PRINT November 1987


The waiting typewriter.

“I SAW THE SHOW twice, but I’m still thinking about it. I’m sorry, I still don’t know what I think.” Or, “I know you think I don’t ‘like’ your work, but ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ isn’t what makes a critic want to write about something. I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry my being a critic seems to define the nature of our relationship,” “I’m sorry I can’t do that”. . . . Criticism means always having to say you’re sorry.

Criticism does not mean receiving respect for one’s opinions, even when it means respect for one’s byline. Nor does it mean that other art-world citizens will refrain from concluding that one’s need for art must be secondary if one is not making, acquiring, or distributing it. Criticism cannot presume to be closer to the creative epicenter than those activities, but it still has its life in the desires and claims of art. Criticism is not mere connoisseurship; it is not a matter of judging whether a work should be dumped onto the garbage barge or preserved forever at the Met. (Other people are employed to make these decisions.) Criticism is about articulating why something matters.

There are no schools for critics. There are theories, but no real movements in criticism. Some charismatic individuals stimulate followers, who then focus on creating art movements by proxy; but a movement in criticism would involve a consensus on style, which is the very undoing of criticism, and the beginning of influence-peddling. Critics go to openings and studios, but you’d have to be perverse to want to drop by to see what the critic is working on. Speaking of perversion, there seem to be some common psychological assumptions about the critic's character. These are hard to pin down, but suffice it to say that it’s definitely a most mysterious profession to the public. The incoming income doesn’t exactly buy the artist’s or the dealer’s belief that the critic is of the world. Perhaps that’s what gives critics their supposed magic powers. Some people talk back to the critic as they read, others take the critic’s words as gospel, some measure the text’s expanse on the page, others date it, others quote it. Some use it as a challenge, others as a sword, still others as a shield. Criticism may be becoming a spectator event, its psychodynamics balanced between those of a sports commentator and a “good cop/bad cop” TV show. This kind of criticism was given a good workout on the occasion of Sherrie Levine’s opening exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery this fall. No matter the ostensible subject, the locker-room subtext rarely strayed from speculation about which side of the net Levine’s chastity had supposedly fallen onto.

Like abstraction, criticism has no claim to purity, but it’s always worth a try. A critic's platform can rise and fall with his or her subject’s fortunes. Early warnings and radical interpretations fall by the wayside as flatly as miscalls. When I was younger, I used to wonder if critics still felt pleasure; now I wonder if curators do. There are some critics who get off on supporting or attacking more than on discovering, or on explaining more than on interpreting. These are perhaps the same critics who resent art’s changes, who deplore its inability to be as good as in the old days or to rise to the level of the chosen few whom they approve. Sometimes they take to venting spleen in order to reward the righteous and/or the obedient, and to punish the wild and the corrupt. Sometimes critics play artists off against each other, trying to replace another writer’s “vehicles” with different art-stars as candidates to stand for truth and beauty.

Critics and observers may classify a critic’s writing as a “secondary activity.” Many critics are also “something else.” Being a poet or an artist of some sort is the most common double identity. Often the gradual assumption of the critic's duties appears in retrospect as a series of missteps. In my case one college experience stands out particularly: a footnote in a Thomas Hess article lamenting the underappreciated “second generation” of the New York School. Nothing seemed more provocative at the time than the possibility that recent history had already overlooked someone.

Like most experiences in a life, my relationship with criticism started out as one thing and became something else. When I sought to parody the critic’s voice some ten years ago, in a college class, I did so in order to prolong the student’s first surprise at discovering that art is as much about engaging certain matrices of ideas as it is about images. Criticism has since become an activity that prolongs my first exposure to a work of art beyond the initial rapture of assimilation. Similarly, the conditioned response of the viewer to the work can in turn be momentarily suspended when the critic intervenes, just as one’s life is suspended when the doors of consciousness are flung open and a work of art walks in.

Essentially, the art of being near art is as precarious as art-making itself. It is all doubt and memory and conviction. One must constantly shed information that one has just learned in order to free oneself for the confrontation with something new. No one yet has adequately addressed the practice of criticism within the newly overwhelming scale of the industry known as high visual culture. Any art citizens worth their mettle take in at least 500 shows a year, and even twice that number is not unusual. This makes several thousand visible artworks per year—not necessarily seen, but that’s another trail for this tale. The volume of energy expended on walking in and out of shows of contemporary art leads to an unavoidable susceptibility to several forms of procrastination. Unlike their forebears, however, the critics of today do not waste their spare hours concocting new movements—collectors have taken over in that department—nor do they fill their daybooks with studio romance. Most often you can find critics at home, TV off, phone and typewriter unplugged, staring off into empty, valueless space. This is a procedure known in intelligence parlance as “debriefing.”

There is an old human belief that if one does not celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, one symbolically postpones an eventual confrontation with death and aging. Criticism is basically anticelebration. This idea conjures up some of the Dorian Gray aspects of art criticism. Once completed, paintings and sculptures are theoretically impervious to change, yet as keepsakes of an eternal present, artworks remain forever young, while those who engage them struggle to remember themselves as open, tentative, and impressionable acolytes.

November is National Art Criticism Month. Memo: don’t take a critic to lunch.

Why do I write about art? It enables me to support myself in the manner to which I have become accustomed.

Tennis, anyone?

Dan Cameron is a writer and musician who lives in New York. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.