PRINT November 1990


Yes, when I address someone, I do not know whom I am addressing; furthermore, I do not care to know, nor do I wish to know. . . . Without dialogue, lyric poetry cannot exist. Yet there is only one thing that pushes us into the addressee’s embrace: the desire to be astonished by our own words, to be captivated by their originality and unexpectedness.
—Osip Mandelstam, “On the Addressee,” 1913

It seems to me that it is not the critic’s historic function to have the right opinions but to have interesting ones. He talks but he has nothing to sell. His social value is that of a man standing on a street corner talking so intently about his subject that he doesn’t realize how peculiar he looks doing it.
—Edwin Denby, “Dance Criticism,” 1949

MANY PEOPLE WHO BUY ART MAGAZINES complain that the writing found there is unreadable. Some sense a conspiracy at work. A specific reader is either alienated or accedes by learning—as anyone can, in six weeks or so—to talk the talk. “He sounds like the art magazines” is not how any writer I know would want to be characterized. The magazines, for their part, have style sheets and staff editors geared for the care and feeding of manuscripts. Out of thin air they invent an image of a reader whose willingness to be informed about art and whose tolerances for specialized language or high-sounding foolishness they try to anticipate. The general reader is a unicorn to be lured so that the magazines can maintain their costly looks, which after all say something about the importance (and never mind the fashionable expense) of the visual arts to enough people living in enough places. A modicum of sales and advertising permits the editors of the two or three serious glossies to get on with their missions of providing intelligible facts and observations for the artistically inclined or otherwise alert art audience.

Critics are neither culture heroes nor art stars. Assiduous art-world insiders know perhaps 50 full-time critics’ names, and can identify half of those with particular attitudes or styles. The forms of art writing—the 500-word short review, for instance, in its compression and flexibility comparable to a sonnet—are dictated by the magazines. Members of the wider art public can identify different editorial forms and stances among the magazines to which they do or don’t subscribe. Very few individual critics become household names. Even Clement Greenberg, I would guess, hasn’t been indexed into the crossword puzzles or the cultural-literacy manuals, but then neither have most of the contemporary artists he has discussed.

It’s a truism that the general reader looks to criticism as a consumer guide. The critic is seen as an expert soothsayer whose authority is measured by the seamless suasion of his or her arguments. But “the existence of an ‘authoritative critic’ or a ‘definitive evaluation’ is a fiction like that of a sea serpent.” (Edwin Denby.1) Verdicts and explanations call for fairly transparent and flatfooted prose styles. A critic like myself, who is interested less in systematic argument than in communicating the spontaneously dense, specific, and often paradoxical events of consciousness in the face of contemporary works, allows for occasional opacities of language. The critic who faces art’s manifold dialectic head-on risks seeming to want to be abstruse when really he or she is only trying to stay true to a complex situation. I like to think that my opacities can be enjoyed for themselves, at face value, as well as for their relation to both the artist’s work and the reader’s sense of language in the world. Given a vivid sense, in words, of what can be seen in the work, I go as deep and as wide as I can. A typical response to one of my reviews has been: “That was an interesting piece of writing, but I couldn’t tell whether you liked the work or not.” Liking or not is often not the point, or is an ulterior point. The main point is to give people something to read, to be accurate about the work without saying the same thing over and over.

As one writes, one’s conception of the audience develops as a phantasmagoria of known and unknown persons. Only by negotiating that crowd of possible listeners does the critic find a vocabulary and a companionable tone. Criticism goes wrong when its vocabulary petrifies and its practitioners pontificate aimlessly, having forgotten to whom they’re writing. Run-of-the-mill criticism is tone-deaf; it addresses an undifferentiated mass, or no one in particular. Positing a receptivity no deeper than that of the word-processor screen, it fails to conceive of a composite, real-time, colloquial reader who reacts to every word and knows where the commas go. Eventually the copy editor alone personifies this elusive regulator of humane, if often intergalactic, discourse.

