The Art Critics —! How Do They Serve the Public? What Do They Say? How Much Do They Know? Let’s Look at the Record!

The brochure contains excerpts from New York newspapers and art publications showing misstatements and contradictions of art critics with commentary by the American Abstract Artists. The brochure was designed by Ad Reinhardt. It was distributed at American Abstract Artists Fourth Annual Exhibition in 1940. The text from the brochure is reproduced below.

American Abstract Artists, June 1940

The Art Critics - cover of American Abstract Artists brochure

There can be no question that the American Abstract Artists maintains itself as the most authoritative group of its kind in the United States. Since 1936, the members of this group have carried the heaviest part of the burden of education and promotion of the creative effort which it represents in this country. We have seen, to our regret, not only the initiative of the Museum of Modern Art, the most influential institution of its kind, decay, but we have also witnessed political intrigue to prevent abstract artists from executing work in public buildings.

It has also been extremely obvious that a systematic campaign against the most advanced efforts in modern art, and against art in particular, is being waged by the greater part of our press.

It is indeed a mockery that these professional amateurs, the critics, should even write of Seurat, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, at all. With Little or no compunction and with the most blatant complacency, these gentlemen of the press have often confronted us with their piquant discussions concerning the sanity of the most significant artists of our time.. With the utmost condescension, an already confused public is being treated to such barefaced and shameless affronteries as a so-called regional esthetic, among other things. Most encouraged of all, recently, is the barren negativism expressed by our professional primitives and provincialists.

These typically flagrant expressions of a total lack of any conception of the form problem and the vital significance of its continued development, betray at the same time the failure of these self-appointed administrators of American art and traditions to accept their cultural responsibility. It is perfectly apparent that the task of objectively reporting creative accomplishment, effort and experiment has been peremptorily obscured by endless and unsubstantiated personal opinions. These facts are further proved by their super-annuated platitudes concerning ecclecticism. It makes evident that their inability to differentiate between one abstract and another is simply an inability to experience form in terms of plastic, spatial unity. Unless the forms are based upon the arbitrary shapes of heads, trees, turnips, etcetera, the experience seems not to exist at all for these gentlemen and they are left quite speechless so far as any constructive or analytical conceptions are concerned.

This speechlessness has become part of their obvious and systematic evasion. Since they possess the force of control over the art pages, it has been extremely easy for them, in a line or two of opinionated gestures and bromides, to dispense casually with some of the most significant movements and efforts of individual artists: or tucked away into some corner, an assistant is given the opportunity to reflect his mediocre prejudice. All this under the sugar-coated protection of such titles as “all the news that’s fit to print,” etc.

It should be clearly understood that we do not attempt to place the artist above criticism. The point is that any expression of mere personal opinion and prejudice, either for or against, has no place and right to existence on the pages of art criticism unless substantiated by an authentic conception of form relationships.

Fortunately, and despite this adverse press, mere negation has not sufficed. The death warrant has not been signed and infinitum; actually, artists and public are experiencing a growing interest in abstract art. The critics understand very well that the public has an extraordinary respect for the printed word, especially when it is coupled with the dignity of a famous publication. It is their method to presume that there is little or no question to their influence or authority.

Once a Fool Always a Fool

Officials at art-banquets proudly refer to Mr. Royal Cortissoz as the “dean of American art-critics.” To many artists and members of the younger generation the Herald-Tribune columnist suggests an era so far removed from the present that they will wonder why he is discussed here at all. To us the Cortissoz tenacity and resistance to knowledge has become a symbol so remarkable that he is worthy of investigation. He should be quoted as an indication of what the Herald-Tribune gives to its readers. An alert editorial staff might have detected a quarter of a century ago that Cortissoz was completely blind to quality in any contemporary expression; in 1913 he challenges a Cézanne exhibition as follows:

The farce will and when people look at Post-Impressionist pictures as Mr. Sargent looked at those shown in London, “absolutely skeptical as to their having any claim whatever to being works of art”

Such judgements may have been insensitive enough in 1913, but the wonder of Cortissoz springs from the fact that he has not retreated an inch. He can write of a Cézanne in similar tones to this very day. The key to his principles is to be found in the reference to Sargent. He believes the aim of every artist to be socially acceptable fashion-picture, and that a painter should have any other point of view is beyond comprehension. He will countenance no such elementary deviations from nature as representational distortions or formal simplifications. Any one who does not do what Sargent would approve of merely shows signs of “incompetence.” A quotation from his column at almost any point and any year betrays the same angle. The following will provide a fair sample:

All the familiar names are represented, beginning with Picasso and Matisse, but we cannot say that the familiar mannerisms of those individuals are rendered any the more persuasive to us …we have found nothing in the show to mitigate the prevailing atmosphere of blague and technical incompetence.
New York Herald-Tribune, Dec. 8, 1929
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