Art Critics or Political Agitators/Activists? (redacted)

[July 3 Addendum] As a member of AICA-USA (the U.S. section of the International Association of Art Critics), I recently received an email message from the Board of Directors announcing: “AICA-USA has issued a statement of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives [M4BL].”1 That statement—which had not been submitted to members for input or approval beforehand—does not speak for me and I emphatically reject it. While I deplore, as would any decent person, the callously brutal murder of George Floyd  [August 23 Addendum] (as well as instances in which other blacks have been victims of police abuse at worst or misjudgment at best), I question the narrative of “systemic racism” they have given rise to in the black-lives-matter movement. Even more important, I reject the destructive approaches that are being advocated and pursued in response.

What Does Solidarity with M4BL Mean?

M4BL - Defund the Police

I adamantly reject this goal prominently posted on the M4BL website.

To understand my objections, one needs to examine the Movement for Black Lives website (M4BL.org), since being “in solidarity” with that consortium implies agreement with its platforms. “Defund the Police” is one of their chief goals.2 Like so many other purportedly liberating goals, however, it would probably most hurt the people it promises to help. The rich could afford to hire their own protection, while economically disadvantaged blacks would be left vulnerable to the criminal elements in society. How well did getting rid of the police in Seattle’s CHOP district, for example, work for the two black men who were shot there before Seattle’s mayor at last decided to take action? Still worse, her failure to quickly shut down that anarchist project has inspired similarly destructive anti-police efforts across the nation—even in the capital, directly across from the White House.

Meanwhile, criminal violence continues at an appalling rate in Chicago, virtually ignored by the anti-racist protesters. How would defunding the police have saved the three-year-old black boy shot dead in Chicago on Father’s Day, or the 13 others killed there that weekend, or the countless black victims of black violence in other cities? Once again, events have shown that blacks are far more often the victims of other blacks than of white police abuse, and the crime rate among blacks is alarmingly high (more on that below). Those black lives don’t seem to matter to the BLM movement, however; only the deaths that can be blamed on alleged white racism do. Could it be that the ultimate goal for many of the agitators (though not for the well-meaning people who joined them to protest Floyd’s murder) is not to preserve black lives but, rather, to overthrow the entire American system?

“Solidarity” with M4BL also entails being expressly “anti-capitalist.” That goal no doubt resonates with one of the more vocal AICA members, who was the first to propose, on June 5, a statement of alliance with the black community and others “who have been disenfranchised by [the] current social, political and economic circumstances” of our “system of oppression.” As I responded, his statement was just the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that destructive groups like Antifa thrive on. “If you want to see what real ‘oppression’ looks like,” I added, “check out their violent tactics—not to mention the Communist crackdown in Hong Kong.” I then asked: “By the way, exactly what system would you like to replace our system with?”3 I’m still waiting for an answer.

“Solidarity” with M4BL further implies agreement with its constituent groups, including Black Lives Matter. Subscribing to #blacklivesmatter does not just mean valuing black lives. It has come to imply embracing the organized movement under that rubric, and all that it advocates and represents. A primary aim of Black Lives Matter is “disrupt[ing] the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” Undermining the black family has lamentable consequences, however, as shown by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Democratic senator from New York, 1977–2001) more than half a century ago.4

I should add that much of the intensity of the current response to #blacklivesmatter is inspired by hatred of the current president, which knows no bounds among AICA members. One of them recently posted a cartoon representing him in the guise of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children—with one knee on the neck of George Floyd, and the Statue of Liberty in place of Saturn’s child. I responded that it was

outrageously inflammatory, falsely implying that the president has condoned Floyd’s murder. The president is by no means beyond criticism, but this cartoon is an example of the Trump Derangement Syndrome totally off the rails.

Only one other member commented critically on the cartoon.

The work by Goya that is most apt here is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

AICA’s “Progressive” Echo Chamber

On matters of art as well as politics, AICA is overwhelmingly “progressive.” (A lone vocal ally against that political tendency has been Franklin Einspruch.) That it is more concerned about politics than about art, however, is evident from its solidarity statement. It says nothing to condemn the attacks on museums or works of art during the recent protests, although one of the organization’s stated purposes is “to act on behalf of the physical preservation and moral defense of works of art.”5 The solidarity statement instead advocates that art institutions should “divest from police organizations,” “remove defense contractors from their boards,” “protect . . . frontline staff during the COVID-19 crisis,” and “diversify other departments.”

Diversifying of course relates only to race, gender, ethnicity, and economic status—not to views about art or politics.6 When I expressed some of my contrarian views (in response to members’ Trump-bashing, for example, I dared to say that the president’s policies were better than the Democratic alternatives), several members dubbed me a “racist.” Among them was a New York Times art critic, who asserted that anyone not “working against the current president” was a racist, “complicit in upholding white supremacy.” A former Newsweek art critic charged that if I didn’t see systemic racism and the poverty engendered by it as the main cause of the high crime rate among blacks I must believe that “there’s something inherently wrong with black people.” Never mind that wiser heads than his (such as Moynihan) have identified other likely causes.7

AICA Views on Art

The member who first proposed a solidarity statement touted “AICA’s unique position of leadership in the field of visual art.” I questioned that position, arguing that most of the contemporary “art” defended and promoted by him and other AICA members in the name of social justice isn’t even recognized as such by ordinary art lovers. For evidence, I referred to my “Hijacking” article and “What’s Wrong with Today’s Protest Art?.”

