Henderson’s anti-intellectual manifesto unmasks the malign influence of art critics and their ideologies.
Ever since cavemen first carved reindeer antlers, according to this muddled j’accuse, art has been a happily inchoate project of self-expression by painters and sculptors with no other agenda than “making their own personal magic.” Then came the critics—egotistical writers who usually cannot make art but nonetheless want to control it by framing it in intellectual terms that saddle real artists with invidious value-judgments of what is good and bad art. Henderson surveys a rogue’s gallery of these over-reaching critics, from the Renaissance writers Alberti and Vassari to Modernist guru Clement Greenberg and contemporary tastemakers Arthur C. Danto and Peter Schjeldahl. He denounces specific critical approaches—aesthetic canons, distinctions between fine and decorative art, the championing of abstraction over representation—in detail, but his iconoclasm is all-encompassing: “all ideas about art have to be jettisoned” as pernicious infringements on artistic autonomy. Henderson knows a lot about art, especially Euro-American art of the last two centuries, and his interpretations of its history, and of individual artists, are often engaging and insightful. Unfortunately, he knows little about good criticism, which he equates with the notion that you shouldn’t say anything if you can’t say anything nice. His pensées on the critical enterprise are snide (“Since the French generally had no love of art, [critics] had no difficulty brainwashing them”), or bizarre (“Music critics…are excellent because they stick to the music and have no need for ideas”) or crudely philistine in their own right. (Blind to the art of writing, he finds the metaphor “painting is silent poetry” to be “factually wrong.”) Henderson’s indictment of critics who disparage what they don’t understand sometimes hits home, but he could easily be brought up on the same charge.
An eccentric, thin-skinned, ill-tempered screed.