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Why are otherwise sophisticated reviews so often philistine when it comes to contemporary art? About the best one can expect from publications like The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker is a bellelettristic turn by a novelist, a poet, or a painter, most of whom are indifferent or hostile to recent advances in artistic practice. The problem is, as they say, overdetermined. Despite decades of interdisciplinary work, it is still assumed that one is either an art type or a literary type, and the clichés of the illiterate artist and the nonvisual writer linger on too. This protects an outdated amateurism about art that would never be tolerated in other fields of culture, a fond stupidity that is as strong on the left as it is on the right. Many critics on both sides hold to a prelapsarian notion of art making and viewing as a playground for the expressive self. They suck in “the absurdities of individualism in pure form,” as T. J. Clark once put it, like “a last gasp of oxygen as the plane goes down.”
Although liberal commentators often celebrate the politics of the 1960s (at least in the abstract), they resent the transformations that occurred in art at the time, such as the openings to conceptual practice, performance, critical theory, sexual difference, and political engagement. The turn to concept and critique in particular is routinely dismissed as anti-artistic and academic. (A good example of this fatuous fare is a recent piece in The New York Review of Books, a Trillingesque denunciation of critical theory as so much “technicality” by the Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia.) Of course, the art world is hardly blameless when it comes to the disdain visited on contemporary art, for it provides a steady stream of lurid stories about auctions, celebrities, and scandals that drown out other accounts in the mainstream media. But why do many otherwise smart publications often follow suit?
Certainly there are exceptions to the rule that literary types are indifferent to art. In the oldish range there is Don DeLillo, whose The Body Artist is brilliant on performance, and Colm Tóibín, Siri Hustvedt, and others write wonderfully about art too. More impressive still is the critical intimacy with contemporary practice shown by youngish authors like Ben Lerner, Rachel Kushner, Rivka Galchen, Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Katie Kitamura, and Joshua Cohen (to name only several). This interest varies in origin, aim, and intensity, of course, but it might have to do with a partial convergence in recent art and fiction on questions of world-making, historical reimagining, and autofictional performance. And then there are the commitments I mentioned above, ones variously embraced by these authors but usually ignored or bemoaned in publications like The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.
Why should anyone care about this relative cluelessness? There are at least a million other things more worthy of our worry right now. Yet these are magazines that circulate in many middle-class homes across this fair land where cultural attitudes are formed and confirmed, where potential practitioners and possible supporters reside. (I was a teenager in one such desert, yet somehow critics like Harold Rosenberg and Susan Sontag came to me in this way.) Can’t those readers be better done by?
Hal Foster teaches art and theory at Princeton, and will give the Mellon lectures at the National Gallery in the spring.