PRINT April 1995


A LOT OF THE CRITICS working today seem to have lost the ability to describe, or never to have developed it. This may in part be because they depend on the photographic reproductions that accompany their articles to convey surface information and iconography—or perhaps they just aren’t interested, period. Particularly at a moment like this, every artist should have the experience of seeing his or her work described by Adam Gopnik, at least once in their lives.

It isn’t just that Gopnik is a wonderful wordsmith, who slams sentences together in the most remarkable way: he is uniquely good at describing what it feels like to stand in front of a work of art. His passion for the object, and especially for the conventions and traditions of painting, comes before his interest in art-world politics. Instead of advancing a particular agenda, grinding a particular ax, Gopnik seems to try to glean from the work itself the issues that will form the criteria of judgment. It is rare for an artist to experience a critic basing his discussion not so much on exterior criteria as on his response to the work.

Gopnik’s art criticism first appeared in The New Yorker in the mid ’80s. Since then, though I remain a reader rather than a close friend, I feel I’ve had an important relationship with him through his writing. Reading his work I always feel I’m engaged in a conversation, even though he’s the one who’s doing the talking.

Chuck Close

NOT LONG AGO, neoconservative critic Carlson Jillian, author of Reds under the Bed: More Radical Profs Who Send Secret Radio Messages from My Mattress, and post-Structuralist critic Jillian Carlson, author of Beds under the Red: Suppressed Desire in Matisse’s Studio Interiors, went together to confront the middle-of-the-road New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, an operation they referred to as “bearding the sheep in his den”—the loft he shares with his wife, the filmmaker Martha Parker (familiar to readers of his damper personal feuilletons), and his five-month-old baby, Luke Auden (who no doubt soon will be too). The conversation ran more or less like this:

JILLIAN CARLSON: With your constant celebrations of long-departed white men, recently departed white men, soon-to-be-departed white men, and cannot-be-departed-soon-enough white men, do you never feel like a critic who has immured himself in the tail end of another era—or, perhaps, a little bit like the boy at the end of the Bullwinkle credits, who sweeps up the droppings?

ADAM GOPNIK: You’re referring to my inability to identify any new generation of artists to whom I can give allegiance (and publicity)? I cling to Jeff Koons, whom I spotted early, as my only score, though I am aware that clinging to Koons is a little like clinging to a cactus—and a cactus made of polymer. I am not as uneasy about this as I should be. My writing about art is more writing than criticism, and more criticism than trend-spotting. Art criticism is only interesting as writing, and writing is only interesting if it rises from some impulse greater than the desire to go to shows and give them grades.

CARLSON JILLIAN: Do you ever ask yourself how you came to choose this field?

AG: “What sin to me unknown, dipt me in pictures, my parents or my own?” Actually, my parents’, who brought me to New York as a little boy, and to art; and who also introduced me to The New Yorker as a kind of secularized Haggadah.

CJ: Yes, the heavily publicized image of you in short velvet pants still causes many sensitive people to rise from their pillows in the middle of the night, like gaffed salmon.

AG: Then I will say no more, except to add that they (the pants) went right to the ground, and that it is a depressing sign of changing times that they (my folks), supporting six children on an assistant professor’s salary, were able to assemble an unostentatious but choice little collection of Pop and Minimal objects. It was a heady time; it went to my head, anyway.

Certainly the experience of galleries and museums, rather than of studios and saloons, was the crucial shaping experience in my infatuation with pictures. Peter Schjeldahl (with whom I share, perhaps, a certain grumpiness that is sometimes checked by fond memories of what got us here in the first place) wrote in this space that he became an art critic because he loved the company of artists; I became an art critic because I loved the interiors of museums. In fact I know now that my love for the pictures in museums cannot be separated from my love for the museums themselves. What I loved was an atmosphere, a spirit that was and is peculiar to East Coast American museums, although it can also be found in museums in London. (The old Louvre, before it was ruined and became a Euro-Mall, had an entirely different quality, scary and nearly Piranesian; museums in Italy, even if they contain only masterpieces, like the Accademia in Venice, have the sad clinical chill of orphanages, which is, after all, what they are.) This atmosphere, common to the National Gallery and the Met and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is some compound of early-afternoon light and heels clicking in the distance and a starched, wide-awake silence; some compound of earnest excitement and controlled energy. The pictures, in that atmosphere, have an aura neither quite religious nor quite archaeological or “scholarly”—it is somehow ardent, beckoning, like the little windows of an Advent calendar.

