Noël Carroll, Living in an Artworld (Evanston Publishing, 2012)
Throughout my adventures in graduate school (the early nineteen seventies through the early nineteen eighties), I worked as a critic. I reviewed and previewed and otherwise commented upon motion pictures, dance, theater, performance art and some fine art as well. Undoubtedly, this was part of my persistent attempt to avoid writing successive doctoral dissertations. Living in an Artworld is a selection of that journalism, focusing upon my dance, performance art, and fine arts writings. I hope to publish my motion picture criticism in another volume at a later date.
When I was writing this criticism, I felt it was germane to the kinds of philosophical problems that most preoccupied me, notably questions about the concept of art. The philosophy I was taken by concerned the boundary between art and everything else. That frontier, often described as the gap between art and life, was precisely where the art of my initiation into the artworld thrived.
The kind of art I covered was primarily avant-garde, or, as we say now, cutting edge. It was designed to subvert expectations and to break free of the past. Thus, on a regular basis, I had to explain why what I was reviewing was art. With each deadline, one not only had to figure out – and articulate – why the work of the moment belonged to the tradition, but also whether or not it was any good.
Especially with respect to the former task, the concept of the artworld that was emerging in the philosophies of Arthur Danto and George Dickie was particularly useful. Artworks that seemed otherwise altogether inexplicable fell into place, so to speak, when one could identify the artworld theories, histories, or, at least, emerging themes that enfranchised them.
The artworld itself of that period was theory driven, making it the ideal place for a fledging theorist to set up shop in. My philosophy and my journalism were in synch. As an artswriter I was constantly challenged to push the envelope, an exercise that fed back into my interest in the then-dominant obsession with getting a handle on the nature of art. For, I was constantly explaining why each new artworld-entry was art, giving me a wealth of material upon which to reflect when it became my turn to propound a philosophy of art. Indeed, I suspect that my critical practice influenced my philosophy inasmuch as my commitment to narrative as the means for identifying art probably flowed out of telling stories to my readers, sometimes on a weekly basis, about why this or that avant-garde breakthrough was art (or dance, or theater, etc.).
The artworld tendency to attempt to theorize about the nature of art from within the artworld itself was very pronounced when I entered the critical estate. Still under the shadow of Greenberg, even the minimalists, whom he eschewed, understood themselves to be involved in a reflexive project. If they differed from Greenberg at all, it was in the scope of their reflexivity – they often thought of themselves as not simply addressing the question of the nature of art, but also the nature of art in context.
Moreover, this is not only a description of minimalism in painting and sculpture of the time. The perspective also influenced the ways in which ambitious artists in film, dance, and what was evolving as performance art all conceptualized themselves as well. Thus, though encompassing various artforms, my beat was, at least initially, a surprisingly unified artworld, one united by several converging theoretical commitments.
I began writing criticism in the early seventies as a dance and performance reviewer for Artforum. At that time, Artforum was expanding its coverage beyond the gallery proper into fields like film, photography, and video as well as dance and performance, not only because various gallery stars, like Robert Rauchenberg and Robert Morris, were experimenting with alternative media, but also because concerns related to reigning gallery aesthetics were also shaping adjacent artforms. One could justifiably apply the conceptual frameworks of minimalism, for example, to dance, as Yvonne Rainer did explicitly.
Of course, over the period in which I plied my trade as an artswriter, the artworld underwent seismic transformations. The most striking, perhaps needless to say, involved a shift from the more hermetic concentration on the nature of art and the experience thereof to a more culturally expansive and increasingly politicized approach to art – i.e., to an art that embraced other forms of theory, not exclusively artworld theories, but theories like Marxism, anarchism, and feminism (in short, ideologically progressive, critical theories of the status quo, both artistic and otherwise).
The sections on dance and theater in Living in an Artworld trace a parallel arch as art moves from narrow artworld preoccupations to an increasingly culturally engaged stance. To put it in a slogan, by the mid-nineteen seventies, the sixties were finally catching up with the artworld. Art moved from self-reflection to cultural and political activism, albeit often activism discernible only in the terms set by the pre-existing artworld. In fact, one of my primary goals in publishing Living in an Artworld is to document this important transitional period in the history of the artworld – a time of ferment and excitement now unfortunately faded in memory
Because the art that I reviewed was self-avowedly radical, I, like many other critics of the period, viewed myself as having a responsibility to attempt to defend avant-garde practices from the surrounding culture. Consequently, much of the writing in Living in an Artworld is taken up with explaining – explaining why this dance has the shape it does or why that performance has just these ellipses. The effort is unmistakably to educate the audience – to supply the means to break through the veil of avant-garde strategies. As a result, my reviews implicitly advocate the kind of avant-garde experimentation upon which I report. Admittedly, there is some negative criticism in the collection, but probably not as much as there should have been. For, although I did not play the critic-as-champion role outright, I did tilt the table in favor of the avant-garde.
One of the most satisfying rewards for a critic is that one gets to have the first word on emerging art. Not only is it a wonderfully bracing challenge, but one has a real sense of accomplishment when the formula you craft for a stylistic tendency gets taken up not only by other writers but influences artists as well. An artswriter is not only an observer of history in the making, but a participant as well. As George Dickie stressed, an artworld calls for a range of different, inter-related roles. And this is eminently true of the avant-garde artworld where mediation between the artists and the audiences is notably pressing.
