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Jed’s Jeremiad: Perl Hurls Brickbats at the Art Scene

If Jed Perl isn’t careful, he may inherit the Hilton Kramer honorary mantle for critical stodginess. His cover story for the Feb. 5 issue of The New Republic strains to coin a new catch-phrase, “laissez-faire aesthetics,” while positioning Perl squarely in the dubious tradition of critics who are so stuck in the past that they can’t see the art of the present.
Today’s big-money “laissez-faire aesthetes,” in Perl’s view, “believe that any experience that anyone can have with a work of art is equal to any other.” Is there ANYONE who really believes this? Or is it just that today’s aesthetic predilections don’t conform with Perl’s predispositions?
There’s nothing wrong with undying devotion to the art you admired in your youth, unless your job description happens to involve trying to assess today’s creative output, with a receptive eye and a flexible mind. Most of the artists Perl admires in his article (David Smith, Picasso, Morandi, Lucian Freud, Ellsworth Kelly) are dead or elderly; he has little good to say about more recent art stars and he especially savages Yuskavage and Currin. You don’t have to like them, but that doesn’t make utter morons of those who do. Poor Currin can console himself with the sight of one of his own paintings prominently featured on the magazine’s cover, sporting a red “sold” sticker. You just can’t buy this kind of publicity!
Perl defiantly flaunts his intolerance, and particularly denigrates collectors who “believe that it is their privilege to respond to anything at any time in any way they choose.” Is that privilege only reserved for certain rightminded critics? One consequence of people’s forming their own opinions is to marginalize critics as artworld tastemakers—a circumstance that Perl must surely regret.
What Perl means by “laissez-fair aesthetics” is a disregard of what he feels are the appropriate standards of quality: “There is no struggle with distinctions because there is no recognition of distinctions.” But what his labored label really signifies is that art and art institutions have changed with the times, while Perl hasn’t:
The essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience.
He would, it seems, like to return to the glory days when art was the province of a small group of elite aesthetes, who could commune in solitude with a roomful of certified masterpieces in a nearly deserted museum.
I enjoyed that too. But that was so 40 years ago.

an ArtsJournal blog