Sunday, November 25, 2007

We the Priesthood?

What purpose does art writing serve?—a self-reflexive question for this forum to be sure; yet we can’t fail to notice that it is one begged again and again by cultural critics who every once in a while decide to turn their attentions to our modest yet flashy corner of the industry. But what to do when the swipes come from within our ranks? During an otherwise favorable review of Arthur Danto’s Unnatural Wonders from a few weeks ago, Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times, had this to say:
A system so needful of interpreters surely lays contemporary art, its makers and consumers open to the same abuse as medieval Catholicism, when an ignorant congregation depended on a substantial class of (mostly self-serving) priests and pardoners as intermediaries to the confusing, elusive concept of God…[Commentaries on art] are written by today’s priests and pardoners, each carrying a mix of truth-seeking, vanity, ambition and the conviction that their own big idea is the route to aesthetic understanding.
What are we to make of this? To my own ear, this dismissal echoes the sentiments of the “anti-theory” crowd which grew very vocal in the 1990s. But is it more than this? Why, for example, does it always seem to be writing about art, and contemporary art in particular, that is singled out? Why must art be more popular or, to push the point, more “lay” than either science or philosophy, the two disciplines with which it undoubtedly shares a genuine creative impulse? Or to push it even further: Is this a call for evangelical aestheticism?–i.e. the only way to true “aesthetic understanding” is through one’s own personal relationship with art?