The Essential Importance of John Yau’s Art Writing

When I started doing art criticism, forty years ago, I found it natural to begin by reading Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). Although he wasn’t still writing, he was, by general consent, the most important living American critic. And the most famous New York critics of the next generation, Michael Fried (1939- ) and Rosalind Krauss (1941- ) began as his followers and then, in strikingly different ways, rebelled against his influence. Both Fried and Krauss continue to produce books, but neither of them is a living force in present criticism. For better or worse, they have become grand historical figures, like the 1960s artists they championed. Then in the 1980s there were many challenging art writers. To name just one of them, my teacher Arthur Danto (1924-2013), who also was a major philosopher, became much discussed. He wrote admiringly about Greenberg, Fried and Krauss, but he certainly did not continue their ways of thinking.

Were you to enter the art world right now, what a different situation you would find! The Marxist tradition, which informed Greenberg in the 1930s and always guided his theorizing, even after he abandoned leftist politics, is effectively gone. Not that progressive politics has disappeared. If anything, those concerns have become more urgent and even more pressing. But the terms of debate have changed radically. Greenberg’s Marxist historicism has been replaced by identity politics, the concern with gender and race. In the older Marxist literature, concerns with gender and race were generally marginal. John Stuart Mill, not Karl Marx, was the great Victorian feminist. And when it came to race, Marx was in some essential ways a Euro-centric thinker.

There certainly are many lively art critics right now. But if I had to name the one senior figure whose writing best reveals what’s happening, I would pick John Yau. His taste certainly is not mine, many of his critical judgments seem to me dubious or even puzzling, and I strongly doubt that we agree about the role of theorizing. But my present concern is not to debate with his claims, but to explain why right now his writings matter. Earlier, in a remarkable prescient way, I would add, Thomas McEveilley (1939-2013) created that critical role. (See my piece in Brooklyn Rail). Neither Diderot, nor Baudelaire, nor Roger Fry (nor Greenberg, Fried or Krauss) make claims that are altogether acceptable. But they are the historical figures who matter today. And without quite giving Yau that status, he matters right now because he writes clearly about a great variety of artists, and because in his practice tackles issues of central importance.

Greenberg employed a universal aesthetic. There were, to be sure, important differences between French and American art, but the critical evaluation employed universally valid judgments of taste. But for a critic like Yau involved with identity politics, the gender, race and sexual identity of the artist matter. That Wilfredo Lam (1902-82), whose work is on the cover of Yau’s newest book, was the child of Chinese and Afro-Cubans plays a real role in his artistic development. You need to know that Martin Wong (1946-1999), subject of two reviews in this volume, was a Chinese-American gay man. And that Martin Puryear (1941- ) is African-American is crucial for understanding his sculpture. Making reference to an artist’s gender, race and sexual identity has become so commonplace that today it would seem odd to discuss Lam, Wong or Puryear without some such reference.

Because Yau does not claim to be a theorist, the theorizing implicit in his critical practice is worth considering. In a pre-modern world, when geographically distant cultures were not in sustained regular contact, it is unsurprising that there were diverse visual cultures. Rembrandt saw some Persian miniatures, but he was not tempted to paint in that style. Chinese artists met some Jesuit missionaries, but they did not abandon their scroll paintings. But in our present culture, where art travels and almost everyone everywhere has access to the internet, the identity of an artist matters may be more surprising. Obviously being a Japanese-American woman, was Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), who is the subject of another of Yau’s essays, had an enormous everyday effect on her life in a racist culture. The important question, still, is how that identity plays out in visual artworks. Asawa’s interest in Roman masks, a central concern in Yau’s essay about her, doesn’t in itself defines a Japanese-American identity, although the way that she used those masks surely does. Similarly, points could be made about the art of Lam, Wong and Puryear. The Western and non-Western artistic traditions they employed are accessible to everyone nowadays, but how artists use them and how their art is seen certainly is a function of gender, race and sexual identities.

When a writer is discussing art from the past, s/he needs to learn about that culture. And, all things being equal, it’s probably more work for a Westerner to learn about Chinese or Islamic culture than the prior traditions of his own Western culture. Identity politics, however, poses an additional concern, even for the art of the immediate present. To understand work from another culture, the writer must imaginarily place him/herself in that culture. A white writer thus needs a certain skill to successfully comprehend the works of Lam, Wong, Puryear and Asawa. The reason, so Yau argues repeatedly (and convincingly) that their work was generally consistently misunderstood was that it was judged by false standards as if they were white male artists. This, to underline an important point, does not mean that you cannot understand work from someone of another culture. After all, Yau is not, like Puryear, African-American. Nor, unlike Asawa, is he female: And still he thinks that he can understand their artworks.

The philosopher critically scrutinizing this analysis may well wonder if it goes far enough. Once you divide contemporary artists, some white, others Black, still others Chinese, should we not go a step further and consider younger/older/gay/straight . . . and so on. When I taught in China, I learned that critics divided ethnically Chinese artists into a variety of categories: some were born in the People’s Republic, and lived and worked there; others were emigrants; and still others lived in Hong Kong or Taiwan. That procedure makes sense, for these varies artists often had rather different lives. Analogously, historians distinguish between Florentine and Sienese Italian art, even though those cities are not far apart. In that spirit, it’s easy to see how these categories of present artists might multiply almost endlessly. When, for example, Yau discusses Siah Armajani (1939-2020), an Iranian-born American, we probably need yet another category. The problem with essentialism, it has been argued, is that it fails to grasp the ways in which each of us is an individual. Black artists/Black female artists/Black senior female artists . . . . However finely you divide these categories, you won’t be able to exclude varied individuals.

There are three ways to understand these conceptual problems. Some critics and philosophers believed in a universal aesthetic covering all art from everywhere. Roger Fry held this view when he admired some African sculpture whilst knowing nothing about that culture. Alternatively, it would be possible to claim that there are a multiplicity of artistic standards, some of which are impossible for outsiders to understand. It might be claimed, for example, that no one who has not grown up poor in Black America could really understand the blues. And, thirdly, there is our middle position, a qualified version of this identity politics: there are a multiplicity of standards, but it’s possible with skill and persistence to understand work that comes from outside your own culture. So, for example, even if you didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin, you can learn the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy.

As should be obvious, I am not sure that my reconstruction of Yau’s implicit aesthetic is correct. That said, I do believe that it provides a good guide right now to political action. If we accept what I’ve dubbed the qualified version of identity politics, then there’s reason to make sure that there be curators and critics from all the relevant racial and gender groups. It’s important that there be people have what might be called inside access to the artworks, in comparison with the others who need instruction to grasp its distinctive values. Yau doesn’t discuss this interpretative problem in a general way. He, after all, is a working art critic, not a philosopher. But’s very important, in my judgment, to see how this view of the importance of art world multiculturalism constantly informs his analysis. I have learned from him how to proceed. In Yau’s earlier writings here you get the sense that this struggle is actually about to begin or, at least, still going on. But if you consider the practice of the art world in late winter 2023, then it seems obvious that he was won this battle.


Yau’s next book Please Wait by the Coatroom. Reconsidering Race and Identity in American Art, which contains the essays discussed here, will be published June 27, 2023. My discussion of these issues is A World Art History And Its Objects (2008). For a selection of my recent criticism see Art Writing Online (2022).

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.