Art

By Wilson, William | Nieman Reports, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

Art


Wilson, William, Nieman Reports


Journalistic Critics of all stripes serve the society by playing the role of The One You Love to Hate.

Look at the way critics are portrayed in that most telling of all social mirrors, the cinema. Significantly, they are rarely included at all and then only as a particularly repellent sort of borderline heavy. The fictional theater critic Addison DeWitt played by world-weary George Saunders in "All About Eve" is an impeccable fop who winds up trying to seduce the conniving Eve. That this limp fellow is capable of the seductive urge comes as a surprise and redounds to his credit.

The architectural critic in the film version of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" lusts after power. He peddles influence and is altogether a slimy little twerp. The old thriller "Laura" cast Clifton Webb as a critic. I think his persona pretty much fulfills most people's notion of the type--epicene, vicious and witty. He was, you may recall, also the murderer.

Fictional filmic portrayals of art critics are scarce to the point of rarity. I can think of but a single example. Unfortunately the character in question was a thinly disguised version of a real working journalistic critic.

Me.

The film is called "Heartbreakers" and concerns a couple of L.A. artists. Our hero is portrayed by Peter Coyote whose creative wellsprings have been caused to dry up in reaction to an unfavorable review by the Los Angeles Times art critic, Warren Williams. The two characters finally meet. The critic tells the artist that he now likes his work and is in a position to do his career a lot of good.

This line is followed by a pregnant pause implying the moment when the artist is supposed to offer the critic a gift, a bribe or the favors of his beautiful girlfriend. The artist, an honorable fellow who paints pornographic nudes, keeps mum and the moment passes.

Like an Upstart Used-Car Salesman

It was sort of flattering to be skewered in a movie but the manner of it was dismaying. The actor played me like a upstart used-car salesman. if critics have to be social pariahs, the least the imagemakers can do is allow them their old part as vaguely glamorous parasites.

Naturally I don't agree with any of the stereotypes indicated above.

I've been writing art criticism for almost 30 years without ever once feeling dangerous, powerful, slimy or much of anything else except vaguely stressed about meeting a tight deadline.

Maybe that has something to do do with a decision I made very early in what turned out to be a long career writing about the fine visual arts.

In 1965 I was hired as an assistant critic by the then-senior art critic of The Times, Henry J. Seldis. He worried a lot about his role in the community. He worried about what people thought of him. He worried about the effects of his criticism. Since Henry was my mentor I assumed I was supposed to worry too. I did. At about the same time I started getting migraine headaches the size of the Goodyear blimp. Since I had never suffered from headaches I did not like them.

Finally it dawned on me that there was some connection between the migraines and the worrying. Even though I thought this masochistic mental selflaceration was an obligatory part of the job, I decided to stop torturing myself. I commenced to set down perceptions and emotions about art with as much candor and as little guile as I could muster.

It worked. Headaches stopped. Writing time diminished astonishingly. Some art-world types got huffy because the writing lacked the oracular pretensions common to the genre. Others found the work agreeable. It was gratifying that those others tended to include literate members of the lay public and artists. In short, I started my tenure by deciding not to worry about the role of the critic. Ever since, when the question comes up I find myselfleery and puzzled. There is this feeling that when somebody asks you about the role of the critic what they really want to do is to tell you what it is and how to play it. …

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