The oldest institutions in which I’ve found this atmosphere are the London National Gallery and the V&A, so I have sometimes suspected that it entered the world at the time of the great London exhibitions of the 1860s. It is, perhaps, an atmosphere first condensed in the Crystal Palace, some combination of imperial pride in cultural conquest—

CJ: Oh please.

AG: I mean it neutrally—coupled with a faith in self-improvement through pleasure. Further evidence for this view might be found in the fact that my natural (as against acquired) tastes in art are those of a London art-lover of the time—not the first, high-minded, Ruskinian generation but the generation right after that, with wallpaper already in the ascendant and Burne-Jones beckoning in the distance. Someone caught between the second wave of Pre-Raphaelitism and the first wave of Aestheticism: Nereid reliefs, “John” Bellini; Botticelli rather than Piero and Fra Filippo Lippi rather than Masaccio. Chartres. Amiens. The Taj Mahal.

Anyway, it was this feeling of pure happiness in the presence of pictures in museums that made me want to study art, and then to write about it. This puts me, I know, at a remove from artists, who, rightly, see museums as places either to steal from or to break into. It also puts me at a remove from many of today’s art historians, for whom that apartness is exactly their favorite object of contempt—what I see as chaste ecstasy they see as the hideous product of decontextualizing hegemony, with the patina of blood and power that clings to all real objects scrubbed away for the benefit of bourgeois pleasure-seekers like me. My desire to be happy in the presence of pictures, and to make that happiness a criterion of judgment, is, I know from sad experience, regarded by many good judges as infantile. “Don’t expect the pictures to love you back,” the most impressive of the new puritans lectured me once. But that desire places me, I hope, in the same bag as most of the audience for art, whose side I am passionately, foolishly, on.

CJ: Ornamenting The New Yorker, some think, you have absorbed its oldest faults and taken on none of its lessons.

AG: I have written for three New Yorker editors, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, and Tina Brown, and throughout for Charles McGrath. A story of mine, “The Blue Room” (still my favorite of my own things), was the last story Shawn published. Having been brought up on the Shawn New Yorker I will always revere its every nervous tremor and honor its every stylistic oddity. Whether this reverence is an entirely healthy thing for a writer is open to debate, and the answer seems to be no. For five years I wrote “Talk of the Town” and “Notes and Comment” stories, the old “Talk” and the old “Comment”—1,500-word reporting pieces and odd ruminations on oddities—and there found my voice as a writer. I wrote about all-Sinatra disk jockeys and the Winkie King and table-hockey tournaments in Bayside and competitions among city-prison cooks. I see a series of pieces about life in SoHo as my best work. Now that I seem to be diminishing into a pundit, my one desire is to achieve a position of such cultural authority that someone will have to publish my old “Talk” stuff.

So by the time I was asked by Robert Gottlieb to try, and then encouraged by McGrath and Roger Angell to try again, to write regularly about art, the magazine had come to embody for me an escape from art-historical worries rather than a soapbox for my views on them. It is still a small regret, easily rationalized away, that I went ahead and did it anyway.

Remorse, of course, is necessary for a critic. All criticism, good and bad, has an edge of inhumanity to it, which is tolerable only if we can rest content that the critic is the biggest loser of all. Hazlitt’s miseries license Hazlitt’s dogmas. Think of poor Dr. Johnson’s pain when Boswell painted an alternate fantasy life in which Johnson might have ended up a judge: “Why torment a man with these things when it is too late!” the Great Cham cried, full of despair. Imagine wanting to be a judge, hanging Georgian small fry, instead of being Dr. Johnson!

My disappointment is smaller: I wanted to be a songwriter. I would rather have written “Two Sleepy People” than To The Finland Station. (The record shows that I wrote neither, but you get my point.) The songwriting side of my work—the little things, the valentines and poems—are still the side that gives me the most pleasure. I have been working for years on a musical with my friend the novelist Meg Wolitzer. We will finish it, someday.

Having said that, I should also say that I don’t think it matters, much. Mary Gordon once carried on in the presence of a couple of good critics that since they must have wanted some other fate, theirs was a debased, secondhand profession. Actually, what makes criticism interesting as a form is the fact that it isn’t too overloaded with heart’s desire. It is talk, rather than confession, and benefits from being snappy, cosmopolitan, rather than deep. I enjoy reading criticism—the collected essays of Clive James or James Agee—more than I enjoy reading anything else. So my disappointment is largely notional, abstract. There may be pathos in a critic’s life, but it is the pathos of life itself. Criticism is a happy form, best practiced by sad folk. The reviewer, poor guy, may be one suffering oyster; the pearls, if any, are pearls.

