In the early 1980s, a young painter named Mark Tansey launched a series of mostly monochrome oil-on-canvas allegories that ridiculed such orthodoxies of high modernism as the inviolable flatness of the picture plane, the confinement of painting’s sensuous activity to the stimulation of the retina, the virtue of the "innocent eye" in assessing an artwork's merit, and the triumph of New York over Paris in the contest to become the art world's center. The deadpan literalism of Tansey's paintings pilloried this dogma for being repressive, joyless, and just plain silly. His most ingratiating tool was a sly humor that situated the works in the prankster wing of postmodernism, alongside William Wegman's art-directed photographs of his Weimeraner Man Ray. That Tansey carried off these satires with utter technical assurance, capturing the outmoded primness of magazine illustrations from Clement Greenberg's heyday, only added to the effectiveness of his mockery: If you're going to take down the big boys, you'd better be a sharpshooter.
One of Tansey's parodies is currently at the center of a dispute among the big boys of the present day. The collector Robert Wylde has filed suit against the Gagosian Gallery, from which he purchased Tansey's "The Innocent Eye Test" (1981) for $2.5 million in 2009, without, it seems, being informed that 31 percent of the work already belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the initial portion of a promised gift. The disputed canvas features a cow, presumably unschooled in art, solemnly gazing at a painting of bulls by the 17th-century master Paulus Potter. Several researchers await the cow's response: one holds a clipboard, another holds a mop. "The Innocent Eye Test" appears in the catalogue to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 1993-94 Tansey exhibition, and it's quite clearly captioned as a promised gift to the Met from Charles Cowles. Cowles, who sold the work through Gagosian, is no novice to the market but the retired proprietor of the gallery that bore his name for three decades, and he is gallantly, or disingenuously, taking full responsibility for what he calls "a big mess." According to the New York Times, Cowles says he had just plain forgotten about the Met when one day he glanced at the wall and — like the starving prospector in "The Gold Rush" who looks at Charlie Chaplin and sees a succulent chicken — saw cash money where the painting hung.
Of course, Tansey himself now runs with the big boys, having shown with Gagosian since 2004; his next exhibition opens April 19 at the gallery’s Beverly Hills outpost. And triumphalism is not really gone — it has merely relocated to the sales room. Yet after reading the news of the lawsuit, it struck me as supremely quaint — touching really — to imagine a long-ago time when the authoritarianism of art criticism was a worthy target, and not just for a one-off parody but a sustained clobbering. It isn't just that styles and those who champion them rise and fall — you can trace that process back to the Italian Mannerists, arguably the first "Pictures Generation." But seeing Tansey's painting reproduced in the Times was a reminder of the current puniness of art criticism. Only a bully would pick on it today.
That art criticism has a problem or is in a crisis is not news. During the last decade, the diminished influence of the critic has been the subject of a battery of symposia and books that have been by turns analytical and fretful, diagnostic and prescriptive. They conclude that that there is either too much or too little critical writing, that art criticism lacks the grounding of an academic discipline, or that it is ill served by the proliferation of university critical writing programs. There’s fairly broad agreement that art critics lost their superpowers when they abandoned the meting out of judgment to engage in description, journalism, and promotion. There's a degree to which all these meetings and anthologies mirror the rise of both relational aesthetics and the "new institutionalism" of museums — two movements that pretty well render the judgment of "quality" an irrelevant if not altogether impossible job. But that's for another essay.
New, I think, to this wave of art-critical autocritique is the frank expression of nostalgia. In a presentation at last February's annual meeting of the College Art Association, for example, Thomas Crow admiringly read a passage from Pauline Kael's oft-cited review of "Last Tango in Paris" (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 1972), in which the flinty critic bluntly declares that Bertolucci's movie has forever transformed the very medium of film. Crow mused longingly about the independence and fearlessness that once freed a critic to write with such certainty. Mind you, he had to go outside art criticism to find a palatable instance of such bulldog certainty; a comparably declarative statement from Greenberg would have been intolerable. Yet among the precepts voiced in Greenberg's "Modernist Painting" of 1961 is an assessment that neatly anticipates the view of art criticism's distress 50 years on. "Most of the things that get written about contemporary art," Greenberg asserts, "belong to journalism rather than criticism properly speaking." But then he goes on to use words like "authentic" and "taste" and "standards of excellence" — all now toxic terms, yet so peskily difficult to dissociate from judgment, which art critics are at pains to reclaim as their legitimate business.
Tansey, who enjoyed the satirist's liberty of skewering belief without having to offer a persuasive alternative, weaponized nostalgia, using Saturday Evening Post-style figuration to make the case that modernist criticism had become oh so very yesterday. But look at "The Innocent Eye Test" today, and you might be inclined to conclude that the target of travesty is not just art criticism per se but rather bovine complacency, the herd mentality, and the hypocrisy of vaunting innocence while promoting the scientific method as a model for objective observation. One very real challenge for art critics may be to avoid having all the current hand-wringing conclude in consensus, an excess of agreement, or perhaps a new "school." In that respect, I think Crow was smart to invoke Kael on "Last Tango in Paris." Kael wasn't always right — which is to say I sometimes disagreed — but, in my judgment, she was peerless.
Marcia E. Vetrocq is an art historian and critic based in New York.