Lawrence Alloway, (born Sept. 17, 1926, Wimbledon, Eng.—died Jan. 2, 1990, New York, N.Y., U.S.), English-born American curator and art critic who wrote widely on a variety of popular art topics. He is credited with coining the now-common term Pop art, although its meaning came to be understood as “art about popular culture” rather than “the art of popular culture,” as he had suggested.
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Although Alloway took a few art history courses at the University of London, he never received a university degree. He first gained public attention while serving (1954–57) as director of the London Institute of Contemporary Art. Shortly thereafter he published an influential essay in the February 1958 issue of Architectural Design titled “The Arts and the Mass Media,” in which he articulated the key concepts that would eventually frame all his subsequent work, namely, that “there is in popular art a continuum from data to fantasy.” This essay was a refutation of the high art versus kitsch dichotomy advanced by the American critic Clement Greenberg in an influential 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” It also functioned as a rationale for Alloway’s pluralistic sense of critical priorities, based on the assumption that high and low culture should not be understood as being at odds with each other. As Alloway saw it, they were instead to be understood as the raw and the refined versions of the same set of evolving cultural codes and practices, versions that furthermore often informed and motivated each other. Alloway pointed to the emergence of Pop art in England during the late 1950s and in the United States during the early 1960s as representing the best examples of this view. His view about the complementary continuum between fine art and popular expression was made even more explicit in 1964 when he predicted an inevitable ascendance of “the anthropological definition of culture,” characterized as “an impulse to open-ended as opposed to formal descriptions of events and to a speculative rather than a contemplative aesthetics.”
Because of its avowed skepticism of rigidly enforced aesthetichierarchies and its situational descriptions emphasizing a given artwork’s relationship to a specific context, Alloway’s writing can be seen as an important precursor to the postmodern art criticism of the 1980s. He was the first male critic to publicly endorse the claims made by the feminist art movement during the early 1970s, and he also had a keen interest in analyzing art’s changing relationship to the functional sociology of the art world, as witnessed by his book on the history of the Venice Biennale (1968). Alloway was a regular art critic for The Nation (1968–81) and a contributing editor for Artforum (1971–76). His extensive writings on American Abstract Expressionism emphasized the rootedness of that movement in a complex cultural fabric, thus challenging formalist and existentialist accounts of its development. Alloway’s major writings include the essay collections Topics in American Art Since 1945 (1975), Network: Art and the Complex Present (1984), and the posthumously published Imagining the Present: Context, Content, and the Role of Critic (2006). He also wrote a definitive monograph on the work of the painter Roy Lichtenstein (1983).
Art and criticism exist in a symbiotic relationship to one another. Criticism is dependent upon art for its very existence, but artists also need critics: criticism calls attention to the artwork, giving public articulation to its potential meanings, or drawing attention to why it might be of special significance. Given this relationship, it is inevitable that we tend to think of art critics and artists in pairs, for example John Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner, Charles Baudelaire and Constantin Guys, Clement Greenberg and Jackson Pollock. In each of these cases, something was at stake, be it the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, the articulation of the ‘painter of modern life’, or the symbolic migration of the avant-garde from Paris to New York.
Lawrence Alloway’s name, however, fails to resonate with any specific artist, despite having close ties with many artists throughout his career. Unlike his contemporaries in the New York art world, Alloway never championed ‘favourite’ artists, and held back on making explicit value judgements. Instead, Alloway argued that the critic’s job should be to provide information: he or she must ‘map’ the increasingly differentiated field of practice, leaving it to art historians to retrospectively pick the winners and losers.1 There is no doubt that Alloway practised what he preached, in that even a cursory perusal of his writing reveals the breadth of his interests. One finds essays on abstract expressionism, pop art, assemblage, land art, photorealism, happenings, Fluxus and mail art, in addition to writings on cinema and science fiction, all of which were covered with Alloway’s characteristic style of laconic self-effacement. Rather than address all of these aspects individually, this paper aims to historicise Alloway’s critical approach with recourse to his adoption of information theory. Furthermore, it argues that the problems raised by his writings closely coincide with the current predicament of art criticism, that is to say its role in an art world that is increasingly driven by market imperatives.
