January 2013

Leah Triplett


The Artist and the Critic

“The understanding of an artist’s work is not the exclusive province of detached, 'objective' art historian,” writes artist Laurie Fendrich about her husband in the 2002 catalogue essay for Artists & Writers / Husbands & Wives. Fendrich is an artist and sharp writer, and has been married to critic and painter Peter Plagens since 1981. Plagens published his first review in a 1966 Artforum, in its early, revolutionary days, was Newsweek's art critic from 1989 to 2003, and now writes intermittingly for the Wall Street Journal and various other publications.“Writing art criticism gave him a tiny piece of power in the art world, at the same time that the swelled pride that comes from it gave him something he had to resist,” continues Fendrich in Artists & Writers. “Being an art critic and artist simultaneously presents problems.”

A little more than ten years later, it seems that the principle problem facing artists and their critics is the market. Art writers were number six on Hyperallergic's 2011 Most Powerless People in the Art World. In 2012, Dave Hickey, the art world’s resident (and refreshing) curmudgeon flatly quit the biz after working in and around art since the 1960s. He was soon followed by Sarah Thornton, a sociologist specializing in art and the art world who wrote 2008’s popular Seven Days in the Art World. “You appear to endorse the works you dislike and the artists that you consider historically irrelevant because the day’s financial news dictates the shape of your narrative,” Thorton writes in her “Top 10 Reasons NOT to Write About the Art Market,” published in TAR magazine last fall. More recently, art critics have been forced out by the markets, both art and otherwise. In December, Blake Gopnik, Newsweek and Daily Beast art critic, thus one of Plagens’s Newsweek successors, was laid off in the wake of the publication’s move from print to purely web editions. Artnet Magazine, the online art monthly, shuttered for good in June 2012. Published by Artnet, a website that records and tracks art values for investment purposes, Artnet Magazine was devoted to independent and earnest art writing of all genres. 

Recently re-released as an e-book by Hol Art Books, The Art Critic was first published in 2008 serial form in Artnet Magazine. The novel is Plagens's second, and is a satirical companion to Plagens's other art writing, such as Sunshine Muse: Contemporary Art on the West Coast (1974) and Moonlight Blues: An Artist's Art Criticism (1986). In it, Plagens probes the relationship between art writing, writer, artist and publisher. A roman a clef, The Art Critic tells the story of a middle-aged art writer who, like Plagens, straddles journalism and criticism. Like Plagens for most of his writing career, Arthur is on staff as an art writer for a major newsweekly, and is paid well. He also ambivalently relishes in

a bit of an art-world rep for writing in everyday English that avoided “artspeak,” for belonging to no particular clique, and for being occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. That reputation was extant, however, only among those already inclined to like him -- artists, art students, art teachers and museum directors languishing in the boonies and resentful of the big American art cities for making them feel inadequate for not being in on the latest trends in the galleries.

And just as Fendrich suggests about Plagens, Arthur ambivalently welcomes the problematic power structure between artist and critic, acknowledging that while his readers might think his authority molds art history, it is the market that ultimately has power over an artist's career and legacy. 

Arthur is thoroughly disgruntled when he meets an ambitious but floundering mid-career sculptor, Tom, and Helen, a publisher's assistant who is also the wealthy daughter of a media-magnate. Arthur is dutifully appearing at a party to celebrate a fellow critic's book publication when he first encounters them both, and the trio's individual struggles to find meaning and companionship within the art world structures the novel. The Art Critic is an exhaustive, detailed look at all aspects of the art world, and examines the relationship between art writing and making from the inside out. Plagens leaves no small corner of this world untouched, doggedly detailing posh gallery receptions, forgotten co-op exhibition spaces, theory-drenched MFA programs and intricately-intellectualized museum blockbusters through Arthur's quest for "art with feeling rather than strategy at its core." 

Plagens is a master of details, and his character descriptions are tender, idiosyncratic portraits of the strangely familiar that recall Joy Williams. Observing that today's young artists all "want to direct," Arthur holds his nose when visiting galleries, and loathes studio visits. On a week-long stint as a visiting critic in Vermont art colony, Arthur is confronted by Esther Koenig, an older woman of the fiery New York AbEx generation, who paints still lifes in that vein. Arthur is disdainful of Esther's works, but in her studio, she makes him face his apathy towards contemporary art. "Art is different from movies and records and television programs, you know. It’s not about money, it’s about ideas," Esther tells him, "It’s got a mission, Arthur, a mission to make our culture better, and maybe the world, too." Tom Mannheim, the mid-career sculpture whose character parallels Arthur's, as well as Plagens's own plight as a painter, enjoys moderate success and upper-echelon gallery representation, and yet, like Arthur, is too bogged down by the need to make palatable, saleable art to actually create anything of value. Tom is drowning in self-doubt, yearning for companionship when he finds Helen, who is as beautiful as he is rich. Plagens's handling of Tom and Helen's motives is lacking, often understated or clichéd; his discussion of women in general is informed by sex and borders overt sexism. However, Plagens embrace of such tactics observes the dominance of sexism in the art market and art professions, as well as the power that sex often wields within the gallery, museum or curriculum. Ultimately, Arthur indulges in that power in his relationship with both Tom and Helen, sharpening his dull knife on Tom's career.

The Art Critic is a smart, insightful immersion into the art world as it operates today. Peppered with Plagens's vernacular-driven, object-oriented prose, the novel subjectively scrutinizes the art world's current structure, suggesting it's not an "exclusive province," but a sphere of culture populated by actual people. It's appropriate that The Art Critic was re-released in 2012 -- last fall, Hyperallergic voted Young Art Critics as the 10th most powerless group in the art world, because in this market-driven environment they are "instructed that a critical reviews [sic] can ruin them for life," according to the Hyperallergic editors. "They learn that flattery is the best policy, which completely crushes whatever idealism they might have been secretly harboring."