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A Motley Choir. Variations in Tone in Contemporary Art Criticism

By Kerr Houston

Clearly, the function of contemporary art critics can be-and has often been-construed in a number of different ways. In his essay Clichés Reach Critical Mass, Take Writers Down Slippery Slope, Blake Gopnik suggests that art critics can write the first draft of art history. Elsewhere, Peter Plagens has suggested that we can think of critics as fulfilling a modest range of familiar roles: evangelists, say, or goalies (”This had better be pretty good to get by me.”), or cartographers (Rosalind Krauss, claiming that her job is to scan the horizon for blips). Alternatively, as Lucy Lippard, Dave Hickey and a host of other disgusted critics have suggested, art critics can be seen as little more than cogs in the larger capitalist machine: as producers of prose that is then used, cynically and without regard for nuance, to promote or inflate the perceived value of commodified artworks. Or perhaps, as James Elkins has written, the place of the critic is rather less important than that; perhaps art critics are instead practitioners of an almost irrelevant genre that now resembles nothing so much as a diaphanous veil, billowing and yet weightless, airily immaterial, at once broad in reach and broadly ignored.

Or perhaps-for, indeed, the topic seems to inspire similes-art critics might be seen as playing the role of the chorus in early Greek dramatic works. Consider: Like the choros in a play by Sophocles, art critics offer a live commentary on the action that unfolds before them. They lament, or counsel, or attempt to educate, or they express allegiance or indignation; in any case, they might be said to enact, as August Wilhelm Schlegel once wrote of Greek choruses, a possible response to the events, providing their broader audience with a modeled reaction.1 As with the chorus, though, the limits of their position are also notable, for they are at once central and distinct from the main narrative; they may actively moralize, but their ability to effect real change is seriously limited, for they are largely limited to the realm of rhetoric, rather than direct physical action.2 Herbert Golder and Stephen Scully once argued in a 1995 article that the Greek chorus was ultimately a “spectral presence,” and perhaps we could say something similar about the contemporary art critic who flits between Miami and Chelsea and café and laptop and manages to be at once passionate and ineffable-or, to cite Elkins again, to produce a vast band of writing while dissolving into the background.3

An Introduction to Art Criticism: Histories, Strategies, Voices by Kerr Houston, was published by Pearson Education in 2013.

An Introduction to Art Criticism: Histories, Strategies, Voices by Kerr Houston, was published by Pearson Education in 2013.

Of course, the analogy has its limits. For, after all, the Greek chorus generally spoke as one, in a communal voice. The actors in the choir usually wore, as far as we know, identical masks and sang the same lines. Art critics, by contrast, tend to emphasize their own individuality. They might do it aggressively, by staking out a baldly contrarian position or mocking the ideas of other critics, or they might do it delicately, by aligning themselves with an obscure theoretical approach or using a rare, idiosyncratic wording. Regardless, at the end of the day, despite their broad similarities, art critics are individuals, with their own tastes, tendencies, political platforms and voices.4 If they can be said to comprise in any real sense a chorus, it’s closer in spirit to the motley group in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (in which one member of the Greek choir abruptly steps out, voicing his own views and prompting rebuttals) than to the unified ensembles of Euripides.5

But if critics speak in distinct voices, rather than in a single choral unison, then how do they generate, on a concrete level, those various voices? If critical accounts of a work or show differ, how do they differ, on the level of syntax and wordings? In short, if we momentarily push differences in philosophy and taste to the side, what are we left with? It’s this sort of question that I’d like to consider in some detail here. And, at the risk of oversimplification, I want to suggest that variations in tone can be broadly understood in three basic ways. In some cases, critical tone represents an extension of individual proclivities: It can most usefully be seen, that is, as an embodiment of an aesthetic sensibility or philosophical stance. In other cases, critical tones seem to be primarily motivated by a desire to emulate the artwork under consideration; the words, in such examples, begin to echo their subject. And in still other cases, the tone employed by critics seems largely motivated by an attentiveness to the venue in which the work appears. Three alternatives, then, and note the clean geometry of their relative interests: One depends on the critic, the second on the artwork and the third on the audience. Sure, we might see art critics as evangelists or as unwitting players in a promotional apparatus; they may be mappers or practitioners of a dying art. But the nature of their occupation-writing about art, for a readership-inevitably means that they will speak, and do speak, in a polyphonic manner. So let’s file into the theater and begin to listen to their voices.