The fundamental question that underlies Alloway’s criticism is this: how does the art critic deal with multiplicity? That is, how does the art critic negotiate the diversity of artistic styles and practices that co-exist in the modern period? When Alloway first visited the USA in the late 1950s, a seductive solution was offered by Greenberg’s assessment of modernism, which mapped a linear historical trajectory for the visual arts (albeit one that was not fully codified until the publication of ‘Modernist Painting’ in 1960) that ironed out problematic movements such as dada and surrealism. In a footnote to his 1939 essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, Greenberg set the tone for his subsequent attitude to surrealism with the claim that ‘Surrealism in plastic art is a reactionary tendency’.2 Alloway, however, could not accept such a sweeping narrative because it was simply unhistorical. Acknowledging the diversity of artistic practice in the post-war period, Alloway wrote in 1974 that ‘It does not seem to me any stranger to be Philip Pearlstein than to be Robert Smithson’.3 However, such diversity, although more evident by the 1960s, is characteristic of modernity in general. Modernity simply is complexity: a phenomenon facilitated by the development of industrialism and the emergence of the art market in the eighteenth century.4 As such, diversity has always been a problem for the critic to tackle. Indeed, modern criticism finds its origins in the writings of Denis Diderot (1713–1784), whose thoughts on the Parisian Salon grappled with this emergent marketplace.5
For Alloway, critical discrimination did not simply entail historical simplification. It was suspect at a more localised level; that is, regarding the close relationships built between critics and their favourite artists. In an essay published in 1975, Alloway remarked upon the problem of ‘getting artists out of their friends’ hands’, referring in particular to the stranglehold that the contemporary critics Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg had on the discourse surrounding the painter Willem de Kooning (1904–1997).6 The problem was not so much with texts written at the start of an artist’s career (which are of substantial interest, since those who are closely involved with artists are initially best placed to write about them) but rather with what Alloway termed ‘the prolongation of early criticism’, which ‘tends to arrest opinion at the writer’s point of entry into the subject, and so perpetuate ideas past their point of usefulness’.7 Alloway seems to acknowledge here the limited shelf-life of criticism, which does have a tendency to age less graciously than certain works of art.8 It is necessary then, for the critic to concede the contingency of his or her vocation. In an interview in 1973, Alloway referred to his approach as ‘short-term art history’, which he described as ‘a provisional, tentative, as-I-see-it-at-the-present-moment history’.9
What has been discussed thus far perhaps relates more to the abuses of criticism – its potential capriciousness and exclusivity – rather than value judgements per se. Alloway was dubious about the prominence of value judgements in contemporary criticism, but he did not disregard them altogether. For Alloway, evaluation was of course necessary, but he stressed that it should not be the starting point for a critic faced with the diversity of the modern era10 nor should it precede the description of a work, a fault he ascribed to Greenbergian criticism.11 The same complaint was made by Max Kozloff, an editorial colleague of Alloway’s at Artforum in the 1970s. Kozloff recounted that ‘Greenberg made sure to separate his description from his judgements; they didn’t really evolve from his explaining, although they gave the illusion that they did. He had decided the worth of an artist “off stage” according to this scheme’.12 A related claim has been made, at much greater length, by the art historian Caroline A. Jones, who has argued that Greenberg’s intimations of the ‘all-over’ decorative picture prefigure Jackson Pollock’s mature work by several years. Jones argues that ‘This criticism of 1945 produced the precondition for a visibility that only later came to light’.13 Jones’s broader claim is a problematic one, but here she is correct to highlight the way in which Greenberg attempted to set the terms within which modernist painting would be produced and viewed.
