Art Experts, Deconstructed

Frank Whitford is a curator and art writer whose essays appear in the Sunday Times of London.

Art critics used to be the butt of cruel jokes. Among other things, they were compared to eunuchs in a harem -- watching rather than doing. Nor could they write clearly and entertainingly about what others were getting up to. Notoriously, the critics’ stock in trade was prose clouded by imprecise gush or impenetrable jargon.

Times have changed. Everyone can understand Robert Hughes (see his latest book, “Goya”). And art criticism can’t be that devalued an activity if the likes of John Updike, James Fenton and Margaret Drabble (to say nothing of Tom Wolfe) are now so determined to practice it. In fact, the problem is not with art criticism but with art history.

Too many art historians at American and European universities prefer to think that a work of art comes into being only when it attracts the attention of an art historian or theoretician. It’s significant that the New York critic and champion of Color Field painting, Clement Greenberg, is mentioned more often in the index of the recent, much trumpeted “Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism” (by multiple authors, published by Thames & Hudson) than is Henri Matisse. And the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard gets considerably more space in the same substantial volume than the British painter Francis Bacon.


That book is representative of innumerable academic art texts, many of them on prescribed reading lists at respectable universities. All the books are characterized by the worst kind of mumbo jumbo. Their authors “foreground” issues. They talk about “hierarchical canonicity,” “hegemonic media apparatus” and of “terms like ‘parergon,’ ‘supplement,’ ‘difference’ and ‘remark’ ” that “grounded new artistic practice in the wake of modernism.” (Don’t bother to read it again; it still won’t be intelligible.)

There are theories at the bottom of the jargon, theories derived from psychoanalysis, feminism, structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction. The trouble is that the theories come first and the art afterward, if at all. It’s as though art historians fear that no one will take them and their discipline seriously unless they litter their writings with polysyllabic words and quotations from trendy (or once trendy) philosophers, almost all of them French.

One of those French philosophers is Jacques Derrida, who, thanks to his deconstructive method, claimed to know more about a piece of writing than the author did. (By the way, if we can’t trust what a writer says, how can we trust Derrida?) Many of today’s art historians similarly assume that they understand a painting, a sculpture or an installation more fully than its creator ever could. Such arrogance produces statements such as the following about the compositional structures of Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist paintings: They consist of “a horizontal antiform as an abstractness uncolonized by the vertical ‘one.’ ”

Verbal diarrhea like this wouldn’t matter if academic art historians gave the impression that they used their eyes, and if the emphasis they placed on theory weren’t at the expense of what might be called the sharp-end of art history. I mean the study of works of art as objects, asking how and for what place and purpose they were made, what the artist intended them to mean, and how they relate to other works of the same and other periods. The diminishing number of art history courses encouraging this approach means it’s difficult to find graduates capable of working as museum curators or even as auctioneers.

Art history graduates can bore you rigid with talk about Derrida, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, but few can tell you about the carpentry employed in a 14th century Sienese altarpiece. Nor can they explain why tempera produces different pictorial effects than oils. Few can compare Titian’s “Death of Acteon” with its source, Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.” Fewer still are trained to produce a catalogue raisonne, the basic compilation of an artist’s works and history. And how many can follow the argument that the “Madonna of the Pinks” -- coveted by the Getty Museum but still in the London National Gallery -- is truly by Raphael rather than a copy of a lost original?

Today’s art eunuchs, watching it going on, aren’t critics but historians. They’re incapable even of recognizing what they’re looking it. And Jacques Derrida can’t tell them.