“I’ve always had,” Okwui Enwezor told Adam Shatz in a 2002 interview, “an incredible sense of my place in the world.”6 And the world, in turn, has proven generous and capacious. Over the past two decades, Enwezor has curated high-profile exhibitions of art in sites as diverse as San Francisco and Johannesburg, Kassel and Gwangju, Venice and New York. In the process, he has become, arguably, the best-known curator in the world and a celebrated representative of the sleek nomadism that has characterized the upper echelon of the art world since the 1990s. But he has also fostered an active and ambitious writing practice. For Enwezor, after all, has long been alert to the force of language: When he moved to New York City in 1982 (to earn a bachelor’s degree at Jersey City State College), he penned experimental poetry and soon befriended a number of writers. Over the next three decades, he founded a journal (Nka, dedicated to analyses of contemporary African art) and authored (or co-authored) several books and numerous essays on a range of artistic subjects.

To read that body of work is to encounter a confident voice that is both resolutely individual and inflected by his interests and complicated background. At times, for instance, Enwezor’s critical writing reveals his poetic sensibility and talents. In a 2009 essay on Zwelethu Mthethwa, for instance, Enwezor offers this summary of Mthethwa’s color photographs of sugarcane workers: “These magisterial portraits of single figures, attired like medieval warriors in greasy smocks, flowing skirts, and gumboots and wielding long-handled knives, present the laborers in various poses, standing amid the devastation of the burned sugarcane fields, their back to the gently rolling cultivated land, against the backdrop of dappled, open blue sky.”7

It is a sensuously written passage, unfurling in an undulating manner that almost evokes the pastoral virtues whose loss the photographs seem to mourn. And then there is that rich field of adjectives, none of them exactly surprising in isolation but each of them working in concert to evoke the sheer optical richness of Mthethwa’s work. Such a sensitivity is also visible in Enwezor’s powerful 1997 essay on South African art, in which he evokes Homi Bhabha’s assertion that colonial discourse depends upon the concept of fixity and nervously repeated stereotypes, and then builds on the idea: “This anxious repetition finds itself inscribed again and again in the almost obsessive usage of old photographic images of Africans or in the ethnographic tourist postcards depicting near-naked African women in a state of colonial arrest.”8

The creative again and again solidifies the point, conveying the jittery aspect of the repetition being discussed. Note, too, the soft parallelism of almost obsessive and near-naked: The colonizer, perhaps, is not so different from the colonized. But the climax, from my point of view, lies in the final word, which economically conflates a sense of inertia with a sense of the violence of the colonial penal system. Here, Enwezor’s skill as a wordsmith allows him to suggest that apartheid was rooted both in a pathological circularity and in disciplinary aggression.

At the same time, though, Enwezor’s criticism also implies an interest in academic formality: Its tone can lean towards the stiff, or the didactic. Indeed, even his speech habits are revealingly distinctive in this sense, as Adam Shatz has noted: “A product of British boarding schools, Enwezor speaks in a formal, almost aristocratic style, spreading out his syllables in a charmingly affected way.”9 That tendency towards a lofty, genteel tone is discernible in some of Enwezor’s writing, as well. The essay on Mthethwa, for instance, contains this aside: “One must remember that in classical Greece, the city (polis) was delimited only for free men, thus the origin of the idea of citizen: one who belongs in the city and is lawfully recognized as such.”10 Note the repetition of the passive voice and the offhanded use of stilted constructions such as one must remember and as such: the arch, edifying tone is that of a stereotypical Oxbridge tutor.

