Bernstein / Is Art Criticism ...



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Charles Bernstein

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from Parkett 84 (2009)

an expanded version of this essays appears in Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions.

Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry?

In Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie1, Lytle Shaw’s ostensive subject is how “coterie” works in the poetry and poetics of Frank O’Hara. The opening chapters provide a cogent discussion of the role of proper names in O’Hara’s poetry within the context of a linguistics-inflected examination of naming and reference. Shaw notes the different levels of proper naming in O’Hara’s work – figures of popular culture, political and social figures, as well as different levels of his personal circle (from identifiable artists and poets to obscure names).

For Shaw, coterie is not a closed world of intimates but an interlocking, open-ended set of associations and affiliations. He links coterie to the socio-historically self-conscious poetics of the local, community, and other collective formations. The poetics of coterie is presented by Shaw as an alternative to universalizing conceptions of poetry. O’Hara’s location of himself not in an homogenous elite but rather in intersecting constellations of persons (real and imagined affiliations), together with his famous time-stamping of his poems (it’s 12:18 in New York as I rewrite this sentence) both work against the Romantic Ideology of timeless poems by great individuals.

Still, no discussion of coterie can completely free itself from the negative connotations of clique and scene. For best effect, the first chapters of Shaw’s book should be read beside Andrew Epstein’s  Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry2. Epstein offers exemplary Emersonian readings of the intricate web connecting individual talent and collective investment in the poetry and poetics of John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, and O’Hara. Averting the Cold War myth of the individual voice in the wilderness of conformity, Epstein gives us voices in conversation and conflict, suggesting that resistance to agreement is at the heart of a pragmatist understanding of literary community. 

 The role of proper names and the nature of O’Hara’s personal circle are not the only concerns of Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie. In the book’s final chapters, another theme emerges with equal force: O’Hara’s approach to the visual arts in his poems and criticism. Shaw sees O’Hara’s art writing as a powerful and necessary counter to the monological and hyperprofessional rigidity that descends from Clement Greenberg (who dismissed O’Hara’s art writing) to Michael Fried and, I’d add, extends to the October brand, the epitome of, let’s just say, High Orthodoxical art criticism. For if the luminous rigor and prodigious insights of Greenberg and Fried end in the tragedy of misrecognition, the self-serious vanguardism of the High Orthodoxical ends in the farce of academic gate-keeping and market validation. In other words, Greenberg’s and Fried’s insistence on conviction and agonism morphed into a practice of regulation by exclusion.

For Shaw, the aversion of poetry in both formalist and High Orthodoxical art criticism is a sign of its own aesthetic failure. In contrast to Greenberg’s and Fried’s rebuke of “poetic” art criticism, he suggests that O’Hara was doing an “art-critical” poetry that, for example, has resonances with Robert Smithson’s writing.3 “O’Hara moves toward modes of hybridization and proliferation that are diametrically opposed to the narrowing lexical range Greenberg and Fried imagined as the cure to a threatened art criticism of the 1950s and the 1960s” (p. 171).  Shaw illustrates his point with a  a section  of O’Hara’s poem “Second Avenue” that explicitly addresses DeKooning:

The silence that lasted for a quarter century. All
the babies were born blue. They called him “Al” and “Horseballs”
in kindergarten, he had an autocratic straw face like a dark
in a DeKooing where the torrent has subsided at the very center
classism, it can be many whirlpools in a gun battle
or each individual pang in the “last mile” of electrodes, so
totally unlike xmas tree ornaments that you wonder, uhmmm?
            what the bourgeoisie is thinking of. Trench coat. Broken strap.

O’Hara practiced a complicit4 and promiscuous criticism that stands in stark contrast to the ideologies of formalist criticism of his time and the October-tinged orthodoxicalities of the 1970s and 1980s.  As Shaw puts it, “O’Hara’s painting poems present … a special kind of interdisciplinarity, or what Michael Fried would call ‘theatricality’ … They … initiate almost infinite substitutions among discourses in their rapid, line-to-line attempt to imagine contexts for painting. It is for that reason that they seem, and are, antiprofessional” (p. 179; italics added).