A former tenured professor of art history whose specialty is “art and politics” commented: “Michelle has written a book on the Aesthetics of Ayn Rand, that should give all of you some insights into what is going on here.”8 After actually reading my “Hijacking” article (few AICA members seem to have bothered to do so), the only point she referred to was my distinction between neo-Marxist critical pedagogy and logical critical thinking, which she dismissed as “non analytical,” offering no argument to justify her objection. She also claimed that I had failed to engage in critical thinking—without ever saying in what respect I had failed to do so. Further, she seemed to imply, mistakenly, that I think art can never deal with political subjects. In that, of course, she entirely missed my point. And neither she nor anyone else in the AICA online discussion dealt with that point’s elaboration in “What’s Wrong with Today’s Protest Art?.”

Most remarkably, the former professor had nothing to say about my noting, in the “Hijacking” article, that Gregory Sholette (an AICA member who is now a professor at Queens College, C.U.N.Y.) had expressly welcomed the widespread “‘de-skilling’ of artistic craft” that has occurred in the artworld since the 1960s—in particular, the fact that, as he observed, “conceptual art” has led, in effect, to “the total disappearance of the art object” (emphasis mine). Then what is left for “art critics” to deal with, I would ask. Attempting to answer that question might have provided the professor with a much-needed exercise in critical thinking.

One of AICA’s stated aims is “to develop professional . . . standards for the field of art criticism.” Early this year, therefore, I posted the following message, with the subject line “Food for thought regarding critical standards”:

I’d like to put some thoughts up for consideration regarding “contemporary art.”
A decade and a half ago, our colleague Peter Schjeldahl observed: “Art used to mean paintings and statues. Now it means practically anything human-made that is unclassifiable otherwise. This loss of a commonsense definition is a big art-critical problem.”

The year before, Ken Johnson had similarly noted in the New York Times: “Contemporary sculpture knows no boundaries. . . . This makes [it] a zone of enormous creative freedom. The down side is, if sculpture can be anything, then maybe it is not anything in particular. . . . And it becomes hard for people to care very passionately about it . . . , much less evaluate it.”
In the years since those astute observations, “creative freedom” has expanded exponentially, leaving the public increasingly baffled by and alienated from what passes for “modern” and “contemporary” art in the artworld at large. . . . Yet the dominant trend in criticism is to write sympathetically about all such work, with no regard to the effect it often has on artworld outsiders.

In that connection, I recently came upon this observation by John Canaday: “When sympathy for avant-garde art per se is the assumption behind a critical attitude, criticism can cease to be judgment and become a form of pedantry in which the goal is to find excitement and meaning in an object where they may not exist.”

I would argue that Canaday’s point remains ever more relevant today, and risks rendering our profession worthless in the culture at large.

The minimal response to my post was telling. Just one member wrote (privately, not to the full list) to say that she agreed with me—that my message was “spot on,” especially with regard to sculpture. The only other member who commented (also privately) was the former Newsweek critic. He snarkily dismissed the idea that contemporary critics are seriously out of touch with the public, by simply noting that it has been “the case with criticism sympathetic to modern art since, well, the beginning of modern art.” As if that resolved the problem! Then he directed a parting swipe at Canaday as “the guy who said that Abstract Expressionism had ‘exceptional tolerance for incompetence and deception.’” Indeed it had.

What sort of contemporary or modern work do AICA members find praiseworthy? The recent demise of Susan Rothenberg prompted hearty kudos for her horse paintings. (The New York Times eulogized her as an “acclaimed figurative painter.”)

Susan Rothenberg - Triphammer Bridge

Susan Rothenberg, Triphammer Bridge, 1974, 67 1/8″ x 9′ 7 3/8″ (170.5 x 292.1 cm). Museum of Modern Art. New York.

Not wishing to speak ill of the newly dead, I refrained from commenting that Rothenberg’s horses struck me as incredibly inept.

For another example: an AICA member posted an appreciative review of a show she had just curated at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha—Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens’s Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing. I responded:

I’ve read Gregory’s review, but fail to see what it has to do with art. Whatever value the exhibition may have in educating the public about threats to the natural environment, Ibghy & Lemmens bring nothing of artistic value to it.

Dubbing their pieces “minimalist” does not help. Although unthinkingly embraced as art by the contemporary artworld, Minimalism was an especially vacuous form of anti-art. Nor does it matter that the pieces in question (they are not “mini-sculptures”)—which resemble “the wooden blocks children use for building and games”—“are actually based on data, graphs, and charts,” since no one could guess that connection without the labels. And reading the graphs and charts themselves would convey far more than the pieces alluding to them do. Isn’t art supposed to deepen our experience?