Relatedly, Enwezor often resorts, in written work, to the airy jargon of the academy, yielding a tone that is intellectually elevated, or even abstract. (In a 2014 article, Zeke Turner remarked that “Enwezor can be unremittingly prolix, and he resorts to heavy words to anchor the thoughts in his mind.”11) Terms like abrogate, binary, and liminal recur, and entire passages can become dense webs of fashionable terms and keywords. Take, for instance, a passage from a 2013 essay on South African photography: “In the wake of apartheid,” wrote Enwezor, “protest signs, accompanied by speech acts by Africans demanding their rights, became unmistakable modalities for communicating the subjectivity and signifying presence of the erstwhile ‘native’ and therefore offer a dialectical approach to the negotiation of images of Native Studies and black modern political movements.”12 Protest signs as modalities for communicating signifying presence? The tone here feels intentionally ambitious, or even haughtily exclusive.

In the process, Enwezor’s prose style can occasionally begin to teeter under its own weight. Rather like his exhibitions, which allegedly often take their initial shape in an air of grand ambition and fitful chaos, his writing can try to do too much or threaten to become unmoored. Too, metaphors are occasionally strained. I’m thinking, for instance, of Enwezor’s assertion that “Mthethwa’s evident departure from the style of his Interiors portraiture series, and his foray into the abyss of documentary realism, expose a smudged gap of interpretation between his concerns.”13 The sentence structure feels clear-but what, exactly, is a smudged gap of interpretation? And can it truly be exposed by a departure? Perhaps we can call such an approach poetic, in its almost aquatic logic, but in other cases the breakdowns in syntax seem to convey an unintended meaning. In his 1997 essay, for example, Enwezor recalled walking through a show curated by Pipa Skotnes. “As one wandered through the rooms,” he wrote, “bludgeoned by a didactic relativism that at times seemed an act of self-mockery, I was forced to ask what this exhibition was all about.”14 Here, the very subject of the sentence shifts confusingly-or perhaps we should say coalesces, for by the end of the sentence we understand that Enwezor is in fact the very one with whom he began.

Okwui Enwezor in New York City, 2009. Photo: Andrew Russeth.

Okwui Enwezor in New York City, 2009. Photo: Andrew Russeth.

It’s not, then, that Enwezor can’t write clearly; to the contrary, his criticism is peppered with statements of an almost crystalline force. (”Writing about works of South African art always seems like walking down a cul-de-sac. At the end of the one-way street, what one finds is South Africa’s anguish.”)15 Rather, it’s that Enwezor tries to do so much in his criticism that his tone is forced to accommodate, at once, a sophisticated writer’s ambitions, a globetrotter’s cosmopolitanism and a reformist’s zeal. For the most part, that is, his tone is dignified, restrained, erudite and generous in its creativity. But the sheer seriousness of the subjects that he addresses and the sobering facts of his early years in war-torn Nigeria mean that a glib tone is flatly impossible. Instead, much of his critical writing is touched by a consistent world-weariness, an indignant but almost resigned alertness to the sheer ubiquity of injustice. You can see this, for instance, in his brief summary of Mthethwa’s early pastel drawings, which Enwezor claims were “simplified for profitable consumption by those who want their black images a certain shade of sunny sweetness.”16 Or you can see it in the scathing final line of a 2008 letter to Artforum in response to Robert Storr’s criticism of Enwezor’s assessment of that year’s Venice Biennale. “Long believed dead and buried in the sludge of the nineteenth-century colonial game,” wrote Enwezor, frostily, “Mr. Kurtz, we learned in 2007, is alive after all. His latest incarnation is Mr. Storr.”17

