff (by what might be termed the Monkees of the art world) on '60s collectivism. … Electronic art forms have offered a moment of activism--as in “tactical media”—and often provided sophisticated political analysis, available online, of course. (“The revolution will be webcast!” writes Geert Lovink.) Activists and hacktivists have stepped into the space vacated by video, whose expansively utopian and activist potential has been depoliticized, as “video art,” much like photography before it, was removed from wide public address by its incarceration in museum mausoleums and collectors' cabinets. [25]
The Yes Men’s prank had an accompanying web presence also, with the same material made available, but rather disturbingly in the ‘real’ New York Times’ own blog, the action was stripped once again of impact by its headline reduction to ‘Liberal Pranksters Hand Out Times Spoof’ and a historian of the newspaper is quoted as stating that the Times should be flattered by the parody. Of the ensuing comments posted to the NY times blog, one respondent sums up the irony of the NY times’ jocular reaction with the following comment: ‘And it doesn’t ‘imagine a liberal utopia’ — just something better than the conservative dystopia of the last eight years. Let’s not forget the role the NYT played in banging the drums for war.’

We could also associate the Yes Men’s intervention with the following quote from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: ‘Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.’ [26] The Yes Man ‘Mike Bonnano’ offers a similar perspective on the collective’s idea of ‘identity correction’ in the 2003 film on the group: ‘We target people we see as criminals and try to steal their identity to try and make them more honest. We are trying to create public spectacles that in some kind of poetic way reveal something that’s profoundly a problem.’ [27]

It’s appropriate that core members Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum (both aliases) began their careers working in the fields of interactive video games and experimental fiction, and became known in small circles for their Situationist-style détournements of existing media products: video games, children’s dolls. [28] The impulse behind much of this seems as much Surrealism as social activism, and this has carried through many of their projects, initially under the aegis of the collective RTMark and under the Yes Men ‘brand.’ Nonetheless, critique is the core of many of the political actions, with outrageous statements undermining corporate pretensions and spin reverberating throughout the generally corporate-controlled mainstream media.

The Yes Men preserve a line from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons that asserts that in America at least, the product’s the thing, or the information garnered from the web and online venues is truthful until proven otherwise. That is the appearance or shell of authenticity is purchased by its seeming verisimilitude, no matter its actual content. [29] The form is what convinces, extending echoes of McLuhan’s media theory into the present day. And quite significantly the product in question here is a freely distributed hard copy newspaper. This is especially interesting given their origins as a collective known in large part for hacking digital environments.

Copies of “fake” New York Times prior to distribution. Courtesy of the Yes Men

The efforts and trouble incurred by actually printing this mock paper included: using six different presses, soliciting the efforts of thousands of people to transport batches to a variety of pick up points and to physically distribute copies on the street and elsewhere. But this poking holes through the media façade and showing preposterously stitched together lies and subterfuge is again most often framed and delimited in the American context as ‘fun and games,’ ‘entertainment’ thus inconsequential in terms of actions rather than passive responses. In a Guardian newspaper survey of twelve major artists on ‘the Creative Legacy of the Bush Administration,’ published shortly before the US election, there was really almost nothing positive to say, although one respondent, the experimental theatre director Elisabeth LeCompte (renowned for her productions with the Wooster Group) commented that:

He has fostered the rise of political satire as an art form again. It hasn't been very strong for the last 30 years or so and I think television programmes such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and South Park are all political works of art. Without the Bush administration I don't think satire would have been as strong. It revived irony. [30]

The Yes Men by their admission after the fact, planned this work for more than eight months, and released the final outcome in November to help emphasize the fact that president-elect Barack Obama must be pressed to make good on his promises (and more): According to ‘Bichlbaum’: ‘This was about showing people how much change we really want.’ Hundreds of people were involved in its creation and production, including many other groups, three dozen writers, some staff members of ‘authentic’ daily papers. A question from a CNN interviewer afterwards almost inevitably appeared to have been scripted by the Yes Men themselves: ‘With the economy in meltdown a lot of us have forgotten about the war …The economy has knocked the war off the headlines. Is this your way of bringing the war back to the headlines?’

