Art critics, art books

Who are the best art critics and what are the best books of art criticism? Here are some of the books I own:

Robert Hughes, Nothing if Not Critical – The sort of critical anthology I’m currently most interested in (it contains reprints of Hughes’s reviews across several years at Time magazine). Hughes is devastating when he goes in for the kill (Julian Schnabel—ouch!), and his fetching descriptions generally pan out for me when I reference whatever detailed brush stroke he’s describing.

Hughes, The Shock of the New – Generally not interested, for practical reasons, in coffee table books, but I’ve read a fair bit of this, and have watched parts of the corresponding documentary on YouTube. Not as obviously critical as Nothing, but Hughes’ voice nevertheless shapes the thing.

Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New – Haven’t read it but my sense is it’s the sort of polemic that might interest me—but which will also intimidate me and slow me down because I too often won’t know who or what he’s actually talking about (not just the paintings and the painters but the art/critical world terminology). I’ll be forced to try and zero in on ideas while lacking familiarity with examples. (In other words, this one’s going to insist that I work.)

Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy and The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty – Enjoyed about half the essays in Air Guitar and found Invisible a bit of a slog, but I definitely feel like I’m not done with Hickey yet, and I plan to revisit these. He’s great to listen to, for what it’s worth (I’ve heard various talks online).

Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting – A poem or a painting on the left hand page, with various aphoristic critiques and commentaries (or quotes) on the corresponding right hand page. Some stunners (Seurat as anticipating TV, Whistler’s Mother as a rejection of the public), lots of head-scratchers, typical McLuhan unease.

Camille Paglia, Glittering Images – Say what you will about Paglia, but Break, Blow, Burn, her critique of poetry is (at least for this poetry novice) fab, not because her interpretative powers are spot-on but because her methodology is so inspiring. So why did her follow-up art book (gorgeously designed though it is) fail to incite much more than a yawn? What the hell happened to her voice? (As with Hickey above, I may not in fact be done with this, but the textbook flavour of the writing is—well, given the source, a little bizarre.)


Hmm, there may be a couple others. I have several Warhol and Warhol-related books on my shelf, but none, so far as I’m aware, meet my criteria of art criticism (The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is a kind of criticism—a critique of authenticity?—but does not speak to art and aesthetics per se).

What is the Psychotic Reactions (or Aesthetics of Rock or Deeper into Movies or Christgau’s Record Guide or…) of art criticism?


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14 thoughts on “Art critics, art books

  1. Disappointed that commenters aren’t all over this. Of course, I have nothing to offer. Basically have a cloth eye when it comes to art. I do own the following, which I swiped from my mother as she lay dying.*

    Giorgio Vasari, Lives Of The Artists Vol 2.

    I haven’t read it yet. Don’t even know if it’s criticism.

    The following is supposed to be good; I ran across it just now while fucking around on Project Gutenberg:

    John Ruskin, The Stones Of Venice.

    *Well, she’d been blind for a year, so I really wasn’t depriving her of anything.

  2. Also – duh – completely forgot about this, which I own (!) and which I’ve read (!).

    http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/W/bo3620182.html

    It’s been a while, but I thought it was pretty good–a cataloging of problems which didn’t strike me as being all that unique to the art world (funding for arts criticism has been reduced to almost nil, less readers are being found, less thoughtful work being produced–or anyway, paid for–etc…. plus probably other stuff I’m forgetting), but which was illustrated fairly devastatingly, given just how depleted a profession arts criticism has become (music and movie critics are living off the hog in comparison, I bet).

  3. The Shock of the New TV series in 1980 was HUGE for me, I was 16. I picked up the book a couple of years later. It was good enough at spelling out the basic cultural conversations behind modernism that my undergrad minor in visual art felt much more like a review than it should have. (but I went to UCSD so it was an aggressively post-modern department full of interesting professors: Manny Farber whose name I knew from Greil Marcus; Allan Kaprow whose name I would have known from Meltzer (in fact Kaprow mentioned Meltzer to me “oh I’ll check him out”); Jerome Rothenberg, the Antins, one of those French guys who got in trouble for smoking cigarettes in class and had worked with Goddard, performance art “class” etc.) Robert Hughes visited the campus in 1987 and commented on the “terrifyingly large!” turnout he got…

  4. So, with my self-indulgent reminiscence over: this question reminds me to be surprised that I have little in the way of strong reader-memories about affecting visual arts criticism. It is surprising to me because I tend to be ridiculously excited about visiting art museums. But the writing inspired by visual art has not stayed with me. Ishmael’s description in the first pages of Moby Dick of a painting blackened by accumulations of smoke damage is easier to remember.