Both formalist and the later October-branded criticism and its many knock-offs preached views of meaning that, while at odds with one another, were sufficiently proscriptive as to void the full range of aesthetic approaches in the art championed and to simply dismiss (as “pernicious,” as Fried called “Dada”5) work that contested the limits of received ideas of meaning-making. This criticism operated not by “negating” or deconstructing meaning (the empty encomium of the High Orthodoxical Art) but by articulating newly emerging constructions of meaning-as-constellations (a poetics of affiliation, association, combine, conglomeration, collage, and coterie). In effect, both formalist and High Orthodoxical criticism see theatrical or allegorical methods, respectively, as emptying meaning. But while the former decries the putative demise of opticality and the latter valorizes it, neither has a sufficiently pliable approach to engage with the new semantic embodiments of the “frail / instant,” as O’Hara’s puts it in his poem “For Bob Rauschenberg.”6 O’Hara’s “frail / instant” could be called the weak absorption of coterie, which, like the “unevenness” of everyday life is both discontinuous and fluid, self-aware and constructive, “semantically various and unstable,” atomized and chaining.7  O’Hara – in his reviled poeticizing – was able to articulate a poetics of adjacency, of queer juxtapositions, to which his critical others remained blind.

Thomas McEvilley makes the point very succinctly in his 1982 essay “Head It’s Form, Tales It’s Not Content,” prefacing his remarks with a quote from O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” –
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them …

Here’s McEvilley:
In the attempt to free art from the plane of content, the formalist tradition denied that elements of the artwork may refer outside the work toward the embracing world. Rather, the elements are to be understood as referring to one another inside the work, in an interior and self-subsistent esthetic code. The claim is imprecisely and incompletely made, however, because the formalists take much too narrow a view of what can constitute “content.” Greenberg, for example, often uses the term “non-representational” to describe “pure” artworks – those purified of the world. But as he uses it, the term seems to rule out only clear representations of physical objects such as chairs, bowls of fruit, or naked figures lying on couches. Similarly, Fried, assumed that only “recognizable objects, persons and places” can provide the content of a painting. But art that is non-representational in this sense may still be representational in others. It may be bound to the surrounding world by its reflection of structures of thought, political tensions, psychological attitudes, and so forth. 8

As Shaw acidly notes, to cast “the poetic” as the last bastion of private insights, or indeed “as a kind of metaphysics of content, of pure meaning,” requires a concerted effort to ignore the formally radical poetries outside the domain of Official Verse Culture and especially those poetries that explore collage, collision, disjunction, overlay, and contradiction.  Mispresented “as such it is no wonder that the poetic has had a long list of detractors – stretching from Greenberg and Fried to Benjamin Buchloh and James Meyer” (p. 220). Indeed, “they”–  both the prophets of a sublime late modernism and the apostates who argued for dystopian postmodernism –  “were all cheated of some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it,” as O’Hara wryly puts it in the final lines of “Having a Coke with You.”9 O’Hara is not, not nearly, the better critic, and Shaw shows his allegiances as being more to the in between than to any one of his shifting positions – curator, poet, critic, lover, social magnet, arts administrator. But more than “they” he recognized that “form is never more than an extension of content.”10  

This is certainly not to say that the normative, descriptive, fashion- and market-driven modes of art criticism are to be preferred, whether written by poets or not. The problem is not that art criticism is too conceptually complex but, on the contrary, that – – even at its putatively most theoretical – its poetics and aesthetics are too often willfully stunted, marked by a valorized incapacity to respond to how meaning is realized through multiple, incommensurable, or overlaid discourses – kinship, in Shaw’s terms – within a single work. Meaning is not an end but a between.11  

The significance of O’Hara (or McEvilley or Shaw) is not that they are poets who do criticism, which is also true of Fried, but their polymorphous dexterity of their writing; their aversion of simple description (of visual appearance or of ideas) in pursuit of phenomenological unevenness (in Shaw’s terms) or complexity found in the visual art work they address. This is the legacy of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, and Stein, not the “belle lettristic” approach that is often, and banally, contrasted with orthodoxical criticism.