 

Criticism and the Online Version of ‘Public’ Space

I’m not sure what to do with my inbox. Specifically whether to subscribe or not (actually I already know the answer) to such lists as e-flux, a way of getting the maximum amount of art related press releases, bulletins, show announcements in a short span of time. Which in turn requires a vast amount of time sifting through information about exhibitions of which I will never see, perhaps never hear of again, and never even scan other residual documentation. But ‘services’ such as e-flux become arteries within the artworld’s body public, as it has been remade in a rather extreme makeover indeed. The dispersement of information has changed from information overload exactly to something more akin to steady flows, drenching us in both desired and undesired knowledge. If we turn off or slow the tap we are very likely to feel somewhat guilty.

The internet offers a seemingly open public space that is simultaneously private, solipsistic, restricted. Within this reconfigured environment the digital archive acts as a kind of indirect critical mechanism and virtual repertory house for essential material to be potentially drawn upon by interested parties. That is to say, the accessibility lent to previously arcane and unusual avant-gardist phenomena goes a long way towards setting a tone for the integration of the wildly eccentric and experimental practices that are too long overlooked rather than solely the widely accepted canonical material which is in turn overexposed and despite its merits altogether lifeless. Thus the existence of new sites such as Kenneth Goldsmiths’ www.ubu.com facilitates the permissive and promiscuous notion of having experimental strands of poetry, prose, music, film and visual culture inhabit a treasure hunt/database ready to scavenged and relived via the use of mp3 files, YouTube-style streaming video, text files and so on means that Hollis Frampton, Marcel Broodthaers, Luigi Russolo and many more are incrementally closer to becoming household names.

Writer Michael Newman in the context of a recent panel discussion on art criticism has suggested that the crux of any debate on the significance of art criticism is the state of the public arena in which it functions. Thus with the decline in the amount of open public discourse over the last few decades, there exists a corresponding reduction, often called crisis, in the impact of art criticism. The following question then emerges: are we losing a singular public space or gaining many different ones? A discussion in the US recently focused on the use of public unused ‘white space’ broadcasting channels. This would enable wider internet access in rural areas, for example, but before there is much ability even to think about this in its broadest potential, there is simply the back and forth debating over this ‘free space’ by corporate media entities protective of their own interests. At almost the same moment it was announced President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign raised all told a sum of at least $750 million USD in order to carry out the broadcast television advertising allegedly needed to bring his campaign to a successful culmination. This staggering figure is beyond the scope of most people’s imaginative powers, and is more than the amounts raised by both candidates put together in the Presidential election four years previously. Is it any wonder that in the United States the opportunity for free and open discourse—rather than auctioning it off to the highest big media bidder—might appear to many observers to have been already preempted?

It will be fascinating and no doubt harrowing to see the effects of the worldwide financial turmoil as it filters down into the various sectors of the artworld, which has become increasingly bureaucratized and corporatized itself. Critic Lane Relyea acerbically wrote not long ago about the use of the ‘lounge’ as intermediate space in contemporary art venues, which he noted was far less comforting than the term implies:

No question the lounge is part of a trend—but toward what? More creative social spontaneity, or more chronically intermittent employment with longer ‘immaterial’ work hours and no benefits? Are we witnessing the fullfillment of that long-sought avant-garde dream of merging art and life, or is this merger more corporate than utopian, more the implementation of neo-liberal strategic goals for a fully freelance enconomy, one staffed by highly motivated, underpaid, short-term and subcontracted creative types for whom, in Osten’s words, ‘artists and designers are taken as the model’? [31]

But I would like to close by speculating as to whether we can hope for vastly different critical models brought about in accordance with our increasing dependence upon and interest in new technologies. For example, the wandering individual strolling as if some contemporary version of a Baudelairean flaneur alongside singular works of art as in the older style salon and modern exhibition displays seems a wholly anachronistic model. Such a model is unlikely to be optimal to address works that incorporate radically hybrid formats, involve many participants collectively, and tease at the borders beween art and life. The fact that art criticism might also become—for example—the commentaries typed into a computer simultaneously with an ongoing performance in real time as in newer cyberformance initiatives leads one to the notion that we are indeed undergoing radical changes in terms of temporality and reflection.

In the blogs written on art and other sundry information circulated via the internet, a conflation of differing temporal modes is ensured: real time, recently passed time, and longterm archival time fold into one another, rerouting and confounding any direct trajectory of presenting and commenting upon artworks themselves. When I return to a recently consulted site, I also wonder what has changed, I turn towards the familiar and find the previously unknown, in terms of links, transformations, reworkings. By taking nonlinear paths through these settings, I am arguably rewriting the texts and images via my own engagement. This is certainly not new to those involved with hypertext and digital media projects, discussion lists and other options for online communications, but what strikes me as most intriguing is the specific intersection between art and criticism.