Here, of course, the tone (like the content) is personal, or even ad hominem-but it remains, at the same time, allusive and literary. And that, perhaps, is the central point here: that Enwezor’s criticism consistently involves tonal decisions that echo his experiences and interests, but also his politics and aspirations. Without resorting to biographical essentialism, we might say that Enwezor inhabits his criticism with a fullness that is not a given. Again, his 1997 essay offers a pertinent example. In it, he lambastes two white South African artists-Candice Breitz and Pipa Skotness-for using images of black women without apparent interest in their identity or individuality. He then contrasts their approach with that of Santu Mofokeng, who painstakingly collected a number of archival images of blacks and then researched the historical contexts in which they were made. In the process, Enwezor writes in a register that is aggrieved, confident and prescriptive. But there’s something else going on here, too. At one point, Enwezor quotes Mofokeng’s explanation of his methodology at length. At no point, however, does he quote Breitz or Skotnes. The very structure of his essay, then, rectifies the problem that he claims to have identified: too often, white South Africans speak for blacks. Enwezor’s criticism, by contrast, offers a space for an alternative, as it gives a voice to the marginalized while also framing that voice in a way that is both alert to, and distrustful of, the levers of linguistic power.

“And the less anxiously repeated the image,” Enwezor argues at the end of the same piece, “the better the opportunity to find an ethical ground to use its index as a form of discursive address, for radical revision, as well as to unsettle the apparatus of power.”18 His place in the world, we can thus say, is to identify and to challenge that apparatus in terms that oscillate between limpid prose, mannered erudition, evocative poetry and rhetorical fire.


Enwezor is very much his own writer, then, but even he sometimes seems to craft his prose in a manner calculated to evoke or reflect the work that he is discussing. On a photograph depicting a modestly decorated interior, for instance, he once wrote, “Despite its striking decor, the room is spare. It contains only the barest minimum of possessions…Nothing more is in the room.”19 The restrained, sparse writing style reflects the image. And, indeed, such an approach turns out to have a considerable history. The rhythm of John Ruskin’s famous description of Turner’s The Slave Ship, for instance, evokes the churning of the sea-tossed waves in the painting. In fact, as Elizabeth Helsinger once noted, entire sections of the first volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters call paintings by Turner to mind in a variety of ways: “Not only the word choice but the word order, rhythm, sound, and sense, reflect the technique, force and equilibrium of the painting [being considered].”20 The style and tone of a piece of art criticism, in other words, can resemble or allude to the work under discussion.

Hal Foster’s review of the 2014 Robert Gober retrospective at MoMA, in the January 2015 issue of Artforum, offers a useful illustration of such an approach. Foster, of course, has been a well-known art critic and historian since the mid-1980s, and his criticism often draws on a diverse body of theory-Marxist, psychoanalytic, semiotic-in discussing work that has ranged from Surrealist to postmodern. In the process, he frequently employs a tone that is at once accessible and intellectually nimble and that relates in a meaningful way to his subject. In a 2001 catalog essay on a show of work by Richard Serra, for instance, Foster wrote in an assertive, muscular mode appropriate to the sculptor’s massive torqued spirals and toruses. A relatively typical passage thus ran like this: “With the heavyweight piece here, titled Ali-Frazier, Serra again recovers an established type in his work, the solid block, which was first developed as a counterpoint to the spatial manipulations of his arcs (single, double, and treble) of the 1980s and ’90s. Like the rounds that emerged with them, these blocks absorb space through sheer mass, like so many black holes, rather than define space through steel planes, as in the arcs. Yet Ali-Frazier tests our sense not only of mass but of size as well.”21

Through the punning use of the term heavyweight, Foster immediately implies that he is interested in matching language to piece, and the rest of the paragraph echoes the resolute presence of Serra’s work (which in this case consisted of two forged-steel blocks). The verbs are primarily active and conclusive: recover; absorb, test. And the sentences are insistent in their directness; repeatedly, verb follows subject, and Foster, like Serra, seems more interested in blunt fact than in mere possibility or ambiguity.