Alloway did initially fall into the orbit of Greenberg’s influence; he met Greenberg in 1958 and was initially persuaded by Greenberg’s account of abstract expressionism.14 As a critic in London in the 1950s, writing for a variety of publications, Alloway developed a strong interest in American painting, demonstrated by a series of texts published in Art News and Review and the Listener, where Alloway wrote about the significance of abstract expressionism.15 Upon moving to the States in 1961, however, Alloway came to realise the futility of the narrow, partisan criticism coming out of New York. As has already been noted, Alloway was shrewd enough to realise the risks involved when critics get too closely associated with their favourite artists. His tolerance of the personal relationships forged between critics and artists was not only a matter of principle but also made sense pragmatically, easing his transition into the New York art world. In the 1973 interview, he added:
When I was in England, I was surrounded by what I considered to be mild idiots! So I tried to write a sort of art criticism that opposed that. I wrote quite aggressively and in strong opposition to my colleagues – and I was pro-American art at a time when not everybody was. It wasn’t hard to make the point aggressively, but I did it that way in England. Now when I came to America, the situation was very different. It seemed to me I was surrounded by smart, very intelligent … narrow people. So the idea of adding my style of aggression to that didn’t seem the point.16
Alloway’s critical approach, then, was determined by the general conditions of modernity, in particular its inherent diversity. But it was also impelled by the more local context of the post-war, New York art world. The sceptical pluralism that he adopted thus placed heavy emphasis upon the critic’s imperative to provide ‘information’. What this entails for art criticism is not immediately evident; there is no general theory of information as such, not even within applied subfields such as logic or linguistics.17 The notion, then, is a problematic, defined by the sociologist Philip Abrams as a ‘rudimentary organisation of a field of phenomena which yields problems for investigation’.18 It needs to be clarified then, how Alloway drew upon the notion of information, and what the implications might be for the more localised problem of art criticism.
On an edition of BBC2’s current affairs programme, Newsnight in 2010, an economist from the University of Oxford was asked to weigh up the pros and cons of the European Union’s proposed ‘stress-testing’ of European banks. With a beaming smile, she confidently asserted that the tests would ‘give us more information’.19 This might seem a strange assertion to those of us who are not economists. Nonetheless, it was indicative of the extent to which the notion of ‘information’ has gained such widespread currency. The term is related to, but not coterminous with, the sociologist Daniel Bell’s notion of the post-industrial economy, where knowledge and information supplant labour and capital as the central variables of the economy, which shifts from manufacturing towards the service sector.20 Within such an economy, consumers are expected to optimise their decisions through the rational assessment of available information, giving them the choice to purchase a particular mortgage, for example, or a mobile phone. This notion of the citizen as consumer has recently gained significant traction in government policy.21 Alloway’s use of the term, however, needs to be placed within the context of the post-war period, where the notion of information was somewhat less shop-worn.
Alloway’s adoption of the term ‘information’ stemmed partly from his long-standing interest in science fiction, but largely derived from the mathematician Norbert Wiener’s study The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1950). This was a more accessible version of his earlier study Cybernetics (1948), which is concerned with problems of statistical probability.22 Work such as Wiener’s laid the foundations for subsequent research in robotics, computer systems and more recently Artificial Intelligence, with far-reaching implications. As the writer John Johnston has claimed, cybernetics ‘formed the historical nexus out of which the information networks … that constitute the infrastructure of the postindustrial world first developed, spawning new technologies and intellectual disciplines we now take for granted’.23 Of particular relevance to Wiener’s study is his conception of feedback, in particular how future performance can be continually adjusted and re-calibrated based on past performance. Feedback presupposes a world in a state of perpetual flux, and that, since there is no essence to things, we must attend to the usage of patterns, codes and meanings in order to satisfactorily negotiate the world. Cybernetic discourse, and its development of complex artificial intelligence systems, renders problematic the boundary between the organic and the inorganic. As Johnston claims, instead of regarding technology as external to the human, both may be seen as exhibiting certain adaptive characteristics, differing only in the ‘complexity of their respective organization’.24 Alloway’s interest in science fiction is relevant here: he avidly consumed and reviewed science fiction films, and like other members of the Independent Group (IG), took an interest in books such as the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (1948) and the communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride (1951). Furthermore, an unpublished manuscript by Alloway on science fiction challenges the claim that it is based in fantasy, arguing instead that science fiction concerns ‘the possibilities of man in a technical society’.25
Cybernetic notions of feedback, and the interrelation of the human and the technological, were key concerns of the seminal exhibition This Is Tomorrow, held at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in 1956. Alloway was involved in the exhibition in several capacities, prefiguring the blurring of the roles of critic and curator which are now significantly harder to distinguish. The show was split into twelve separate exhibits, one of which, Group 12, was designed by Alloway, the architect Geoffrey Holroyd and the artist-writer Tony del Renzio. It contained an interactive ‘tackboard’ allowing visitors to actively participate with the works on show. Alloway also wrote an introduction to Group 12’s section in the exhibition catalogue, and included a diagram derived from the mathematician Claude Shannon’s source-destination formula for decoding information. Its inclusion demonstrated Alloway’s understanding that the viewer of art ‘decodes’ the signs and symbols of a ‘shared’ field of culture.
