Evaluation of Eleanor Heartney: A radical and conservative art critic
Eleanor Heartney - Art Critic
10 July '18
Eleanor Heartney

by Robert McIntosh

10 July '18

Evaluation of Eleanor Heartney: A radical and conservative art critic

Eleanor Heartney - Art Critic

Eleanor Heartney has been an art critic since the early 1980s. Her work has been focused on politics, and the significance of art for invoking change.

Her approach is to look at art as a form of affect, and in turn, look at what and how change is intended from the work.

As a critic who focuses on contemporary art, there are significant elements of risk involved. While it is true that she examines some of the more abstract and conceptual areas of contemporary art, she does so with an eye toward grounding it within the wider context of art history.

And, also, contextualizing the work within society. She views art as an expression of social reality, but also as an expression that often has the intention of disrupting social reality.


The following will examine some of the thematic continuities in her work, along with looking at some of the theoretical or philosophical biases that are embodied in her writing. It will be argued that there is a tension in her writing between conservatism and radical change, and this tension is a boundary or a border that is constantly being redefined by the relationship of the artist to society, but also, the relationship of the society and its influence on art.


Eleanor Heartney describes her upbringing as fairly conventional and very Catholic in Des Moines Iowa where she was born and raised. She went from Des Moines to the University of Chicago, and in her freshman year attended a course taught by Harold Rosenberg. She majored in philosophy and art history at Chicago, and these were the professional areas of focus intersected with Harold Rosenberg.

Philosophy, aesthetics and art history

Rosenberg had been an influential figure in the post-World War II period of US art. He was an early champion of painters like Willem de Kooning and is credited with first using the term: 'action painting' to describe that period of expressionism.

Willem de Kooning was a return to form from pure abstraction, and this gesture toward the history of painting that is re-invoked in his painting will turn into a key idea that Eleanor Heartney takes from her studying with Rosenberg. At the University of Chicago, Eleanor Heartney managed to get a really rigorous education in philosophy, aesthetics and art history.

Heartney and Rosenberg

One of the intersections of interest between Heartney and Rosenberg is the history of religious art and medieval art in particular (Bui 2009). Also, like her mentor at the University of Chicago, she also began writing criticism for popular publications.

Harold Rosenberg

After graduating, she relocated to Minneapolis to write and edit for the New Art Examiner. In that period of the early 1980's, she frequently visited New York City and contributed to publications like Artforum, Artnews, Art in America, and Arts Magazine.

In 1983, she moved to New York to pursue writing there and managed to get the interest of the editors at Art in America, and in particular, it was Elizabeth Baker who hired and subsequently mentored her. The parallels between Rosenberg's career and Heartney's are very similar. Rosenberg was a long time critic of the New Yorker along with writing art history, and publishing in peer-reviewed or academic journals.


Eleanor Heartney 's career has followed a very similar trajectory. She is best known for her regular reviews and critical pieces in Art in America but has also published many monographs along with publishing longer articles in peer-reviewed journals. In terms of her background, two main elements are significant in regard to her biography. And, they are important in terms of informing her criticism and approach. The first is her background in art history and philosophy, and the second is her personal and longtime connection with her faith, Roman Catholicism.

Approach to art

The following will present an outline of her approach to art that focuses on the notion of the 'transcendent'. It will be argued that her rigorous and consistent look at contemporary art with a broad perspective of history and those masterworks that have transcended time are a key element from her background. But, also, the key questions of religious faith and dogma that are said to transcend time, but are questioned at the same time.

Art in America

The context of considering Heartney's work overall is worth raising at the outset, and specifically, her work in one of the most mainstream publications of the art-world. Heartney has written for most of her career at 'Art in America'.

This is a publication that was established in 1913, and one that is considered to be an institution in the US art world, and because it is regarded as the definitive trade publication. Individuals, organizations, and institutions that invest in or trade/sell in the art are the main customers of Art in America.

Heartney's decades' long career at 'Art in America' has to pay some consideration to how her work is received and perceived. Without analyzing the particular relationship she has had with either her editors or readers, it can be said in general terms that her longevity at the publication suggests that her insight is valuable to individuals who often take on a lot of risks when they invest in contemporary art.