CJ: You paint a pretty, pathetic picture. Yet you are a quick man with a mean line, no?

AG: Aggression is the dirty secret to which we must give way. I have written a few mean things in my day, and wish I hadn’t, though I think that on the whole the toxic level is tolerable.

CJ: Your style has been described as a kind of anthology of New Yorker writers. From whom do you, uh, borrow?

AG: Too many to list, though if I had to name two, they would both be writers whom I have had the good luck to edit for most of the past decade. Whitney Balliett is, as Philip Larkin said, a critic who raises jazz criticism to the status of poetry; his constant feeling for the little inner beats of sentences—when to decorate, when to slow down—is an endless lesson. He hardly needs editing, of course, but pretending to edit him was a way to learn to write. Once, in a piece about Sarah Vaughan, I saw that he had carefully whited-out a line. I held it up to the light of my 43rd Street office and read, “She leaned over a song, like a voluptuous woman leaning over a book.” I saved that. It is my only noble achievement as an editor.

Wilfrid Sheed, who isn’t strictly a New Yorker writer—except in a self-made, ham-radio-operator way—but whom I have edited as a critic and novelist, is the best reviewer this country has produced. I slink away from his stuff, even when I’ve edited it, in wonder at its apparent ease, profundity, and constant flow not of wit—which would be tiresome—but of humor, which is rare: a real sense of proportion, set dancing. He is the only American critic who regularly manages to use an idiomatic and racy style while remaining intellectually aristocratic. Write in a racy style and sooner or later the racy style starts writing you (viz. Pauline Kael). Sheed is saved from this, I have sometimes thought, because, being neither quite English nor quite American, none of his idioms is really idiomatic; even his demotic is a self-conscious instrument of style.

Among those closer to my own stuff the list is probably not too surprising. When I came on the scene, Robert Hughes took up all the air in the room, just by breathing in and out. His lungs are that strong. If I had an ambition, I used to say, it was to play Max Beerbohm to his Bernard Shaw—to find a little wry voice to play against his booming and robust one. You could preface his remarks with “Sir,”—in fact they ought to be prefaced with “Sir.” Feigning Boswellian ignorance, I once asked him what the difference was between him and Hilton Kramer. “It is the difference between an alligator and a jackass: one bites, the other brays.” That needs a “Sir,” in front. Now that he takes up less air—just because he’s gone on to other and bigger arenas—I’ve been more relaxed about taking up his subjects. Perhaps my lungs have expanded. Or maybe the room has just gotten smaller.

Hughes’ gifts as a satirist, and his capacity for outrage, can sometimes swamp one’s consciousness of his deeper and greater gift, which is for a kind of robust sensual description—of Eric Fischl’s paint surface as a marriage of semen and barbecue sauce, for example. Art criticism ought to be rooted in sensual experience, or else who needs it? It ought to be a nearer relation to wine-tasting than to dialectic- bending. The wine-tasting can turn into logic-chopping—most wine-tasting does; have you ever heard two wine-tasters argue?—but it ought to begin there.

Don Shula once said that winning is the ethic of football, meaning that nothing else mattered if you didn’t win, to which Roy Blount added that credibility is the morality of fiction; it doesn’t matter how noble, sensitive, or fair a story is if it doesn’t sound as though it happened just like that. In the same way, description is the ethic of att criticism. It is not the frosting, the little bit extra, the “tap-dancing on the typewriter,” as one fond critic of my work has called it; it is the only guarantee of seriousness the reader has. An art critic is only as good as his or her descriptions. The pressure that’s required to describe—sheer, physical pressure, by the way, which leaves the describer dripping at the armpits—is the proof of a real, rather than a merely ideological, engagement with whatever’s being looked at. An object well described pays a double compliment, to the artist and the viewer, for whom the critic is, after all, merely a surrogate. Describing is the only way of making certain that the writing becomes a register of things seen and things felt rather than an account of a game of abstract metaphysical chess.

