From CronyCapitalism to CronyArtism
Establishment Art and Its Professional Paladins
Justifying Lack of Objectivity
Le plus grand style en art est l'expression de la plus haute révolte.
The high and mighty, those in power, cultural or other, seem to be able to get away with just about everything and anything. Now, that’s a platitude, as obvious as it gets. Alas, Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott doublespeaks like the worst of political hacks. First he presents the evident objectivity problem when one reviews the art work of a friend, then, of course, opts for that lack objectivity, though in a flurry of masking blather to further promote the work of his friend.
“Can an art critic fairly review an artist friend’s work?” he asks in the title of his article. Without yet reading it, I immediately concluded he’d respond in the affirmative. And sure enough. Kennicott begins with a dubious statment: “There’s no upside for an artist to be friends with an art critic.” Evidently, there is an upside if one is friends with critics like him, who are perhaps form the establishment majority. “The personal connection means the critic must pass on reviewing the artist’s work, and while the loss of critical wisdom may be negligible, the loss of exposure is a nuisance for the artist,” he continues. And yet the critic Kennicott does not pass on reviewing his friend’s work and surely he does not give a damn about the zero exposure of many artists, myself included. In fact, those like me who actually stand up and criticize the Kennicott ilk, as unobjective gatekeepers of propriety and pushers of chamber-of-commerce friendly l’art pour l’art, not only do not receive exposure but, for all intensive purposes, are blacklisted into oblivion. Period.
Next and unsurprisingly, Kennicott argues: “I have wanted to write about Maggie Michael’s work for years now, but I can’t without first offering the reader a huge caveat: Anything I say must be reasonably assumed to be compromised by the fact that I know her, like her and socialize with her.” But why even bother with the caveat? Most people who ponder art are likely well aware that art establishment circles are highly incestuous, akin to D.C. crony capitalist circles that likely control them as puppet masters.
And so the female friend is promoted. The painting, “Clone No. 17 (Bunny Grey),” highlighted in Kennicott’s article is in itself utterly innocuous, a virtual threat to nobody, questions and challenges absolutely nothing, and could easily be used and further promoted in the nation’s kindergarten finger-painting art classes. Indeed, it is no more threatening than the can of paint used to create the two blobs. Kennicott’s description of seeing it and the other items in Michael’s solo show, called “A Phrase Hung in Midair as If Frozen,” is mind-numbing: “As we stood in front of paintings, I babbled about the things I was seeing. I was particularly struck by several early works from more than a decade ago, the “Clone Series,” in which two pools of paint are thickly poured onto an acrylic sheet, creating ‘clone’ forms with rounded edges.” Those works constitute the direct opposite of what Albert Camus and others had envisioned: l’art engagé. And indeed socio-politically engaged art, the kind Kennicott likely would not be reviewing, is threatenting to the art establishment, which promotes the opposite kind of art to ensure it’s own survival.
In accord with another establishment art critic Kriston Capps (Washington City Paper), the show “makes the case for her [Michael] as the strongest painter to emerge from D.C. in a generation.” Has art really tumbled so far downhill into the absyss of absurd vacuity? Apparently so or at least in D.C., home of the nation’s political corruptocrat crony capitalists. Michael’s “clones” illustrate why art doesn’t matter, to paraphrase the “why poetry doesn’t matter” supposition of former NEA CEO crony capitalist appointee Dana Gioia. The chamber of commerce is ever hovering above the art scene holding the puppet strings.
Kennicott isn’t interested in the evident conflict of interest in reviewing a friend’s art, or rather he’s really interested in rationalizing it as somehow having a positive influence, as in “how friendship [i.e., cronyism] changes the way we see art, how it both sharpens the eye and expands the meaning of the work. I’m interested in a fundamental question that is at the heart of so much criticism: Does affection improve our judgment by making us receptive to ever finer nuances, or does it weaken our critical faculties and cloud our objectivity?”
Objectivity? Is he joking? Gatekeepers, by their very nature, are not objective. Might he and Michael be having an illicit affair? After all, it’s DC we’re talking about here. Is his essay the first step in their coming out? Or perhaps he’s hoping to build a large art critic backing in an effort to win another Pulitzer Prize?