The focus of her work has been largely contemporary, even though she has had an extensive background and maintained a lifelong interest in the history of art.

Is whether or not a piece of work is art?

One of the issues that are key to her approach,

is whether or not a piece of work is art

It could be argued that in some regard, she takes the perspective of someone who is asking the material value of a work. That is not to claim that she is simply asking about value in terms of a formal appraisal. Rather, she challenges work to defend itself as art.

One of the problems that she confronts with regard to contemporary art are the various mediums that are now involved. Further, she maintains that it is impossible to keep within movements and genres to explain or situate contemporary art. Change is occurring so rapidly, and influences are being drawn from so many places, that she argues that it is now impossible to hold onto the idea that art will be a linear story.

She notes that there more 'one-offs' and performance-based pieces, more installations that are being made in unconventional galleries, and more works that are being produced on the internet. She notes that wherever there is a colonizing effect of art, there is a measure of influence to be discerned in a work.

Evaluating or defining art

In terms of evaluating or defining art, the various mediums create challenges. They are challenges to the imagination of the critic, but in the context of 'Art in America', they can be challenges in the mind of an investor.

Ever since the fall of the academy and the rise of Impressionism in the Nineteenth Century, and the evaluation of art solely on technical terms, the problem of art criticism has always had to take into consideration, whether a work of art can be said to be art.

When the Dadaists or individuals like Duchamps began to introduce ordinary objects like urinals or bicycle seats into conventional works of sculpture, they redefined both the boundary of the medium -- but also, what the world of critics was going to consider acceptable and even, significant.


Heartney is a critic who has been supported by a largely business-minded audience. One of the points in general that could be made about her influence and the reception of her work is that there is a consensus in the business about her contributions.

In basic market terms, she would not have been supported for this long across so many publications if there did not exist a demand for her work, and that demand was built on a significant amount of recognition.

Further, one could theorize that her 'long view' of history and even, the perennial questions concerning human meaning, would have use-value when it came to analyzing and assessing contemporary work. In other terms, her perceived conservatism might be an asset.


One of the important contradictions about Heartney is that she both embraces and extols her Catholicism, but also rigorously challenges the dogma of her faith at the same time.

In her main study on the influence of Catholicism on contemporary art Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art (2004B), she examines works that are both critical of the church but works that have also elicited condemnation from the Church.

In this work, she looks at Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Gober, and Karen Finley. All of these artists have Catholic backgrounds, and all of these builds on themes that are sometimes subtly connected and sometimes, overtly connected.

Andres Serrano

Among the most controversial of the artists, is Andres Serrano. He is best known for his work titled 'Piss Christ' which caused a strong reaction when it was initially shown in New York.

The Catholic church condemned the work, however, Heartney defends it. With Andres Serrano in particular, she defends the idea that his work is a statement in general about where religion falls in terms of how society views it. She points out that Andres Serrano himself maintains a spiritual connection, and that religious questions remain important to him. He does not entirely reject the faith of his childhood but is making a statement about the general condition of its health in terms of public perception.

Heartney challenges the piece as being sensationalist and vulgar and argues that it is a work that stands to engage an audience and generate dialogue. It actually achieved just that, and while the Church viewed this as a negative outcome of the work, Eleanor Heartney maintains that it is evocative and it does raise issues and concerns about the state of religion within society.

Andres Serrano
Andres Serrano

Robert Mapplethorpe

Likewise she writes positively about the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His work challenged moral boundaries and lines of acceptability by depicting overtly homosexual actions and activities. Robert Mapplethorpe was known for photographing objects being inserted in male rectums but was also known for the beauty of the style and presentation.

Eleanor Heartney maintains that Robert Mapplethorpe 's work stands as a form of reverence of the human body in a way that situates him among the best figurative painters of all time. There is a balance of form and content in so far as the content is challenging to the orthodox views about what qualifies as acceptable artistic subjects as much as orthodox views on the human behavior itself. Like Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe 's work was controversial and caused a lot of criticism in terms of whether it was considered religious blasphemy or not.

Where she defends Andres Serrano as raising the social and political, she argues that Robert Mapplethorpe is a sensualist who views that the transcendent and beauty can be embodied in a work of art.