Without extended, intense, full-court pressure on the what-it-looks-like end, criticism is just certitudes, and everybody has those. Will Koons last, or will Baziotes rate higher than Tobey? Your guess is as good as mine. The ugliest noise in the world is that of the critic carrying on, in love with the sound of his own crabby opinions. Tiptoe away and he’ll never notice that you’re gone. Whereas the describer is a man with a mission—a preacher, or at least a salesman, determined to make you see it just like he does, playing to the crowd, maybe, but at least trying to draw one. I sometimes think that the best training I had as an art critic were the years I spent giving gallery lectures at the Museum of Modern Art: twenty blank, hopeful people, swept in off the street to look at Robert Rauschenberg, desperate to find a little bit of meaning in what seems only chaos, and expecting to get it from me.

JC: Can we credit this? Can it truly be that someone is proposing pure esthetic experience, transcendental opticality, as a goal for art criticism?

AG: Well, not pure, certainly. Impure opticality—that’s my “project,” the motto on my license plate. The eye as part of the brain, the blood, the body, the tummy, and other points south, too. Good descriptive writing is actually done from the stomach—I mean that literally, and the three or four passages of my own art writing that I like—

CJ: Oh, we suspect there’s more—

AG: —well, that I reread (a description of Audubon’s birds; three columns on a Thiebaud cake), were all intestinal in origin.

So many people imagine that descriptive writing actually has something to do with writing down descriptions, i.e., the bands of green begin three zones in from the picture support, etc. No one sees that way, so you can’t describe that way. We see, or experience, mood, feeling, intellectual edge, moral presence. Get those things right and the description comes alive.

For the rest of my heroes, I supply a long list, without comment: the critics include Clive James, Michael Arlen, Edmund Wilson, and Arlene Croce, and the writers are led by Proust, Auden, A. J. Liebling, S. J. Perelman, and Thurber, with John Updike, a phantom, dividing his time and smile between the two groups, the onlie begetter of this sad phenomenon, poor guy.

JC: As the mock-modest, tiresomely jocose form of this faux-fictional interview—with its humorless patsy interrogators and suave, point-scoring subject—so clearly demonstrates.

AG: As indeed it does.

JC: Your view of the critic’s responsibilities seems to begin and end with journalists—and with a heavy dose of friends, mentors, people-to-whom-favors-are-owed, etc. Can you really be that ignorant of the philosophical ambitions that have motivated the most influential criticism of our time? Surely art criticism cannot begin and end in slick-magazine reviewing.

AG: To reclaim, for a moment, that breathtaking arrogance beloved by my readers, it is always surprising to me to what degree most of what passes for “post-Structuralist” theory is based on views about psychology, anthropology, and particularly linguistics that, to put it gently, no self-respecting practitioner of those disciplines has held for nearly half a century—the Saussurean view, for instance, that language is an arbitrarily determined system of abstract signs, rather than a tightly bounded and highly structured system of predictable rules. Or the view that art is like a language, when everything we know about language (its universality, its ease, its all-purposeness) says that it is nothing like art. Or the view—for which Derrida cannot be held responsible, though it is often invoked in his name—that language is a kind of prison, and that its categories shape or create or even determine categories of thought. This view has the status within linguistics that the turtles-on-top-of-turtles view has within cosmology, but it is still dear to deconstructionists everywhere. (The story of how French deconstruction—the belief that there are no secret meanings—turned into American deconstruction—a search for secret meanings—is one of the ugly episodes in Franco-American cultural exchange, like the birth of flambéed food.)

In general I’m amazed by how uncontroversial, among art critics, is the view that culture operates on human beings the way a kid operates on Play-Doh, creating shapes where no prior or distinctly individual structure existed. Apparently the need to believe in determining structures of oppressive power, invisible to all but a small and marginalized band of analysts and saboteurs, seems to beat dear in the hearts of graduate students everywhere. And for good reason: if we don’t have specialized insight, what do we have—just large student loans.

JC: Do we hear the beating of Jungian wings on the horizon? Universal esthetic categories? Deep structures of beauty? Hegemonic patriarchal taste repackaged as instinct?