In approaching Gober’s very different work, however, Foster altered his tone. Admittedly, his essay still opens firmly, and even dramatically: “From the beginning,” he proclaims, “the art of Robert Gober was distinctive, as if it had emerged full-blown from his forehead.”22 But as he turns to individual pieces, Foster is struck by their allusive, fugitive and associative qualities, and his tone soon shifts into a more sensitive and nuanced register. Thus, his second paragraph begins like this: “Gober is best known for his inexplicable objects: unplumbed sinks, unusable cribs, male legs planted with candles or drilled with drains. Although they appear to be porcelain or flesh, they are in fact plaster or beeswax, and this substitution moves them away from the politics of the readymade.”23

Sure, this excerpt does some important, inglorious work, as it offers a tidy overview of iconographic and material tendencies in Gober’s oeuvre. But on a more subtle level, it also labors to create a certain mood, or air, that is considerably more refined. Look, for instance, at the recurring use of or: these sentences are also working to accent the importance of alternatives. And then, too, there’s a certain softness in Foster’s claim that Gober’s use of creative materials moves his works away from the sphere of the readymade. Not denies, or rejects, but moves away from: Again, the wording is something less than forceful. Rather, we might even call it gentle, or interested in a rhetorical pliability, or in provisional possibilities.

Foster’s turn away from an authoritative, hard-nosed reading is visible in his third paragraph, as well. “It is mostly the illusionism of his materials that estranges his things,” Foster writes-mostly, that is, but not exclusively, and in short order he explains the need for such qualification: “Indeed, his objects are personally painstaking, and just as pain is often evoked at the level of subject matter (all the body parts), caring and tending are often intimated at the level of process, where work sometimes takes on the resonance of working through.”24 Often, often, sometimes: This is criticism that is uninterested in a reductive attempt at a memorable line. Rather, it embraces ambiguity and openly admits exception and complexity-precisely as Gober’s art does, in Foster’s view. “There is damage and melancholy in this art,” Foster goes on to conclude, “but there is also reparation and mourning, and sometimes…there are all of these things at once.”25 So, too, with Foster’s criticism, which uses a carefully crafted tone to convey an openness to alternatives and multiplicity.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that Foster tacks between grammatical persons in his review, momentarily departing from his third-person account to thoughtful, affecting uses of the first and second person. “There are times,” he writes, “when one is damaged, as so many were during the AIDS crisis, or abjected, as countless gay people and people of color are every day-times, in short, when metaphor is impossible, when nothing can serve as a substitute, when your heart is broken, when no one can take your place, when you die.”26

It is a remarkable sentence, from a syntactical point of view, for it opens by positing an impersonal, damaged one but then shifts into the second person (you die), explicitly demolishing in the process the very notion that one could take the place of you. As a result, the sentence employs a totally different grammatical logic than Enwezor’s use of one as a mere proxy for the writer; here, Foster isolates us or exposes us, conveying the melancholy tone of much of Gober’s work. In the very next paragraph, however, Foster modifies that grave note with an accent upon the possibility of eerie recuperation, and he does it by shifting persons once again. Gober’s installations, he argues, often employ broad symbols and generic spaces, lending his work the force of a folktale. “In such storytelling,” Foster goes on to write, “as Benjamin once remarked, we often warm our souls over a dead body. That is true here too, though with the uncanny twist that the dead body might somehow be our own as well.”27 Now the reader is part of a we-of a grim ceremony, to be sure, but also of a collective. If we die, we no longer die entirely alone.

Placing so much pressure upon a critic’s choice of pronouns may seem a silly exercise. But Foster’s attentive prose allows him to draw attention to, and even partially recreate some of the tonal effects of Gober’s work. Indeed, reading his account reminded me of a moment from my own visit to Gober’s show at MoMA. When I was there, I watched several other viewers approach and peer down into Untitled (detail), a 1997 work that is set into the museum floor and that allows viewers to see a streambed-or, from a single, particularly acute angle, two pairs of feet. And as I looked on, one viewer returned to the piece to direct another uncomprehending museum-goer to the rewarding viewpoint. The you had become a we: two souls briefly commingled over a body made of wax.


