I write criticism so as to put my mind to work on things I’ve seen that have triggered new sensations and more generally altered my perceptions of the world, things that have, as a consequence, prompted me to seek new information and hatch fresh ideas. I write criticism in order to explore how words succeed or fail to capture, communicate and transform experience, how the plasticity of language responds to or recasts the plasticity of those things under scrutiny and the dynamics of the context in which they are encountered.
I read other critics who do the same thing regardless of whether I agree with them since I frequently disagree with myself. I do not read critics who make a priori accord on principles, methods, or taste a precondition for exploring art that we have in common. I have lost all patience with those who borrow their authority from “masterminds” especially when they have built their reputation on undoing master narratives. I assiduously avoid those who trumpet their belief in “transgression” and “difference” while refusing to entertain concepts or canons that differ from their own or tolerate work or opinions that violate their sense of the “rightness” of things. Most of them avoid me as well which I take as a clear sign that they lack the courage to face a challenge from anyone who might put them on the spot; but then, bullies and bloviatiors are usually cowards at heart.
I once read certain stylists for their style, but found that too often their style failed to evolve but instead calcified into pure rhetorical mannerisms that could only find expression in a narrow range of topics—loves and hatreds—and that these mannerisms in turn became a product, a brand. Good luck to them, I’ve stopped following their act.
I never had any sympathy for critics who, as critics, aspire to “power”—over artists, over coteries of other writers, over university art departments (history or studio, take your pick though you can readily identify the type of ambition a critic has by which one s/he attempts to dominate), over collectors (I’ve been offered small fortunes to advise people what to buy and have consistently told them it is cheaper to purchase the magazines and books where my opinion appears), over curators, over dealers, and over “the market.” Aside the entreaties of collectors, I am fortunate in having been tempted by such hubris and cupidity in virtually all domains and am thankful that I was smart enough to avoid their siren song. Largely this is due to having made a close study of the prodigiously talented, prodigiously corrupt Clement Greenberg and his epigones and apostates and the myriad ways in which he and they spoiled their own criticism in pursuit or preservation of power that they never should have wanted nor ever thought would be theirs for long if it ever came to them at all.
Those who lament criticism’s loss of influence are barking up the wrong tree. Its loss of outlets is a serious matter though because it means that less gets said—unedited blogs where too much is said with too little fact-checking and too much self-indulgent writing don’t count—and fewer readers have a chance to enter the dialogue and assess the quality of both art and conversation it engenders. Nevertheless, criticism’s loss of capacity to determine the course of art history—as distinct from reflecting upon art history’s unpredictable twists and turns—grants critics the freedom they need to think the unthinkable. Freedom, that is, from “holding positions” and defending the indefensible when they should instead be moving quickly and ranging widely. Freedom, also, from the self-important delusion that you can “make art history” with a catchy phrase—as a scolding school marm in newsprint, class clown on glossy paper—or enter the halls of literature—as a wannabe Oscar Wilde or Chuck Baudelaire (without having written the plays, novels, or poetry necessary for securing your place)—or enter the pantheon of scholarship occupied by Leo Steinberg and Meyer Schapiro—by insisting that your students and camp followers cite you obsequiously in their dissertations and articles.
I began writing criticism by exchanging impressions of exhibitions I had gone to with a correspondent who attended many of them with me. Eventually I went from writing letters to friends to writing letters to the editor—actually just one, a letter whose polemical nature for a time earned me the friendship and support of a veteran writer who put me in contact with Betsy Baker at Art in America. She gave me a break and there I learned my craft. I owe that former friend thanks for a leg up and I owe Betsy and my editor Joan Simon everything for my apprenticeship. Currently I write regularly for Art Press in Paris, Corriere della Serra in Milan, the Rail in Brooklyn, and for museums and gallery catalogs around the world. I am still writing letters to a reader about things I have seen and thought, art and issues that really matter to me and I think might matter to the reader. And every time I sit down to write I repeat to myself the lines of Ezra Pound that I quoted when it was my turn to edit this section of the Rail: “What thou lovest well remains, all the rest is dross,” and “nothing matters but the quality of affection—in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind.”
ROBERT STORR is an artist, critic, and curator.