What good is criticism and why does anyone write it, not to mention whether it is read? For anyone who enjoys looking at art, writing criticism can be an opportunity to articulate in public what is ordinarily consigned to tangential mutterings: your otherwise silent, on-site responses to works of art. As Fairfield Porter put it, “Criticism should tell you what is there.”2 The critic’s job is to respond to what is visually and conceptually there, to continue the conversation that making and looking at art both propose. To the extent that art says anything, the critic devises what can be said next. “We do not respond often, really, and when we do, it is as if a flashbulb went off.” (Frank O’Hara.3) The truest criticism, I believe, reveals that flash, or series of flashes, in a language communicative of the intensity or force experienced in looking long and hard at art. Then it can begin to tell the polymorphous story of what one saw.

The words go across the topic, making discriminations. Art writing claims to know what it’s discussing. It has a topic and a referent; it’s grounded in signification and continuity—a prosoid buildup of what Carter Ratcliff calls “language in the vicinity of what it’s talking about.”4 In a review, the topic is whatever artistic occasion you have attended and care enough to write about. The homework is endless, and you gather any number of essential facts. But reviewing, with its contingencies of deadlines and short-term looking, involves rhetorics, not essences. Essence is distinct but inarticulate. A review, to be articulate, tends to work away from the experience of essence, and thus is rarely definitive, although it may imply the writer’s prior epiphanies. It covers a host of secret, ephemeral, and often unspeakable perceptions.

Functionally, art writing serves as commercial expository prose. If one estimates that hardly anybody reads it, one is bound to view it effectively as typographic filler—a sign of relative importance by the inch—between gallery ads and color plates, which are the magazine’s main attractions. Aside from this dismal estimate, art writing should be read—and written—primarily as reportage. An article or review can aspire to the level of a philosophical essay, belles lettres, or a kind of prose poem. It can insinuate itself with an equivalent vitality into the orbit of an artwork as a parallel text. Whether it does this or not, it is unavoidably an exercise in communication requiring first an attention to fact and then a sensitivity to vocabulary and style. An art writer’s prime ambition is to discover a critical vocabulary that illumines a specific art beyond the occasion of the provisional piece.

Criticism’s provisionality is intoxicating. It’s the working critic’s siren call, seductive and maddening. The concomitant pleasures and terrors derive from an uncertainty that overrides almost every impulse toward assertion of either sense or value. That’s where the fun lies, and the angst, and an eventual stupefaction. Ideally, much of the time, I hardly know what it is I’m looking at. Or if I do, I know it in such fashion that putting it into words seems to promise only the most bald-faced fabrication: sheer rhetoric, nothing to do with having seen anything at all. How account for the dumb wonder that accrues the longer one has stood transfixed by a painting that seems to satisfy the situation by being beautiful in one unalloyed respect or many? The stunned initiate riffles the dictionary (or a few trusty critic’s texts) to search out a beginning. As in ordinary conversation, the critical faculties face a chaos of impressions, blanks, needs, memories, obfuscations, and intermittent facts of which orderly language makes an absurdly insufficient account. A picture can tell of all this, and so can a sentence. The sentences in a review turn up in a kind of order. Cracks in the order may show an alertness to, and a duplicitous tolerance for, the actual chaos occurring in the mental space between the reviewer and the work.

Poets bring a technical proficiency to art writing as well as an attitude that, in art’s increasingly institutional settings, seems proportionately ever more off the wall. Their interventions carry a fierce love of language and an abiding curiosity about the world of things. Perhaps more than the full-time critics, they simply want to say something interesting about the things they’ve seen, in words that evoke the excitement and oddness of living in a world where these things occur, things made by contemporary people with a variety of purposes in mind. They would be the last writers to apply “poetic” as an adjective to an artwork, since “poetic,” synonymous with “inscrutable” or “soft” to art critics, to them means something technically specific.

Poets see art as social behavior and less as a specialized mode. Being artists themselves, whose art brings in next to no money, they look askance at the art-world economy. A few may hang out shingles proclaiming that as critics they mean business, but even those retain a sense of criticism as a minor occupation and of their own pronouncements as groundwork rather than definitive assays. The “poet who also writes about art” (as the contributors’ notes so often say) is interested in observation for observation’s sake. To claim exemptions for poets writing monthly reviews seems like an insult directed both ways: when Eileen Myles wails of poets forced into “flattening . . . responses into conventional prose . . . the virgins thrown into the volcano,” I wince for such an etherealized conception of poets as special keepers of the unconventional; but when in the next breath she says that as a poet faced with painting “you want to be excited, ennobled, teased alive,”5 my heart goes with her. How many workaday art writers regularly forget that such demands—on oneself as well as on works of art—go with the territory?

