Leo Steinberg: Other Criteria

Favorite Quotes from Leo Steinberg essays — he’s my favorite art critic of the 20th century.

Steinberg, Leo.  Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art. 1975.

“Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public”

Leo Steinberg voices his complex experience of approaching art (Neo Dada) that he, great critic that he was, did not immediately understand.  His reaction is an important lesson in humility and learning.

Leo Steinberg (36) “My own first reaction was normal.  I disliked the show, and would glady have thought it a bore.  Yet it depressed me and I wasn’t sure why.  Then I began to recognize in myself all the classical symptoms of a philistines reaction to modern art.  I was angry at the artist, as if her had invited me to a meal, only to serve something uneatable…I was irritated at some of my friends for pretending to like it—but with an uneasy suspicion that perhaps they did like it, so that I was really mad at myself for being so dull, and at the whole situation for showing me up.”

Leo Steinberg 38-39

“I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it in the absence of all available standards.  The value which I will put on this painting tests my authenticity as an individual.  Here I can discover whether I am man enough to sustain an encounter with a completely original experience.  Am I escaping it by being overly clever?  There things that I see—are they really me, or have I been eavesdropping on conversations?  I have been trying to formulate certain meanings seen in this art; are they designed to demonstrate something about myself, or are they really an inward experience? Do the things I have just written seem very good to me? This threat of vanity is more serious than the mere rise of nonsense; and yet I wonder—ten years from now, I will I look silly if It should become universally obvious that all this was junk?  Or have I failed myself already in asking these questions, being overly conscious about myself, instead of surrendering to the experience which is reaching out to me?

“Alfred Barr, of the Museum of Modern Art, has said that if one out of ten paintings that the Museum of Modern Art has acquired should remain valid in retrospect, they will ahve scored very well.  I take this to be, not a confession of inadequate judgment, but an assertion about the nature of contemporary art.”

“[Modern Art] demands a decision in which you discover yourself, your own quality as a man; and this decision is always a ‘leap of faith’ to use Kierkegaard’s famous term.”

Comparing Modern art to Exodus 16.  “When I read this much, I stopped and thought how like contemporary art this manna was; not only in that it was a God-send, or in that it was a desert food, or in that no one could quite understand it–for “they wist not what it was.” Nor even because a part of it was immediately put away in a museum–“to be kept for your generations”; nor yet because the taste of it has remained a mystery, since the phrase here translated as “wafers made with honey,” is in fact, a blind guess; the Hebrew word i sone that occurs nowhere else in ancient literature, and no one knows what it really means.  Whence the legend that manna tasted to every man as he wished; though it came from without, it’s taste in the mouth was his own making.”

Some Notes
Art always makes its public feel othered—great new art always makes us uncomfortable, makes anxieties of the modern moment felt and real. This has been true since at least Cezanne.

Leo Stein’s example: hated Matisse but went again and again to see the paintings and after a few weeks decided he loved them and bought them up.  This is necessary humility when approaching new great art.
=”Contemporary art is constantly inviting us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish.” …. “It seems to me a function of modern art to transmit this anxiety to the spectator.”
=Steinberg laments his anxiety of “not getting it” with Neo Dada, particularly J. Johns, but sticks with it.
=”If I dislike these things, why not ignore them?” – well most people do, but the heroicism of the art critic is his humility and doggedness to stick with things he doesn’t like and persevere, to understand precisely why or why not, to not simply give a glib kneejerk reaction.
=Art as analogous to god-sent mana (a hapax legnomenon, no one knows what it is) – manna tastes to everyy man as he wished; the gathering of manna and art must be done as a leap of faith.
Steinberg, Leo “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art”
Steinberg notes the wide range of critical responses to Johns, many of them wrong (this is the mark of great art)
            =Then he hones on in the 8 basic attributes of Johns paintings (p.26)
                        +Most critical is the flatness, the unification of signifier and signified.
1.      All man-made objects.  Man-made assuresthat they are makeable; non man-made things can only be simulated (skies, trees, space)
2.      All objects are commonplace – but Johns doesn’t give us the commonplace in a painting, he gives us the commonplace as a painting. What Johns loves about the commonplace is that they are nobody’s preference, not even his own (this is the paradox).
3.      All respected ritual or conventional shapes.  Using conventional things so he can worry about deeper issues.  Did you pick these letter types because you like them or because theats hwo the setencils come?  JJ: But that’s what I like about them, that they come that way.
a.       He likes things that are, in their quotidian state, seem not to be art yet.
4.      Johns subjects are wholeentities or complete systems; full objects, whole primary colors, can be looked at from any angle or side.. meh okay. He is playing with the limits of meaning making.
5.      Johns objects/systems predetmine the pictures shape and dimensions. Naturally. 1:1; ratio.
6.      Flatness – you can’t smoke Magritte’s pipe, but you can throw darts at Johns targt.
7.      Non-heirarchic – maintaining “alloverness” democrartic equality to all parts fo the painting.
a.       “Moral: Nothing in art is so true that its opposite cannot be made even truer.”
8.      Johns objects associate with sufferance, not action. They are receptive things; they let things happen.
What is painting? ßcentral question of Johns.
Johns advances many hypotheses.  What is the surface of a painting? Not a window, nor an uprighted tray, noran object with projections into actual space…. He want spictures to be objects alone.
In conclusion: Johns puts two flinty thingsotgether in a picure and makes them work against one another so hard tha the mind is sparked.
“The elements of Johns’s picture lie side by side like flint pebbles.  Rubbed together they could spark a flame, and that istheir meaning perhaps.  But johns does not claim to have ever heard othe invention of ifre. He merely locates the pebbles.”
“Becoming a painter is like groping one’s way out of a cluttered room in the dark.  Beginning to walk, he tubmbles over another man’s couch, changes course to colloide with someone’s commode, then buttsagainst a work table that can’t be disturbed.”
“It is in the character of the critic to say no more in his best moment sthan whay everyone in the following season epeats; he is the generator of the cliché.”
To achieve Pollock’s effect through absolute banality, without the pretension of heroism and hypermasculinity

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