Learning on the Job

Anticipating the New Season, the Critic Reflects on His Role

LESSON ONE: Assume the Position

At a tony post-opening dinner, several months after I had written what I had hoped was a defense of her 2000 Whitney retrospective (which had been critically drubbed elsewhere), Barbara Kruger put her face close to mine, eyeballed me, and said, "You're really a good writer but I don't know where you're coming from."

As I've always admired Kruger, I took secret glee in her words, even though the last bit was her way of saying I had no theory or position. Which is true. To me, theory and positions are important, but they often lead to dogmatic thinking, obscure writing, and rigid taste. Knowing where you're coming from means knowing what you like before you like it and hating what you hate before you hate it. This takes all the life out of art. Theory is about understanding. Art is about experience. Theory is neat. Art is not.

Where's the critic?: "We really need to talk, buddy boy!"
photo: Robin Holland
Where's the critic?: "We really need to talk, buddy boy!"

My only position is to let the reader in on my feelings; try to write in straightforward, jargon-free language; not oversimplify or dumb down my responses; aim to have an idea, a judgment, or a description in every sentence; not take too much for granted; explain how artists might be original or derivative and how they use techniques and materials; observe whether they're developing or standing still; provide context; and make judgments that hopefully amount to something more than just my opinion. To do this requires more than a position or a theory. It requires something else. This something else is what art, and criticism, are all about.

All this was whizzing through my head as Kruger waited for an answer. Perhaps I should have asked, "How could you know where I'm coming from when we all come from different places at different times and come at things differently than even we might expect?" Or, "What do you do when you find yourself liking something that the place you're coming from says you shouldn't like, the way I like Switzerland?" But I didn't. Embarrassing silence was exacerbated by the suspicion that maybe I was visibly sweating. Finally I said, "I don't know where I'm coming from either, Barbara." This didn't go over well. She stared at me like I was off my rocker, and before leaving said, "We really need to talk, buddy boy!"

We never have, of course, although the "buddy boy" really got my attention. Probably, I'm avoiding her. Maybe she's avoiding me or can't be bothered. Whatever, I've thought about it often. Especially because several weeks later, a close friend of Kruger's, discussing my review, said the exact same words that she did. It was bizarre. Apparently, not knowing where one is coming from is very bad.

LESSON TWO: Risky Business

Things get stickier when critics write critically—when they make judgments. Recently, a transcript of a roundtable discussion appeared in the 100th issue of the art-theory journal October. It recorded the comically insular thoughts of a group of theoreticians and artist-theoreticians. The subject was "the crisis in criticism." But the crisis was out of control at their own table.

Several maintained that criticism shouldn't involve "judgment" at all, which is like saying bakers shouldn't bake. On a more nitpicky level, Rosalind Krauss lamented that there used to be good writing in artists' catalogs, but now there's not. Needless to say, there were fine catalog essays in the past and there are now. But the catalog essay is among the most partial forms of all criticism. The writer acts as a paid gun or apologist, not a critic; what he or she writes must be approved to be published. Perhaps critics' fees should be printed along with their essays, as artists' prices are available on gallery checklists. In any event, catalog essays are to the art world as liner notes are to the music industry: You know where they're coming from.

LESSON THREE: Live Free or Die

Everyone knows that dismissive, vicious, or not-so-positive things are said about shows. This is one of the things that make the art world lively, contentious, and fun. Yet when it comes to written criticism, seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Much art criticism is adulatory or merely descriptive (some will say I add to this). Many critics have never seen a show they weren't enthusiastic about. There's nothing wrong with being an enthusiast, but enthusiasts can be some of the toughest critics around (Beavis: "This show sucks." Butt-head: "Yeah, it should change"). Future generations will peruse today's art magazines and suppose ours was an age where almost everything that was made was universally admired.

LESSON FOUR: When the Whip Comes Down

These days, negative criticism is branded as "mean" or "personal." Hip novelist Dave Eggers, who should know better, wrote that it's for "wimps" and "pussies." When I have voiced skepticism about an artist (and if you're only a little skeptical, the entire review is often perceived as negative), and I see that artist somewhere, both of us will, in the manner of nervous rabbits, slip to opposite sides of the room. If contact is unavoidable, I smile affably. Maybe the artist will, too. Other times they look right through me. This can be chilling, especially if we've been friendly. For his part, whenever the painter Ross Bleckner sees me, he sarcastically sneers, "Oh, my favorite critic." All of these are reminders that while criticism is not a necessary activity, it is an important one.

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