Seeing Out Loud

Having an eye in criticism is as important as having an ear in music

This month is my seven-year anniversary at the Voice, so I thought I'd use Frieze magazine's recent queries to me about the "de-skilling of art criticism" and "our post-critical era" as a way to write about what I think I'm trying to do here. First, I fretted I was the kind of "de-skilled" critic Frieze was referring to. I have no degrees. I started out as an artist, stopped painting, and became a long-distance truck driver. My CB handle was "the Jewish Cowboy": Shalom, partner. I didn't begin writing criticism until I was almost 40. All I knew was I loved art and had to be in the art world. The truth is, I wasn't sure what Frieze meant by "de-skilled." It sounded vaguely bad. But to me de-skilled means unlearning other people's ideas of skill. All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy. I don't look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy, experimentation, something visionary, and a willingness to embarrass oneself in public. Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency; it has to do with being flexible and creative. I'm interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks.

The best critics look for the same things in contemporary criticism that they look for in contemporary art. But they also have an eye. Having an eye in criticism is as important as having an ear in music. It means discerning the original from the derivative, the inspired from the smart, the remarkable from the common, and not looking at art in narrow, academic, or "objective" ways. It means engaging uncertainty and contingency, suspending disbelief, and trying to create a place for doubt, unpredictability, curiosity, and openness.

Dishearteningly, many critics have ideas but no eye. They rarely work outside their comfort zone, are always trying to reign art in, turn it into a seminar or a clique, or write cerebral, unreadable texts on mediocre work. There's nothing wrong with writing about weak art as long as you acknowledge the work's shortcomings. Seeing as much art as you can is how you learn to see. Listening very carefully to how you see, gauging the levels of perception, perplexity, conjecture, emotional and intellectual response, and psychic effect, is how you learn to see better.

The critic, looking and learning
photo: Robin Holland
The critic, looking and learning

Art is a way of thinking, a way of knowing yourself. Opinions are tools for listening in on your thinking and expanding consciousness. Many writers treat the juiciest part of criticism, judgment, as if it were tainted or beneath them. The most interesting critics make their opinions known. Yet in most reviews there's no way to know what the writer thinks, or you have to scour the second-to-last paragraph for one negative adjective to detect a hint of disinclination. This is no-risk non-criticism. Being "post-critical" isn't possible. Everyone is judging all the time. Critics who tell you they're not judging or that they're being objective are either lying or delusional. Being critical of art is a way of showing it respect. Being subjective is being human.

Yet people regularly say, "You shouldn't write on things you don't like." This breaks my heart. No one says this to theater critics, film reviewers, restaurant critics, or sports writers. No one says, "Just say all the food was good." Nowadays, many see criticism mainly as a sales tool or a rah-rah device. Too many critics enthuse over everything they see or merely write descriptively. This sells everyone short and is creating a real disconnect. People report not liking 80 percent of the shows they see, yet 80 percent of reviews are positive or just descriptive.

Obviously, critics can't just hysterically love or hate things, or assert that certain types of art or media are inherently bad (e.g., no one has actually believed that painting is dead since the Nixon administration, yet writers regularly beat this dead horse). Critics must connect their opinions to a larger set of circumstances; present cogent arguments; show how work does or doesn't seem relevant, is or isn't derivative; explain why an artist is or isn't growing. As with Melville's ideas about art, criticism should have: "Humility—yet pride and scorn/Instinct and study; love and hate/Audacity and reverence." Good criticism should be vulnerable, chancy, candid, and nervy. It should give permission, have attitude, maybe a touch of rebellion, never be sanctimonious or dull, and be written in a distinctive, readable way. Good critics should be willing to go on intuition and be unafraid to write from parts of themselves they don't really know they have.

If criticism is in trouble, as many say, it's because too many critics write in a dreary hip metaphysical jargon that no one understands except other dreary hip metaphysicians who speak this dead language. They praise everything they see, or only describe. These critics are like the pet owner who sews up the cat to stop it from fouling the sofa: They keep the couch clean but kill the cat.

Mystic Cryptic Revelations

Young painters should look at the work of Charles Burchfield (1893–1967), the mystic, cryptic painter of transcendental landscapes, trees with telekinetic halos, and haunted houses emanating ectoplasmic auras. Burchfield, who like Hopper painted as if cubism never happened, is van Gogh by way of Caspar David Friedrich, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, calendar art, and Sunday painting. Consciously or not, recent painters like Peter Doig, Verne Dawson, Gregory Amenoff, Kurt Lightner, and Ellen Altfest are channeling bits of Burchfield's visionary vibe.

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