AG: Well, my argument is neither in favor of universals nor for mere “positivism” but against the mystifying of culture shared by you, there, on the left, and you, there, on the right. I wonder how far “culture” as a concept, as opposed to “art and civilization,” gets us. The idea is that culture is the concept that connects up “communities,” which share actual stated beliefs, with civilizations, which share habits and methods. No one can deny that cultural differences exist. What I wonder is whether they deserve the “reification” we give them in the term “cultural politics.” Cultures don’t have to be studied for hidden areas of contest; they are areas of contest. Even very simple cultures turn out to be places where people argue. “Culture” and “politics” are just different names for the human practice of having things out. There is no vast enclosing “culture” of which works of art, or anything else, are merely symptoms. Adding cultural studies as an extra dimension to art history sounds impressive, but it looks increasingly like a crystal sphere. The planets move fine without its intercession.

JC: But surely the experience of “High & Low” must have taught you, if it taught you nothing else, that the middle ground of liberalism—in which the realities of power and hierarchy are dissolved in a misty field of “quality” and particular cases, and low sources are cheerily transformed into good high artists, like peasants patted on the head by a benevolent squire—is intolerable on all sides today, a sad remnant of a vanished dispensation.

AG: Well, no. Liberalism is not merely an absence of an ideology; in its own wishy-washy way, it’s a fighting creed. Its point, as I said a moment ago, is to argue against the constant attempt to move the argument upward, toward the “real” cultural pattern of power. That is the trahison des clercs of intellectual life—the search for the Big Picture, the Real Point, the Hidden Agenda. Our emphasis on particular cases in “High & Low” was seen either as a kind of last-ditch positivism or (by the loony right) as a pitiful subterfuge, a way of breaking down the hierarchies in the guise of disinterested inquiry. In fact the particulars were the point: we were insisting that the big picture showed you nothing, only the little one did. Instead of taking our cue from Hegel we wanted to take it from Darwin and Mendel, and to say that art no more has a plot than does Life. The evolution of Western art has been as unpredictable as the evolution of the apes. It’s not that the particulars shed light on the big picture; it’s that there’s nothing there except the particulars—Philip Guston and Robert Crumb, Joan Miró and the comic strip—and the narratives of High Culture, Transgressive Low Culture, Hegemonic Discourse, etc., for all their intensity, are as illusory as the old narratives of Fate, Nemesis, and History.

JC: But surely the criticism must have taught you something.

AG: No. It ought to have taught me, I suppose, to show a tenderness for the feelings of curators, a respect for the integrity of their ambitions, and a desire to treat those ambitions seriously, instead of looking for occasions to pick on (their clothes, or the occasional fatuous dedication or stray sentence, which, God knows, you are bound to find somewhere in everybody’s catalogue, including my own). But it seems not so, and here I am as casually cruel and ready to score cheap points as the next reviewer. Racing through the ’93 Whitney Biennial (or, if you ask Rob Storr, his “Dislocations” at the Modern) with the gloves off, waiting to run home and get out the meat ax, whisking through the catalogue’s appendices in search of the stray idiocy, I showed all the perspective of a hanging judge. Compartmentalizing our lives is necessary to living at all. We live our lives in the spirit of the captain of the Titanic, convinced that all the compartments in the hold are watertight; even if one floods, the others will remain snug. Meanwhile, of course, the water is flooding in through the bulkheads and the passengers in steerage are drowning. But we don’t know it until the boat goes down at last, leaving the people in the lifeboats to look on and wonder at our complacency.

I try to write pieces that do two things well: a line of whimsical reporting that I learned in five years, and hundreds of pieces, writing the old “Talk”; and a gloves-off kind of argument about the big abstractions. Local color and platonic argument. I’ve pulled it off exactly twice: in an essay on Richard Avedon, where I married a description of Avedon walking, talking, and eating hot dogs with a long attempt to explain how French existentialism and American optimism govern his work; and in “The Blue Room,” one of my first pieces for The New Yorker, where I brought together my wife’s and my first three years in New York with a theory of why no time is the time it seems to be. The book I’m working on right now—The Ghost of the Glass House, a part of which has already run in the magazine—will, I hope, be the third and longest. Or it may be only long—I am reciting Hail Mary’s. In May I’ll give a series of lectures at the Public Library, on the romance of violence in American life, that will mark my final diminishment into a pundit.

CJ: Perhaps you’ll sing us a song.

AG: Perhaps I will.

JC: So, here we have it at last: sentimental Victorian estheticism; 1957 formalist opticality; Vienna School–type positivism; fancy lyrical-type writing; the cheap frissons of slick journalism; all done up with the ribbon of insincere fatalism. And this is the grotesque combination you propose as a program for art criticism at the turn of the millennium?

AG: No, no. [Looks to baby for support, but none arrives.]