« Art Critics' Reading List


James Lough teaches nonfiction writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design in the writing department, which he formerly directed. His book This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out in New York’s Chelsea 1980-1995 was published by Schaffner Press in 2013. He is also the author of Spheres of Awareness (University Press of America, 2009) and Sites of Insight (University Press of Colorado, 2003), as well as over 80 articles, essays and short stories.

Camille Paglia. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Reports of the author’s death, says Paglia, have been greatly exaggerated. Artists in the Western world have always asserted their dramatic personalities and creative skill against nature’s tyranny. But nature, in its amoral chaos, is “no respecter of human identity.” Paglia bemoans the French Poststructuralist invasion of U.S. critical culture. Its high-abstract theory, and the overhyped, month-long Situationist liberation of desire, can only pale next to the U.S. counterculture’s 30-year, real-world Romantic pleasure quest. The American lunge at libidinal freedom via sex, drugs and rock and roll, launched by Little Richard and culminating in 1980s S&M dungeons, was a tragi-heroic lost cause. “The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure.” Whether we rebel in theory or in practice, Paglia reminds us, “Nature is always pulling the rug out from under our pompous ideals.” And art leaves us artifacts of our spectacular defeat.

Roger Lipsey. The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1988.

As Lionel Trilling put it, modern art is characterized by “the bitter line of hostility to civilization.” Artists, recovering from the trauma of World War I, were deeply cynical about cultural values that permitted such technological savagery. And they looked for alternatives. One was spirituality. Not of the vague “human spirit” kind, but spirituality rooted in ancient traditions of Buddhism and Boehme or their more recent incarnations––Jung, Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Picasso’s return to the “primitive” was an essentially spiritual impulse. Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual Art proposed ideas of “contemplative watchfulness,” and “inner sound.” Later, Pollock declared that artists were “part of universal energy.” Rothko spoke of “the urgency for transcendent experience.” Academic critics, often uneasy with spiritual ideas, tend to muffle Modernism’s spiritual facets. Lipsey does a thorough job returning the repressed.

Ben Davis. 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013.

Like many critics today, Davis focuses on art as a reflection of political and economic realities. Unlike many critics, he focuses on the actual art world of galleries, museums, money and luxury consumer spectacles like Art Basel Miami Beach. Davis asks thorny questions. Is there a well-defined line anymore between commercial and fine art? Are the visual arts irrelevant in the face of a dominant mass media? And finally, in a hyper-monetized art world, where “the ruling class, which is capitalist, dominates the sphere of visual arts,” what role can working- or middle-class artists possibly play? Davis is a Marxist of the streets, unsheltered by the hothouse of academe, where ideas thrive without being tested in the actual world. His proposed solutions may seem dreamy and utopian, but his observations are as incisive as razor cuts.