The heterogeneity of This Is Tomorrow militated against any ‘correct’ way to negotiate it, refusing to be reduced to a single meaning. In a Radio 3 panel discussion in 1956, the artist William Turnbull, who was a member of the IG, remarked that ‘[the show] makes no attempt to pin down what a human being should be or how he should manifest himself’.26 In other words, the exhibition aimed to let the viewer negotiate his or her own path through the exhibition, and by implication, through the world at large. These ideas correspond closely with the contemporary discourse of cybernetics. In his Introduction to Cybernetics in the same year, the psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby wrote that ‘Cybernetics … treats, not things but ways of behaving. It does not ask “what is this thing?” but “what does it do?”’27
The heterogeneity of the show is demonstrated by a well-known exhibition shot taken by the artist Richard Hamilton.28 It shows the entrance to Group 2’s section, which was designed by Hamilton, the artist John McHale and the architect John Voelcker, and suggests the multifarious pleasures and distractions of the emergent consumer culture. Robbie the Robot from the science-fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956) carries a shapely female figure, an image of a scene that does not actually take place in the film, but is taken from its promotional poster. In front is the famous image of Marilyn Monroe from her film The Seven Year Itch (1955). To the right of Monroe is a giant bottle of Guinness beer, strategically placed between Robbie’s legs. To the left (somewhat less conspicuously), is a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s iconic painting Sunflowers 1888 (National Gallery, London). This collage of reproductions epitomises the ‘continuum’ of culture that Alloway and his colleagues at the Independent Group espoused (although in this particular shot, ‘high’ culture is losing the battle for wall-space).29
The ‘continuum’ or diversity of twentieth-century culture, and the multiple ways in which it might be negotiated, demands consideration of reproductions, as well as originals, in that they expand and differentiate the potential for a work of art to be interpreted in different contexts and by different audiences. Wiener did in fact argue that the physical presence of an artwork is neither sufficient nor necessary for its appreciation.30 That is to say, that a reasonably cultivated taste may be acquired solely through the experience of reproductions. Alloway largely agreed with this view, and he refuted claims that the ‘aura’ of a work of art was necessarily diminished by reproduction.31 Furthermore, the cultural theorist N. Katherine Hayles has argued that information theory effects ‘an epistemic shift towards pattern/randomness and away from presence/absence’.32 This claim suggests that the theory of information no longer rests upon the materiality that underpinned modernist criticism. While this is a legitimate claim, it should not be assumed that information is necessarily disembodied, this being a mistaken assumption to which, Johnston claims, humanities scholars are particularly susceptible.33 Information still refers back to something material, in this case the artwork.
In his 1969 essay ‘Art and the Expanding Audience’, Alloway argues against the concerns of Harold Rosenberg and the art historian Edgar Wind regarding technological reproducibility. In his 1963 BBC Reith lectures, collectively titled Art and Anarchy, Wind, who was a distinguished Renaissance scholar, argued that ,‘Diffusion brings with it loss of density. We are so much given to art, but it touches us lightly, and that is why we can take so much of it, and so much of so many different kinds’.34 Wind remarked elsewhere that ‘We are given the shadow for the thing’, a claim which implies that the material presence of the artwork is necessary for its proper appreciation. Wind was no straightforward technophobe, however. Instead he advocated a ‘prudent scepticism’ with regard to technology, contending that ‘An easy pride in the advances of mechanisation is … just as unfounded as that proverbial phobia of it’.35 Nonetheless, Wind held certain opinions which were incommensurate with those of Alloway. Wind understood technology as something to be harnessed to creative genius, concluding his discussion with the ‘mechanical’ crafts of print-making and engraving, which Wind considered to be inferior to painting. He claimed that ‘strongly mechanised crafts, to remain responsive to art, will always require the kind of irregular refreshment which engraving received from the peintre-graveur’.36 Technology, for Wind at least, is essentially a ‘hand-maiden’ to the arts, rather than something which holds the potential to fundamentally transform the nature of its production and consumption.