Foster, then, can modify his tone rather substantially, as a means of conveying the particular feel or mood of the work before him. At the same time, though, he is certainly also alert (like most good critics) to the venue in which he is writing. The generally celebratory tone of a piece written for a catalog essay, in other words, may not be appropriate in a piece conceived for, say, October. And so Foster also varies his tone with an eye towards his readership.

For a crisp example of this, we might look at a portion of an analysis of Louise Bourgeois’ Fillette that he published in 2004: “When hung by wire (as it is often displayed), it seems an object of hate, a castrated piece of meat. But when cradled (as it is by Bourgeois in a well-known photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe), it seems an object of love, a baby held by its mother. According to Freud, women might associate penis and baby in order to compensate the lack of the first with the gain of the second. But this ‘little girl’ is no mere fetish or penis-substitute; she is a personage in her own right. In this way La Fillette…is a feminist appropriation of the symbolic phallus.”28

This passage appeared in Art Since 1900, a textbook authored by Foster and four colleagues; aimed largely at college students, it adopts a tone that might be called conversational but quietly insistent. Throughout, Foster offers variant wordings and stacks ideas-an object of hate, a castrated piece of meat-and thus eschews an authoritarian tone. At the same time, he seems to realize that Freudian theory might repel certain readers and thus proffers the carefully qualified claim that “according to Freud, women might associate penis and baby.” In short, this is criticism designed to disarm a dubious reader: to deny, as the marketers might say, the denier.

Perhaps the most celebrated example of an art critic who has developed a particular tone in relation to venue and audience, however, is Jerry Saltz. He, of course, first came to broad notice as a critic for The Village Voice, where he crafted a voice that was populist, humorous and irreverent: a fine match, in other words, for the iconoclastic alternative in which it appeared. Since 2007, he has worked as senior art critic and columnist for New York and has also developed a remarkably robust online presence, writing for vulture.com (an online cousin of New York) and acquiring thousands of Facebook friends. To be sure, the earthy, energetic voice that Saltz had employed in his traditional print criticism was a natural fit for online work. After all, its coarse pragmatism and everyman quality was naturally sociable, if also potentially volatile. But in recent years, as Saltz has extended his online presence, he has developed a tone even more suited to that sphere. Thus, as Christopher Bollen has pointed out, Saltz’s critical writings often “build to a frenetic, volatile, in-your-face debate that might involve the desire to finish the conversation outside.”29

“Klaus: You dick! Are you listening?” Saltz wrote in a recent Facebook post that addressed Klaus Biesenbach, the newly appointed director of MoMA P.S.1. “You know I love you but you’re sitting on the BEST PHYSICAL SPACE on the East Coast and you’re presiding over a pretty boring program.”30 The tone of such writing is enthusiastically vulgar and combative, but is at the same time concise and humorous and thus perfectly suited to a smartphone screen (a fact that is also true of Saltz’s three-sentence reviews for vulture.com). Importantly, too, it’s also inclusive; indeed, as Leon Neyfakh has remarked, many of Saltz’s Facebook friends claim to feel empowered through their participation in the resulting discussions.31

In fact, Saltz has worked hard to create a tone that is at once widely accessible and nominally modest. “I find it a pleasure and a thrill,” he has said of his online popularity. “It’s exciting to be in this room with 5,000 people. It’s like the Cedar Bar for me, or Max’s Kansas City, neither of which I was ever in and probably wasn’t cool enough to be in. Now I get to kind of be one of the barmaids in this place, to put an idea in the air and see what happens.”32 Note the apparent humility in the final sentence: Saltz seems to imagine himself as a barmaid, rather than, say, Pollock, or de Kooning. And yet, he is clearly a strongly opinionated barmaid. In a live appearance on Reddit, Saltz lambasted what he sees as a tendency towards opaque, overwrought prose in major critical venues. “And write reviews,” he exhorted, “in fucking English, will you, for fuck’s sake! I have NO idea what most of the stuff in Artforum is saying. No one does.”33 Fucking English, for Saltz, seems to be an idiom that is characterized by epithets, exclamation points and broad generalizations.

