Blaming history for today's bad art

A rant from New York Magazine culture critic Jerry Saltz headlined "The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art," impels this column's rant today, which you might headline, "The Only Tyranny is the One Imposed by Critics." Saltz wants picture-making to be whatever it wants to be without talk of how it fits in the timeline of history. But that way, the public -- already lost in the self-absorption of creativity these days -- should do what Saltz does and love whatever people see in galleries and museums no matter what it looks like. And that's a lot to ask.

Let’s hear it for weirdness

Saltz says that creativity today has narrowed because it’s put in a timeline so tight it can’t breathe.

Has anyone seen art suffocating like that? He praises a show at the New Museum because it allows weirder work more air. By comparison, he says everything else looks hemmed in. Again, does any work you’ve seen look squelched?

Anybody for more weirdness?

What Saltz seems to be saying is that weird exhibits are the only good kind. In that case, we’re in great shape. After all, it’s not like we haven’t had weird until how. If the New York critic is looking to rid art of its internal history, movements like Pop surely fit the bill. If his gauge is weird, where’s the beef? We’re drowning in the stuff. Pop was a child of the ’60s and it’s still acting out.

Art movements are to history like teens are to their elders -- rebellious

Saltz says something else unaccountable, that art history isn’t chronological.

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But it’s not only chronological, it makes a show of its links to the past each time a new movement pushes back against the one that came before. Pop artists, for example, weary of all those messy Abstract Expressionists spilling out their inwardness over their canvases ran to the clearly outlined world of cartoons for relief. 

Know any artists suffering from art history?

Clearly Saltz doesn’t see such pushbacks as part of history, and he even mocks the process by calling the sequencing “Biblical begetting” toward a goal of higher purpose. His assumption that all the begetting is for a high purpose is questionable. Begetting, like the kind we do as humans, is in our natures. As for saying that anyone who doesn't fall into an historic timeline is out of luck is odd. Who of the world’s luminaries today have suffering from history?

Critics should kindle art appreciation not kill it

All that said, perhaps Saltz’s final point is the most arbitrary. He says that our idea of art history is dead and what’s left is “zombie history,” and that people can only understand it if they read long jargon-filled labels. Well, whose fault would that be? Critics should be writing in accessible ways, don’t you think, Jerry?