Similarly, Rosenberg, in The Anxious Object: Art Today and its Audience (1964), argued that the wider diffusion of art eroded the specificity of the viewer’s encounter with the art object.37 Furthermore, Rosenberg made the surprising claim that ‘the art object tends more and more to dissolve into its reproductions and to fixed opinions regarding its meaning’.38 Rosenberg did not fully elaborate upon this point, but he implies that, in the absence of sustained engagement with specific art objects, the viewer’s capacity for thought threatens to become attenuated.
Alloway locked horns with Rosenberg on a number of occasions and was particularly critical of the American critic’s notion of ‘Action Painting’ in the 1950s.39 Alloway also reviewed The Anxious Object in 1965, criticising Rosenberg for being ‘consumed by a desire to recover estrangement; he wants to return the artist to the alienation that once, as late as the ‘40s, was his’.40 More specifically, in his study of the Venice Biennale in 1968, Alloway took Rosenberg to task for his views on reproduction’s ‘fixed opinions’. Alloway drew upon the example of the Mona Lisa to counter the claim that one’s sensitivity to works of art is impaired or eroded through our easy access to reproductions. Recalling a recent viewing of the original in the Louvre, Paris, Alloway noted that the work had been the subject of endless spoofs and re-interpretations, most notoriously by Marcel Duchamp:
The Mona Lisa was selected by Marcel Duchamp for a gesture of defacement; Léger included an image of her in a painting; Rauschenberg made pale transfers of her image in a drawing; Warhol used her image repetitively. Charles Addams made a joke about the smile, and a Cracked magazine represented her as drawn by various comics artists (with a Milton Caniff nose, Orphan Annie eyes, etc.). All these references were knowing and ironic comment, devaluing an image that had been overplayed by nineteenth-century romanticism and relished by popular taste. However, seeing the painting again recently, having been brought up on a hard view of it, I thought it was terrific. It survived the commentary and the reproductions, or it coexisted with them.41
In 1971 Alloway challenged art critics who had privileged the auratic qualities of art over what he termed their ‘translatable’ qualities: ‘In translation aura is lost, but the second type of form [i.e. the transmissible quality] is not; it is homeomorphic, stretchable into new channels without becoming illegible.’42 Alloway suggests here that while the experience of the work of art itself is not necessarily reducible to a code, or message (as his favourable experience of the Mona Lisa demonstrates), the work’s salience cannot be pinned down to its material presence – once a work is reproducible, then the interpretations and meanings to which it gives rise are necessarily multiplied. Different viewers therefore generate new constellations of meaning around works of art, an outcome which might dismay the critic hoping to shape public taste, but which Alloway would welcome as a means for viewers to take ownership of culture from the hands of its elitist custodians.
The ‘commonality’ of pop art and assemblage
If information about artworks may be gleaned from reproductions, it follows that information cannot be ‘possessed’ in the same manner as a physical object. On the contrary, information is necessarily mobile and transmissible. As Hayles point out, ‘the constraining factor separating the haves from the have-nots is not so much possession as access’.43 The democratisation of culture advocated by Alloway is facilitated by the mode of information, as new technologies of distribution and consumption widen access to culture.44 Such ideas were not simply a matter of consumption, however; artists engaged with seriality and systems theory were making use of new technologies of distribution. This was evident in exhibitions such as the curator Jack Burnham’s Software, Information, Technology: Its New Meaning for Art at the Jewish Museum in 1969, and the curator Kynaston McShine’s Information show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Alloway’s information-based approach to criticism can be thought of in tandem with these practices, as can his own exhibition Systemic Painting, held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1966, which was an important precursor to shows such as McShine’s.