Finally, I would argue that the exhibition’s video of Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes being banded belongs in a museum of natural history or on PBS’s Nature series, not in a museum of art. It is essentially a piece of documentary footage, not a work of art.

Only one member wrote to say he was sympathetic to my point of view. “I do not think that a lot of what Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens are doing constitutes art-making activities,” he admitted. Yet he defended their piece Sales Volume of the 10 Top Meat Processing Companies (2014) as art. And he confided that he had long since given up arguing “it’s not art” about “all the poorly crafted, conceptualist dreck that clogs up exhibitions spaces on a global scale.” All the other comments were from members who regarded me as hopelessly out of touch with the “advances” in contemporary art. The curator in question acknowledged our “widely disparate understandings of art,” and suggested an extended conversation about them in an open forum. I replied that I’d “like nothing better than to debate these issues of critical and cultural importance in a public forum.” No one on the list seconded the idea, however.

In view of all the foregoing, how much would you stake on AICA’s aim “to develop professional . . . standards for the field of art criticism”?

July 3 Addendum
The co-presidents of AICA-USA have asked me to remove all quotes from other members in this post that originated on the organization’s online listserv, as they violate the listserv’s guidelines for preserving the privacy of members’ communications. I redacted my original post by removing relevant members’ names, but I have retained the quotes themselves, because they are needed to convey my point. As I explained in my response to AICA:

My use of a few brief anonymized quotes in no way violates anyone’s privacy. . . . What it does, in the public interest, is shine light on a profession that has for too long gone largely unchallenged for its views—views which are overwhelmingly at odds with those of much of the American public.

If AICA is sincere in seeking “to promote the values of art criticism as a discipline and to emphasize its contribution to society,” it should welcome public debate on the issues I’ve raised. And you as co-presidents should be more concerned about dealing with the issues themselves than with any minor infringement on my part of the listserv guidelines.

. . . AICA members are free to post Comments in response to my post, provided they do so in a more civil vein than was the case for all too much of the listserv content.

MMK

August 23 Addendum
Evidence is emerging that indicates George Floyd’s death was due to factors other than the appearance of police brutality conveyed by the widely circulated video showing him in a protracted neck hold. Leaked video that had previously been deliberately withheld from the media by the Minnesota attorney general shows events leading up to the neck hold and strongly counters the narrative of “police brutality” that has sparked months of protest and destructive rioting, along with movements to defund the police. All this suggests that the most alarming “systemic” problem we face is not racism but political manipulation abetted by biased and irresponsible journalists—which was given unwarranted legitimacy by AICA’s statement of BLM solidarity. I regret that in characterizing Floyd’s death as due to a “callously brutal murder” I too was guilty of an irresponsible rush to judgment.

Let us hope that true justice will ultimately be done in this case, though in today’s politically inflamed climate it will require extraordinary courage and integrity on the part of all.

Notes

  1. The message was signed by sixteen board members, several of whom are prominent figures in the artworld.
  2. Ironically, the founding of M4BL was itself inspired by, and has perpetuated, a false narrative of police brutality in 2014 against Michael Brown, Jr., in Ferguson, Missouri.
  3. I added that I would resign from AICA if it approved his proposal. Though I equally reject the proposal that was adopted, I will not resign, and remain instead as a contrarian voice.
  4. In The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, his 1965 report to the U.S. Department of Labor, Moynihan forcefully argued that the high rate of black families headed by single mothers (a legacy of slavery) greatly hindered the progress of blacks toward economic and social equality. (Though many single black mothers have heroically prevailed despite that disadvantage, the overall effect on the black community has been devastating and has been exacerbated by misguided welfare programs.) See also Steven Malanga, “The Left Needs a Moynihan Moment,” City Journal, February 14, 2017. Addendum: The eminent community activist Robert L. Woodson argues that family breakdown was not a legacy of slavery but was instead a consequence of leftist political activism in the 20th century. “1776 vs. 1619,” National Association of Scholars, August 27, 2020.
  5. The prominent BLM activist Shaun King recently approved the toppling of historic statues across the nation and tweeted: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression.” If AICA has issued any statements rejecting King’s tweets, I haven’t seen them.
  6. This recalls what journalist Nicholas Kristof observed a few years ago about the diversity craze in academia: “Universities are the bedrock of progressive values,” he wrote, “but the one kind of diversity universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” New York Times, May 7, 2016.
  7. See also Barry Latzer, “Race, Crime and Culture,” Academic Questions, Winter 2018; and Edward Guthmann, “Shelby Steele has a lot to say about black society,” SFGate, May 15, 2006.
  8. For a sense of the anti-Randian animus of another AICA member, read “Award-Winning Critic Maligns Ayn Rand’s Theory of Art.” For Piero’s Sake, January 16, 2018. The critic in question is now at the New York Times.