PRINT Summer 1994


PETER AND I TALK ON THE PHONE A LOT—once a week at least, but generally more. Frequently he is just back from some place or I am about to go off, and it is a matter of touching base and catching up. We speak about things seen on the road but mostly about what is going on in New York, which, for better and worse, is our city. Although I used to be able to keep the pace, Peter covers more ground than I do now, having earned the privilege of wandering in the galleries and museums whenever he pleases by having paid the currently steep price for free-lancing while I, at present, am salaried and deskbound.

Occasionally we do the rounds together, but less and less. In a way, that’s good, since the delayed communication necessitated by our separate schedules allows for impressions to sink in and words to lock in that might otherwise have vaporized in ambulatory conversation. By the time the phone rings and Peter asks, “Gotta minute?” a tone is set, cadences are setting, and whole paragraphs have taken shape. Again, I am the slower one, since most of my deadlines are months off and his are only days away. So while Peter is already fluently phrasing his ideas and feelings, I, who compose my texts brick by brick, simply think out loud. From time to time I am the “friend” cited in his column for having noticed or said something. Peter has several such friends and it is fun guessing who they are and which one is responsible for a particularly sharp insight or remark. Like my mostly unknown colleagues, I suppose, I have once or twice wanted to repossess my “gem” but then have renounced my claim after realizing that the setting he has given it is chiefly what made it shine.

We don’t discuss art-world politics very much. Working in an institution demands that I bite my tongue regarding the juiciest topics, but in any case Peter isn’t that interested in the power games that necessarily preoccupy me. Aside from strictly personal matters, our exchanges are about specific works that this or that artist has troubled themselves to make (of course we argue about how good or ambitious they are) and the various reasons that might explain their puzzling need to do so. That’s as it should be but too rarely is in the triangulated affairs of the art faithful. Certainly such talk is the only reliable tonic for treating the enervating pride-and-gossip-aggravated fever and chills that complicate the ultimately one-way esthetic passions to which critics and curators alike are susceptible.

Painting and sculpture are urgently important to Peter, especially now that they are threatened by pandemic distemper. Is art doing O.K.?, he wants to know. Have we lost our nerve, lost our way, or, worst of all, lost our appetite? Who and what is making the culture click? Every other week in The Village Voice, and also in other publications, Peter tries to answer his own questions with the crazily intelligent energy he expects from his subject. I hear most of the trial runs, but I also remain among his most eager readers. For as Gertrude Stein said but Peter knows anyway, opinions are not literature. Criticism of the kind he painfully practices is literature, however, so what happens from the moment we recradle our receivers until he delivers his copy is writing. During that interval I rejoin the general public and wait to share in the artful confidences that can only be conveyed in the full-stop printed version of the quicksilver American prose that is his medium. Then I dial again.

Robert Storr


Back in the 1960s and ’70s when I was a poet and did art criticism for money and bonus prestige, I superstitiously feared that if I took the criticism too seriously I would be ruined as a poet. But working beneath one’s ability is depressing. After a dozen years of it, I got fed up with my own preciousness. I decided to write about art as well as I could and let the poetry see to itself.

My fear proved correct: art criticism ate my poetry. Thus fed, my criticism came along nicely. I had a career in work I liked. Art-world parties were better than poetry-world parties. Doing something both more noticed and less naked than poetry steadied my self-regard. Art criticism may have saved my sanity. The poet I was had pitiful coping skills. Meanwhile, it helped that I loved art.

I believe that the story I have just told is true, but (and?) I do not understand it. I do not know what being a poet is or what being a critic is. As I have just learned by experimenting, I do have feelings that go with each notion. The thought “me-as-a-critic” stirs a sensation of thin excitement in my chest and a state of watchful worry in my brain. The effect of the thought “me-as-a-poet” is somewhat the same, but more intense. The chest excitement is profound and seems to run down my arms, as I understand heart attacks do. I have a sexual tingle. My mental state is like that of a horse in a burning barn.

As a critic I may project the poet condition onto artists and experience it vicariously from a safe distance. I cast my soul out on a line and reel it back in, seeing what has stuck to it. When I am in good form, every artist I write about may be me-as-a-poet having a better or worse run. I try to remember that I am just visiting where the artist has to live. But if I would be sorry to have done what the artist is doing, I say so.

“Why would I have done that if I did it?” is one of my working questions about an artwork. (Not that I could. This is make-believe.) My formula of fairness to work that displeases me is to ask, “What would I like about this if I liked it?” When I cannot deem myself an intended or even a possible member of a work’s audience, I ask myself what such an audience member must be like and beguile the column inches with social-political conjecture.

The purely critical instinct aims to chop up, reduce, and explain away any object. An object with integrity resists. I am thrilled when something defeats my best efforts to break it down. Then I can surrender with thankfulness and praise. So pleasant is such surrender that I have sometimes forced it, fatuously, at the cost of catching hell from my conscience (if not a scornful colleague) later.