In his 1974 snulltudy American Pop Art, Alloway used the term ‘commonality’ to describe the ways in which pop art traded in the familiar signs and symbols of consumer culture.45 These signs, Alloway contended, were the currency of ‘the twentieth-century communications network of which we are all a part, but which Pop Art, in particular, has taken as subject matter’.46 A good example of the kind of trade in signs and symbols that Alloway mentions is Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life No.20 1962 (fig.1). In a similar way to the exhibits in This Is Tomorrow, the codes of fine art and popular art are mixed in Wesselmann’s painting. One cannot help noticing the Piet Mondrian reproduction on the wall, but less conspicuous are the Ballantine ale bottles, which call to mind Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze 1960 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne). Wesselmann’s work depicted the consumer goods of the post-war era with particular fidelity, through the incorporation of both ready-made objects and a scrupulously tidy method of depiction. This approach, which faithfully renders the objects in question, simultaneously displays their artificiality as signs. Analogous to the blurred codes of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, Wesselmann blurs the codes of representation, making us wonder whether the glass of cola, for example, is painted or collaged. Wesselmann’s technical procedures exemplify what Alloway termed ‘process abbreviation’, referring to the methods that shortened the lengthy preparatory stages that had previously characterised artistic production, either by incorporating ready-made objects into the work, or by the accurate rendering of the widely-intelligible artefacts from popular culture.47 The glass of cola and the loaf of Lite Diet bread are exactly the same as those used by anyone else; they exist socially and within a shared, interconnected environment of reproducible goods. The refrigerator door at the top-left corner can be opened, providing a more literal example of this kind of ‘participation’, although Alloway intended the term in the broader sense of a culture that was intellectually free.
Despite the fact that the pristine goods of pop art had an in-built obsolescence, this did not obviate the claim for their share-ability. In his essay ‘Junk Culture’, published in 1961, Alloway made a similar claim with regard to the objects of assemblage. The objects of this art are not inert, he argues, but have a context and a history. He notes that ‘essential to junk culture is preservation of the original function and status of the objects in the new context of the work of art’.48 Objects live through cycles of use and obsolescence, they ‘have a history: first they are new brand goods; then they are possessions, accessible to few, subjected often, to intimate and repeated use; then, as waste, they are scarred by use but available again’.49 This kind of material is thus experienced by the viewer as ‘bits of life, bits of the environment’; he or she is compelled to acknowledge that the work on display is immersed in the history of its usage; that is to say, that the object is not autonomous, it does not remain the same object once displaced into a different context. Consequently, Alloway claims that ‘proximity and participation replace distance and contemplation as the communicative style of the object’.50 The sharing, or re-use of objects thus parallels the possibilities opened up by the technology of reproduction. He concludes the essay by suggesting the following:
the paradox of Junk Culture is that though it is the most far-out and unpopular art form, it is also the most democratic. It is the art which celebrates the ways in which artists are like other people, sharing objects, sharing the environment, literally.51
Like pop, ‘Junk Culture’ embodies the kind of subjectivity entailed by cybernetics, whereby one’s subjectivity is formed through its symbiotic relationship with the man-made environment. The artist and his audience function within this network of objects and relationships. In ‘Popular Culture and Pop Art’ (1969), Alloway quoted the Swedish artist and writer Öyvind Fahlström, who remarked that the assemblage artist Robert Rauschenberg was ‘part of the density of an uncensored continuum that neither begins nor ends with any action of his’.52
Given Alloway’s interest in information theory, he would come to understand the differentiated nature of the art world as a ‘network’ of inter-related agents.53 Within such an art world, the critic’s job is simply to try and ‘map’ the field in order that its agents might best process and utilise the available information. The systemic structure of the art world, however, does not necessitate that the critic’s approach to art will be totalising. Instead, the critic’s attempt will be necessarily partial. Alloway cited the example of the French poet and critic Paul Valéry (1871–1945) who conceived of
art criticism as based on what he called ‘vague branchwork’, like the course of a river or the forking pattern of a tree. ‘Vague branchwork’ is probably the right phrase to indicate the structure of an art criticism that includes incomplete data and chance events, not falsely rounded and finished off … There is no false conclusion offered, but the authenticity of the ongoing and current record.54
However, Alloway’s ‘short-term art history’ – the provisional mapping of the ever-expanding art scene – was unable to provide a normative explanation as to why artistic practice matters, or to explain why and how certain evaluations are necessary. This brings us to the contemporary debate concerning the problematic role of criticism.
