Friday, February 25, 2011

Watching the Watchmen

Charlie Sheen in Two and A Half Men: The crowd watching Christian Marclay's Clock.

I have written on the subject of criticism and popularity before, so when I got in a short dust up with Tyler Green on Twitter, I was going to let the subject drop - but I am like a dog with a bone. If you follow this LINK you will find a cut and paste of Tyler Green’s recent review of Christian Marclay’s The Clock with a few edits. It was assembled by Steve Mesler who usually blogs about making art for Huffington Post. Steve sent me this after my short back and forth with Green. Steve, who is in Savana interviewing Marina Abramovic today, took the “Find and Replace” function in google documents, replacing Christian’s name for Abramovic's and The Clock for The Artist is Present. Add in a couple of liberties with the narrative and what you have is a review for any popular show the art world has ever, or might ever mount. I asked Steve if I could link to his joke because it shows exactly why I found Green's review so disappointing. In a review of what I felt was a complex piece of durational art, about time, Green chose to write a formulaic review complaining against formula. Green Accused Marclay of being tired, but used the most tired of all art world cliches: he chose to sneer at the crowds of us gullible to want to see the work at all.

I have always loved reading criticism - I like criticism of all kinds. I liked reading reviews as a thing on-to-it-self. A great book review is a great read even if you have no intention of reading the book. I read more about dance than I actually have a chance to watch it. I entertain myself on the subway reading reviews of films I have no intention seeing - sometimes I have my head turned and decide to see the film, sometimes I have my head turned and decide to see a totally different film that the reviewer just happened to mention. I am not concerned that a reviewer agrees with me. When Pauline Kael was writing for the New Yorker her best reviews were negative, but she didn’t simply dismiss a film was formulaic and move on, she spent two or three columns explaining herself. Kael was villanized by George Lucas as General Kael in Willow because of her scathing reviews. And Quentin Tarantino says that his one regret as a film maker was that Kael had retired before his first film came out. Tarantino, who must have enjoyed reading her savage others, would have liked to have read what she would have said about his own work. A negative review can cruel, but it should also be illuminating. A review is a look into the reviewer's mind, if that person is knowledgeable about the subject, a negative review can be a joy - full of surprising information ant insight. 
General Kael; Pauline Kael

I am genuinely flummoxed by those who still dismiss popular things, because they are popular. That may have made sense in the 30s when Clement Greenberg wrote Avant-Garde and Kitch - but back than mass culture meant Ford, Hitler and Stalin. There was real reason to be alarmed by torch light parades back then. There are times, like with the films of Michael Bay, that popularity of art makes me sad. But saying an art work is like a sitcom in the era of Mad Men and the Wire is no longer a condemnation. Popular culture is really smart. Before he died, even Clement Greenberg had to admit that kitch isn't so bad:
Today I am not bothered by kitsch as I used to be, I was bothered by it when I was growing up. I remember a record player at college that went on forever. It was the repetition that bothered me. Today I think Kitsch is better then it used to be. Movies have become much, much better over the last thirty years. I think if I had grown up in the 60s I woulden’t have felt so assaulted or assailed by kitsch.

Fuck the 60s, imagine if Clem had grown up with Youtube? He would have loved it, and like Green I imagine he would have made the connection between Youtube and Clock, but unlike Green I don't think Clem would have stopped there. Engineers say that a difference of over 10% is no longer a difference in quality, it is a difference in kind. There is nothing banal about the experience of siting in a packed gallery watching time pass. It is compelling and boring by turns. It is like Youtube the way a pavement stone is like a fingernail. I look forward to reading a well considered “thumbs down review” of The Clock; a review that has the same curage as the work itself - the courage to relax about the subject of popularity. Let it go, it's 2011, not 1939. 
Line for the original Star Wars film(1977); Line for Clock (2011)


  1. John, can you elaborate about what you found valuable about "The Clock"? I know you went several times to watch it, and spent a lot of time at the gallery. I very much enjoyed Claudia Vompres's comment on Tyler's blog, it was thoughtful and mirrored my reaction to the work. TYler seemed off the mark, comparing it to a formulaic television show with a lugh track. I found it to be anything but... what did you see in Marclay's giant cinema quilt?