    With regrettably little to add on this topic — I think it’s great to open up the discussions to all kinds of criticism in a hostile world — instead I’ll list the non-fiction essay collections that include criticism of SOME kind among the contents, that have meant a great deal to me in the last few years (so much so that I read all of the essays through at least twice).

    Pulphead – John Jeremiah Sullivan
    The Life of Images – Charles Simic
    The Ecstasy of Influence – Jonathan Lethem

    So these are not purely criticism collections, but let’s just say the criticism, including the music criticism that shows up in all three collections, is considerably more exciting than [stuff I’d rather not get in a fight about right now].

    For poetry, I want to recommend Rita Dove’s introduction to The Penguin Anthology of 20th C. American Poetry — also her choices for the anthology, but in this context: her introductory essay makes real sense of a very confusing cultural world in a way that has resonated with me in the way that Hughes’ outline of modernism did.

    I should add too that Dove’s taking this task on gave her plenty of grief she didn’t need from plenty of sides but she did it anyway, and it’s a great book worth owning.

  5. Vic, I love the sound of the Dove book especially. I’m on much shakier ground with poetry than with visual art — I respond to and engage with visual art fairly readily and it doesn’t feel like work at all, though it’s certainly work verbalizing why/what/etc. — but criticism can be a good aid (one reason I like the aforementioned Paglia volume so much–it was a revelation just from a practical perspective: here are some ways to read these things, it’s not THAT difficult).

    Are you saying you studied with Alan Kaprow? Would love to find out more about that some time.

    And found another very promising one on my shelf: Writing on Art from the Nation, 1865-2001

    https://www.amazon.com/Brushes-History-Writing-Nation-1865-2001/dp/1560253290

    With essays by Farber, Arthur C. Danto, Clement Greenberg, Frank Lloyd Wright, and loads of others (incl. many I’ve never heard of). I have a comparable Nation collection of movie criticism which I didn’t take to at all the one time I attempted to read it, and I may have similar (political) issues with this one, but that’s a promising lineup anyway.

  6. I took a performance art class from Kaprow — “studied with him” would be a massive overstatement!

    By that point in the mid-80s he was deep in a Zen-by-way-of-John-Cage direction, in the sense that rather than encouraging normal art production of any kind (introducing performance art to us he dismissed Laurie Anderson as “theater”, as being “like Michael Jackson!” which was most definitely not meant as a compliment), Kaprow valued one thing. He wanted students to do work where we would truly be “in the moment” in a way that later I could see was a sort of attempt at getting us into an immediate Zen flow via deeply felt performance.

    I got a B at being in the moment. In retrospect I think it was a fair call.

  7. That’s unfortunate about Kaprow–such limitations. I did once download a copy of some LP that was released in which he narrates and describes happenings. It was an unbelievably dull reading, though I’m still interested in his influence on Meltzer (it seems kind of central to Aesthetics of Rock).

    Though I can’t speak to its content, some of the Clement Greenberg essays in the aforementioned Nation collection are fantastically well-written–persuasive and sharp. I want to delve into the Greenberg vs. Rosenberg wars/dichotomy/whatever it was.

  8. It’s the 60s vs. the 80s though. I have to say Kaprow did have a robust sense of humor because he laughed at my jokes.

  9. Hey Scott — I should indeed join you in checking out the mid-20th C art critical canon and read the two -bergs: right now they are just names, some quotes, and notorious New York City Art Mafia kingpins in my imagination. But surely you’re right to want to know more than the standard slurs and bogeymen accusations that are pretty much how they get mentioned now whenever they ARE mentioned.

    After all, I get tired of the kind of dumb caricature of the New Critics from the 40s-50s that constitutes nearly every reference to them. Whenever I hear a description of what was supposedly meant by the “intentional fallacy” it’s usually strawmanned. The essay introducing that concept is still interesting — it’s a dumb unfortunate name that did the trick at the time, but decades later we are pestered with people using the word “fallacy” constantly. The idea behind the “intentional fallacy” concept can still fight for itself, and actually many people still believe it is a problem, even if they don’t reference it by name, because they find the same things I do irritating about most talk about the arts.

    Whenever I hear a book promo on NPR, the main thing they want to talk about is never the ideas in the book, only some biographical detail about the author that supposedly illustrates it. This Author Comes From Poor People Who Live In Backwoods Backwards Alabama. She Is Authentic White Trash and We Will Interview Her In Hushed Tones About Her Terrible Background, Which Is The Reason To Care About Her Novel.

