Everyone likes to be proven right more times than not, but curators and art critics, because they occupy the front lines when it comes to shaping public consensus about an artist, exhibition, or related phenomenon, have a correspondingly disproportionate investment in the rightness of their opinions. Over time, I’ve found this to be a paradoxical situation, since being on the front lines requires one to make judgements on the spot (or very shortly thereafter) about developments that can’t reasonably be expected to seem fully coherent until many years later. So how is it advisable or even possible to issue a bulletproof opinion on a subject whose most self-evident characteristic is that its historical destiny cannot be predicted?
Another troubling aspect to the infallibility principle of art criticism—by which the value of your opinion is determined by the proportion of artists you choose to write about who are still considered relevant 10 or 20 years after the fact—is that contemporary art is never affixed with an unwavering value, even after it’s no longer seen as contemporary. What one generation opts to discard might be precisely what the next generation decides to pick up, dust off, and reinstate as the new gold standard for quality. Art history is an ever-shifting terrain, and it’s nearly impossible to predict in which directions future priorities will expand.
For those reasons and more, it seems that one of the less appreciated joys of such work is the constant opportunity it offers for anyone practicing it to commit errors of critical judgement in a public setting. Not only is there plenty of leeway to champion works by artists whose careers eventually fall by the wayside, but one is also constantly reminded of the many artists whose work you found yourself unable to support when they started out 15 or 20 years ago, and perhaps still don’t like today. That’s a funny thing about errors of omission and commission in the art world—firsthand evidence is often placed right back in front of you, offering a fresh reminder of your either being too slow to acknowledge something significant when it happened, or too darn stubborn to appreciate what’s making everybody else swoon.
While it can be helpful in refining one’s critical voice, having too much confidence in one’s own point of view can be a trap when it comes to art-writing. Back in the early 1980s, when I first began writing regularly for the former Arts Magazine, I decided that everything dubious and dodgy about the art world at that particular historical juncture could best be summed up by what seemed to me to be an ongoing public demonstration that Julian Schnabel’s art was, almost without exception, rubbish. That he was being lauded and lionized by people of influence and means, while simultaneously clinging to stale avant-garde principles of behaving controversially in public, seemed at the time all the more reason for me to use what minuscule platform I was given and take every available opportunity to call out the sham that I fully believed Schnabel’s career to be. Eventually, the world would come around to my point of view, and I’d be proven not just right, but prescient.
Was it wrong for me to indulge in gratuitous swipes at Julian Schnabel over the course of numerous published articles, the majority of which had nothing whatsoever to do with his work? Today, I’m genuinely stumped for an answer, and for a definition of what constitutes right and wrong in such a situation. Was it mean-spirited to of me to harp on what I perceived to be the Emperor’s New Clothes dimension of Schnabel’s fame? Probably so, yes. However, perhaps the more salient question to ask is whether I have changed my opinion about Schnabel in the meantime? The short answer is that he became a filmmaker, changing everything, and while I believe that two of his films were extremely well-made—and two others (including the most recent) were God-awful—I am only very slightly less turned off by his gallery work than I was 30 years ago. Finally, and more to the point, should my sliming of Schnabel be understood in retrospect as a valid reaction to something else occurring at the same moment in the art world, for which his ascendancy might be seen today as an early symptom? Granted, the art world of the Schnabel-ized 1980s is like a rustic country village compared to the hyper-monetized Wild West of today, but it often feels that the underlying transformation which made today’s high-stakes art frenzy possible can be traced back to that moment.
Another reason to cite the Schnabel example from 30 years ago is that, by every allowable metric of what’s good for the art community in general, good for my professional interests in particular, and good for the profession into which I was hoping at that time to insinuate myself, what I did was unequivocally boneheaded. I did not dignify myself or the practice of art criticism, nor did I contribute meaningfully to the existing discourse surrounding Schnabel’s work, and I certainly didn’t do any favors to whatever artists I was supposed to be writing about—until getting sidetracked by you-know-who. Much of what I wrote about Schnabel 30+ years ago was snide and peevish, with a far too generous dollop of righteous indignation, none of which cast me in a particularly flattering light at the time (or later). What it did accomplish, however, was to enable me to begin thinking through critical writing as a performative act, and teach me a lesson, which is that being right or wrong in one’s aesthetic judgements is not nearly as important as leaving behind a passionately argued record of what it means to respond to the art of one’s time, in real time. If I had the chance to go back, I wouldn’t change a thing.