On the Perils of Art Criticism

On the Perils of Art Criticism
Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, The Experts, 1837, oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 25 1/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929

I’m not talking about the hard-boiled stuff, either, which makes for fun reading. When I was a kid, John Simon, then a prominent entertainment critic for New York magazine (New York magazine! How deeply cosmopolitan the very name sounded to my teenage ears! I could buy a copy in south Florida and pretend I was a little closer to the cultural Mecca) was known for his acrid descriptions of entertainers. Barbra Streisand’s nose, he wrote, “cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning.” I’ll always remember the music critic for the Miami News writing in reference to a then hit song, “Huey Lewis wouldn’t know the heart of rock and roll if it were transplanted into him.” Which may have been true. Repelled by what she deemed the unredeemable cuteness of The House at Pooh Corner, the irrepressible Dorothy Parker, under the byline ‘Constant Reader,’ wrote “Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”

Not taking the caustic path may be less fun, and it certainly doesn’t immunize the writer from blowback. I was reminded of this recently, when I shared a link to an old LINEA review at a social media page devoted to Fairfield Porter. The passage of time doesn’t guarantee inoculation against the fury of those dedicated to protecting a reputation, either. My review, originally posted over five years ago, was mostly laudatory, and the criticisms were fairly anodyne. On rereading, I’m ambivalent—I rarely agree with everything I thought and wrote years ago, and at the very least think it could have been written better. Response was appreciative, except for one strident exception, a friend of the artist who sat for portraits by him a half century ago. It would have been interesting to hear something about Porter’s intent from someone who knew him well, especially if it contradicted my interpretations. Instead readers were treated to a barrage of insults directed at this writer. I was described, in the most charitable characterizations, as a third-rate illustrator and a fourth-rate academic, with outrage that I be allowed to evaluate the work of a great artist. My response is that I appreciate the acknowledgment. I’ve worked very damn hard to achieve third- and fourth-tier status.

The ownership of an artist’s narrative is not claimed solely by those who knew the artist. It can come into play over an idea or methodology, of which an artist or artists are symbolic figures. I’ve written here before about some of the aesthetic, cultural, and political belief systems that attach to Sargent’s way of seeing, and am reminded of a discourse that occurred on social media during a recent show of his portrait drawings. After a reviewer for a New York paper published a lukewarm appraisal, a former student of mine posted a scathing response to Facebook. He offered some reasons for his disagreement, then went after the reviewer. Facebook is an echo chamber for indignation, and a number of people commented in support; the reviewer was multiply damned. I waded in as the sole voice protesting the incivility. When my comment was treated as a difference of opinion, I felt patronized, and pressed the unfriend button. A tuna fish sandwich with or without cheese is a difference of opinion. This was about the sort of behavior—assumptions of bad faith, righteous nastiness, or just plain trolling—that so often defines discourse in modern culture. If you think it’s okay to piss on someone because they don’t like the same art as you, what reaction are you prepared to rationalize when you’re contradicted on a matter of consequence?

perils art criticism
Of Whistler’s painting, John Ruskin wrote, “I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, 1875, oil on panel, 23 3/4 × 18 3/8 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry, Jr.

The impulse to replace discussion with vitriol was around long before the internet in general and social media in particular gave steroids to public nastiness. Over art reviews? Yes. In 1878, James Whistler took John Ruskin to court for a review of his work he believed was libelous. The business could be a lot more hazardous than insults and lawsuits. Dan Gheno reminded me that he wrote art reviews in California in the 1970s; there was hate mail, and worse. The boyfriend of a female artist pulled a knife on Dan in public and threatened to kill him. Dan must have written a hell of a review. Maybe the artist didn’t turn her forms very well. Or maybe she was just diffident.

That was the way an art reviewer described one of my paintings. It was the mid-1980s, and I had sent a few canvases from New Jersey to my parents in Florida. My father framed a portrait and submitted it to an annual exhibition at the Fort Lauderdale Museum, where it was awarded best in show honors—the terminology puts me in mind of tricked-out Bichon Frisées and such. The painting received mixed reviews in the papers; the Fort Lauderdale daily was complimentary, but the Miami Herald called the painting a diffident homage to a certain New York realist. In retrospect I think the Herald writer was right. My father had other thoughts. He wrote at least one letter to the paper, and he voiced his distaste for the writer for years afterward. It was not a good look for him, and it didn’t do me any favors, but he was protecting the nest.

