To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their meaning.
—Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

There can be little doubt that academic and artistic culture in this country has undergone seismic changes over the last few decades. Some of these changes paralleled laudable social reforms and led, at least initially, to fruitful though generally minor scholarly and artistic innovations. Most have been considerably less beneficent. To be sure, because the changes that began in the Sixties continue to reverberate all around us, it is sometimes difficult to get one’s bearings and tell which is which. Part of the confusion is semantic. As Thucydides noted about another period of cultural upheaval, such changes bring about an alteration in the common understanding of certain important words and concepts. Think, for example, about how the meaning of terms like “the humanities,” “literary criticism,” or “liberal education” have mutated in recent years. Just as a reminder—in case the use of “seismic” seems hyperbolic—consider the following few sentences from a recent book by one of the most fashionable and influential “literary critics” now writing:

[W]e must also disentangle from the social version of group difference (as well as from the philosophical debates on the difference between contradiction and opposition) the reigning aesthetic and psychic (or psychoanalytic) forms of this topic, not least because any number of political category-mistakes can often be identified as illicit transfers from the aesthetic itself). The aesthetics of difference—what is often called textuality or textualization—foregrounds a perceptual modification in the apprehension of postmodern artifacts, which I have characterized, in the opening chapter by way of the slogan of “difference relates”; later on I will offer a further, spatial analysis of this new kind of perception. As for the psychic subject and its theories, this is the area colonized by the Deleuze-Guattari notion of the ideal schizophrenic—that psychic subject who “perceives” by way of difference and differentiation alone, if that is conceivable; of course [!], the conceiving of it is the construction of an ideal which is, so to speak, the ethical—not to say the political—task proposed by their Anti-Oedipus.

Admittedly, it is difficult not to admire the audacity of that summary “of course” (and, assuming it was intentional, what we might call the postmodernist gesture of that extra parenthesis as well). But this cheery snippet, chosen virtually at random from Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, nonetheless does remind us that literary criticism in the academy has undergone fearsome changes since (for example) T.S. Eliot described the function of criticism as the “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.”

Analogous changes have transformed the art world, as anyone who has troubled to keep up with current exhibitions and the commentary accompanying them knows. There, too, fundamental changes have threatened to recast the common vocabulary. What began with the acerb solvents of Dada and Surrealism took on the aspect of a joke with the advent of Pop Art. The result is that today such basic terms as “taste,” “beauty,” “quality,” “connoisseurship,” and even “art” itself have fallen into desuetude or have acquired unwonted tentacles of irony, bewilderment, and contempt.

About both developments it may be objected that what have changed are not so much the phenomena themselves—criticism is still criticism, taste taste, and art art—but the way these activities tend to be understood and practiced in our most prominent institutions. Perhaps so. But this is small consolation. For what we are witnessing is the institutional disenfranchisement of our intellectual and artistic culture. There is plenty of good art being made today, just as there is plenty of intelligent criticism. But more and more, both tend to be all but underground activities, pursued apart from and often in opposition to the official culture of our new Salons: the academy and the art world. That these institutions have appropriated the rhetoric and bad manners of the avant-garde while enforcing a rigid conformism of their own is merely an additional irony.

Those interested in charting the course of this cultural fever will have noticed the emergence of some curious hybrid symptoms lately as the art world has become increasingly academicized and the once circumspect guardians of the academic eyries have groveled to embrace every latest artistic fad and trend in popular culture. The rapid proliferation of the “humanities institute” on campuses across the country has turned out to be a particularly dubious development. For almost without exception, these institutes are profoundly anti-humanistic in spirit. Under the banner of “Cultural Studies”, multiculturalism, and kindred left-wing fabrications, they claim to carry on innovative scholarship outside the “constraints” of traditional disciplinary boundaries. In fact, they are largely devices for circumventing the demands of scholarship and for pursuing a thoroughly politicized vision of the humanities.

It was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of doing to the arts what the humanities institute has done to the humanities. After all, since the traditional distinctions among disciplines are now to be considered otiose, what’s the difference between the two? Are not both primarily “political”? And yet how much more hip and more “creative” a multi-disciplinary arts institute sounds than a multi-disciplinary humanities institute. No one who has followed the career of Leon Botstein will be surprised to discover that he is riding noisily on this bandwagon. Since ”1975, Mr. Botstein has presided over Bard College, a small but inveterately trendy liberal-arts institution tucked away in a beautiful spot in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Part academic impresario, part amateur music conductor (of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, among others), part New Age administrator, President Botstein deserves his hard-earned reputation as a man who can re-package any prevailing fashion in the garb of progressive wisdom. It comes of being adaptable. Bard’s publicity flyers trumpet the college’s adherence to liberal democratic values. As far as I know, neither treason nor perjury has yet been enlisted in the catalogue of liberal values. But this oversight did not prevent the baton-wielding president of Bard from honoring Alger Hiss—who was convicted of perjury in ”1950 after the statute of limitations made the charge of espionage impossible to prosecute—by establishing the Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies at Bard. The current occupant of that chair is Joel Kovel, author of Against the State of Nuclear Terror, In Nicaragua, The Radical Spirit: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Society, and other edifying works.

