And after all, if stupidity did not, when seen from within, look so exactly like talent as to be mistaken for it, and if it could not, when seen from outside, appear as progress, genius, hope, improvement, doubtless no one would want to be stupid, and there would be no stupidity. Or at least it would be very easy to combat it. But unfortunately there is something very winning and natural about it. . . . The long and short of it is, there is no important idea that stupidity does not know how to make use of, for it can move in all directions and is able to wear all the garments of truth. Truth, on the other hand, has only one garment and one road and is always at a disadvantage.
—Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

It’s weird how it happens. My first glance at the show told me it was junk. With my second glance, I was in heaven.
—Peter Schjeldahl, in The Village Voice (1991)

It is one of the peculiarities of the contemporary cultural situation that much of what commands public attention does so by default. This is not simply to say that there is a lot of mediocre (or worse) art about: it is in the nature of things that superlative artistic achievement should be rare, mediocrity the rule. The problem today is less the prevalence of mediocrity than the disruption of the cultural assumptions that nurture or even recognize artistic excellence. The unpleasant and mostly unacknowledged truth is that, at least since the late Sixties, almost everything that has been catapulted into artistic celebrity is not even mediocre. Let us be blunt: what we have seen in the art world in the last two decades has been an explosion of meretricious pap. Yes, there have been exceptions—a few, a handful. Yet by and large the cynosures of cultural fashion in the art world—the Johnses, Rauschenbergs, and Warhols, the Robert Mapplethorpes and Mike Kelleys, the Cindy Shermans and Jenny Holzers—do not belong to the history of artistic achievement at all. They belong instead to the roster of improbable marketing triumphs if not, indeed, to the annals of psychopathology. In short, what we have been witnessing is at best art with a snigger—at worst, something considerably more sinister. The dreary fact that some of these names have enjoyed the perquisites of artistic celebrity for well over a quarter of a century now is less a comment on the quality of their work (after all, we have repeatedly been assured of late that “quality” is a forbidden concept) than it is a reflection of our culture’s bewilderment. The nature of the bewilderment snaps into focus when we ask ourselves what it means that grown people, adults, should proclaim Andy Warhol a great artist. The answer, alas, lies somewhere along the spectrum between besotted infatuation with cultural fashion and nihilistic cynicism.

Let us be blunt: what we have seen in the art world in the last two decades has been an explosion of meretricious pap.

It is perhaps some consolation to know that the collapse of the art market will almost certainly begin to change this. Once they stop appreciating like a Wall Street broker’s fantasy stock, Warhol’s silkscreened Marilyns no less than Jenny Holzer’s electronically-processed inanities, Rauschenberg’s Combines, or Mapplethorpe’s photographs of indelicately placed bullwhips will start to look a lot different to many people. When the euphoria dissipates, it will suddenly become clear that such art never possessed much if any aesthetic merit, that its chief claim to attention was as a social-political “statement” or as an investment opportunity. As the latter erodes, the former will seem less and less attractive. In time—and we may hope that it will not be a long time—most such tawdry productions will recede from the museum walls and find their way to the storerooms and to out-of-the-way exhibition cases featuring exotic anthropological curiosities. Perhaps we might even hope that a few of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes will one day be put to meet use storing a certain popular brand of abrasive cleaning implement.

However this cheering scenario unfolds in detail, it is not too soon to begin assessing the sensibility that commented on and abetted the artistic trivialities of the last couple of decades. For while the phenomena under discussion did not themselves spark anything that can be called “criticism” in the usual meaning of the term, they did and continue to spawn an abundance of words. And this verbal co-efficient—part hype and public relations, part political rationalization and philosophical doodling —offers a revealing correlative of the art culture of our time. One of the most typical, and also most articulate, practitioners of this species of verbal embroidery is the New York critic Peter Schjeldahl. The recent publication of two collections of his writings, The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990 and The “7 Days” Art Columns, 1988-1990, provides a good occasion to reflect upon the state of contemporary American art culture and the values it espouses.1