Where most would view her Catholicism and interest in art history as a marker of conservative tendencies, Heartney is more focused on the limitations of her faith than she is in teaching about it. At the same time, a closer examination of the influence of her faith in relation to her criticism is worth considering.

Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe

The spirit and the body

In an academic journal article that appeared before her full monograph on Catholicism and Art, she outlines the importance of 'Catholic Imagination' in regard to the notion of transcendence. What distinguishes Catholicism from Protestantism is the connection between the body and the realm of the spirit. Protestantism divorces the body from God, and in this approach creates a dualism between the realm of the spirit and the realm of the body.

Further, it is a division that prioritizes or gives greater value and meaning to the realm of the spirit which then becomes opposed to the body. Taking from the work of Anthony Greely from his work titled 'The Catholic Imagination', she maintains that there is a struggle between the body and spirit that is part of the ongoing dialogue within the religion.

For example, where Protestants view rituals like communion as symbolic, Catholicism still maintain that the body and blood of Christ become manifest. In her terms, there are remnants of the incarnational. It is these connections that persist in Catholicism that are often manifest or become expressions of imaginations in works of art.

In her larger book on the subject, she quotes Greely as her influence in this regard. He maintains a view of "Catholic consciousness which is deeply immersed in sensuality and sexuality". What is significant about her approach to the depiction of the body and sensuality, is that she has significantly run counter to the 'identity politics' of feminism.

In a work titled 'Pornography' (1991), she takes on feminists who view pornography simply as a voice and extension of cultural patriarchy. That is, as an expression of the subjugation and objectification of women by men. In this work, she defends a basically liberal position that defends the notion of freedom of expression, but with the further consideration that this freedom can lead to even greater forms of intellectual emancipation and liberation: "authentic outlets for perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsession, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness ... the need of humans to transcend the personal, is no less profound than the need to be a person".

By contrast, she argues that the feminist rejection of pornography represents a fall away from the sensual, and therefore, is a rejection of possibilities. Heartney views images that challenge the imagination as that which can strengthen it, but for greater purposes and more elevated forms of meaning.  This is a significant theme that runs through most of her work, along with the mandate of defining art itself. This view runs counter to her faith, but often counter to mainstream ideas contained in feminism.

Ahead of her times

Assessing the significance of an art critic is difficult. Where the value of a contemporary artist might be measured in terms of the sale of work and the number of press clippings, and the influence an artist has on other artists, a critic is more difficult to assess. In general terms, Heartney has been ahead of her times.

In the late 1980's she was critical of the rise of neoconservatism and it is a tendency to over-monetize or overemphasize financial value in art. And, in the same time period, she was critical of the divisive nature of identity politics.

What she envisioned, was a more globalized art community where alternative voices challenged the boundaries of acceptability and what is regarded as 'high art'.

Driving figure

One of the changes that have happened in her career, is the increase in cultural and ethnic diversity. Heartney is regarded as one of the driving figures behind this trend, and the championing of Asian art, in particular, has been a subject of her work since the outset. Likewise, she has been open to new mediums and the types and forms of conceptual art that have little or no market value.

Her focus on the Avante Garde has often taken her to artists and subjects that hold little commercial value, but hold potential for establishing a new voice in the larger conversation of art. Heartney's writings are included in many texts that are included in art theory and history programs, and she is frequently asked to write the contents for exhibit catalogs.


Among her major books, are two full works about contemporary art where she breaks the subject down into various movements and with a focus on mostly living artists. The breadth of Heartney's work cannot be overemphasized. While she examines a wide range of artists, she does so with a larger set of questions and concerns in mind. For Heartney, the evaluation of art can only be one that situates it within the broader context of art history and theory(Heartney 1997). Finally, if it is relevant, it is relevant to society, or, it is a relevant expression of society.

Art and Today
Art & Today

About author Robert McIntosh was born 1965 in Amsterdam, North Holland. He studied at Royal College of Art in South Kensington. Educated in England and the United States. Lives in Amsterdam. Has also lived in Russia. He works mainly with oil paintings and sculptures. Contemporary Art. He writes extensively on abstract art.

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