ARTISTS NEED CRITICS
needs criticism, he only needs appreciation. If he needs criticism, he
is no artist.
I have an artist friend who howls Parasite! whenever he reads
a review that he feels treats an artist unfairly. He believes that the
entire job of art critic should be eliminated. Myself, I have a dream
of a more symbiotic and salutary relationship, where the critic plays
the role of an anti-parasite, like one of those African birds riding on
the back of a water buffalo, keeping the bugs away and our ass from itching,
so we can get on with our business. Alas, sometimes it feels more like
a woodpecker riding back there, and I suppose the truth of art criticism
lies somewhere between bloodsucking and ass-scratching. Which explains
why most artists harbor such ambivalent feelings about critics.
WH Auden claimed that he wrote his poems for himself, but after they were
finished he sent them out to an audience to ensure that my vision
is not a delusion. Anyone in this line of work knows how easy it
is to delude oneself, and it often seems that the best artists have a
clearer understanding of how their work really plays out in the world.
Trouble starts when the audience, which is general and necessary
to complete the aesthetic equation, is replaced in the mind of the artist
by the critic, who is specific and superfluous to that equation.
I confess that for awhile I made work with an ideal viewer in the back
of my mindRoberta Smith. I happened to be in the gallery when she
came to see my first show (OK, I was there every day), and she hustled
through in about 60 seconds and never came back. I was devastated. I cried.
Not because I didnt get a review in the Times, but because, to put
it in crude Freudian terms, Mommy did not like my shit.
Even though Mommy betrayed me, I still read daily criticism in the New
York Times because I am lazy and I figure the Times critics can do some
leg work for me. Its an open secret that these critics are jocks,
hired primarily for their ambulatory ability, and consequently its
no surprise they are in desperate need of a refresher course in the five
W's of high school journalism. In my own extremely limited experience
they have even reported the color of a monochrome painting wrongly, which
leads me to question the veracity of the whole big fat gray organ. I am
not really complaining, though, because in addition to being a victim,
I am also an owner, and all that shoddy reporting has generated quite
a tidy return on my 50 NYT A shares in the past few years. I also have
the immense satisfaction of knowing that if I ever get really pissed off
I can simply lead a proxy fight and get the whole culture department canned.
When you wake up one Friday and discover that Florence Fabricant is running
the show, youll know the story behind the story.
The highbrow art journals in this country, of course, are not for sale,
since they are owned by small cadre of former East German intelligence
officers who show no sign of trading their scruples for a fistful of dirty
Eurodollars. To be honest, I dont really have the stomach for this
kind of writing any more. For a while, I subscribed to October, but every
time that text arrived at my door I got a terrible sinking feeling, strangely
reminiscent of Walter Benjamin at the Spanish border. Dont get me
wrong, I find brute intellect as sexy as the next guy, but there is no
sense at all that these critics love art, or maybe it is that they love
thought more than art, and as horribly reactionary as this sounds, thought
sometimes destroys art. Only the toughest artists manage to survive this
inquisition (witness Gerhard Richters wily evasions as Benjamin
Buchloh attempts to pin him down with a post-Marxist half-Nelson). Fortunately
for me, I was set free by Thomas Bernhards delicate syllogism: The
art historians trade is the vilest trade there is . . . if we listen
to an art historian we participate in the wrecking of art.
As I was working up the nerve to cancel my October subscription (the feared
goose-stepping subscription police never appeared), I was simultaneously
developing a healthy appetite for imported shoes, fine wine, and bourgeois
criticism. As I explored criticism in other fields, from automobiles to
opera, I discovered that what is unique about art criticism is that it
attracts practitioners of unparalleled ineptitude. I found that there
actually exist critics in other fields who can write interesting and illuminating
things about their subjects and who realize that criticism exists for
the sake of its subject. Is it really too much to ask for art critics
to love art and to be able to think and feel and write at the same time?
Apparently it is, since instead we are cursed with the glossy art magazines,
whose only remarkable quality is the incredible variety of badness presented
within their pages. The rainbow of critical tripe ranges from Hessians
like Kuspit, who will shoehorn any artist into the void for
the right price, to specialists in speciousness like Schjeldhal, who papers
over the gaping crevasses of his critical ability with dreamy rhetoric,
to artworld aristocrats (Im thinking Baron Munchhausen here) like
Jones, whose mendacious writing at least limits his putrescent artistic
output, to pandering traitors like Plagens, who would dis his own mother
in print if he thought it would give a boost to his lame painting career,
to panjandrums like Bois, who kills art every time he puts pen to paper.
Why this Elks Club of incompetence, corruption, bombast, and obfuscation
should hold such sway over the art world is beyond my comprehension. When
you find yourself, like me, ripping open the plastic wrapper with the
singular purpose of seeing what peculiar Swiss cheese-making technique
Bruno Bischofberger has uncovered this month, you know its time
to give it a rest.