Now in his late forties, Mr. Schjeldahl made his reputation primarily as a frequent contributor to The Village Voice and The New York Times Arts & Leisure page in the 1960s and early 1970s. He has also written for a number of more or less specialized art journals, including Art News, Art International, and Art in America, as well as for a handful of lesser-known publications. He has produced numerous catalogue essays and monographs on individual artists from Joan Miró and Fairfield Porter to the ubiquitous Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and other contemporary icons. What we might call his trendiness quotient is indicated by the dozen or so pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair in the mid-1980s as well as by his appointment as art critic for the New York weekly 7 Days, an appointment that he held throughout the paper’s brief existence, from 1988 to 1990. Currently, he is once again writing regularly about art for The Village Voice.

While Mr. Schjeldahl is hardly a household name, over the years he has acquired a certain prominence as a barometer of chic taste. As he confided in a revealing statement from the mid-1970s, “I get top dollar when I’m nervy enough to demand it”; no doubt he continues to, and does so often. One measure of Mr. Schjeldahl’s cachet is his inclusion in the University of California’s Lannan Series of Contemporary Art Criticism. The Hydrogen Jukebox is the second volume to appear in the series underwritten by the Lannan Foundation, and it must be said that Mr. Schjeldahl has been exceptionally well served by his publisher. The book is made to last much longer than most of the art Mr. Schjeldahl writes about. It is handsomely designed and set in a classic typeface, printed on good paper, bound in sewn signatures. A miscellany of some fifty pieces, the volume provides an overview of Mr. Schjeldahl’s writing about art and culture over the last two decades. As befits a production from a prestigious university press, it comes complete with an extensive bibliography of Mr. Schjeldahl’s writings.

Unfortunately, the disparity between the book’s appearance and its contents could not be greater; perhaps it’s another layer of irony, meant to drive home the fissure between the way things seem to be and the way they are; in any event, if The Hydrogen Jukebox (except for its title) has the sober look and feel of a serious scholarly work, what it contains is as ephemeral as newsprint. Naturally, efforts have been made to conceal this. For one thing, the book comes to us with an admiring introduction by Mr. Schjeldahl’s friend Robert Storr, who is now a curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Messrs. Schjeldahl and Storr have been touting each other for quite some time; we note that Mr. Schjeldahl returns his friend’s favor with an introduction to a catalogue for an exhibition that is currently on view in Philadelphia.

Even so, in the present volume Mr. Storr does go to rather extravagant lengths. It’s not just that he describes his pal as “the essential critical stylist of our jumpy but incandescent fin de siècle”—that can be discounted as the usual throat-clearing promotional piffle that touts indulge in as a warm-up. Nor is it simply that he expatiates on the brave and “difficult” life that Mr. Schjeldahl, the scion of a rich Midwestern manufacturing family, has chosen in becoming a free-lance writer, “surviving as best [he] can outside or at the margins of the art world’s increasingly corporate structures.” Perhaps that can be forgiven as contributing the requisite dollop of bohemian ambiance. It’s the kind of critical intelligence that he attributes to his friend that is insupportable. Sample: “he possesses in exceptional measure the insatiable avidity that distinguishes the self-made man of taste. In him the febrile curiosity of Baudelaire and the unapologetic omnivorousness of Whitman meet.” Now, whatever else Peter Schjeldahl is or isn’t, his “taste” is no more “self-made” than is a sculpture by Jeff Koons. On the contrary, his entire career has been predicated precisely on his sacrificing the prerogatives of taste to the imperatives of the moment. One might say that the whole point of a writer like Mr. Schjeldahl is not to have any taste of his own; that is one of his greatest assets: he has plenty of personality but no critical convictions. In this sense, however “avid” he may be, Mr. Schjeldahl is less a critic than a bellwether: that tinkle you hear is the echo of whatever the current art world fancies.

