May 2, 2008

Ms. Heartney's Riposte

In her reply to my letter (published in Art in America), the art critic Eleanor Heartney wrote:

“It’s interesting to be cast as a low-brow basher of the intelligentsia. Apparently to be serious, it is necessary to shoehorn one’s observations on art into a version of postmodernism that has been reduced to meaningless jargon by the acolytes of French poststructuralist theory. As for Mr. Boyd’s objections to my article – my point is that, while the postmodern interpretation of Prince’s art cited by Mr. Boyd may be standard fare in academic circles, it doesn’t seem to be a very accurate description of what is actually going on in his work. Prince’s turn toward painterly styles suggests motivations that contradict the rhetoric usually surrounding his work. The Guggenheim installation further distanced the artist from this postmodernist critique, repackaging him as a viewer-and-collector-friendly student of modernist painting. It would appear that like the beauty celebrated in various of the show’s catalogue texts, the ‘coolness’ Mr. Boyd valorizes remains in the eye of the beholder.”(1)

Ms. Heartney’s identification of herself as a “low-brow basher of the intelligentsia” is a classic binary oppositional presumption that my critique of her essay on Prince characterizes her as “low-brow,” which was not the case. Perhaps it serves to frame her response to my critique within the role of “victim,” also certainly not accepted as fact.

Even though I disagree with Ms. Heartney’s views, I appreciate the opportunity to engage in discourse on these criticism and theory issues on an art blog. This kind of “site” will subvert the expected “letters to the editor” environment and interaction which has the typically accepted “end-point” in the contested essay author’s reply ending further discussion within the institutional site of the art magazine. This serves to neatly encapsulate the debate between the letter (like my own) and the essay author’s response with a generally argumentative riposte that is (hopefully) viewed as the terminus of the issue.

It is curious that Ms. Heartney would attack what she refers to as my academic “interpretation” of Prince’s work inasmuch as she is an “academic” herself (she received her BA and MA from the University of Chicago) and writer of several books on art (one of which I quote from below). If academia is in question here as a disreputable or suspicious view of art then certainly journalism ought to also fall by the wayside including art journalism and “art-critic-speak.”

Ms. Heartney’s grappling with postmodernism and poststructuralist theories are evident in her own Postmodernism (Movements in Modern Art) wherein she references a major domo Po-Mo, Fredric Jameson, to deliver the following polemic:

“Jameson’s descriptions of pastiche draws on Barthes’ notion of the death of the author, and suggests that the ease with which contemporary artists and writers graze over the history of Western cultural expression is evidence of their disconnection from any sense of unique selfhood.”(2)

It is understandable that art critics seeking to ground themselves in the accelerating contemporary art world of disconnectedness, simulacrum and mediation through image appropriation would attempt at least a perfunctory grasp of postmodernism, and to Ms. Heartney’s credit, in her paraphrasing of Jameson she’s accessing one of the best. This is perhaps why it is difficult to accept her simplistic assessment of Prince’s Girlfriends series, which was what my original post was all about.

Although I do not privilege my “interpretation” of Prince as the correct reading, I do believe we are capable of considering other “rhetoric” in addition to Ms. Heartney’s binary oppositional reading, i.e., “sleazy” or socially conscious. We can engage her “judgment” of Prince when it attaches a retroactive or traditional approach to his work (especially in an institutional site such as an international art magazine). A critique of Prince’s work can be both aesthetic and conceptual, as art criticism, unfortunately or not, begins with our visual perception and always courts the connoisseurship of “taste.”

Finally, this may all be moot because Prince himself admits to being a “liar” in the very same issue of AiA:

“I lied when I said I was invited by Doug Crimp to be in his Pictures show. . . For years people assumed that I was in the show. I gave up telling them I wasn't. I just started agreeing.”(3)

Thus, in the controlled way that he has truly mastered, Prince downplays his intentionality and historicized connection to his art world persona. His savvy manipulation of his image, of course, does wonders for his contemporary art world ranking and tinges all of his output with an ironic self-deprecation that provokes writers like Ms. Heartney and me to craft modernist and postmodernist quibbles about his work.

My parry to Ms. Heartney’s terminus cannot be published within the pages of AiA, unless the editors of mainstream art publications actually sought a forum on visual art. Yet I am surely just one of many that would welcome such an addition to the textual discourse about contemporary art. Thus, I encourage all readers of this post to alert Ms. Heartney about the potential for a continued discussion here, not only about Prince’s work but the role of the art critic in the interpretation and/or misrecognition of artists and their works, as well as how art blogs may function to expand criticism beyond the realm of print.

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1. Letters column, Art in America, May 2008, 37.

2. Heartney, Eleanor. Postmodernism (Movements in Modern Art), Cambridge, 2001, 15.

3. Op. cit., 51.

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