The Feeler

A life in art—the Voice chats with Peter Schjeldahl, art critic and pleasure addict

"Writing things that people want to read is my bread and butter," Schjeldahl said as we trolled for late summer art in Gagosian's uptown gallery. It shows. Generously vernacular, his writing assumes a general audience for art that has expanded, despite the lucubrations of some schooled experts. I reflected on this as we walked around a John Chamberlain sculpture of crushed metal ("Not again?"), a Wayne Thiebaud still life of a supine woman ("Um, no"), into a room bright enough to require shades. "I'd take one of these," Schjeldahl said, considering a Damien Hirst butterfly print encrusted with diamond dust. After I interjected something about the recent hubbub surrounding Hirst's jeweled skull, he continued as if completing a thought: "There's a large section of the middle to upper part of the market that likes name cachet and the decorative," he explained. "And I don't much care one way or the other."

This month, in an article about the Venice Biennale in Artforum, the art historian and critic Katy Siegel christened Schjeldahl and his old friend, the writer Dave Hickey, as "the feelers"—this in opposition to another critical gang she sturdily termed "the thinkers" (namely, Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, and Benjamin Buchloh). A jab with unintended blandishments, it accidentally fingers the scab Schjeldahl scratches raw whenever he is pricked by visual pleasure. A "feeler" above all things, Schjeldahl is a self-confessed addict to the intoxicant of pleasure (and also coffee and cigarettes). Consequently, it doesn't take much to draw him out on the subject of art with an agenda. "I think art is about 100 percent pleasure," Schjeldahl answers when asked about political programmatic art. "Criticality is a pleasure for people who like it."

"Maybe we need a new 12-step program," Schjeldahl joked as we studied a Velázquez portrait of Philip IV at the Frick. "My name is Peter, and I'm an aesthete." Of course, in a democracy, aesthetes are not born but made, I thought. An autodidact at nearly everything, Schjeldahl is living proof of this democracy of elites. As I scanned the painting for other ideas, a line from Theodore Roethke came to mind: "Feeling is thinking." Then the Velázquez—an old friend of Schjeldahl's from repeated visits—almost winked back.

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