Kennicott cites the incestuous relationships of a couple of past critics to back his rationalization. “Critics were not always so worried about the conflict of interest that friendship creates between the reviewer and the artist.” No, they’re usually a lot more worried that someone might notice the friendship (i.e., the cronyism) and blow the whistle.
The music critic and composer Virgil Thomson maintained social relations with the flower of New York’s musical aristocracy for years, and reviewed their work regularly. The art critic Clement Greenberg absorbed artists into his egomaniacal orbit, maintaining complicated and deeply compromised personal and financial relationships with many of them, including an affair with Helen Frankenthaler. Both critics are still read with passionate interest today, even if their ethics wouldn’t pass muster at a provincial daily newspaper. In fact, their continuing influence has as much to do with their social and artistic alliances, and the power over and insight into artists that gave them, as it does with their writing.
Kennicott argues that “Respectable critics live by different standards today, though social relations still complicate the best of intentions. It’s easy to see why personal connections would compromise disinterested discernment.” Yet isn’t he one of those purported “respectable critics” and NOT living “by different standards today”? And is it really that easy to see… or is it a lot more easier to rationalize, as he does again and again? “But critics who entirely isolate themselves from artistic circles sacrifice a great deal, too. One loss is sympathy, not just for a particular artist, but for the whole artistic profession, which is often lived precariously on the edge of poverty.”
The edge of poverty? Give me a break! Is Michael on the edge of poverty? Poverty is an old artist stereotype. For some odd reason, today, poverty is a PC-positive trait, which is why Hillary had argued that after leaving the White House, she was on the edge of poverty. Kennicott seems desperate to justify his dubious position of being in favor of evident lack of objectivity. Indeed, by making it public and open, he seems to hope his position will be strengthened. “Only by long and careful observation, an osmosis of decades, can a critic begin to understand the creative act, and that is unlikely to happen if he has lived entirely in the glorious and sterile seclusion of pure independence and objectivity.”
In other words, the critic should get dirty (i.e., corrupt) and write art hagiographies for artist friends. But imagine staring at Michael’s “clones” for decades and then finally understanding the meaning of life itself. Inevitably, a certain distortion must evolve during those decades, where the critic begins to see not the paintings but rather the interior of his own brain. And indeed some people can fill tons of pages with virtual nothingness… especially when they’re paid nicely to do so.
Kennicott argues that critics often (usually) describe an artist as the sum total of past artist influences. “But it’s very easy to get that wrong, and given the one-way-street nature of most criticism, the critic is never corrected. So it’s possible for critics to be very stupid about art, for years and decades, without ever confronting the solipsism of their ideas and judgments.” Yet why are critics never corrected (i.e., criticized)? Kennicott doesn’t go there. Yet only the desire of an artist to climb the establishment ladder would prevent him or her from criticizing the critic. And what harm might that desire/cowardice do to the artist’s art? Kennicott doesn’t go there either. The reality is different. Critics are criticized… but they do their best to keep those criticizing them fully ostracized, as if the latter don’t exist.
“The chastening blessings of friendship are the best corrective to that, but are available only to critics who occasionally cross the church-state line that divides criticism from creativity,” notes Kennicott. Crossing the “church-state line” is, of course, a thinly-veiled euphemism for willingly engaging in intellectual corruption. One might also ask why Kennicott thinks there’s some kind of great divide separating criticism from creativity. Evidently, an artist can be a critic and vice versa. Or perhaps it’s a question of dubious professionalism, as in paid critics of the establishment.
Finally and quite oddly, Kennicott evokes unfairness, though still concluding that conflict of interest intellectual corruption is justified. “The problem with mixing friendship with criticism isn’t that it clouds judgment but that it increases it immeasurably, which is unfair to all of the other artists. Indeed, one might say that the ideal state of affairs would be for critics to befriend every artist, to better see their work in all its intimate detail. But that is impractical, and honestly, how many artists would want to put up with us?” Well, likely all ladder-climbing artists desperate for recognition (i.e., the bulk of the herd) would just love to put up with you characters…