Learning on the Job

Anticipating the New Season, the Critic Reflects on His Role

Occasionally, after I have written something less than positive about an artist, he or she will call, write, or take me aside to say privately that the review may have been partly right. Others ask for clarification. After I wrote a disapproving review of wild-style painter Cecily Brown, she told me how she disagreed, and slyly reported that she quotes a nasty bit from my review in her lectures to show that I'm wrong. Since then, we've managed to carry on conversations about art or whatever. This is the way the art world should be.

LESSON FIVE: Welcome to the Machine

Many people have told me they believe negative criticism is not only unnecessary, it's wrong. At a party, not long after I had written a review of a super-successful, mid-career L.A. painter, in which I said his paintings had gone from being nicely decorative and fussy to being monotonously so, one of this painter's out of town dealers and her director approached me from across the room. Getting my signals crossed, I allowed myself to be trapped in a brilliant pincer-like maneuver. Caught between them, a coffee table, and a column, and already spacey because I hadn't made it to the hors d'oeuvres table, I was uneasy. But the dealer was smiling and drinking, and had her arm around me, so I thought, "I'm safe." Wrong.

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!"

"You must be unhappy," she purred several times. To which I thought, "Not any more than anyone else," but I only dimly grinned, not sure if she meant unhappy as in maladjusted or unhappy like I looked lonely. People have said things like "You're uneducated" (I prefer self-taught), "You're trying to destroy my market" (yikes!), "It must have killed you to admit you liked my work" (paging Doctor Freud), or "You're nothing but a failed painter" (ouch!). In private, this is fine, although nerve-racking. Here, in a room full of art-worlders, I felt sheepish, so I acted friendly and docile. "You're a scythe," she continued, and repeated this a number of times. Only she pronounced the word unusually, like sith, so I wasn't sure what she meant. Then she said, "You shouldn't have written those things about ____ (the fussy L.A. painter). Everyone knows you're anti-L.A." Which was irritating, since I have written on many L.A. artists, some positively, and am always pontificating about how L.A. is one of the better art places around.

She then referred to an artist who I had written on that week. "_____ (a trendy Brit who was showing an intriguing but flawed multipart video and a series of overblown photographs, and whose work this dealer also represents) couldn't come to the party tonight because you made her so sad. You shouldn't write negative criticism. It's bad for everyone." Then she volunteered a list of artists she loved. I couldn't help noticing that she represented nearly all of them and that her idea of "everyone" was pretty cliquish.

"You mean all reviews should be positive?" I asked. "Yes," she replied unreservedly. "If you don't like the work, don't write about it." I know there's a lot at stake when a dealer shows an artist, but basically the art world was a micro-society to this gallerist—a country club or a pleasure cruise where everyone was to observe certain rules and just be nice. A review is now little more than spin control or a marketing device to tweak sales. As criticism is directly tied to shopping, anything that erodes brand identity is frowned upon. While the gallerist continued, I realized that she saw herself as something of an evangelist: someone who sells art, nurtures artists, and spreads the word. I wanted to be what Peter Plagens calls a "goalie," someone who in essence says, "It's going to have to be pretty good to get by me." Finally, I blurted, "Praising everything an artist does reduces everything to drivel." At which point she removed her arm from around my shoulder and I fled.

The next day I waited for a contrite phone call but it never came. Instead, a week later I heard that the dealer was back home telling everyone she had set me straight.

LESSON SIX: The Lower Depths

As annoying as this was, and as awkward as it is to be scolded in public, at least it brought something out in the open. More offensive and depressing are dealers who think it's their duty to manage or supervise critics, feed them information, or attempt a kind of mind control on them. They escort you round, saying witty things in front of every work. This makes it difficult for a critic to hear his own reaction. Moreover, nothing the gallerist says can be used in a review because if you use anything, they'll tell everyone they fed you this information, and that they bamboozled you into writing it. Dave Hickey's advice to dealers: "Never use your sales pitch on your peers. Save it for the clients."

I like dealers a lot. They are among the most dynamic people in the art world—including artists. Not only do they put their money where their taste is in ways that critics don't, they completely create their own aesthetic universe, which is daring. Still, I wish dealers would be friendly, give me the information I request, and let me see the show in peace. In an ideal world, we might gossip or talk about other exhibitions, but they wouldn't tell me what the work's about, who collects or admires it, how much it sells for, or that I should write about it. It goes without saying they think every show they do is worthy of attention.

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