What follows is a guest post by Antonia Peacocke.
Art critics get a really bad rap. The stereotype of a critic is a haughty, pedantic grump who loves passing judgment on art—without being able to do anything creative themselves. According to the stereotype, critics are assholes ready to destroy the dreams of hopeful artists and intimidate the rest of us into feeling dumb.
This stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Critics—or, at least, great critics—are really not assholes. They love art, and artists too, and they are not here to intimidate the rest of us. To see the potential of great art criticism, it helps to read a great art critic.
Peter Schjeldahl is one of those great critics. He writes mostly about painting and other visual art. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker now, although he came up as a critic at The Village Voice. If you don’t know him already, I’m jealous: you have some great reading ahead of you. I recently bought and devoured his new book Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018.
Schjeldahl’s genius is completely wrapped up in his easiness: it’s not tough to read what he writes. He doesn’t befuddle you with art-world jargon, but he doesn’t insult your intelligence, either.
In an interview at the 2011 New Yorker Festival, Steve Martin asked him, “How did you escape artspeak?” Schjeldahl replied, “By being utterly unqualified for it. I mean, I have a high school diploma and I dropped out of college in the early ’60s and I never took an art course.” His humility seems sincere but misplaced. If he’s unqualified to write the unintelligible garbage that academics (sometimes) put out, he’s much better qualified to write well. Every philosopher knows how difficult it is to produce writing this simple.
Schjeldahl’s stuff is easy to read—but it’s also great as criticism, not just as fun breakfast-table reading. There’s one main reason why. He shows you how to appreciate art, by demonstrating how to do it yourself.
Before I say more, here’s an example of his doing this in a discussion of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie:
Look hard. That’s how to love Mondrian. … Maybe start … with Broadway Boogie Woogie. You have seen this jigsaw of colored lines and little squares many times. It is always up at MoMA. Now look hard. It is three pictures in one, each starring a color: red, yellow, blue. When you think red, the other hues defer. They do a jiggling routine in praise of the hero, red. When you think blue, blue steps out, and red joins the chorus. Then yellow, the same. (A fourth color, gray, shyly holds to a supporting role.) It really is like boogie-woogie piano, ping-ponging between left and right hands. (Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light pp. 256-7) [ed. note: links added]
What’s fabulous about this paragraph is how concrete and explicit the directions are. These are moves you can follow: back-of-the-box instructions for anyone. He’s getting as close as he can—in the medium of writing—to actually holding your hand, positioning you in front of the painting, and directing your gaze.
More important than physical positioning, though, is the direction of attention in art. Often we find art confusing or frustrating because we don’t even know what to attend to, or how to attend. The sophisticated attention-trick that Schjeldahl elegantly describes is to take in all the marks of one color at once, backgrounding the rest. That’s not something I would think to do before he recommended it. But once I did it, I understood better what there was to love in Mondrian—who had, I admit, left me cold for a long time.
Schjeldahl is ready with a kind, forgiving story about this common blindness:
It’s a dumb tack to take with most painting: to stare, to pitch into with your gaze, to burn holes in like a rube or a humorless child. Normal painting involves learned conventions. Not Mondrian. I promise you stabs of delight if you can gawk stupidly enough… (Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light p. 256)
As I sat around talking about these Schjeldahl essays with some other down-to-earth philosophers who write about aesthetics, we noticed something about him. He manages to demonstrate a method of looking without telling you what to see in the end. With Agnes Martin’s The Islands I-XII, for example, he writes, “it helps to shade your eyes. This causes tones to darken and textures to register more strongly” (p. 305). Or take another example: the better examples of Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe sculptures “function in the round,” he points out. “Circle them. Each shift in viewpoint discovers a distinct formal configuration and image” (p. 191).
Although Schjeldahl sometimes leaves out the upshot of his looking, he’s not hiding what he really thinks. Picasso is an “amateur—nearly a hobbyist—in sculpture,” and his Head of a Woman “fails” as a “painter’s folly;” Francis Bacon is, on the whole, overrated. A show of works by Willem de Kooning left him “beaten to a pulp of joy,” and Francisco de Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose is a “tour de force.” Final evaluations still have a place in this criticism, but they are not its primary purpose. The primary purpose is to welcome you into art, even if you’re not already into it, and keep you there.
Unlike other critics, Schjeldahl rarely takes pleasure in negative reviews. They’re often short, and sometimes funny, but you don’t get that puerile Burn-Book glee from reading his grumpy stuff. Usually you just feel (with him) a quiet and genuine disappointment that there could have been something there to love, but there wasn’t.
