uncategorizedKen 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.