Yet the establishment of the Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies is only a small example of President Botstein’s talent for innovation. Like most college presidents these days, he has had to devote himself tirelessly to the task of raising money. In addition to pursuing his hobby of orchestra conducting, however, President Botstein has been notably successful in billing himself as a cultural critic and music historian. He has thereby managed the trick—difficult for a college president—of maintaining his bona fides as a genuine intellectual even while superintending and expanding the Bard fiefdom. His latest combination of intellect and enterprise is the Richard and Marieluise Black Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture, one of several “satellite” institutions he has initiated under Bard’s aegis.

If the full name of what we will henceforth refer to simply as the Black Center seems like a mouthful, it is not due exclusively to pomposity. Anyone familiar with bureaucracies —think of Dickens’s Circumlocution Office —knows that polysyllabism can be an important aid in intellectual façade-building, and so it is here. Then, too, vague but impressive-sounding titles can help in the never-ending task of fund-raising. And when one reads that the Black Center is “an institution of national and international significance for the study of late twentieth-century art in contemporary culture,” one knows that the ambient buzz one hears in Annandale-on-Hudson includes the sound of grant applications zinging hither and yon.

The rhetoric that has attended the recent opening of the Black Center has been especially—well, not eloquent, exactly, but certainly grandiose. Among the ten points describing “The Mission” are: (point three) “to create a coherent, multidisciplinary perspective from which to study art, culture, and society in the late twentieth century,” and (point four) “to generate new models for future generations with respect to the viewing and understanding of art and its function in the creation of historic consciousness.”

In a brief presentation to the press in early April, President Botstein explained that the Black Center would be “radically different” from traditional curatorial or art-history programs, both of which he scorned as having “survived beyond their utility.” He began by describing conventional museum-studies programs, which train aspiring curators in the painstaking craft of connoisseurship, as “intellectually bankrupt.” When challenged about this characterization later, he admitted that “to keep people awake” he had “exaggerated the claim.” Still, he maintained that most museum-studies programs were “merely technical” and without sufficient “intellectual weight.” Similarly, he said, art history as traditionally conceived was “no longer adequate in its current disciplinary frame.” Among much else, it suffers from a kind of “disciplinary isolation.” Moreover, according to President Botstein, art historians of the past—he mentioned the great scholars Heinrich Wölfflin and Jacob Burckhardt in passing—have been insufficiently grounded in other disciplines. We could have suggested he throw in that narrow specialist Erwin Panofsky, as well. Fortunately, though, the Black Center, which he looked forward to as an “exemplary” multidisciplinary institution, has arrived to change all that and save us from the myopia of intellectual lightweights like Wölfflin and Burckhardt. When pressed about his implying that the Black Center was unique, President Botstein demurred, noting that “even my arrogance has limits.” It would have been enlightening to know just where he would have us draw the boundary.

Perhaps the most telling of all President Botstein’s formulations was his slogan “the present is history.” It is upon this marvelous idea—which amounts to little more than a denial of history—that the “multidisciplinary” elysium he envisions must be built. For only someone who believed that “the present is history” could be so scornful of tradition and the past as to contemplate jettisoning the rich inheritance of art history or the canons of connoisseurship for the hermetic inanities of deconstruction, post-structuralism, “gender studies,” or other examples of contemporary “multidisciplinary” effluvia. It’s an extraordinary piece of sophistry, not to say cynicism, even for a college president.

Just how committed President Botstein is to such nonsense is unclear. But he knows which way the winds of academic fashion are blowing and is canny enough to spread his net as wide as possible. So the Black Center is a little of this, a little of that. It is, first of all, a new two-year Masters Program at Bard College. Instead of going to some stodgy museum-studies program and actually learning about art, some fifteen students a year can come to Bard and devote themselves to “curatorial studies,” taking courses in just about anything—philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, literature—in order to “apply" whatever was picked up to art and the task of putting together exhibitions. Bard gets their tuition and they get, well, a multidisciplinary stew and a soothing sense of being on the cutting edge of history. But there is more. The Black Center is also a “research” facility that will accommodate a number of “visiting scholars.” As things stand now, it is envisioned that the entire faculty, apart from the director, will be visiting, with tenure estimated anywhere from two months to two years. The basic idea, it seems, is to attract as many big names as possible from the museum and academic worlds to take a bit of a paid vacation in Annandale-on-Hudson in exchange for chatting up some students. Why not? It’s a comely stretch of woods, and, besides, we are told that the Black Center will also house “a major research archive” that the assembled scholars will doubtless want to busy themselves examining.

