Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Short Critique of Critique

Many eye-witnesses say that the thing that really killed Abstract Expressionism was the notorious "Tenth Street Touch." By the 1950's, Ab Ex was a codified, marketable style, and legions of Pollock and DeKooning imitators were splashing paint all over the place - there were apparently rows of galleries on East 10th St. in NYC which showed and sold their canvases. Greenberg also points out that many of the leading lights of Ab Ex became, by the 50's, imitations of their earlier selves, simply replicating the most superficial stylistic aspects of their earlier works.

My question: is critique the new "Tenth Street Touch?" In the late 60's, at home and abroad, all institutions of power came under intense pressure and scrutiny: students, poets, minorities, artists, women (and women artists), musicians, novelists, playwrights, and the like all started asking hard questions from the powerful and demanded answers. To be part of that, to be an artist and an agent for change must have been intoxicating and fulfilling.

But now that institutional critique is itself an institution, has it fallen into the same fate as gesture a half-century ago? At this point in history, it often functions as a kind of magic wand or fig leaf, covering a great deal of art that could in no way stand on its own merits. And perhaps more importantly, it's taught at the schools, which is the kiss of death for any street-level art movement.

The following quote is from Greenberg's essay entitled "Post-Painterly Abstraction." I removed "Abstract Expressionism," and substituted "Institutional Critique" to see how it would fit, but you could just as easily swap in "Impressionism," "Cubism," "Pop," "Minimalism," or a host of other period styles - 'twas ever thus:

"[Institutional Critique] was, and is, a certain style of art, and like other styles of art, having had its ups, it had its downs. Having produced art of major importance, it turned into a school, then into a manner, and finally into a set of mannerisms. Its leaders attracted imitators, many of them, and then some of these leaders took to imitating themselves."