Baudelaire and Whitman are another matter. In order to understand Mr. Schjeldahl’s persona—and to understand his writing on art, we must consider his persona, for the two are nearly synonymous—we must realize that he regards himself first of all as a poet. The Hydrogen Jukebox even includes a few examples of his verse—presumably examples of which he thinks particularly well, since he chose to reprint them. In fact, these artifacts do not really register as poems. Considered as intellectual or perhaps characterological symptoms, however, they are quite revelatory. Consider the specimen called “I Missed Punk” (1979), which begins by explaining that “I missed punk / because my record player was broken,” and concludes with this bit of advice and pontification:

Never resist an idea
Never say no to a contradiction
They have come to help you
smash the ego
which always reconstitutes
(and if it doesn’t, well,
your worries are over)

 Anyone who pages through these volumes will instantly recognize that this may stand as a kind of credo for Mr. Schjeldahl. The friendly exploitation of contradiction, especially, is one of his trademarks.

It says a great deal about the contemporary art world’s requirements that Mr. Schjeldahl should have emerged as a representative salesman for its wares, indeed, for its ethos, its view of the world. The fit is perfect. The art world has needed an impresario, Mr. Schjeldahl a platform. Nor is he without his virtues. His insistence that “until you see a painting in person you haven’t begun to see it at all” is as salutary as it is rare at a time when many critics habitually write about art they have seen only in catalogue reproductions. Moreover, unlike most academically inclined writers on art, Mr. Schjeldahl is capable of writing with flair and is not afraid to reveal great enthusiasm for the art that he claims to like. His diction is au courant but seldom burdened by jargon. He also has a small but winning rhetorical gift, which inclines to the epigrammatic. In this respect, he is often witty and not infrequently astringently perceptive, as when he observes that Mark Rothko’s “only resource against the decorative was the corny” or, of Hollywood, that “what it doesn’t overshadow it infects.” In many respects, Mr. Schjeldahl’s style is a demotic and more dour version of Frank O’Hara’s, the poet-critic upon whom he has most conspicuously modeled himself. His writing is clear, breezy, personal; Mr. Schjeldahl is onstage as much as, often more than, the objects or ideas he discusses. In Mr. Storr’s words, Mr. Schjeldahl is “the ultimate subject of his texts.”

Mr. Schjeldahl is less a critic than a bellwether: that tinkle you hear is the echo of whatever the current art world fancies.

Indeed, it is fitting that the book’s title essay, “The Hydrogen Jukebox: Terror, Narcissism, and Art” (1978), should be as much about narcissism as art. It is a remarkable performance, pushing a diapason of correct emotional buttons while maintaining an air of grave existential piety. Intellectually, it is the most ambitious piece in the book, but this isn’t really Mr. Schjeldahl’s fault. Large stretches of the essay betray an exceedingly intimate acquaintance with Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism, unacknowledged except for a grudging endnote. As with so much of Mr. Schjeldahl’s writing, the main point is not to mount an argument but to establish a tone, an atmosphere. This is accomplished mostly by the judicious manipulation of clichés. Thus Mr. Schjeldahl begins by suggesting that “disarray and morbidity of the arts in Western civilization represent . . . a long-term toxic effect of the atom-bomb terror of the last three decades.” He is honest enough to note that “actual nuclear war” (as distinct, one supposes, from the sort he likes to imagine) has become increasingly remote, but he goes on to insist that the very prospect of Armageddon, however remote, “has also contributed to a progressive devastation of the higher expressions and finer sensibilities of Western cultures.”

Perhaps Mr. Schjeldahl is himself an argument for this thesis. In any event, his main idea is that widespread terror at the prospect of nuclear war has made a belief in the future impossible. Hence, you see, the prevalence of narcissism in our culture; and hence, too, the disintegration of traditional cultural and moral values. Insofar as the essay can be said to have a point, it is to license a species of fashionable despair by referring personal failings to ineluctable forces. If things are really so bleak, he concludes, then to speak of “the value or meaning or quality of work being done is an indiscretion.” Likewise, he suggests that in a situation of permanent emergency, “Only dullards” will believe in “the idea of a continuity of civilized existence.” Such nihilistic posturings—they are too shifting to be called convictions—are everywhere in evidence in Mr. Schjeldahl’s writing about art. Basically, they are added for effect. He delights in sounding the portentous note of impending if indefinite apocalypse. At the end of an essay about Andy Warhol, for example, he concludes that “Watching him watch the rich, one knows somehow that whatever may befall us in the rest of this century, there aren’t going to be any lifeboats for anybody.” Curtain.