Philosophers become philosophers of art from several different directions. Some come from other areas of philosophy – from metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, or philosophy of language, for example. This is often evident in the style of their philosophy of art. I, however, came to the philosophy of art through art – from being a student of filmmaking and then a commentator on various other artforms. I suspect this is detectable in my approach to the philosophy of art. I come from inside the artworld. I encounter my problems on the ground, so to speak, and then look for resources to solve them anywhere I can find help, including the various social sciences, psychology, and, of course, various areas of philosophy. My philosophy is bottom up rather than top down. I don’t have a set of metaphysical convictions that I apply to the case of the arts, but I employ only as much metaphysics or philosophy of mind as is useful to solve this or that problem in the philosophy of art. That is why a great deal of what I do is metacriticism that, in turn, is rooted in the practice of criticism exhibited by Living in an Artworld.
Because the artworld I lived in was so theoretically driven, many of the problems that sent me to philosophy erupted from the discourse of artworld practitioners. Alternatively inspired by phenomenology, semiotics, and post-structuralism, artists and pundits alike passionately embraced various theoretical frameworks as the motivations for new work. In this artworld, theories often functioned likes tactical counters. Politicized poststructural postmodernists would attempt to outflank allegedly phenomenological minimalists by accusing them of Idealism. The atmosphere was highly polemical and frequently the essays in Living in an Artworld join the fray.
Although I am usually fairly lenient with the theoretical excesses of the artists of the period, acknowledging the production of interesting work however dubiously motivated by uninteresting theories, I am less charitable to my contemporary critics who were guilty not only of poor thinking, but, perhaps even more grievously, of bad writing. My artworld was clotted with jargon. So a good portion of Living in an Artworld is devoted to scotching the theoretical pretensions of the critical establishment of the seventies and eighties. This is perhaps no more apparent than my recurring attacks on the very notion of postmodernism.
On the more positive side of the ledger, my interrogation of artworld notions of pictorial representation put me on the road to the naturalist theory of depiction that I developed soon after with regard to cinema. However, even here, I would stress that I typically embarked on such philosophical projects, not for the sake of pure philosophy, but instead, for example, for the purpose of identifying a concept of pictorial representation that I thought would best serve our understanding of the practice of artmaking and the criticism thereof.
The section on dance in the book begins looking at the poetics of post modern dance and its alliance with gallery minimalism. Standing back, from that starting point, one can observe through my coverage of the period an emerging reaction formation. If Yvonne Rainer said no to just about everything that was not movement in dance, the period of the nineteen-seventies and eighties responded by saying yes to everything that Rainer denied. Thus, in my writing, elements of dance earlier abjured begin to re-appear, including expression, narrative, references to the environing culture (such as TV), and finally even politics.
The move to the critical examination of mass culture and political engagement, as charted in Living in an Artworld, is even faster in the para-theatrical world of performance. Perhaps this was predictable, since theater/performance are more immediately and obviously discursive than dance, thereby making it a more likely and more malleable sounding board for cultural/political themes. Moreover, in both dance and performance, mere reference to the larger culture – including popular culture – tended to count, within the language game of the artworld, as political, both in the sense of decoding, in imitation of that vaunted figure of the times, the semiotician, the artifacts of the dominant (and domineering) society, but also by being accessible – by speaking in the language of the people itself taken as a gesture of democratic practice.
The allusion to popular culture was perhaps no more evident than in the world of gallery art where the Pop Art of the sixties captured the imagination of a younger group of artists, such as the Metro Pictures group. This tendency seemed to coalesce around the mid-seventies and, of course, came to be labeled postmodernism. Perhaps 1976, the date of the founding of the journal October is the most convenient event to nominate as the beginning of the postmodernist period. Increasingly gallery artists began appropriating mass culture imagery as recorded in several of the catalogue essays in Living in an Artworld.
At the same time, a sort of party line began to assemble itself around the work of the so-called postmodernist artists: on the one hand, the notion that the appropriation of popular culture imagery could be seen as a progressive political gesture, and, on the other hand, that the notion of postmodernism was not only a historical marker of a specific stylistic episode, but, rather, that it was the name of an epoch of world history – an ensemble of causally and thematically inter-related economic, social, political as well as artistic tendencies. These proposals always struck me as excessive and, as a result, I am progressively critical of them in the book, especially in the section on fine art, since that was where the theory of postmodernism was most developed.
The book also includes an essay on art and globalization, written long after my tenure as a working critic, because I think that globalization is the successor to the notion of postmodernism, as least in the sense of being the next big artworld idea.
To be honest, the order that I’ve just extracted from the arts coverage collected in Living in an Artworld benefits from hindsight. At the time, things scarcely seemed so coherent. In truth, the chaos was part of the fun. We walk into history backwards – I think McCluhan said – or was it that we see history unfold as if through the rear-view mirror of a moving car? Things always seem much more intelligible in retrospect – not only the movement of art, but a life as well. In that respect, Living in an Artworld is an autobiography of sorts.
© Noël Carroll