And there is still more. The real impetus behind the Black Center was the large pile of money that the Blacks, Richard and Marieluise, gave to Bard to build and endow a new building. They also donated their collection of contemporary art, which dates from the mid-Sixties. Beginning with Minimalism, the collection currently consists of about 550 pieces: paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, and video installations. Bard hopes to continue acquiring representative works through the end of the century. Except for some works from Mexico, the collection is disconcertingly predictable: there are one or two things from almost every trendy name active in America and Germany during the period.

The Blacks have dubbed their collection the Rivendell Collection, after a fictional dwelling in The Lord of the Rings. A press release tells us that Mrs. Black had in mind the “rejuvenative powers” of art when she chose the name: Rivendell was “a perfect house… . Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear or sadness.” This is a touching testimony, and one is pleased to find a contemporary collector so enthusiastic about art. But one may perhaps be forgiven for wondering what Tolkien’s Hobbits or Elves or Ents would have thought about living among the artworks the Blacks have assembled. Has anyone ever accused John Chamberlain’s crushed bits of automobiles of being a “cure for weariness”? Or Donald Judd’s boxes? Or Richard Serra’s minatory hunks of rusted steel? One doubts, at any rate, that any of the sixty or seventy works on view in the inaugural exhibition at the Black Center, “Passions and Cultures: Selected Works from the Rivendell Collection, 1967-1991,” would hold much appeal for a Hobbit.

It’s curious to note the appeal they have for Mrs. Black. In a statement accompanying the exhibition, she recounts how as a young woman she got interested in art by visiting the Heiner Friedrich Gallery in Munich. The chic atmosphere, a meeting place for artists and intellectuals, was as exciting as the art. “It was,” she writes, “like entering a cult group.” One may hazard that the appeal of the Black Center—assuming it exercises an appeal—will be primarily of this nature.

By far the most successful part of the project is the building that houses it. Designed by the Chicago architects James Goettsch and Nada Andric, the low-slung, 38,000 square-foot structure provides a neat, unpretentious place to look at and study modern art. The main exhibition spaces, occupying two barrel-vaulted pavilions that recall the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, are well proportioned, well lighted, and reasonably flexible. There are no frills. But if the building has an unmistakably institutional feel—the modest budget did not allow for lavishness—the architects have managed to turn that necessity to their advantage. Mr. Goettsch, who was primarily responsible for the design, has succeeded admirably in imparting the improvised atmosphere of a SoHo loft to his building. It seems entirely appropriate for the kind of art likely to be exhibited at the Black Center.

Unfortunately, the artistic value of the works that will be exhibited there is another question altogether, as is the educational value of the Black Center’s “multidisciplinary” vision of curatorial studies. We can begin to get a better understanding of exactly what President Botstein and his lieutenants have in mind by taking a brief look at some of the events that Bard sponsored in early April to celebrate the opening of the Black Center. It was an ambitious program, two days of celebratory activities including a four-part conference titled “Art and Context: Exhibition, Interpretation, and Curatorship in the Late Twentieth Century,” a lecture by President Botstein himself, and a concert that included pieces by Elliott Carter, John Cage, and Steve Reich, as well as a “video opera” in which the multimedia artist Nam June Paik (honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Bard College, 1990), among others, participated. The conference sessions, on “The Curator’s Task,” “Theory and Exhibition,” “Contemporary Art in Museum Settings,” and “Contemporary Art in Exhibition” featured a long list of prominent names from the art world, including Kirk Varnedoe from the Museum of Modern Art, Kathy Halbreich from the Walker Art Center, the editor and journalist Ingrid Sischy, and such artists as Eric Fischl, Jeff Koons, and Tim Rollins.

It would have been instructive to attend all these events, but it is an imperfect world and we had to content ourselves with sitting through Conference Session II, “Theory and Exhibition.” The participants were the academic critics Rosalind Krauss, who is soon to depart her Distinguished Professorship at Hunter College for a position at Columbia University; Yve-Alain Bois, the Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University; the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk; the artists Joseph Kosuth and Adrian Piper; and the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who writes for The Village Voice and sundry other publications. Richard Sennett, the well-known sociologist and guru of kinder, gentler cities, moderated.

