artworldKen Johnson Affair
Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Embattled Critic: Where Angels Fear To Tread


Nancy Grossman, Two Heads - Back and Front, 1968.  Pen and ink on paper, 10 3/4 x 13 inches.  Collection Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, © 1968 Nancy Grossman, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

Nancy Grossman, Two Heads – Back and Front, 1968. Pen and ink on paper, 10 3/4 x 13 inches. Collection Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, © 1968 Nancy Grossman, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

The historically well-informed Ken Johnson will be aware that critics usually come out nicely from the antagonism they provoke.  The most notorious case of a petition against an art critic (hitherto at least) concerned an earlier New York Times writer, John Canaday, whose dismissal of abstract expressionism led to a torrent of calls for his own.  Forty-nine of the great and the good of the American avant garde penned a letter to the Editor.  Canaday kept his job and earned himself a bestseller book title: Embattled Critic.

Less known on this side of the pond is the case of Brian Sewell.  In 1994, the exuberantly and eloquently reactionary critic of London’s Evening Standard so infuriated the art establishment with his vituperative wit that a roster of celebrated artists and museum curators called for his replacement.  Again, like Canaday, Sewell was gifted a book title that publishers can only dream of in a pluralist era when criticism rarely excites passions: The Reviews That Caused The Rumpus. 

At the time of that controversy I lived in London.  Although few of Sewell’s tastes accorded with my own, and despite the presence of friends and even a professor of mine amongst the signatories, I felt moved to organize a counter-letter with a couple of dozen colleagues who shared my sense that criticism suffers when dissent is stifled. Instructively, however, my letter received no citation in Sewell’s Rumpus volume.

Living in the age of social media, Johnson has managed to dwarf Canaday’s 49 with an online petition that has garnered over 1500 signatures.  The charge in this instance is not mere philistinism, however, but gross insensitivity to issues of gender and race.

Failing, perhaps, to learn a lesson from the Sewell affair, I have determined that artcritical needs to weigh in on the Johnson affair.  While many of our contributing editors and regular writers have focused their thoughts on the core issues of race and sex, my own observations are restricted to more specialist and marginal concerns of editorial process, whether from the writer’s, reader’s, publisher’s or protester’s point of view.

We turn to a newspaper of record for accurate reporting and stimulating analysis.  Journalists in the line of fire get us the latest developments in Syria while a pundit like Thomas Friedman tells us x number of things that are wrong with the world and y easy ways to fix them.  In the visual arts, critics are expected to deliver on both fronts simultaneously: a review of a sprawling museum show that simultaneously identifies and comments on an underlying aesthetic or museological problem.  With varying degrees of skill, the Times critics, who now include a Pulitzer-winner amongst them, manage this feat quite admirably. But in a slew of volatile recent interventions, Johnson has taken on identity issues that some would argue simply do not lend themselves to successful resolution in the cramped quarters of an exhibition review, or – in the case of his inflammatory gender speculations – preview.  With so little room to maneuver and so much potentially at stake, it is hard not to think of the critic as a bull in a china shop.

And, if the critic is consciously courting controversy, another idiom comes to mind: “where angels fear to tread”.  Ken Johnson, as an idealistic child of the sixties, no doubt feels that his own political purity is unassailable.  I suspect that most people in the art world, left or far left (we don’t seem to have a right!) would answer in the affirmative to Johnson’s opening question in his review of a show of Caribbean artists at Museo El Barrio, that it is indeed time to retire the identity-based group show.  While Johnson’s positions on such shows that persist are controversial his underlying motive in making these remarks is clearly positive. He is no Newt Gingrich.  But – to deploy yet another well-worn phrase – an angel does have to consider where the road of good intention can lead.

As to his antagonists, one wonders if they have thought through the wisdom of their chosen format—as dubious, for the settling of a nuanced critical issue, as the exhibition review is for the airing of so emotionally raw a set of historic and political problems as the cultural and economic marginalization of women and blacks.  Petitions are a good way for the average citizen to let polsters and pols know where numbers lie.  But artists and academics and critics have means at their disposal to register consternation and objection that are surely better suited to this situation than an anonymously penned round robin.  If one can’t be bothered to write one’s own response to this issue it is better to leave well alone than to participate in the act of closing down debate.

But that, of course, is already to take a loaded position—that Johnson’s comments weren’t that bad.  And in truth, the way they read when quoted in isolation, the more egregious phrases – “black artists did not invent assemblage,” “the nature of the art that women tend to make” – are indeed cringe-worthy.

So, artcritical’s position is: better editing all round; more judicious, art-historically informed articles; less big ideas latching onto the coat tails of functionalist newspaper exhibition reviews, and way less petitions.  That said, as the responses to our internal inquiry demonstrate, artcritical provides a platform not a position.  Our feelings on the Johnson affair are diverse.


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3 Responses to Embattled Critic: Where Angels Fear To Tread

  1. zuppardi says:

    Knowing zilch about Johnson’s “problem”, I want to say:
    This is quite an extraordinary event, yet one waiting for its critical mass to occur.
    Simply put but historically sound is the following-
    There have always been many artists of color or “gender” who have been dismissed simply because the times they were in refused them for being “atypical”. I personally knew several of color in the 1960′s who admired modernism as much as the “white man” and were dismissed for it. All their heart and soul dismissed for reasons of “marketplace unity”. It hurt them quite deeply.
    I knew women artists who suffered for different reasons. Women who prospered temporarily, but rejected the reasons. Women who said I don’t want to be shown by gender, but I’ll sure as hell take the opportunity. “The sausages had it, now I want it.”
    Listen up!
    As I have said many times before- faculties are teaching to promote the agenda of their own college years and all it’s ornamentation. Ornamentation passing as theory. It’s Cirque De Soliel, not the stinky reality of farting circus clowns.
    End this illustrative self-defining crap and a new reality will squirt free.
    One that allows for talent over marketing.
    Illustration passing for creativity has subjugated contemporary art since art as a business became the rule.
    Best intentions get out of hand, and when $$$$$ is involved-good freakin’ luck, “art”.
    When I was a kid “Art” was a special thing. And when I was a kid I didn’t know dick about “Art”.

  2. Elisa Jensen says:

    Still finding that phrase ” the kind of work that women tend to make” so very irksome. Perhaps I’ll get over it soon, but frankly, it is fuel for the fire and more of the same old. Nothing better to get your blood boiling in the studio – thanks for that ken!

  3. Suzi Evalenko says:

    I’ve read Ken Johnson’s two reviews under discussion and, now, a slew of commentary on them. I did not find either review intentionally dismissive of the artists in these shows. I agree the language could have been clearer. It seems to me that it is high time to eschew consideration and comparative assessment of artists as a class ( African Americans, women etc.) vis a vis other groups of artists. And perhaps it is time to stop creating exhibitions bound together nominally and textually by a common identity, unless that identity is culturally integral to the art itself. I fully appreciate the rationale for the creation of museums like the National Museum of Women in the Arts but cannot shake the sense that even the most revered artists in its collection are diminished by a sotto voce declaration that “they are every bit as good as male artists hanging elsewhere.” That is surely true and, as surely, irrelevant, as a matter of art quality. The preferences of the art ‘deciders, wherever they wield their power, are certainly worthy of discussion and the conversation now underway is certainly thought-provoking. But a petition to have Johnson cashiered borders on the laughable….and the dangerous. Have we arrived at the point where art critics must toe some politically-correct line (defined by 1500 petition-signers?), or shy away from expressing an opinion because someone else might characterize it as politically correct? When we get ‘there’, the ballgame is over.

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