Shaw’s approach provides a useful historical context for such projects as M/E/A/N/I/N/G.12 In doing so, it helps to explain not only the aversion of radical poetics and poetry in formalist and October-flavored criticism of the 60s to 80s, but also the fear of the taint of poetry by even such apparently poetry-related artists as Lawrence Weiner (who declines to have his work exhibited in poetry-related contexts).
Consider, for example, that Meyer, in his introduction to a recent collection of the poetry of Carl Andre, never mentions the word “poetry.”13 The lesson is that linguistic works of Weiner or Andre (Vito Acconci or Jenny Holzer) can only be deemed significant as art if they are purged of any connection to (radically impure, content-concatenating) poetry and poetics.
As Dominique Fourcade noted at the Poetry Plastique symposium, poetry literarily devalues visual art (we were talking about how Philip Guston’s collaborations with Clark Coolidge had a lower economic value than comparable works without words).14 But perhaps this devaluation provides a necessary route for removing visual art from any Aesthetic System that mocks both aesthesis and social aspiration.

Reading Shaw’s study of the 50s and 60s, underscores, once again, how, indeed, pernicious is the cliché that poetry is fifty years behind visual art. On the contrary, art criticism, insofar as it succumbs to a paranoiac fear of theatricality that induces frame-lock, lags behind poetry at its peril. Meanwhile, the visual and verbal arts remain complicit with one another 50 years ago and today.


1. Iowa City: The University of Iowa Press,  2006

2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 [back]

3. See Roberth Smithson, The Collected Writings¸ed. Jack Flam, Berkeley (University of California Press, 1996). One of Smithson’s signature work for poetics, and by extension criticism, is his 1967 “LANGUAGE TO BE LOOKED AT AND/OR THINGS TO READ”: “Simple statements are often based on language fears, and sometimes result in dogma and non-sense. … The mania for literalness relates to the breakdown in the rational belief in reality. Books entomb words in a synthetic rigor mortis, perhaps that is why ‘print’ is thought to have entered obsolescence. The mind of this death, however, is unrelentingly awake. … My sense of language is that  is is matter and not ideas—i.e., printed matter” (p. 61).[back]

4. See Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University  of Chicago Press, 2005).[back]

5. Shaw, p. 204, quoting Fried’s 1965 “Three American Painters,” from Art and Objecthood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) (p. 259).  Fried’s object of scorn is the neo-Dada of Rauschenberg and Cage. [back]

6. Quoted by Shaw on p. 200, from O’Hara’s Collected Poems, p. 322.[back]

7. “Unevenness” is Shaw’s word to describe the mixed textures (both surfaces and fields of reference) in O’Hara’s poem (p. 202). “Semantically various and unstable” is Shaw’s term for a work by Robert Rauchenberg (p. 207).[back]

8. McEvilley’s essay was originally published in Artforum, November, 1982. It was collected in his Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium (Kingston, NY: Documentext/McPherson & Co., 1991); the passage is from p. 29 and the Fried citation is from “Three American Painters” (see note 2).  [back]

9. “Having a Coke with You,” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 360. [back]

10. Robert Creeley quoted by Charles Olson in his 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” in his Collected Prose, ed. Ben Friedlander (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), p. 240. [back]

11. “The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages,” as O’Hara puts it in his 1959 essay “Personism: A Manifesto” in Collected Poems, p. 498. [back]

12. M/E/A/N/I/N/G focused on artists’ writing about the visual arts, with an emaphsis on considerations of both feminism and painting, and included many essays by poets.Edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor, it published twenty issues from 1986 to 1996 and continues to publish, intermittently, on-line. See  This essay continues my reflections in “For M/E/A/N/I/N/G,” also included in this collection, which was published in the first issue of the magazine, December, 1986. [back]

13. Carl Andre, Cuts: Texts 1959-2004, edited by James Meyer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005). [back]

14. Several collaborations by Coolidge and Guston were shown at the Poetry Plastique show, which I curated with Jay Sanders, at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in 2001. See [back]

15. Johanna Drucker addresses some of these issues in “Art Theory Now: from Aesthetics to Aesthesis,” a lecture given at the School of Visual Arts, New York, on  December 11, 2007. [back]


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