Predictably, Saltz’s tone has not appealed to every reader. (Indeed, one might say that it is calculated to alienate certain writers and venues). After all, as James Panero argued in a 2010 essay, “It may be no coincidence that the writers and critics who have found success online have rarely been from the print world. The skill-set is quite different.”34 Saltz, here, is the exception, but he is an exception that fails to move Panero, who sees Saltz as a graphomaniac for whom the new media is the message. In short, Panero sees Saltz’s democratic tone as emblematic of a larger abdication of responsibility: The critic is now a crowd-sourcer rather than a producer of valuable reactions to artworks. And yet, interestingly, Saltz might not disagree. For, in fact, he has celebrated the thoughts of his readers as an important addition to the project of criticism. In thinking about his appearance on Work of Art (a reality television show), for instance, he wrote that the resulting posts represented “an accidental art criticism practiced in a new place, in a new way, on a fairly high level…Together we were crumbs and butter of a mysterious madeleine. The delivery mechanism of art criticism seemed to turn itself inside out; instead of one voice speaking to many, there were many voices speaking to one another. Coherently.”35

The tone here-one of mild awe, expressing a sense of having witnessed something momentous-says it all. The Internet, for Saltz, is transformative.


Of course, Saltz’s inclusive, democratic tone could be understood in terms of larger artistic and political developments, as well (think, for instance, of the Occupy movement, or of the much-discussed social turn in contemporary art, or of hyperrelationality, or of Jane Rendell’s observation that “the viewer’s interaction, participation and collaboration is central to the production of art’s aesthetic dimension.”)36 Or we might see it, equally compellingly, as a fair and honest expression of Saltz’s personality, which has apparently long tended toward the populist. In other words, there’s nothing gained in being repressively simplistic, or in insisting on the unique importance of aesthetic philosophy here, and venue there. Yes, critics do sometimes write in ways that reveal their interests, or a desire to echo the work that stands before them, or an attention to their likely readership. But art criticism is, finally, a naturally synthetic activity, and the voices of art critics develop in response to a variety of factors.

All of which is to say, once more, that contemporary art critics hardly comprise a unified and monotonic choir. Rather, if they can be seen as a choros at all, it is a rebellious and fractious one, which is precisely why Triple Canopy can run a piece that skewers the clotted tone of much criticism, or why Michael Fried can attack, in wilting tones, the word choices made by Peter Schjeldahl in a review of a Morris Louis show.37 They may differ in philosophy, personality and tone, but they understand, on some level, that they play a comparable role in a larger drama. They dance, like the choir in a Greek tragedy, the same dance. But they are never, finally, the same, and the differences between them are often initially apparent on the level of tone. This is why we must, if we want to understand recent art criticism, do exactly what Umit Dhuga once recommended that students of Greek choroi do: that is, “We ought to engage closely the language of any given tragic chorus.”38 For if we do, much larger patterns may begin to emerge, much as they once dawned on the audiences of early Greek plays.


1.    For a consideration of the evidence surrounding early Greek instances of the choros and a detailed analysis of the physical place of the choros in the larger geography of Greek plays, see Graham Ley, The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy: Playing Space and Chorus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

2.    For a complication of this admittedly simple characterization, which was originally advanced by V. di Benedetto, see Helene Foley, “Choral Identity in Greek Tragedy,” Classical Philology 98/1 (January 2003), 1-30.

3.    Herbert Golder and Stephen Scully, “Introduction,” Arion 3/1 (”The Chorus in Greek Tragedy and Culture, One”) (Fall 1994-Winter 1995), 1-5: 1.

4.    Relevant here are David Carrier’s observations in “Artcriticism-writing, Arthistory-writing, and Artwriting,” in The Art Bulletin 78/3 (September 1996), 401-403.

