Dayton Castleman is an artist who works in sculpture and site-specific installation. He grew up in New Orleans, and has large-scale public work in Philadelphia. He received his BA from Belhaven College, and his MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently an assistant professor of art and design at Trinity Christian College near Chicago. His website can be found at http://www.daytoncastleman.com
I am in the final weeks of curating an exhibition comprised entirely of artist-made piñatas. The piñatas will be up for auction over the course of the show, and the exhibition will culminate in a public ceremony. At the ceremonial event, the auction winners will be given a choice: smash the piñata they have won, revealing what it contains for all onlookers, or take the piñata home intact, preserving it unbroken. This dilemma is heightened by the fact that the artworks of several artists in the show are valued in the low to mid five figures.
The piñatas in this exhibition are not likely to be filled with candy, but with something intended to shed light on the artist’s concept or purpose for the piñata’s external form. The dilemma for the auction winner is that getting at this “deeper meaning” of the particular art object requires its physical destruction, while a decision to preserve the piñata intact protects an investment, but limits its potential for broader societal value. Yet even if the piñata is sacrificed, the societal value of the object is left open for said society to judge. It is entirely possible that the opening up of the piñata could result in a complete debacle comprised of public disappointment with what the contents reveal, the perceived failure of the artist, and a perceived lapse in judgment on the part of the one who elected to obliterate what may have been a perfectly nice little sculpture.
Central to this simple project of mine is the question of who controls an artwork’s purpose, meaning and value—a question that I think is at the heart of Daniel Siedell’s chapter on Art Criticism. Siedell introduces the chapter by calling attention to the fact that it is the “disparity between the art and what is written about it—how it is interpreted—that is off-putting to many otherwise earnest art viewers.” If the work of the art writer can be confusing and off-putting to the art viewer, imagine how infuriating this might be to the artist whose own work is placed under the critical knife. Yet this frequently tumultuous relationship between the artist, the critic, and the public—mediated by art objects—is a central one in any engagement with contemporary art.
As a person who identifies primarily as an artist, it would be all too easy to offer a dismissive rant about the art critic’s lack of concern for the artist’s intention, or the public’s general lack of an informed interpretive framework. This would be easy, because these things are true, and Siedell devotes quite a bit of the chapter to unpacking why this is so in regard to art criticism. His purpose in this is to argue that in order for art criticism to be useful, one must be clear about what modern and contemporary art criticism’s ultimate goal is, and he acknowledges that the “history of art criticism suggests that the ultimate goal of the art critic is to achieve and then sustain authority as an art critic.”
He explores the roots of this in his discussion of the Harold Rosenberg—Clement Greenberg debate, and the eventual establishment of Greenberg as the twentieth century’s preeminent voice in art criticism, in whose work it becomes clear, Siedell points out, that “ultimately, the subject of art criticism is the art critic.” Yet central to Siedell’s argument is that while art criticism’s self-reflexivity may be a given, this should not be perceived as grounds for dismissing its central role in modern and contemporary art. He writes:
“This in no way diminishes the significance of art criticism. In fact, it reveals it to be a creative endeavor with its own genres and traditions that are parallel to—not derivative of—the art it engages. Both artists and critic are engaged in the act of creation, engaged in the act of discovery through their practice. If, however, the critic’s task is, following Edward Said, “to advance human freedom and knowledge,” the art critic’s challenge is to use art to show how both art and criticism can serve these noble goals, to use criticism to demonstrate art’s broader significance, and finally, to model how art should be taken seriously.”
Implicit in this paragraph is that what is often at issue in the art world is control and power. The trouble with a great deal of interaction around art is that, far from being simply a critical problem, each party represented—the artist, the critic, and the observer—would prefer to be the one that the whole endeavor revolves around. This may be one of the places that a “Nicene Christian faith” would offer a unique model for understanding art. Siedell, in fact, appropriately borrows Trinitarian language in referring to the “hypostatic union of form and content” in the art object—language that could be extended to the web of human relationships that comprise the world of modern and contemporary art. A willingness to “love your neighbor as yourself” would likely result in a rich and unique contribution to contemporary art culture.