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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Standard Critical Cop Out

Everyone who writes (for real or for the blogosphere--or, even, for the real blogosphere) has tics, takes shortcuts, and relies on cliches.

I copped out on pushing myself to say something original about an installation that I mentioned recently. In my piece on the Bronx Museum's AIM 25 exhibition, I wrote that Olen Hsu's Anacoluthon "raises more questions than it answers."

While I was writing the piece I knew I was cheating with this phrase, but I didn't fully realize how much I had cheapened my description of Hsu's work until I heard Kurt Andersen use the same shortcut to introduce a piece on Mark Lombardi's drawings for last weekend's edition of Studio 360.

Mark Lombardi, World Finance Corporation and Associates, ca. 1970-84: Miami, Ajman, and Bogota-Caracas (Brigada 2506: Cuban Anti-Castro Bay of Pigs Veteran) (7th Version), 1999Lombardi's work (at right), with its intricate socio-political mapping of connections and influence, Andersen said, "raises more questions than it even tries to answer." (Listen to Andersen's intro and the rest of the piece via the link above.)

I cringed when I heard him say this for several reasons. It demonstrated just how meaningless the phrase is when it's used to describe an artwork, and it reminded me that I had written the same thing about work that I had really liked. But I especially recoiled because this sort of description so trivializes Lombardi's specific project.

In his drawings Lombardi answered questions that no one else was even asking. He raised the questions, did the research, and documented the results in a surprisingly beautiful way with his data diagrams. (Lombardi would do multiple versions of the same content, each subsequent map becoming more refined and elegant.) If Lombardi's work raises any questions, it's because viewers don't have the same command of the facts that he had. Each piece is a complex, fully documented answer to a simple question: who was connected to whom in a certain particularly complex transaction, and how?

I can't fault Andersen too much, though. It was just a throwaway line in an introduction to a radio piece on Lombardi that was actually quite good. And, besides, I've done the same thing myself. (So have approximately 29,000 other people if this search result is any indication.)

But I can make sure that I don't let myself do it again.

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