What is an Art Basel: Criticality and Criticism in Miami All Year Round

I. Not all old dead white men are given credit for the invention of concepts that seem too ephemeral to have an origin at all, but all said concepts can eventually be traced to an old dead white man in some form or another. English painter Jonathan Richardson (the Elder) is credited with the earliest use of the term “art criticism,” in his 1719 publication entitled An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism. He created a system for “rating” artworks that included several categories, all of which could be scored individually to produce a final sum. This was useful for collectors, who wanted to be discerning about the work they chose to acquire; of course, this was an act of criticism taken quite literally—numerically, if you will. But that isn’t traditional criticism; it’s homework.

Over a century later, in 1879, Samuel Greene Wheeler Benjamin (a journalist, author, and the American Minister to Persia) published an essay on art criticism in The Art Journal. Art criticism, he explains, is so scholarly and significant a subject as to seem scientific, but the crux of art itself—the nature of simply creating something and then looking at it, stripped of theory and monetary value and any shells into which it fits—made this complicated. He claims that in art criticism, “more than in any other branch of human knowledge the common sense so indispensable in the conduct of life is dispensed with. This results in part from the fact that art is more or less emotional.” He later adds, “it still remains true that when we come to pass judgment upon works of art, above emotion, above a sympathetic imagination…reason should hold calm sway.”

What is art criticism, anyway, especially when art is “more or less emotional”? Is that even true? What is the kind of reason that holds sway?

It is no longer 1879. Art speaks to everything, and the most responsible of it all does this willingly, purposefully. Art is stupid, cosmic, troubling, divine, etc. Art is not discussed in a vacuum because it cannot exist in a vacuum (though sometimes it does)—rather you review it in a number of vacuums: its relation to a community, to a concept, to something bigger than itself. We might look to Annie Besant, who veered into occult thinking with her theory on “Thought-Forms,” the idea that thoughts are things and the nature of the thought determines the nature of the thing. She drew (or channeled) shapes whose colors and forms were guided by her thinking. Art criticism functions the same way: the nature of what I write is determined by the feelings the work evokes. But once it reaches this phase, from the internal object to the external viewer, there are responsibilities to uphold.

II. In June of this year, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami debuted Laura Lima’s exhibition “The Inverse,” her first American solo museum show. The section of the Moore Building that houses ICA Miami is multi-layered and labyrinthine; parts of the ceiling look like a cage. Lima utilized the unusual space to drape a gigantic blue rope that loop-de-looped over the length of the room until it disappeared into a hole, out of which poked a young woman’s feet. The rope, presumably, ended in the woman’s vagina, which was not revealed in the show’s press release—only that the “braided material dwindles in size until it seems to merge with a female body.” The reality was revealed when one of the performers who’d opted to be a “female body” told the press that she was forced by Lima to place the rope in her vagina, not having known that that was part of a quite horrible deal. Another performer explained that an ICA staff member told her privately that she could sit on the rope, slip it into her underwear, do any number of things to imply subtle penetration—but this simply wasn’t clear to everyone, and how could it have been, if the artist’s stance was wholly different? These are mixed messages, and that’s a problem.

I had been freelancing for Hyperallergic when they assigned me to review “The Inverse” when this controversy happened (Hyperallergic was one of only a few publications to cover the show, in a separate article). I was frank with my editor about my discomfort. I knew the performers, I explained. There were other details, too, that I didn’t add: I knew the ICA staff. Miami is small. I didn’t know how to approach the violence of the work, how to reconcile it with the complexity of the responses my friends had about their treatment. Nor did I know where to place blame and if blame was relevant.

There was the internal to grapple with, too. I started writing about art because when I viewed certain works, I thought of frameworks they didn’t necessarily have: psychological, social, emotional. I started writing about art for the same reasons many people start daydreaming—because I wanted to make imaginative connections. But why do I have to tell myself I’m not an art critic? If my voice is contributing to a dialogue about art, then how or why should I remove myself from it, as if I wasn’t part of it, especially in a community that seems to so desperately need it?

I wrote the piece, attempting to stick to an objective lens, as a journalist, not a critic.

Two months after my review was published, a Philosophy professor at Miami-Dade College analyzed the story on his blog, taking it apart line by line by line. He intended to critique Lima, but not really; he was critiquing my critique because, he and a few others argued, it wasn’t a critique. I was “dithering” between journalistic objectivity and having a real opinion; one commenter, a local curator, said the reason for my confusion was simple: I was neither young nor old, and such opinions are reserved for those who are brave and bold or who’ve got nothing left to lose. This is an example of the kind of stupidity one hopes is something worse than stupidity: just trolling. There was a lot more said, by local artists and writers and other critics, but the general opinion was, really, that I hadn’t critiqued the piece harshly enough and, worse, that I never alluded to the institution’s responsibility for the very clear, real problems with the work.