What is most amusing about The Hydrogen Jukebox is the use Mr. Schjeldahl makes of Christopher Lasch’s analysis of narcissism. Appropriating many of Lasch’s formulations, he sometimes inadvertently saddles himself with Lasch’s conclusions, which point in precisely the opposite direction from Mr. Schjeldahl’s impatience with values and the “continuity of civilized existence.” It is especially droll to see him inadvertently invoke such things as the ideal of “self-controlled, work-directed, socially adapted adulthood” only to protest that there is “a lot” wrong with it because it rests on a “denial of pleasure”: Well, yes, come to think of it self-control and commitment to work and society do involve that inconvenience. Above all, though, Mr. Schjeldahl’s appropriation of Lasch’s rhetoric illustrates one of the most attractive benefits of his policy of never resisting an idea, never saying no to a contradiction. What it means is that virtually any idea can be stretched to resemble its opposite. As ideas become fungible, contradiction is downgraded to a piquant rhetorical effect.

In any event, narcissism is much at issue throughout Mr. Schjeldahl’s writings. In an interview he gave to—who else?—Robert Storr in 1982, he goes so far as to define criticism in terms that make it indistinguishable from narcissism. “I think,” he tells Mr. Storr, that

at the root of the critical impulse is some kind of adolescent outrage at growing up and discovering that the world is not nearly what you hoped or thought it might be. Criticism is then a career of trying to move the world over and make it more habitable for your own sensibility.

It is worth pausing to consider this description of the critical enterprise. As traditionally conceived, criticism is an attempt to arrive at the truth about its object of study. Mr. Schjeldahl, like many of his colleagues in the art world and in the academy today, seeks to replace truth with himself as the goal of criticism. The result is that criticism is less and less about the world of cultural objects and more and more about the sensibility of the critic. In this sense, criticism, instead of revealing the world, degenerates into a form of intellectual self-abuse. Characteristic is a piece that Mr. Schjeldahl published in The Village Voice this September in which he predicts that “As a practical matter, the favored mode of art will be installational. We won’t much want the distracting complications of objects, with their commodity glamor and squalor …” Note well: The distracting complications of objects: no works of art, thank you, we’re too busy thinking about ourselves.

The place that Mr. Schjeldahl accords to “adolescent outrage” in his scheme of criticism seems all the more telling when we consider that the title for The Hydrogen Jukebox comes from Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 expression of adolescent outrage and counter-cultural despair, Howl—a poem that, as Mr. Schjeldahl informs us, he “always emulates.”2 As he notes in “Decade of Wonders,” a brief meditation on and defense of the Sixties sensibility, he is himself a “sixties person,” “very sixties,” etc. Elsewhere (another “poem”), he confesses his worry about becoming “another scalp / on the belt of drug abuse and cultural devastation.” Indeed. But the point is that almost everything that makes Mr. Schjeldahl so consummate a mouthpiece for the pieties of the contemporary art establishment he has inherited from the Sixties.

