Artists and critics.
They go together like Chivas Regal and chocolate Kisses.
Never mind which is which.
The time-worn contention
between the two is like moving forever around one of those
Grecian urns Keats poeticized. But there's nothing pretty
about brickbats. Peter Schjeldahl's recent review in the
New Yorker is so jeering, it's worthy of a black
belt in computer karate. He called Frank Stella's paintings
at Paul Kasmin Gallery "shrieking ugly ongeries of tortured
aluminum (that) would make wake the dead and make them
want to be dead again."
In seeming stony surprise
at Schjeldahl's barb, Art News' April edition made
a special note of it in the current issue, along with
a line from another critic's blast
at Stella's work, this time at his sculpture at the National
Gallery last year: Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post
said the artist "made an action sculpture
that is a calculated monument to mess." You could almost
hear Art News giving out with a collective whistle
of astonishment. I don't get it.
This isn't the first time
that Art News' breath left its institutional body
in the face of harsh reviews. A decade ago editor Milton
Esterow opined under the headline:
"Have the Critics Become Meaner? Yes. No. Maybe."
There was no maybe about it, according to Esterow. It
was as Art News were longing to recapture some
remembered gentility among critics.
But nothing in art history
fits the description. This goes for literature, as well.
Some of my favorite books have gotten lambasted:
Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast
of Champions. In 1973, Peter Prescott of Newsweek
said: "From time to time its nice to have a book
you can hateit clears the pipesand I hate
John Updike's Rabbit
Redux. In 1971 Book World jabbed it with this:
"It is leering, erratic, and gimmicky; it is disingenuous
and trite... at worst the shabby outrage of an imagination
damaged by indulgence..."
Of course, the success
of these books suggests how much critics matter, even
when I agree with them. In 1971, the New Statesman
said of Erica Jongs novel Fear of Flying
that it "devalues imagination in every line (and)
represents everything that is to be loathed in American
That 10 million copies
got into print from Japanese to Serbo-Croat and 20 other
languages suggests how much critics' views matter, mean
Stella at Paul Kasmin Gallery
But criticism has mattered
in another way. Consider all the mean reviews in art history
that have turned into respectable art speak.
Baroque comes from the
disparaging old Portuguese word "barrueco," meaning an
ill-shaped pearl. On account of its exaggerated colors
and shapes, baroque art, considered grotesque to lovers
of proportion and symmetry
in the Renaissance, enjoys a reputation today as the ancestor
of modern art.
And while critic Louis
Vauxalles intended the word fauves (beasts in French)
as ridicule of wildly colorful works, the word ended up
as a high-falutin' description of intensely colored expressionist
Even the word gothic came
out of a jibe. Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari, looking
down on artists living across the Alps from him for their
brand of beauty, referred to them as "these goths, these
barbarians untutored in the true classics." Today, the
term gothic is held in high regard as a style that celebrates
Which makes the century-old
Art News' quick breaths of astonishment, well,
astonishing. Who should know better than a long-lived
art magazine that today's hard-hitting reviews may be
tomorrow's fields of glory from which art movements
A possibility for a new
one comes to mind. The word grim, which Time magazine
art critic Robert Hughes has used to describe the National
Museum of Women in the Arts, may end up in art dictionaries
as, say, grim-ism.
The term would mean dogged
guerrilla girlishnesssort of an artsy counterpart
to a hard-hearted Hannah.
Not that high praise always
defines high art. Remember the wife of Willem de Kooning
who had sex with two Art News critics, Harold Rosenberg
and Thomas Hess? Their high praise helped to make the
Stella had the right idea.
When asked for his take on the recent slams, he told Art
News: "This clearly doesn't have much to do with me.
It all has to do with the viewer."