December 11, 2005
"At the conclusion of "Art Since 1900," the four authors hold a round table, and their prognosis is equally dismal. Art, they believe, has become little more than "commodity production, investment portfolio and entertainment." Everything, they say, is turning into kitsch...Rosenberg lamented modern art's "anything goes" attitude. Ruhrberg writes that "in painting today, anything goes." By the early 70's, according to the authors of "Art Since 1900," "it seemed, as the song had put it, 'anything goes.' " Kramer has said: "With the eruption of the Pop Art movement, an element of demystification came into the art world, an element of cynicism, an element of . . . 'anything goes.' " If there is a presiding spirit over the art of recent decades, it is not Jackson Pollock, and not Andy Warhol. It is Cole Porter.
But how can art criticism cope with an ethos of anything goes? In an environment of perfect freedom, what is there left for a critic to criticize? For critics at newspapers and magazines, who astutely discuss current shows and exhibits, this is less of a problem than it is for writers who stake out theoretical positions. Some, like the writers for October, have turned to politics, interpreting art in terms of Marxism, or feminism, or gay activism or old-fashioned anti-Americanism (while the writers around The New Criterion have reacted to this leftist tendency with their own conservatism). Or they have found refuge in the higher realms of French and German philosophy, usually producing jargon-ridden criticism that is incomprehensible to anyone without a Ph.D. in European theory. We live at a moment when artists have been asking the kinds of questions children ask - What is art? What is it good for? - and critics have for the most part been giving answers not even an adult can understand. "Mommy, why have we come all this way to see pictures of soup cans?" "It's Andy Warhol, sweetheart, and he's wielding a sharp, insinuating heuristic chisel to pry at the faultlines and lay bare the sedimented faces of his surround. "