5.    My thanks to Steve Knudsen for alerting me to Allen’s creative re-imagining of the choir and for inviting me to contribute to this collection. Admittedly, there is some slight evidence of a similar arrangement in certain early Greek performances; see T.B.L. Webster, The Greek Chorus. London: Methuen & Co., 1970, 202.

6.    “Okwui Enwezor’s Really Big Show,” The New York Times Magazine, June 2, 2002, at http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/02/magazine/02OKWUI.html, accessed January 8, 2015.

7.    “Photography after the End of Documentary Realism: Zwelethu Mthethwa’s Color Photographs,” in Zwelethu Mthethwa (Aperture, 2010), 100-115: 110.

8.    “Reframing the Black Subject: Ideology and Fantasy in Contemporary South African Representation,” originally published in Third Text 40 (Autumn 1997) and republished in Kymberly Pinder, ed., Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History (New York: Routledge, 2002), 371-389: 380. My thoughts on Enwezor’s tone in his 1997 essay benefit, too, from the work of Aubrey Dunn, a student in a 2014 seminar that I taught at MICA; I thank her for her generosity in sharing her ideas.

9.    “Okwui Enwezor’s Really Big Show.”

10. “Photography after the End of Documentary Realism,” 105.

11. “How Okwui Enwezor Changed the Art World,” The Wall Street Journal online, September 8, 2014, at http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-okwui-enwezor-changed-the-art-world-1410187570, accessed January 8, 2015.

12. Okwui Enwezor, “Rise and Fall of Apartheid,” in Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester, eds., Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life (New York: International Center of Photography, 2013), 20-45: 28.

13. “Photography after the End of Documentary Realism,” 109.

14. “Reframing the Black Subject,” 383.

15. “Photography after the End of Documentary Realism,” 101.

16. “Photography after the End of Documentary Realism,” 113.

17. Letter to the Editor, Artforum, February 2008

18. “Reframing the Black Subject,” 388.

19. “Photography after the End of Documentary Realism,” 105.

20. See Kerr Houston, An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013), 214.

21. Hal Foster, “Torques and Toruses,” in Richard Serra: Torqued Spirals, Toruses and Spheres (Gagosian Gallery, 2001), 7-21: 9-10.

22. Hal Foster, “Robert Gober,” Artforum (January 2015), 204-6: 204.

23. “Robert Gober,” 204.

24. “Robert Gober,” 204.

25. “Robert Gober,” 204.

26. “Robert Gober,” 205.

27. “Robert Gober,” 205.

28. Hal Foster et al., Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 501.

29. “Roberta Smith & Jerry Saltz,” Interview online, at http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/roberta-smith-jerry-saltz/, accessed January 9, 2015.

30. Leon Neyfakh, “The Many Friends of Jerry Saltz,” New York Observer online, February 7, 2010, at http://observer.com/2010/02/the-many-friends-of-jerry-saltz/, accessed January 9, 2015.

31. Quoted in Neyfakh, “The Many Friends.”

32. Quoted in Neyfakh, “The Many Friends.”

33. <http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1qk99k/i_am_jerry_saltz_new_york_magazines_art_critic/>, accessed January 9, 2015.

34. James Panero, “My Jerry Saltz Problem,” The New Criterion online (December 2010), <http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/My-Jerry-Saltz-problem-6502>, accessed January 9, 2015.

35. Quoted in Panero, “My Jerry Saltz Problem.”

36. Jane Rendell, Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism (New York: IB Tauris, 2010), 3.

37. Michael Fried, “Morris Louis,” in Artforum (December 2014), 267.

38. Umit Dhuga, abstract of “Divine Agency and Human Agency: Rereading the Chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone,” online at <https://camws.org/meeting/2010/program/abstracts/06D1.Dhuga.pdf>, accessed January 9, 2015.

Kerr Houston has taught art history and art criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 2002. He is the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2012), and his writings about contemporary art have appeared in Art Journal and Nka, among other publications. He is also a regular contributor to BmoreArt, a Baltimore-based arts blog.

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