WHIRLED PEAS AND LYING BY DEGREESby Shane McAdams
Every day, I pick up The New York Times from my stoop, slide it out of its blue sheath, unfold it, and scan the headlines as I weave back inside my apartment. The headlines are always there, big news day or small, with a uniform urgency. Whether it’s an epic, civilization-changing tragedy, as in “U.S. Attacked,” on September 12, 2001, or routine Capitol Hill policymaking, such as today’s “Deal on Jobs Shows Limits of Push for Bipartisanship,” the front page is the showcase for the most notable events of the latest 24-hour cycle, even if that cycle fails to produce anything relatively notable.
Thus, we read lies every day. Not outright lies, but lies of context and degree. I’ve proposed for years that, in the absence of earthmoving events, the first few pages of any paper should be blank. So when our economy begins disintegrating, the story might make it to page two, suggesting grave, but not the gravest, importance. We’d save page one for Pearl Harbors and presidential assassinations. Balloon boys, O.J. Simpsons, Monica Lewinskys, World Series, even coal mining disasters, would live deeper within this sectionless broadside, to be organized strictly by degree of significance, based on a hypothetical arc of 1000 years. And the government would give a tax credit to subsidize the cost of the wasted blank pages dominating the paper’s exterior for 364 days of the year on the grounds that the improvement it bestows on the commonwealth would offset the cost of the newsprint. And since the overwhelming majority of front pages would be completely blank, they could be easily recycled.
This is a crackpot idea. But it serves to underscore the subjective mechanisms of journalism. If objectivity suffers in an expository endeavor like reporting, think about how fraught it is in editorial writing. After hitting the Lower East Side galleries last month in search of a compelling exhibition that never appeared, it occurred to me that delivering a review of the “most” resonant show, given the context, would be a disservice to readers expecting absolute, not relative, value. A lie by degree, in fact. I saw shows that were, according to the notes I took, “competent, but slightly derivative,” “unique and fun but way short on editing” and “terrible, but not dangerously or manipulatively enough to make an example of it.” From those critical seedlings sprouted nothing more than passing thoughts.
When a critic manages to wring 1000 words out of an unworthy subject, the deception is implicit (like an insignificant headline) and often goes unnoticed. I’ve never consciously freestyled in such a manner, but given the subjectivity endemic in art writing, it stands to reason that a portion of what we read has been extended with rhetorical cornstarch in lieu of substantial ingredients. If David Denby wrote a review of “The Hurt Locker” with the same obscurantist verve of Frieze magazine, David Remnick would drown in the hate mail. But art is generally more subjective than movies, and so it’s easier for art critics to untether their personal enthusiasms from the work itself and turn their texts into pure poetry, churning out words more in the manner of Willem de Kooning making a painting than of Thomas Hess’s description of Willem de Kooning making a painting.
Take for instance: frozen peas. What do I really think of frozen peas? Not much. They’re greener than the ones in the can, and firmer, too. I like them in stew, but usually not by themselves. Butter makes them better. If I go too far beyond that, I’d be lying to you by degree. Because I don’t care for more than 30 words about frozen peas.
Now, if I gobbled down a bunch of methedrine, a la Jack Kerouac, I could probably give you ten or twelve thousand words about frozen peas in eighteen minutes and still have time left to turn them (the peas) into soup. This effort, though, would distort my true feelings about peas. Nonetheless, the trusting reader might mistake my fulminating, maniacal enthusiasm for real criticism and leave the bathroom with an elevated opinion of peas, harboring a lie-by-degree that might be relayed into the public consciousness over pints of draught beer at the Half King on a Saturday afternoon (I should only be so lucky.)
In art, Anselm Reyle’s show last year at Gagosian would be my frozen peas. If you asked me to summon 800 words about it, every one after “eh, if you’re in the area and have eight minutes to run into Gagosian…” would be a misleading attempt to dredge up feelings that weren’t generated at the point of contact. I’m not being coy, either. It wasn’t a terrible show; it was more provocative than looking at blank walls, but less moving than either Mark Flood’s show at Zach Feuer or John Stoney’s at Pierogi (two from last year that come to the top of my mind as being special). I hesitate to quote Peter Schjeldahl for the second month in a row, but he characterized this phenomenon very well recently: “with sufferance, boredom may give rise to odd ecstasies of interest.” I might add that those “ecstasies” may be parlayed into feverish writing that burns off any trace of the original subject.
Journalism is a more regulated discipline than art criticism (but then again, a random mudslide in the Andes is better regulated than art criticism). Journalism, though, also isn’t policed from within by a wealth of post-structuralist warnings and therapies for assessing the slipperiness of language and meaning. So you’d think that might make up for what we art writers missed at the Columbia J-school. However, Columbia is also graduating the editors who place climate summits on the same front page as beer summits—and we’ve already established that that’s nonsense.
With that as my rationale, I will not be writing a review of any of the shows I saw in the Lower East Side last month, and this defense of that position shall not be placed on the front page of the art section of the Brooklyn Rail, lest it deceive our viewers into thinking that any of my secondary opinions were more relevant than the first-hand criticism of writers who discovered art that they felt worthy of a review.