If critics, curators, historians and other observer-participants are shifting their roles to become more akin to the model of the artist, and the artist takes on more roles and tasks previously assigned to the aforementioned figures, new mixtures of hybrid recombinant forms and statements are likely to ensue. Although much has been written of late concerning the ‘deskilling’ of contemporary art practice, what if we instead shifted this towards a correponding degree of ‘reskilling,’ new initiatives that might be less categorizable, more challenging in terms of their framing or the shunning of such discipline-restrictive particulars. [32] In many respects blogs return criticism to the series of competing and responsive ‘amateur’ voices that were initially the major sources of criticism historically. If Michel Foucault was correct in referring to the previous century as ‘Deleuzian,’ what we are left with in the current moment is the opportunity to merge aspects of Baudelairean specificity and Deleuzian multiplicity, so that in effect critics and artists might reciprocally incorporate flows of information but in so doing ‘open up the greatest number of horizons’ in curiouser and curiouser ways.

I would like to extend special thanks to Joe Amato, Barry Blinderman, David Cross, Marc Herbst, and Michal Shapiro for their invaluable input on earlier drafts of the present essay.

[1] Baudelaire, Charles. Jonathan Mayne, ed. Art in Paris 1845-1862. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 44.
[2] Greenberg, Clement. Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 188.
[3] Hickey, Dave. Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1997), 163.
[4] See Elkins, James. What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).
[5] Right About Now: Art and Theory Since the 1990s. Margriet Schavemaker and Mischa Rakier, eds (Amsterdam: Valiz Publishers, 2007), 9.
[6] Beck [Hansen]’s maternal grandfather Al Hansen (1927-1995) was one of the performance and mixed genre artists of the original Fluxus movement. In 1998, an exhibition entitled ‘Beck and Al Hansen: Playing with Matches’ pairing the two was mounted by the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
[7] Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 4 1938-1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 264.
[8] Ibid., 269.
[9] Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging (New York: Polity, 2008), 4.
[10] Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), 254.
[11] Ibid., 5-11.
[12] Created by Matthew Weiner, Mad Men debuted on AMC in the United States in 2007.
[13] Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4, John O’Brian, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 194.
[14] Ono, Yoko. Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), np
[15] Marcus, Greil. “Great Pretender.”Artforum (November, 2008), 109.
[16] E-mail to the author, Feb 15, 2010. For more on Ms. Shapiro’s art and other projects, see <www.michalshapiro.com>.
[17] Press release for Rodney Graham exhibition at Lisson Gallery, London dated 10th October - 17th November 2007. www.lissongallery.com.
[18] Tufte, Edward. Beautiful Evidence (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press LLC, 2006), 66.
[19] http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/
[20] Greenberg, Clement; Robert C. Morgan, ed. Late Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 227.
[21] Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 2, John O’Brian, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 224.
[22] Lethem, Jonathan. Chronic City (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), 12.
[23] The State of Art Criticism, James Elkins and Michael Newman, eds (New York: Routledge, 2008), 330-31.
[24] http://www.nytimes-se.com/
[25] “Out of the vox: Martha Rosler on art’s activist potential,” Artforum (Sept, 2004).
[26] Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983), 207.
[27] The Yes Men (2003) d. Dan Ollman, Sarah Price, Chris Smith, 82 min., MGM/DVD.
[28] The members featured in the documentary are Igor Vamos (aka ‘Mike Bonnano’) an Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY and Jacques Servin (aka ‘Andy Bichlbaum’), a former videogame designer and programmer and author of two books of short stories published by the small experimental press FC2.
[29] For a highly engaging study on the discourse of authenticity in the context of pop culture, see Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor. Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).
[30] ‘One book fair, hours of satire, and the Dixie Chicks - Bush's cultural legacy,’ The Guardian 31 October 2008 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/oct/31/george-bush-usa-culture.
[31] Relyea, Lane. ‘Your Art World: Or, The Limits of Connectivity,’ Afterall 14, 4.
[32] For an exemplary and detailed recent study on the notion of “skill” in relation to modern and contemporary art, see Roberts, John. The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (London: Verso, 2007).


 

Martin Patrick is Senior Lecturer of Critical Studies at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand. His writings have appeared internationally in such publications as Afterimage, Art Journal, Art Monthly, and Third Text. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Illinois State University, and the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is currently working on a book that examines artists who engage with the art/life divide.