I thought the work was, at best, misguided; realistically, it was gross, and the artist’s take that it was simply open to interpretation felt like a means of stripping responsibility. You don’t get to involve vaginas irresponsibly, though both she—and, perhaps unintentionally, the institution—did. I addressed this by quoting her, letting her own hypocrisies make themselves visible; I touched on her history of working with bodies as materials, addressing them as phenomena without context and then in the same breath revering them, ultimately handing over the responsibility to the viewer. My opinion was clear, but it’s true: I was genuinely, utterly freaked out to address this. I didn’t want to critique the ICA harshly; I felt, somehow, that I didn’t know how. This was partly a solipsistic, navel-gazing insecurity on my part. Despite writing for a large national platform, I still viewed myself as an effective nobody, even in the Miami art world, with predecessors and peers who have spent their lives studying this sort of thing. Furthermore—how could I, when I would surely have to review something else there again? Communicate with the staff, see them the next day, maybe even have to address this in person? Was I a straight-up wuss, denying my responsibilities, or was I being measured and staid? I tried to stay somewhere in between, get liminal with it, and while my opinion was clear, it wasn’t as harsh as it could’ve/should’ve been.

And thank goodness. At the heart of the criticism of my criticism was something potent: people in Miami don’t want to see violence enacted against women, not even in the name of art, not even in the name of bad art disguised as good art. More importantly, what I wrote, and the reaction to it, spoke to the problem of art criticism in Miami: that it doesn’t really exist; that here, in this still-growing community, arts advocacy often seems more important than true critical discourse.

III. Why is that dialogue lacking? Is it lacking, or is it relative? I’ll not make the same mistake here that I made with that other article; I’ll cut to the chase: yes, it’s lacking, even if it’s relative, but this problem has clear origins and, as such, reasonable solutions. I had the opportunity to become part of a publication that extended well beyond Miami—but part of the lack of critical engagement here is a matter of size, of resources. You can’t critique—at least not in writing—when there are so few ways to hold space for those words. It’s also important to remember that the question of criticism isn’t unique to Miami—all artistic communities have the risk of incestuous bias; it’s simply harder to be autonomous when the relationships are so close. The social and the critical sit side-by-side in Miami in a way that they might not elsewhere—the same people who offer their own criticism of a show might help with programming at the same venue, and that speaks not to social nepotism, but to the need to hustle—truly hustle—in an evolving city. The readership is never anonymous because the crowd isn’t, either.

The solution, then, is to keep growing as a whole community, with the issue of art criticism being part of the evolution of Miami itself: more work. More spaces. More education. More infrastructure. I asked Diana Nawi, the Associate Curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, what she thought of all this. She tended to agree: “Of course there can always be more,” she says, “but we’re in process, and it’s happening. The Miami Rail is just one example of people getting together to think critically about art and culture.” She added that the kind of efforts being taken here to create more dialogue don’t happen everywhere.

Gean Moreno, the former artistic director at Cannonball, the Curator of Programs at ICA, and someone whose critical writing exists in a league far beyond my own, says he doesn’t write about art much anymore and reminded me that the concern regarding a lack of writers in Miami has been happening as long as he can remember, since the 1990s.

“It might be a thirst that can never be quenched,” he says, primarily because a lack of educational infrastructure. There’s no critical theory programming at any universities, no formal structure to which local writers can abide.

“I can tell you there’s a lot of enthusiasm about developing more abstract discussions,” Moreno goes on, “there’s a hunger for critical discourse, for a deepening of conceptual structures and culture and the way the city’s being produced.” How does that translate into written criticism, then? “I don’t know if that translates into more sophisticated articles, but I feel an awareness and desire for people to actually think beyond the exhibition—to look at how the city is being constructed, what that means, how art is related to that.”

Miami has certain infrastructural limits, but they’re expanding, and so is the kind of thinking that’s happening here. At a Locust Projects Roundtable several years ago, the idea of art criticism versus criticality came up: isn’t it more important to engage with the work, to think about it expansively, to place it in broader sociocultural contexts and offer a deep analysis—than it is to, you know, just not like it? There’s a difference between criticism and criticality; an in-depth criticism and a negative review are not the same thing. But they’re also not mutually exclusive. There isn’t much negative criticism happening in these circles and that’s disappointing, if only because we owe each other hard critiques to keep us growing. Why is this lacking? My earlier reasoning is just one example: we’re too closely connected. Another possibility: this social ecosystem is still so in the process of elevation and evolution that, right now, maybe it seems better to keep the dialogue positive. Put Miami on the map, the argument seems to be, and then we’ll get down to business.

It’s good to remember that Miami’s artistic community isn’t important simply because it’s becoming incredibly cosmopolitan: a quick Google search of “art criticism Miami” yielded a “people also ask,” box that read, “what is an Art Basel?”. Miami is perhaps a prognostication of the rest of the country—both economically and ecologically speaking. It feels radical to watch neighborhoods shift dramatically, to hear national journalists tell us we’re all going to die by rising seas; if the social and the critical co-exist, so does everything else.

Is the solution to tell ourselves to be unafraid to diss our friends, our co-workers? That’s one solution, yes, though it’d be silly to reduce the problem to something so paltry. There’s a lot more at stake here, from the influx of new money to the dire need for more of everything.

Despite the objectively weird comments my piece on Laura Lima received, the heart of it all was a kind of permission, an invitation to speak with truth about bad form and injustice and institutional irresponsibility. I’m certainly going to cease any written tiptoeing around these subjects, because no matter the context, there’s the ever-present issue of growth at stake, too. It’s less a silent promise to myself to be more bold—that’d be all ego—and more about the recognition that a lack of local anonymity creates a deep responsibility to call each other out, to keep each other moving. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to keep engaging.




This essay was originally commissioned by The Miami Rail as part of Field Perspectives- a co-publishing initiative with Miami Rail, Temporary Art Review and Common Field for the 2016 Common Field Convening.

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