Alloway and the ‘crisis’ of contemporary art criticism
There have been several attempts to discern both the conditions of art criticism and the role of judgement, but very little has been agreed upon.55 Modern commentators such as Julian Stallabrass have claimed that the art market simply has no use for serious criticism, while Gavin Butt and Jane Rendell have proposed that criticism should adopt ‘performative’ modes of art writing.56 The contributions to James Elkins’s and Michael Newman’s anthology The State of Art Criticism (2008) attest to this: there is a particularly marked split between the academic critics such as Irit Rogoff, who disdain judgement altogether, and the ‘jobbing’ critics such as James Panero, who see judgements as their bread-and-butter.57 What further complicates matters, in my view, is that the problem itself has not been adequately defined: this is intimated by Elkins when he makes the claim that criticism is in both ‘vigorous health and terminal illness’, implying that the problem is by no means clear.58Perhaps one needs to be sceptical of the calls of ‘crisis’ given both the seductiveness of the term, and its capacity to be somewhat self-justifying, but in any discussion of the role of judgement or the role of the critic, a re-assessment of Alloway’s criticism is particularly apposite.59
Alloway’s ‘descriptive criticism’ enjoys widespread currency in today’s art world. A poll conducted in 2002 among art critics by the Columbia University National Arts Journalism Program found that making value judgements ranked bottom of their list of priorities. ‘Describing’, in contrast, was considered the top priority.60 Furthermore, Alloway’s notion of the art world as a network finds a contemporary resonance in the critic Isabelle Graw’s study High Price: Between Art and Commodity Culture (2010). Graw claims that the art world now operates along the lines of what the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have termed ‘information capitalism’.61 Current notions of the ‘network’ are perhaps more enthralled by the rhizomatic structures of the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari than by those of Norbert Wiener, although their respective ideas are not necessarily antithetical.62 Deleuze and Guattari define the rhizome as a permeable structure which is ‘open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification’.63 In an art world structured around mobile, provisional relationships and connections, networking is a professional imperative.64 In such a world, a critic who makes value judgements risks social ‘death’, since to criticise an artist publicly risks alienating potential contacts for future collaborations.65 Graw is somewhat reluctant to interrogate this issue, perhaps because, as an editor of the journal Texte Zur Kunst, she is herself part of the same art world which she is analysing.66 There is no doubt that Alloway was a part of this emergent art world predicated upon diversity and professionalised, market-driven imperatives. Critics of Alloway might claim that this is the flipside of his sceptical pluralism: in an art world where judgement is a dirty word, art criticism threatens to offer little in the way of critique. Instead, criticism robbed of its critical purchase threatens to become nothing more than the servant of the market, producing ‘surplus-value’ through the production of catalogue essays and other promotional literature.67
Given the convergence between Alloway’s approach to criticism and the contemporary context, one can understand the temptation to label Alloway complicit with the commercial mechanisms of that art world. This is one of the claims that is often made against pluralism, along with the refrain that it entails a lowering of ‘standards’.68 However, it may equally be countered that it is in fact those critics who cultivate close relationships with artists who are doing the bidding of the market, acting effectively as promoters, and even benefiting financially from the arrangement.69
The following example problematises the claim that Alloway was complacent, or complicit with the market. In an essay entitled ‘The Great Curatorial Dim-Out’, published in Artforum in 1975, Alloway expresses his unease with the compromises and pressures involved in the art world which he participated in and described so diligently.70 In what is a slightly meandering essay, Alloway discusses some of the problems of curating under the pressures exerted by dealers, trustees and artists themselves. The essay needs to be understood within the context of the museum strikes that took place in the early 1970s at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and elsewhere (the economic slowdown of that decade led to wage cuts, layoffs and budget deficits at several major American museums). Alloway wrote a succession of pieces in Artforum during this period on the subject of museum politics, in line with the journal’s shift towards more socio-political issues under the stewardship of John Coplans.71
