home

zingmagazine

zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

zingTV

zingRadio

zingChat

zingstuff

subscribe

zinglinks

about zing

zingcontact

parties



the royal art lodge
glastenbury
sputnik
3d lutwidge finch
haptics
luis macias
bob seng
asFOUR
6799
reviews
 

WHY ARTISTS NEED CRITICS

No artist needs criticism, he only needs appreciation. If he needs criticism, he is no artist.
—Gertrude Stein
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 mind—Roberta 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 didn’t 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. It’s an open secret that these critics are jocks, hired primarily for their ambulatory ability, and consequently it’s 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, you’ll 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 don’t 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. Don’t 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 Richter’s 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 Bernhard’s 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 it’s 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 (I’m 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 it’s 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 I’m 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 Vidal’s famous remark: “Every time a friend of mine succeeds I die a little inside.” OK, so that’s not exactly virtuous. (Though more virtuous than Somerset Maugham: “It’s not enough that I succeed, my friends must also fail.”) But when it’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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. It’s 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, I’ve found) pig Latin. And what do you get for all that posturing? Nothing. You’re 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 didn’t remember saying many of those things. “Oh, yes, but you were hungover and I’m pretty sure that’s 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 didn’t 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 that’s really interesting and I’d 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 shouldn’t 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 there’s 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 letters.
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 it’s too late, when we have no one to kick around anymore, will we know why artists need critics.

Spencer Finch
Brooklyn, New York
1999