This critic makes a lot out of being unlike other critics. In 1981 he wrote:
many journalistic art critics today are testy, defensive, and carping… The average piece of bad criticism a decade ago cozied up to some rising artist or art idea and implied that anyone who couldn’t see the critic’s jargon as a form of higher common sense was an idiot. The average piece of bad criticism today reads like something from Consumer Reports. The art is tested; its tires are kicked. Pretensions to importance are attributed, inspected, and dismissed. The critic glories in remaining unmoved: “Ha ha, you missed me!” More artists hate — really hate — more critics today than ever before.
These remarks, republished by The Village Voice in February, still resonate today—that is, if you substitute in Rotten Tomatoes for Consumer Reports (does anyone but my parents pay that subscription fee any more?).
The model Schjeldahl offers instead is laid out in a manifesto (a “Credo”) that closes Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light. Here he identifies with Oscar Wilde’s model of active, autobiographical, emotional engagement with art in criticism.
Ironically, this last piece is the least compelling in the book. For an essay about “self-consciousness as a workaday tool,” it oddly lacks self-awareness. He gestures at a few general thoughts about criticism—the critic’s first-person report is an idealization of confidence; the unmoved critic is boring; two critics who agree are redundant—without properly characterizing what is so refreshing and wonderful about his own work.
Here’s what I got from this essay: there’s criticism, and then there’s philosophy of criticism. Philosophy is for the critic as ornithology is for the birds, we might say. (Sorry, sorry, I know.) Seeing what Schjeldahl is doing requires philosophical analysis. That’s not his forte—and why should it be? He’s an art critic. But even if he can’t express in abstract, general terms what is great about his own criticism, his methods express commitment to a certain model of criticism anyway. I’ll try and characterize this model, in my own mode as philosopher and not critic.
Schjeldahl’s methods use a demonstrative mode of criticism, one which takes the work of the critic to be just like the role of the aerobics teacher at the front of the class: show the rest of us how to do it. What is “it,” here? Appreciating art. What he shows us how to do is, more specifically, all sorts of things that allow us to fully appreciate art: attend like this; move around like that; try interpretations on for size, crazy as they may be; argue with yourself; physically come back for more, because you’ll forget what things look like without even knowing it. The measure of your (and the art’s own) success will be the love you find for a work. It won’t always be the same—love can be hot, cold, heavy, light—but you will feel it if it’s there.
Implicit in this demonstrative method of criticism is the insistence that you have to do it yourself. What’s “it,” again? Appreciating art—face to face. Making the connection with the Acquaintance Principle—given by Richard Wollheim in his influential 1980 book Art and Its Objects—is absolutely irresistible. The principle runs like this:
judgements of aesthetic value, unlike judgements of moral knowledge, must be based on first-hand experience of their objects and are not, except within very narrow limits, transmissible from one person to another (p. 233).
Here’s how it seems to me: Schjeldahl would be disappointed if you just took his word for it that de Kooning merits rapture, and Velázquez sheer wonderment. This critic invites, and occasionally demands, much more engagement with art, not less. He wants you to go and see for yourself, even (especially) after reading what he says. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be by yourself when you do go, if you’ve managed to turn Schjeldahl into a voice in your head. He writes, in his piece on Zurbarán, that
It helps when the specter of a particular person, who particularly loved particular things, stands at your shoulder, urging attention, inviting argument, and marveling at the shared good luck of being so entertained (p. 28).
It’s not surprising that this critic also used to be a professional poet. Schjeldahl published several volumes of poetry before quitting in the 1980s to become an art critic. There’s a piece in Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light that should certainly count as prose poetry. Here’s a sample of this ode to concrete, the building material and sometime art medium:
Concrete is the most careless, promiscuous stuff until it is committed, when it becomes fanatical. … Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to control it, concrete is a slut, a gigolo, of materials … Only give it a place to lie down, of any shape, and it will oblige. But let concrete set, and note the difference. … Once it has set, concrete becomes adamant, a Puritan, rock, Robespierre.
So let me take on the critic’s mantle for a moment and leave you with these words about Schjeldahl, practically plagiarized from the master himself:
Go read him. And read him with joy. It’s a dumb tack to take with most critics: to browse for fun, to drip milk from your breakfast cereal onto the pages of the book propped up with your coffee. Most criticism involves learned conventions. Not Schjeldahl. I promise you stabs of delight if you can giggle artlessly at his turns of phrase, and wonder with him in his love.
Notes on the Contributor
Antonia Peacocke is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. She loves visual art and she also writes short fiction.