Saturday, February 27, 2010

Writers and filmmakers are referred to by the name of their craft. The words "painter" and "sculptor" are treated as synonyms for "artist."
Throughout, the exhibition reveals to us an artist who, much like Leon Golub and Philip Guston in his last decade, has insisted on giving equal emphasis to narrative and form, that is, to literary meaning and what I would call sub-verbal experience. That he is sometimes more entertaining than profound indicates that this balance is no easy thing to achieve....

Mr. Kentridge is a skilled draftsman who almost entirely lacks an original touch: his images tend to be inert if they’re not in motion. His primary subject, the irrationality of evil, may need the irrational magic of film to be truly effective.
Roberta Smith should read a little more art history. Narrative is form, and the imaginative response to film is no more (or less) irrational than the response to other forms of art. Would she oppose painting to the "irrational magic" of the novel? Being a proponent of painterly abstraction she just might (while criticizing the irrational magic of a Holbein portrait).

The question, and here's she's right to bring in Golub and Guston, is how well narrative form has been used by practitioners of the plastic arts in the recent past up to the present. And the answer is "not very well" for the reason that artists and critics shared the same biases, seeing the same opposition of narrative to form, choosing narrative therefore as anti-form, as the first move against materialist formalism, returning simultaneously to subject matter only as vulgarized "content". The Pop imagination attempted to make materialist form out of content, and in its struggle and failure left us poetry. But Smith does not understand even this, and is left fighting a rearguard action in defense of the no-longer avant. She's in good company (cf. Simon Blackburn et al.). The institutional avant-garde and the academy are united in reaction.

The best work in Kentridge's show is filmic narrative, as is the best work in the Biennial, and that's because the vast majority of works of contemporary visual art that engage the world from the standpoint of moral seriousness -as opposed to simple morality or indifference- are movies, as novels outstrip philosophy. And the best works in the Biennial that aren't in film or video are explicitly narrative, most as trapped in limbo as Kentridge's drawings (or Tim Burton's, also now on display at MoMA). Anything at the Whitney with a physical presence is either a stage set or a prop, or in one case a miniature diorama.

Maybe the Times should send it's theater and film critics to the Biennial next time. Either would be in a better position to judge the success or failure than its writers on "fine" art.

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