AS A POET/CRITIC, I often typecast myself for the purposes of argument as a more or less forlorn esthete. More insistently, and playing down the “forlorn,” I would say I’m an esthetic hedonist. I’m “in” art for the sensual and intellectual pleasures I continue to find there, and as far as the practice of criticism goes, I commit to that for the joy of giving my verbal attentions to things that answer them and usually stay put long enough to allow my views to add up. Criticism that dampens, rather than heightens, esthetic pleasure seems to me worthless. The esthete proceeds, by stumbles and veers, along the lines of articulated sensation, cultivating a shifting horde of passions, tolerances, fascinations, glees, and disgust that marks the temporary side effects of what keeps promising to be a civilized habit.

The art world, like the freeway system, runs on combustible energies. The supply is all a matter of faith. Every season has its test of faith administered by at least one artist perceived as the exception who might just be delivering the goods, or at least keeping the pumps from going altogether dry. (For “pump,” read “discourse”; for what is pumped, read “meaning.”) The new season gushes forth its spectacular authenticities: Anselm Kiefer and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jeff Koons as Luke Skywalker, and so on. Antiesthetic critical surveillance stakes out art as a site of meaning production. Esthetic pleasure (suspect, illicit) rips in where too much meaning has clamped down. The meaning-production racket is funny. In what has come to be read as “normative” criticism generally, the purveying of meaning thrives by syllogism and other brassbound tropes of merciless logic, which are convenient ways of getting around how things work when you meet them face to face. Logic tries to erase the distance between correctness and in-your-face truth.

A determined meaning usually spells a short esthetic track, which is fine if the issue is an other-than-esthetic efficacy or critical practice as a power unto itself. Meaning is critical power. A critic’s will to power betrays itself to the extent that the critic insists that meaning be explicit and tethered by what the critic writes. The convenience language of the magazines and art-history departments requires constant testing. Otherwise, it becomes predictable and painfully false. Predictable language suits only an art with predictable meanings. If criticism has all the words in place—a fixed vocabulary—it has stopped looking and won’t listen for the words that might be there for the work.

Why does art writing continue to seem like just so much art writing? Only the layouts and typefaces change. An art writer’s self-importance is nonsensical. Art criticism is a nonprofession, and yet there are professional critics—“a tidy guild on the fringe of useful human endeavor,” as Peter Schjeldahl once called them.6 History shelves all but the few critical pieces that give pleasure and interest as something more than topical position papers. And it recognizes the next work of art as the criticism that matters most. If as a critic I remain relatively unprincipled—an amateur at heart—it’s because I’ve learned that my pleasures come most fully from works that outstrip everyone’s principles, and most especially my own; at which point everyone, even the artist, should feel amateurish, and a bit humble. Criticism should be modest in principle and quick or excessive enough so that everyone can enjoy how hypothetical it is.

Bill Berkson is a poet and critic who lives in Bolinas, California. He teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute and writes regularly for Artforum.



1. Edwin Denby, “Dance Criticism,” 1949, Dance Writings, ed. Robert Cornfield and William MacKay, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986, p. 536.
2. Fairfield Porter, “The Short Review,” 1958, Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935–1975, ed. Rackstraw Downes, New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979, p. 167.
3. Frank O’Hara, “Nature and New Painting,” 1954, Standing Still and Walking in New York, ed. Donald Allen, Bolinas, Calif.: Grey Fox Press, 1975, p. 42.
4. Carter Ratcliff, in conversation during the Summer Art Writing Conference, San Francisco Art Institute, 1985.
5. Eileen Myles, Martha Diamond, exhibition catalogue, New York: Robert Miller Gallery, 1990, n.p.
6. Robert Storr et al., “On Art and Artists: Peter Schjeldahl,” Profile 3 no. 4, Chicago, July 1983, p. 22.