The Ineluctable Task
Since I completed the Art Writing MFA program, the majority of my professional writing has consisted of exhibition reviews. I am also a painter, though I write more than I paint, so I tend to identify myself as a writer who paints, rather than a painter who writes. This kind of eagerness to clarify and compartmentalize is also evinced in the parceling of criticism against art writing. Criticism connotes judgment, and judgment implies good or bad, which in turn suggests prejudice. Or, we can say something along the lines of: “art writing is the field; criticism is one mode within it.” For some time now, the artist’s voice has eclipsed that of the critic. Every exhibition now includes an artist’s talk, and these are often augmented by the contributions of a critic or a curator. Artists are engaged in auto-criticism—they come out of school hungry to talk about their work in private and in print. The artist’s discussion of the work often precedes one’s encounter with it, so our de facto task, as critics, is to enter into a conversation rather than to make an assessment.
For our first assignment in his class, Levi asked us to write 500 words about what we thought criticism is. In my response, I stressed the importance of asserting one’s voice while maintaining the integrity of the work or works in question. Four years on, I find this to still be one of the more confounding requirements of writing criticism. How do you discuss an exhibition without simply describing a room full of objects? How do you quantify value without getting hung up on the market? Good criticism should be an amalgam of pleasure and curiosity that is made evident in the writing.
I am currently working on a volume of selected writings by the narrative painter Rosemarie Beck (1923 – 2003). I wrote my graduate thesis about her as a way to test my interest, to see if I could sustain my curiosity of her beyond school, with the hope that my work would eventually evolve into a biography. Working on this project has helped me to clarify whatever confusion I may have about the use-value of criticism. It can be easy to become cynical about the role of writing reviews as being an extension of public relations, but the review remains a historical document that, if we are lucky, will enter into a future discussion about an artist. For example, when I consult a review written in, say, 1955 or 1999, that small piece of writing situates a show, the artist and even, to some extent, an audience, in a time and place. When I found a publisher willing to work on a book of Beck’s writing, I felt a little guilty that I had put her words, not her visual work, in the foreground. But I came across the following statement from one of her early journals that addressed the situation: “Why artists should try criticism: responsibility for establishing values.”