Learning on the Job


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.

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.

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.

“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.

Art is complicated. It can take years to grasp why an all-white painting by Robert Ryman is art. At the end of the day, however, everything you need to know about a work of art should be in it, not on a wall label or an explanation from an art dealer. This is one of the great things about art—the source of its mystery, lucidity, obdurateness, and its astonishing, seductive, silent power. And why I love doing what I get to do.