One important problem concerns what we might call grade inflation. While he is capable of dismissive condemnation—in one place, for example, he refers to Clement Greenberg as “the Reverend Moon of art criticism”—Mr. Schjeldahl’s usual procedure is to emit clouds of praise suitably ornamented with oblique demurrals. Often, in fact, the fulsome praise that oozes from his critical “judgments” taxes one’s credulity. For example, he blithely tells us that the Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha “may be the best regional painter in modern history” (my italics). Similarly, Arshile Gorky (1905-1948) is said to have made “some of the greatest paintings of his time”—one wonders what Mr. Schjeldahl would do with (for example) Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, Braque, Vuillard, to name only some continental competitors? “For a while there in the late sixties,” we read, “Bruce Nauman was one of the most abundantly inventive artists anyone had ever seen”—that anyone had ever seen? Again: Mr. Schjeldahl remarks that the paintings de Kooning made after 1968—a time when the artist’s powers had already seriously diminished—were “some of the freshest, wildest paintings anyone ever saw.” And there’s more: Robert Smithson’s musings about art, published in 1979, are said to constitute “the most significant book of contemporary art writing in twenty years,” while Mike Kelley, the man who made a name for himself exhibiting dirty stuffed animals and kindred other delights, “may be the most significant artist of his generation”; and on and on.

Perhaps such loads of treacle show how generous Mr. Schjeldahl is; maybe they betray his overpowering desire to be liked; whatever their origin, they bear witness to a profound critical paralysis. It is not only that he wildly overrates such ephemeral poseurs as Mike Kelley and Bruce Nauman; nor is it simply that his extravagant praise for Gorky, the later de Kooning, et al., betokens a breathtaking lack of proportion; in the end, what is most damaging in such displays is the critical irresponsibility they indicate: it comes of never resisting an idea.

Equally damaging, and equally characteristic of the Sixties sensibility he embodies, is Mr. Schjeldahl’s extraordinary historical myopia. Like so many critics and artists today, Mr. Schjeldahl lives in a bubble of the present, essentially unnourished by the past, unattracted to the future. He often as much as acknowledges this. In one of the “poems,” for example, asking what he brought to his vocation as a critic, he notes “A rhetorical knack” along with “Abysmal ignorance, slovenly habits of thought, star-struck / narcissism. . . .” Not pretty, but not untrue, either. In an essay on minimalism, he puts it less melodramatically, explaining that when he arrived in New York in the early Sixties, “Andy Warhol and Frank Stella were already established masters, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were old masters, and Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning occupied the farthest, mistiest reaches of the classical past” along with Marcel Duchamp, the grandfather of so much contemporary nonsense. He does occasionally write about artists from earlier eras —Velázquez, for instance, whom he describes as “Mr. Cool.” “If he were a rock singer,” Mr. Schjeldahl opines, “he would be Roy Orbison.” Be that as it may, the misty reaches of the 1950s continue to circumscribe Mr. Schjeldahl’s understanding of tradition and culture. He titles one essay “L.A. Demystified! Art and Life in the Eternal Present”; it could function as his motto.

Yet the most dispiriting thing about reading through Mr. Schjeldahl’s criticism is the realization that we are dealing here with a botched talent. For while it cannot be said that he possesses a deep critical intelligence, there can be no doubt that, in addition to that “rhetorical knack,” he is capable of genuine aesthetic response. This he has traded on ruthlessly, saying yes to one contradiction after the next. Thus it is that, in a recent piece in The Village Voice, he describes seeing an exhibition of thrift-store paintings at a downtown gallery. Noting frankly that the pictures were rubbish, he nonetheless goes on to exclaim that “with my second glance, I was in heaven.” In other words, forget about the truth: let fashion reign. Not only does this represent the total abasement of critical duty: as Robert Musil recognized, it is also a particularly insidious version of stupidity.

  1.   The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990, edited by MaLin Wilson, with an introduction by Robert Storr; University of California Press, 358 pages, $29.95. The “7 Days” Art Columns, 1988-1990, by Peter Schjeldahl; The Figures, 205 pages, $12.50 (paper).
  2.   It is not surprising that his own poems often feature the obsession with anaphora that Ginsberg, trivializing Whitman, popularized in Howl. Thus Mr. Schjeldahl’s poem “To Pico”: “You abstractly acknowledge the sun / You do not care / You are Los Angeles and not Los Angeles / You have unlimited, because unneeded, parking,” etc.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 3, on page 27
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