It is not quite that in judging art I prefer to err on the side of generosity. I prefer not to err. But I am spooked by the complacent or bitter pride of critics who make an enemy of enthusiasm. I wonder what, if any, appetite or personal use for art they have.

I get from art a regular chance to experience something—or perhaps everything, the whole world—as someone else, to replace my eyes and mind with the eyes and mind of another for a charged moment. I do not think this is unusual. I believe that anyone can use art for the same transport, and that many do. To cast one’s soul outward is normal. Then to examine the experience and communicate about it to others is the extra operation of a critic.

As a journalist for a living, I have rarely been afforded the luxury of writing obscurely. I have written obscurely when I could get away with it. It is very enjoyable, attended by a powerful feeling of invulnerability. Writing clearly is immensely hard work that feels faintly insane, like painting the brightest possible target on my chest.

To write clearly is to give oneself away.

My fall from poetry into criticism was like Adam’s and Eve’s into sin, only the fatal tree was not of Knowledge but of Ideas. My notion of poetic temperament is reflected in somebody’s remark about Henry James that he had “a sensibility so fine that no idea could violate it.” The violences inflicted on the sentience of language by abstract thought, and on sincerity by rhetoric, can cause a poet physical pain.

To have ideas at all times and to come up with opinions on demand is part of the critic’s contract with readers. I may have overcompensated. Someone recently said to me disapprovingly, “Peter, you’re so decided.” Does it count that I decided to be decided? That it’s a game?

It is a game of masks—an “I” tricked out differently for each performance. Criticism at best is a performing art, a minor, lively art like musicals or stand-up comedy. It makes something out of something, unlike the major arts that make something out of nothing.

To avoid being enslaved by any one idea, I try to have a thousand of them.

My nightmare audience is of people who do not laugh or, if they do, give no value to laughter. How does one negotiate the ridiculousness of criticism without jokes? One does not. Jokes are a lubricant without which the machine seizes up and breaks down. I choose to think that people who expect unrelieved gravity in a critic are crazy, hence deserving of wary compassion.

Art historians, more knowledgeable than I, and theorists, more intellectually adept, work for me. I strip-mine the information that might matter to someone and the ideas that can survive translation into regular English.

“There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, but they do not become critics,” W. H. Auden wrote.

If I had one passionate reason for doing art criticism early on, it was to meet and know—and to serve—artists, whose positive responses to me I took as angelic blessings. I got used, of course. What else is an artist supposed to do with a smitten critic? Artists get to be selfish in compensation for the likelihood of their failure at an enterprise in which they stake everything. It is foolish to trust artists, disgusting to condescend to them.

Intimate friendships between artists and critics, as such, are tragicomic. The critic may seek revelation from the artist, who may seek authentication from the critic. Neither has any such prize to give, if each is any good. To be good is to give everything to one’s work that is givable, with nothing left over but the ordinary or subordinary person.

A critic who feels no anguish in relating to artists is a prostitute. A critic who never relates to artists, fearing contamination, is a virgin. Neither knows a thing about love.

Experience is the only book of art.

I will never accept that art criticism is a profession like dentistry. It is rather a zone of overlap between journalism and literature, like sportswriting. My heroes are Charles Baudelaire and Roger Angell.

Also William James, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, Auden, Frank O’Hara, and Dave Hickey.

Pigeonholes can be good sport: male, Midwestern raised, Nordic-American, middle class/bohemian, college dropout, etc. etc. “That’s me.” “Me” (“you” or “him” to you) is the costume rack of the public “I.” To be, decidedly, all that one may be thought to be makes for versatility. The decision consists in embracing one’s descriptions (stereotypes).

That only I get to say “me” as regards myself is a great thing that I (and of course “I”) could not do without. It marks my one field of hard-to-challenge expertise. Need I add that “me” is not me, the personality I always seek to escape? Some people enjoy being themselves. They do not become critics.

Recently I came across something I scribbled on the endpaper of an exhibition catalogue in 1979. I present it without changes. I am shamed by my 15-years-younger self, knowing how often I have failed his principles:

What do I do as a critic in a gallery? I learn. I walk up to, around, touch if I dare, the objects, meanwhile asking questions in my mind and casting about for answers—all until mind and senses are in some rough agreement, or until fatigue sets in. I try not to think about what I will write, try to keep myself pried open. My nemesis is the veer into mere headiness, where ideas propagate fecklessly, and the senses are reduced to monosyllabic remarks now and then. I try to chasten my intellect with the effort of attention, which in intellectual terms is doubt—doubt being the certainty that you’re always missing something. To stay as close as possible to confusion, anxiety, and despair and still be able to function is the best method I know.

It is a poor culture, careless of its common language, that pays a poet to be a critic and not to be a poet. But at least it pays.

I became a critic for the opportunities.