But sicko that I am I keep reading the stuff, although I do try to limit
myself to negative reviews. There was a time when I felt guilty about
that delectable emotion known as schadenfreude. But no longer. In fact
Im lobbying to have it replace temperance as the fourth cardinal
virtue. Naturally, there are different shades of this sentiment, and along
the nastier edge is Gore Vidals famous remark: Every time
a friend of mine succeeds I die a little inside. OK, so thats
not exactly virtuous. (Though more virtuous than Somerset Maugham: Its
not enough that I succeed, my friends must also fail.) But when
its Frank Stella who gets slammed in a Friday review in the Times
I really feel like my weekend has gotten off to a great start. And at
what price? None. Not only does Frank deserve it, but his head is probably
so far up his ass he doesnt notice. So, I feel the warm and fuzzy
glow of righteousness, the Times critic has shored up her critical currency,
and Frank is none the wiser. Everyone wins!
As odd as this sounds, negative reviews can even have a positive effect
on the artist in question. I certainly dont mean what Ben Franklin
said and Bill Clinton disingenuously repeated: Our critics are our
friends, for they show us our faults. No no no no no! First, one
can always look on the Warholian bright side and measure it in inches.
All ink is good ink. But over time the negative review can invert in an
almost mystical way. That same show of mine where Roberta Smith spun gravel
was in fact reviewed, negatively, by Grace Glueck in the Observer. Virtually
viewerproof is the phrase that still rings in my head seven years
later. I was not happy at the time, but she did me a favor, by driving
me in a determined frenzy towards the day when she realizes her error
and eats a steaming plate of crow. This is known in Nashville child-rearing
circles as the boy-named-Sue effect. Its not unlike
my roommate from college who sells insurance once told me he channeled
rejection to motivate himself to make one more call. And I
am proud to report that he now drives a Lexus and owns a boat.
Unfortunately, most critics are not content churning out negative reviews
day after day. They want to understand us. Critics always want to talk
shop, find out what makes us tick, look under the hood. What I find astonishing
is that they expect to find anything of interest under the hood. Artists
are highly uninteresting people, but most critics, like other artworld
professionals, subscribe to ridiculous myths that require us to shave
in odd ways, wear funny clothes, and speak in epigrams, non-sequiturs,
or (most impressive, Ive found) pig Latin. And what do you get for
all that posturing? Nothing. Youre just left feeling like a ighha
ricedpa horewa. But they can never get enough.
Perhaps the most annoying conversational gambit perpetrated by critics
is the suggestion that we have much in common, since we both do creative
work. This is a conversation I wish they would save for their hairdressers,
because the truth is we have nothing in common, except, perhaps, the intentional
fallacy. For critics, this means that when they try to help it usually
backfires. I once was interviewed by a very Deleuzian critic for a small
foreign journal, and when the interview was printed I was a bit surprised.
Although I recalled giving only monosyllabic answers during the interview,
in print I came across as some loquacious graduate of the University of
Paris. When I met the critic later I thanked him and said I didnt
remember saying many of those things. Oh, yes, but you were hungover
and Im pretty sure thats what you wanted to say. Since,
like most people, I prefer to appear in print more intelligent and less
drunk than I am in real life, I didnt object too strenuously. However,
a while later I received in the mail the only fan letter of my career.
This person said how much she liked my work and asked if she could come
to the studio. She apparently had done a lot of research and when she
arrived she said I read in this interview what you said about the decentered
subject and thats really interesting and Id like you to tell
me more about that. Needless to say, I was rather quickly exposed as a
fraud and the membership of my fan club dropped back to zero. In the future
I will paddle my own bateau, thank you.
I must confess that one of my best friends is an art critic (what can
I say, the flesh is weak) and when I told him about this little riff of
mine, he accused me, of all things, of stereotyping critics. So let me
just add a kindergarten caveat here: every art critic is a special and
unique person and it is bad bad bad to lump them all together. That said,
it seems to me that just about every art critic has at some point argued
that artists shouldnt think too much about what their art means
and should leave all exegesis to the pros, meaning themselves. I, for
one, have taken this suggestion to heart. As a result, I can go on autopilot
in the studio and have hours and hours to think about other things, such
as how to spell parasite or the exact structure of the spiral of damnation
occupied by art critics in hell. I can assure you that theres a
special and unique place for each of them, starting at the bottom where
a big hot red postmodern poker has H K embossed in curlicue
And we, my artist friends, are on the highway to heaven. We will encounter
no problems at the pearly gates, where, for once, we will receive fair
and honest judgment and be waved through with a smile from Aunt Gertrude.
Then, we will enter a parasite-free zone. No mosquitoes, no ticks, no
leeches, and no critics. Exegesis will just be a bad memory, like plague
and famine. We will loll around all day, munching on manna, saying exactly
what we mean and meaning exactly what we say. Truth will be all around
us, expression pure and unmistakable, appreciation correct and infinite.
After about 15 minutes of this, alas, we will long to be misunderstood.
Only then, when its too late, when we have no one to kick around
anymore, will we know why artists need critics.
Brooklyn, New York