The follow-up is that the judge of the Fort Lauderdale show was Ted Wolff, the art critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Wolff saw my work at a New York venue and contacted me for an interview. A full-page article in the Monitor followed. It was positive—the headline referred to me as a “young master”—though my work was used to make a larger point, and I thought the most germane characteristics of my painting were missed. Well, it seems that essays about art are increasingly written as public relations pieces; I’d rather suffer good faith misunderstanding than be the recipient of a puff job. I fear the distinction is largely lost, and that most of us prefer the odor of smoke blown in the vicinity of our backsides to honest appraisal. And we’ve come to expect the smoke job, both as our due and as acceptable critical study. Promotion routinely masquerades as objective prose.

perils art criticismThis is something I learned from years of editing articles on Wikipedia. An encyclopedia operates under a very different premise than does a journalistic review. Firstly, it’s devoted to the principle of objectivity—the ideal slant of an encyclopedic entry is to have none. That irks a lot of would-be contributors, many of whom mistake the site as a venue for free advertising or editorializing. I’ve refereed hundreds of articles and helped clean up a metaphorical metric ton of blatant promotion, which is nearly always promulgated and often zealously guarded by accounts with a conflict of interest. A phenomenon I find striking is how many people can’t tell the difference between objective prose and bullshit. Perhaps the faculty of discernment is no longer taught, which would explain how we got to where we are in general. No less concerning are those with destructive agendas. Despite legal implications, the impact of slander is treated as casually as hagiographic bloat. Both are dishonest, corrosive modes of expression.

Wikipedia offers insight as to who writes the historical narrative. At a glance, it appears to be crowd sourced. What is really happening, at least in the best articles, is that a coterie of editors compile and prioritize information supported by widely accepted reliable sources. Here’s an example of how it can work: years ago I participated in an expansion of the biography and articles on the paintings of Thomas Eakins, a major American artist whose legacy has become increasingly complicated. There was prolonged discussion as to what to include, and how to phrase both the facts of and speculation about his personal life. At one extreme was Eakins’s first biographer, who was friendly with his widow and had access to his personal papers; he also suppressed information he found damaging to the artist’s reputation. At the other end was a recent art historian who has drawn a number of adverse, speculative conclusions. Consensus was sought as to which views were accepted by a majority of scholars—I recall that one Wikipedia editor corresponded with an eminent Eakins scholar to fact check. Our job was to neither whitewash nor sensationalize. When relevant, we included controversial content and fringe theories, with appropriate sources or disclaimers. In the end, we were synthesizing information that had been researched and published by experts in the field.

perils art criticism
A caricature of John Ruskin, entitled Art Criticism, by Frederick Watty, published in Cartoon Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Men of the Day (1873).

These experts have different roles. Art historians who are affiliated with museums tend to be more restrained in their critical assessments than independent curators or journalists who routinely review shows. They may reinforce traditional scholarship or add substantially to their field, usually in uncontroversial ways (there are exceptions, as when a young curator at Yale recently attributed a forgotten seventeenth-century Spanish painting to Velázquez). The good ones reopen our eyes to what ought to have been obvious, and remind us of the restorative powers of art. Every generation or two, an extraordinary communicator alters the landscape. Before he provoked Whistler, Ruskin influenced artists on both sides of the Atlantic and sparked the rediscovery of Venice. Bernard Berenson rewrote the attributions of Renaissance painting. Giuseppe Tucci rescued—or plundered—a wealth of Tibetan art and culture. Kenneth Clark explained the history of Western art to the mass public with apprehensible wit. In muscular prose, Robert Hughes wrote passionately about old masters and contemporary art. Linda Nochlin asked why there had been no great women artists, knowing full well that there were and lighting the fuse of feminist scholarship.

Whistler’s lawsuit against Ruskin is a cautionary tale to both reviewer and artist. When he accused the artist of “Cockney impudence,” he launched a personal salvo that could have damaged Whistler’s career. After a surreal and exasperating trial, a judge found in Whistler’s favor. However, Whistler was awarded one farthing in damages, and was bankrupted by court costs. In effect, both men lost.

Whistler would have shared Anton Chekhov’s view of the critic:

Critics are like horse-flies which hinder the horses in their ploughing of the soil. The muscles of the horse are as taut as fiddle-strings, and suddenly a horse-fly alights on its croup, buzzing and stinging. The horse’s skin quivers, it waves its tail. What is the fly buzzing about It probably doesn’t know itself. It simply has a restless nature and wants to make itself felt ‘I’m alive, too, you know’ it seems to say. ‘Look, I know how to buzz, there’s nothing I can’t buzz about’ I’ve been reading reviews of my stories for twenty-five years, and can’t remember a single useful point in any of them, or the slightest good advice. The only reviewer who ever made an impression on me was Skabichevsky, who prophesied that I would die drunk in the bottom of a ditch.

Rackstraw Downes attributed to Fairfield Porter—himself a formidable writer as well as painter— the best possible attitude for a critic: “He loved art, and felt it was deeply important that critics, who mediate between art and its public, should represent it truthfully.”

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