In the same article, Alloway also recounts a number of complaints which were specific to the role of the critic, such as, for example, what Alloway terms the ‘decline of the catalogue’, from a source of consultable scholarly information to the straightforward promotion of an artist’s reputation.72 Alloway also raises the issue of what he perceived to be the limited notion of ‘education’ in curatorial strategies, that is, education had ‘come to mean the complex of school visits, gallery guides, talks, the provision of slides, simplified literature … Actually the fundamental educative acts are the presentation and interpretation of art, both in the exhibition and in the catalogue’.73
The pressures outlined by Alloway were exemplified by the posthumous Morris Louis retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that ran between September and October 1963. In ‘The Great Curatorial Dim-Out’, Alloway makes the remarkable admission that he was pressurised by Louis’s estate not to specify the number of paintings left after the artist’s death, since ‘Louis was being sold at the time in terms of scarcity’.74 This kind of market pressure was related to the increasing price of American artwork during the post-war period, and its increasing value for speculation and investment. What is especially interesting about this dispute is that it illustrates Alloway’s position within the nexus of the contemporary art world. Far from being at ease in the expanded, differentiated field that he describes, Alloway was acutely aware of his problematic role within it, and its conflicting pressures and complicities.
The article drew two irate letters in the magazine’s September issue. Among the usual point-scoring and mud-slinging, both letters made a telling point: that Alloway’s plea for the role of the curator was in fact a plea for the role of the critic. The first letter, by the artist Karl Beveridge, claimed that the terms ‘critic’ and ‘curator’ were interchangeable in Alloway’s text.75 This comment was intended as a criticism of Alloway, but it unwittingly acknowledged that Alloway had operated in both capacities throughout his career. Furthermore, Alloway’s comments regarding education made clear that he understood the roles of both the critic and the curator as crucial in making art and its discourse publicly available. The second correspondent, Quentin Dacamera, argued that Alloway was articulating a ‘shift in power’ from critics to curators. Given the ‘explosion of art-making in America’, Dacamera argued that ‘curators, whose principal job is to present art directly to the public more or less on the art’s own terms … are better equipped than critics to handle this explosion’.76 The real ‘dim-out’, therefore, was the fact that ‘critics have lost their stranglehold on the direction of American art’.77 The latter is a somewhat toothless criticism, given that it essentially articulates Alloway’s own critical position. Both letters, however, bring into focus the problem articulated by Alloway’s essay, that of the autonomy of the critic and the curator within this networked, market-driven art world. We come full circle then, to the question of multiplicity which Alloway’s art criticism-as-information aimed to address.
Analogous to the information theory which he drew upon, Alloway’s method is both ubiquitous and somewhat intangible, in the sense that his ‘descriptive’ criticism is widely adopted, yet his name rarely features in discussions of criticism’s current predicament. This is unfortunate, since in any reconsideration of criticism’s role, Alloway’s sceptical pluralism is worthy of acknowledgement. Alloway’s adoption of information theory attempted to ‘map’ the field in what he termed an ‘ongoing record’. As we have seen, such a record is necessarily partial, since the art world will always exceed one critic’s scope. Nor can it be definitive, since it is an ongoing project. In this respect, Alloway’s criticism may be deemed implicitly collaborative, in that other art world participants can add to the record, broadening and deepening its scope, instead of arbitrarily chopping it down to a linear trajectory. Perhaps this is the most fruitful possibility opened up by the adoption of criticism-as-information. The question of how the critic’s judgement operates within such a project remains to be clarified. Nonetheless, in any endeavour to establish the coordinates of contemporary criticism, Alloway’s pluralism must be the starting point of such a project, not the nostalgic retreat to an imagined critical authority.