    When Terry Gross, who has a lifetime appointment to do That Interview Show On NPR, had John Darnielle on a couple years ago, she just wanted to talk about his heroin habit of a quarter century ago, not really all that much about his book or the music and lyrics of the Mountain Goats. Invention is not interesting, art is not interesting. Gossip is interesting.

    A variant showed up just the other day, when a writer in one of the Pazz & Jop accompaniment pieces was extra careful to make sure nobody suspected the deadly sin of “formalism” or the awful crime of “separating the art from the artist”. No Americans under the age of 60 have been forced into analytic formalism. The pretense that it remains a looming threat is fraudulent. This goes double for pop music critics.

  10. I’m over the age of 60 and was never forced into analytic formalism either. But then, I was an American Studies major rather than lit or art. I did finally read New Crits Brooks & Warren about 12 years ago and they may have made me more sensitive to the relation between beats and voice when I was writing about Ashlee Simpson’s “Love Me For Me.”

    Speaking of “finally,” I finally closed my Top 100 for 2017 (YouTube playlist here; “Before I Do” at 59 and “Fallen” at 61); I don’t know when I’ll get to actually writing about it, but I’m telling you on this thread rather than the P&J because with Bhad Bhabie in my top ten the relationship between the artist’s work and the nature of the artist’s fame (not to mention the artist’s life) may be a big deal in my writeup: Bhad Bhabie is a messed-up 14-year-old who rose to prominence being exploited on a Dr. Phil freakshow and got a phrase of hers sampled effectively in hip-hop and turns out to have a lot of talent in her own right. You wonder though – I wonder – if being famous will be good for her psyche at all. It’s not like her ability disappears if she waits until she’s 22. But maybe nursing a budding career is just the thing for her to pull herself together. How would I know? (I also don’t know if it’s fair to call the Dr. Phil program a freakshow, since I almost never watch it. The sampled bits sure make it seem like a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, though; but then, that’s part of pop anyway and it’s not meaningless.)

    Fortunately, though Tay-K (a teenager indicted for murder, case still pending as far as I know) made my long list, he’s not in the 100. But I already know he’ll make my Top 100 in 2018 (as’ll Bhad Bhabie again), and I probably won’t wait a year to wrestle with that.

    I’m more interested in what music does than how it’s made, but the two are obviously related, as are our perceptions, false as well as true, of how a record came to be and what it’s doing. By the way, I once met Robert Penn Warren and his wife Eleanor Clark, around 1975. They mentioned Delmore Schwartz, so my friend Jason and I asked them if they’d heard of Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground (they hadn’t). They said that they feared Schwartz was going to be known via people romanticizing his horrifying self-destruction (“as bad as that guy Agee’s,” said Eleanor) rather than for his very good writing. That’s a reasonable fear even if you’re not a New Critic – though it turns out Schwartz and Agee are much better known for their writing than for their deaths. Also – though I didn’t have the words to articulate or develop this into an idea then, and probably still don’t – the romanticizers may not all be allowing the life and legend to blot out or supersede the work. Some may be reaching for bits of biography as the first words they have available to express what they think is going on in the writing. Poetry – and art, and especially music – are hard to write about, hard to think about, and bits of biography may be the first words or even the best words someone can come up with for what the art is doing: parallels between what art does and what life is doing.

    (As I said, I still don’t have this thought developed, at least not in the abstract.)

  11. (months go by) Thanks Vic. I’ve still not done my 2017 writeup but have now posted my singles list for the first third (sic) of 2018 (“I Am My Own Mommy, The Fuck!“), which I mention because, as promised, Bhad Bhabie and Tay-K are on it. Not that I have anything profound to say about the relationship between life and art, but the lives in question and at risk are obviously relevant to the content, in fact are explicitly referenced in the content by the artists themselves. (Of course, doing this is part of the, um, form, often enough.)

  12. (months go by) I just passed over a $1 used copy of Dore Ashton’s ‘A Critical Study of Philip Guston’ (at BMV in Toronto). Was this a stupid thing to do? Undoubtedly, yes. (I will go back as soon as I can, which may not be for a few days.) I know nothing at all about Philip Guston (I don’t think I’ve even heard of him), and my ‘knowledge’ of Ashton is that she is cited in ‘The Aesthetics of Rock’ (will consult the context later, but I think she might be cited as someone with a good feel for post-Pop? I could be way off here). It being deemed a critical study (and short) (and not merely academic, I don’t think) makes it perhaps something that will catch me if it demands.

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