Prelude: Roberta Smith
Gilbert Vicario, a curator in the department of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, speaks to preeminent New York Times critic Roberta Smith about the state of the arts, criticism and things to come. Smith will be delivering a lecture on November 15, 2007, at the Menil Collection as the fourth speaker in The Annual Art Lies Critics Lecture series. This conversation continues online at www.artlies.org.
Gilbert Vicario: How did you become interested in writing art criticism?
Roberta Smith: Like many critics, I backed into it, in my case through the letters to the editor page of Artforum, during my first year or so in New York after college. Robert Pincus-Witten, the most prominent critic of the moment, published an article on Donald Judd in Artforum. I had studied Judd’s work in depth the year before, during a semester at the Whitney Independent Study Program. I took great issue—umbrage, really—with Pincus-Witten’s piece. It was a perfectly fine article; I was merely in the throes of what might be called an unexamined sense of territoriality about Judd. Anyway, I wrote a long, contentious, probably incoherent letter that Artforum eventually published, cut by half. Two people who read the letter (at full length) said they thought I might make a good critic.
The idea had never occurred to me consciously, but it thrilled me and it made sudden sense. For one thing, it explained why I felt so competitive with Pincus-Witten’s piece. For another, I had loved reading Judd’s criticism, which I had largely memorized. Maybe it was luck that I hadn’t read much else. His example—a stylish voice, plus compact, lucid description plus opinion—made the basic mechanics of criticism very clear. It was a great place to start.
GV: What do you think is the current state of art criticism?
RS: In many ways I think we live in an amazing moment, when both art and language are very fluid and alive. Thanks to the Internet, the world is much, much smaller and everyone seems to be writing, and a lot of what they are writing is opinions. There are art magazines all over the place.
In other ways I don’t think it is so great. The kind of criticism I’m most interested in is daily or weekly criticism in newspapers or magazines. “Written in heat and published at once,” as H. L. Mencken put it. My heroes starting out were what I call working critics like Pauline Kael and Edmund Wilson. For me, criticism is something you do regularly for a big audience in real time as the medium you are covering unfolds; it may also be that you have to have an editor, which means I tend to discount a lot of the blogs. This also means that the state of the criticism that interests me most is very dependent upon how it is viewed by executive editors and publishers, and this is becoming a bit scary in some places. But anyway, art magazines often have wonderful essays, and I think the best people writing for them are journalistic—Dave Hickey, Bruce Hainley, Rhonda Lieberman and Barbara Kruger. But it is hard to become a critic by writing once a month.
I also think that a lot of art criticism has gotten too far from the object, from helping us see art and basing judgments on what is seen. Too many critics ignore their own responses and write about what they think is in some way correct. There is a lot of what I would call “wishful looking” in art criticism these days.
GV: As a fellow American, what are your thoughts on the 2007 Venice Biennale?
RS: I found the Biennale very disappointing. Orderly and clean and spacious, but stale—not very daring. Or perhaps very out of balance. In the Italian Pavilion, I felt that Robert Storr did not go beyond the limits of his own experience and knowledge, or that of his core audience either. As far as I’m concerned, he basically curated his résumé: a kind of medley of artists he’s long admired, been close to and organized retrospectives of. Plus, at the Italian Pavilion, the art seemed very segregated, with most artists’ work isolated in separate spaces and almost nothing carrying over from gallery to gallery. Then in the Arsenale, I felt Storr went very far afield of his knowledge and his best instincts, yet came up with the same kind of art again and again—art with overt social or identity concerns that was otherwise dry and didactic. There were a handful of interesting new artists, but everything tended to look and feel the same.
I heard that Storr, or defenders of the show, said the Biennale was not for “us,” not for the art world, but the notion that you can’t attract multiple audiences—an informed one and a general one at the same time —is a very lame excuse. You hear it from the big American museums all the time. And the Tate Modern, for one, has demonstrated that museums can do both and it is very exciting.
The tameness of the Biennale was further accented by the nervy, innovative, bracing feel of Documenta 12. It reflected an incredible amount of thought that was available to the viewer through the artworks themselves. Did art get used to make points? Yes. Were there dull spots and forced juxtapositions? Yes. Did I like all the pinpoint lighting? No. But the show looked like the curators, Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, had set out with specific ideas and actually brought them off with a degree of clarity and efficiency that is very unusual in these big shows. I loved the kind of accumulating surveys you got of certain artists—John McCracken, Kerry James Marshall, Mira Schendel—whose work appeared again and again throughout the show in different company and contexts.
The five main spaces really felt like five separate curatorial ideas strung together by the recurring artists. By the time I reached the Schloss, I thought something had really happened to my ability to see art and its place in the world. What I admired most was the refusal to separate anything—not by medium, style, period, place of origin or supposed intention. I loved the cultural breadth and historic depth. It was truly global. And the show’s greatest refusal was the refusal to separate form and subject matter. It seemed to assert that all art is political, that all art is formal. And who knows? Maybe the Documenta curators were also just curating their CVs, but theirs just happened to be a lot less familiar.
GV: In my opinion, you’ve developed a great reputation as the voice of contemporary art at the New York Times. From a pedagogical perspective, what helps? A knowledge of art history or curatorial studies?
RS: I’ve learned just about everything on the job. It also helped, when I was starting out, to be given assignments that forced me to write about all kinds of art that I felt unprepared to deal with. Writing about lots of different kinds of art makes you understand the promisicuity of taste, which mitigates against rigid positions. And of course, nothing makes you learn like a deadline. To some extent we all learned that in school, but this is for real. In addition, I think most people are autodidacts, at least around art, although this fits the biases of my circumstances. I never went to graduate school; my college had almost no art history when I was there—just a few courses in the art department. Curatorial or critical studies were a thing of the future. In addition, I’m not sure you can learn to be a critic; it takes a certain kind of temperament, a balance of arrogance and modesty that is very particular: you start out critical and slightly bothered about lots of things, then you narrow it down. Criticism is a form of dissent.
And, of course, looking is essential. Looking, looking, looking and more looking. At all kinds of art in all mediums, from all periods; good, bad and indifferent, always trying to figure out why something attracts, repels or merely interests you. Doing this, you train your eye and build up a personal image bank that each subsequent artwork can both be measured against and added to. I think the more you see and absorb the more open you become, the more humbled. You also learn that all you can be, at base, is honest and that actually being honest about your experience is very, very hard. This gets back to wishful looking. You may know what you are supposed to think, you may know what your friends think, you know what you would like to think, but in the end, you can only write what you actually think or you won’t keep on writing.
GV: What do you think has been the most significant shift in contemporary art production in the last seven years?
RS: I’m not sure that something distinct has yet occurred in the twenty-first century. In fact, I think we are still sorting out all the changes that unfolded in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. I guess the globalization of the art world has become more complete. I think that women artists, both contemporary and historical, are coming more and more into their own. I think these changes started in the seventies and continue to expand on numerous fronts, with South American modernism being perhaps the most important. Generally the most exciting thing for me is the way younger artists, raised on theory, take it for granted and don’t see it as antithetical to art objects. But again, that’s probably my bias. I love performance and all that stuff, but I am primarily interested in what remains after the artist has left the picture, when it is just me and the artwork and the thought embedded therein. Basically my mind works better in front of art than it does just about anywhere else. Relatively speaking.