I was sorry to miss Jed Perl's recent talk at the Strand in Rockland sponsored by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Perl is among a dwindling number of American art critics including Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker), Sebastian Smee (Boston Globe), Roberta Smith (New York Times), Christopher Knight (Los Angeles Times) and a handful of others whose voices reverberate throughout the art world. They are nearly the last in a long line of highly regarded (by most) critics focused on modern and contemporary art, backed by somewhat old-fashioned virtues of probity, connoisseurship and taste.

Although Perl, like the aforementioned, writes accessibly for a variety of periodicals, notably The New Republic, he also belongs to another class of moving-target, cultural critics harking back to Meyer Shapiro (Perl's teacher and mentor at Columbia University), the late Robert Hughes and Dave Hickey, who recently "quit" in revulsion over today's market-driven, trophy-obsessed art world. These are critics who are iconoclastic and able to wander through dense thickets of cultural phenomena like rabbits in a briar patch, bane of whatever establishment figure or dogma of the moment gains currency in the ever-changing, impenetrable cant of art-speak.

Like the best critics, past and present, Perl writes with fluent grace, intelligence and insight about work he likes as well as what he detests. Readers may not agree with his opinions but unlike the majority of critics today who more or less just describe what they see without judgment (pointedly addressed in Perl's essay "Laissez-faire Aesthetics"), he has strong opinions and does not hesitate to say what he thinks.

In his new book, Magicians and Charlatans, Essays on Art and Culture (Eakins Press Foundation, New York, 2012), Perl offers his unusually lucid and nuanced thoughts about a wide range of artists and writers, past and present. While all of the essays - which range over his writing from the past two decades - are worthy of attention, his assessment of who is a charlatan and who a magician comes down to a critique of post-modernism, and especially the apotheosis of Andy Warhol in what Perl has come to view as the mindless, trend-obsessed, white heat of today's art world carnival.

Although too complex to describe here, he finds the work of such artists as Matthew Barney calculating and soulless, representing nothing more than an extended pastiche of dumpster-derived detritus sheathed in prophylactic irony (echoing Hughes's withering take on such work). Perl does not trace the complicated historical roots of such post-Warholian gestures as Barney's Cremaster films (named after a muscle in male sexual organs), but he does suggest that these "charlatans" badly abuse if not completely misapprehend the origins of their own work in the art of the past.

For example, Perl is no fan of Marcel Duchamp and most of the Dada artists (excepting, in Perl's view, the work of Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp, whose exquisite formal sensibility transcended the doctrinaire tenets and aesthetic limits of Dada). More importantly, the work of today's post-Duchamp/Warhol fan boys and girls, as Perl suggests, contains no hint of why Dada, which had antecedents in the idealism, nihilism and anarchism of late 19th-century European radicalism, was at heart a critique of socio-political forces allowing the incomprehensible slaughterhouse that was trench warfare in World War I. How is art to ever address such obscenity?

The only possible response, posited by Duchamp, was to deny the very existence of art as meaningful object; that the idea of art is more than enough, with the added benefit of not taking up much space nor requiring physical effort. In a larger context, this meant if you can think about it, then why do it? Perhaps contemplating war makes the act of war as meaningless and self-destructive as Duchamp's off-the-store-shelf snow shovel exhibited as "In Advance of a Broken Arm."

Of course, Barney and others, including Jeff Koons -bronze basketballs in water tanks, one-upped by Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde-filled tank - kind of miss Duchamp's point about objects being pointless - conveniently, since their work now commands seven- and eight-figure prices at auction. Absent the horror of war that touches artists directly, spectacle, irony, obsessive self-reference, and diddling the dealer/patron/audience are the new criteria for "important" art as practiced by today's charlatans.

Duchamp, however, was no charlatan, as Perl points out in his essay. He argues, nevertheless, that Duchamp's place alongside Picasso and Matisse remains marginal to most audiences, except perhaps to certain contemporary artists who are entertained by their own one-liners and inside baseball references, often resurrecting and quoting their own work and that of other artists of the moment. Perl finds this perfectly illustrated in Barney's Cremaster Cycle, which he sees as an orgy of self-delusion.

