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On "The Art Critic" by Peter Plagens

The first installment of The Art Critic, a novel set in the New York art world and centering on a fifty-something critic for a weekly news magazine, recently appeared on Artnet. The book will serialize online over the next 24 weeks. It is written by Peter Plagens, painter, writer and art critic for Newsweek.

This comment was originally posted on an Artworld Salon thread on the book.

Plagens allows his alter ego, Arthur, to disparage a lot of contemporary art as pretentious and laughable. He admits being stuck with a legacy of “high-end formalism” and abstraction from his graduate school days. Employing a habitually rueful and sardonic tone, voicing an almost obligatory impatience with Chelsea, he is “in desperate search of art with feeling rather than strategy at its core” and sick of “all that goddamned storytelling”. He is a sour, world weary pedant who prides himself on being nobody’s fool while remaining oblivious to many of his own contradictions. Ever in denial, he can wryly congratulate his middle-aged sexual persona as “a good, clean, considerate fuck with few if any harmful side effects”.

An elder statesman’s (or aging crank’s) rejection of the Nu Mu's Unmonumental or the recent Whitney Biennial aesthetic, which he labels as “Granny’s­-attic­-on­-crystal­-meth installations” or “whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus”, extends to the ponderous self importance and pervasive texts he dreads confronting in so much recent MFA work. He tends to rail against easy targets: a droll send up of an exhaustive (and exhausting) feminist catalog, a chuckle at jargon in gallery press releases, even the well peppered roasting of an academic realist painter revealed as a contentious blowhard.

The Art Critic will please those readers looking for barbed observations of art world realpolitik as well as scandalous insider revelations. Because the ultimate guilty pleasure of any roman à clef is discovering real life equivalents for the pseudonymous roles in the novel. To his credit, Plagens tries to create composite characters, each inspired by a number of actual sources in the New York demimonde. This is a more imaginative and synthetic strategy than thinly disguised, one-on-one correspondences. For example, to identify the “Carol Gascoine” character simply as Laurie Simmons is to miss a lot of subtext drawn from other sources.

But Plagens can also be crushingly direct. When he contemplates “huge Cibachrome prints of exquisitely posed suburban-gothic banalities, produced with budgets that must have consumed whole trust funds in a single gulp”, it seems aimed right at Gregory Crewdson. Similarly, conservative critic “Jonathan Hirsch” is a clear stand in for Hilton Kramer. As for other art world figures who pop up as naughty or nice characters, everyone can start making their own list and checking it twice. Or rather 24 times, the number of weekly installments that will appear in Artnet.

Interestingly, Cindy Sherman is the only figure (thus far) who appears under her own name, and in a fairly benign usage, as an historical marker. She might escape further gouging as the plot thickens. But everyone else, it would seem, is grist for the mill.