The most amusing parts of the session were undoubtedly the contributions by Mr. Kosuth, who delivered an often hilarious defense of the artist’s prerogative to theorize about his own work, and Mr. Schjeldahl, who stressed the importance of first-hand acquaintance with works of art and who wondered whether the academic addiction to “theory” wasn’t often part of an effort by curators and critics to “infantilize the audience.” Professor Sloterdijk waxed mistily philosophical about art’s revelatory capacity, while Adrian Piper treated us to a confused summary of Kant’s notion of experience before proceeding to call for an exhibition that investigated the “real power relations” that held sway in society.

The real focus of the session, however, were the initial contributions, by Professors Krauss and Bois. They shared with us their efforts to organize an exhibition around the idea of the informe. This idea, which comes from the French surrealist writer Georges Bataille, has long been an object of veneration for Professor Krauss. Elsewhere, quoting Bataille, she has explained that the idea of informe “comes down to saying that the world is something like a spider or a piece of spit.” Obviously, this is a subject crying out for an exhibition. Accompanying their presentations with slides of some of the, ah, work they might show in an exhibition devoted to the informe, Professors Krauss and Bois expatiated on its manifold attractions. Following Bataille, they distinguished between the meaning of a word and the “job” it performs; they spoke glowingly about the job of the informe, which is to render things “declassé,” “to knock meaning itself off its pedestal,” “to deliver against it a low blow.”

It gets even better. In order to do justice to the informe, they explained, one must have recourse to the scatological—for the informe, as Professor Krauss put it, “courts the look of the excremental.” Other analogies that they mentioned were mud, filth, and trash. Their main problem, it seems, was how to organize an exhibition around a concept that is itself a “non-concept,” how to give visual form to a principle that is a denial of form. Of course, as anyone familiar with the writings of this dynamic duo will have guessed, the case for the informe was not put forward so simply. Everything was wrapped up in the chilly argot of post-structuralism and delivered with the arch epistemological humorlessness and hothouse leftism that Professor Krauss, especially, has made her trademark.

When the lights went up, the audience looked more than usually dazed. I was not surprised to hear one audience member observe to his neighbor that the presentations epitomized everything that was wrong with the academy today. Indeed, as with so much about the Black Center, Professors Krauss and Bois’s gibberish about the informe put one in mind of Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell’s wicked send-up of a college not unlike Bard. One thinks particularly of Jarrell’s chapter on Art Night, and perhaps most especially of the narrator’s conversation with a metal sculptor named Miss Rasmussen. “Some of what she said was technical, and you would have had to be a welder to appreciate it; the rest was aesthetic or generally philosophic, and to appreciate it you would have had to be an imbecile.”

The presentations by Professor Krauss and Bois provide one good example of what “multidisciplinary” means in today’s academic climate: a bit of hermetic theory laced with a dollop of leftist political sentiment. The art, such as it is, is around merely to illustrate or embellish the theory. But it is also important to understand that the Black Center is problematic in other ways as well. The animating idea that the “the present is history” is a prescription for pedagogical irresponsibility, since its effect will be to focus students’ attention where it would have gone anyway, on themselves. Moreover, even on its own terms, the Black Center is sure to enforce a narrow, sectarian view of contemporary culture. A press release tells us that the collection “holds a mirror to contemporary art and life.” In fact, we are given a highly incomplete reflection of both. This season, works by such accomplished artists as Fairfield Porter, William Bailey, William Scott, Jane Freilicher, Bill Jensen, and Helen Miranda Wilson have been on view at various galleries in New York City. All of these artists have produced important work in the last couple of decades and thus are candidates for the Black Center’s collection. But none is represented in the inaugural exhibition of the Rivendell Collection. Why not? A single painting by any of them possesses greater aesthetic merit than a warehouse full of Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s scribbles, Cindy Sherman’s photographs, or indeed the work of most other artists represented in the collection. The answer is clear: none of the artists I mentioned is on the current hit-parade of politically acceptable artists, and, besides, who cares about asethetic merit anymore?

And this brings us to the real irony attending this “non-traditional” multidisciplinary farrago. Despite the avant-garde rhetoric, the Black Center is the most conventional institution imaginable. It slavishly replicates every academic and museological cliché now reigning, from the addiction to “theory” and blurring of traditional disciplinary boundaries to the rejection of connoisseurship and aesthetic criteria in judging art. In his adherence to these pieties, President Botstein is following the crowd at a moment when the truly innovative and courageous move would have been a return to tradition.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 9, on page 4
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