There are other culprits in the development of a deracinated, post-modern sensibility, much of which is closely tied to leftist politics and social philosophy that emerged in France following the Second World War and eventually filtered into all aspects of cultural study including film, literature and art. Perl, here and in essays published elsewhere, is especially dubious of theoretical analysis applied to the visual arts when it insists on defining everything in terms of something else. That is to say, he questions the apparent hijacking of art history and criticism from an encompassing secular humanism as practiced by Meyer Shapiro or Leo Steinberg, a Renaissance specialist who brought new thinking to the study of contemporary artists as well as to the great artists of the past.

Steinberg's book Other Criteria (1972) remains a classic and challenged prevailing critical theory of his generation, as did Shapiro in his groundbreaking Modern Art: Selected Papers (1978). Following their example, Perl argues for art where a dog is still a dog even if there are no cats nearby to confirm that assumption. Such is the relativistic logic of post-modern criticism, which says we only know a dog because it's not something else - say, a cat. It's the kind of navel contemplation that makes Perl (and most of us) crazy.

Instead, he looks for art with an inexplicable alchemy, a certain magic that can move and challenge and instruct, distill thought to visual knowing, raise unanswerable questions where plangent ideas and the poetry of objects merge and inform each other and us.

Like most critics, Perl occasionally dismisses work that others find engaging; often these highly personal, if not quirky, assessments keep us (the reader) off balance and guessing as to whether he really does have a unifying vision of art (I suspect he might say no - the lack of a unifying aesthetic is a criticism leveled against his teacher Meyer Shapiro and whose own catholic, open-minded but discerning vision Perl seems to deeply admire). Case in point is Perl's too casual, in my view, dismissal of Christian Marclay's widely acclaimed film montage, "The Clock."

Marclay's digital film consists of clips from vintage and recent Hollywood, foreign and independent films over the past 100 years in which each clip depicts the time of day, minute by minute for 24 hours - that is the exact time when we, as the audience, view the film. You can literally set your watch by "The Clock." Perl judges the work a clever and meticulous exercise of consummate craftsmanship, but essentially meaningless behind its dazzling mechanistic spectacle.

On the other hand, Marclay is best known for his work exploring aspects of music and sound as it relates to visual experience. One of the most remarkable structural elements - and least noticed by critics - accounting in no small measure for his film's insistent, driving fascination, derives from the seamless blending of sound - not only images - from each of the short clips. Music, dialogue, even silence are perfectly tuned so that the overall effect is one of unity and balance. This is not only a remarkable technical achievement, considering the sonic diversity of film resources - crude and nearly inaudible in early films, soaring or cacophonic in others - it is central to a formal aesthetic first addressed a century ago in collages by Picasso and Braque. Many of their collages utilized and layered on top of one another such elements as found objects, disconnected print ads and words, complicated by painted trompe l'oeil images, often alluding to music and popular culture. Part of the film's appeal - addictive, really, after the first five minutes - is the familiarity of many of the clips that in a kind of mental game with ourselves we instinctively attempt to identify. Mostly scenes float away like unnamed words on the tip of our tongue. But as time passes, the images wash over us, waves of cinematic mastery, strangeness and kitsch colliding and coalescing until there is a kinesthetic sensation of, well, time passing. Jump cuts of the passing parade in real time, re-inventing Cubism for a new century. A surprising miss given Perl's enthusiasm for artists like Vuillard and Bonnard from that earlier Gilded Age who gave us not dissimilar "spectral visions of a hothouse world," in Perl's memorable phrase.

It is in his "likes" (to deploy a computerati term Perl would undoubtedly detest) that we find his fine and compassionate eye at its unerring sharpest.

His portraits of diverse art world figures - from legendary dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein to lesser-known individuals like latter-day New York flaneur David Daniels and pioneering interior designers James Hope and Jean-Michel Frank - are really portraits of aesthetic sensibilities rather than straight biographical "likenesses" of these individuals. Perl succinctly and with great empathy describes why they should matter, not only to us but to the wider culture made richer for their presence.

In one of the most heartfelt essays in the book, Perl discusses the work of Jean-Siméon Chardin, the 18th-century still life and genre (pictures of everyday life) painter, to take an artist about whose life practically nothing is known. In his first sentence Perl states Chardin "may well be the greatest painter who ever lived," likening one of his painted earthenware jars to "a glistening surface that is as action-packed as the muscular arm of an athlete." It is an unforgettable and slightly mad analogy, signifying a depth of feeling that serves the great painter well, all that we can reasonably ask of any critic.