Magazine article Artforum International

Critical Reflections

Magazine article Artforum International

Critical Reflections

Article excerpt

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. …

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