Everything That Matters
In the fall of 1999, I showed up at the opening of an art exhibit curated by the painter and owner of Sideshow Gallery Richard Timperio at Planet Thai, then at its original location at 7th Street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Milling about drinking Tsingtao, I fell into conversation with a very short, compact man with a clean-shaven head, a heavy Vietnamese accent, and an unprecedented, evangelical love of art, literature, and ideas. Eventually Phong Bui and I ended up outside on the sidewalk, chain-smoking and talking feverishly about Herman Melville, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Arshile Gorky, Meyer Schapiro, Isaiah Berlin, Carl Theodor Dreyer, medieval Vietnamese poetry, and the New York Knicks, in no particular order. At some point Phong suggested that I try my hand at writing about art. And within a few months, I began writing art criticism for the Brooklyn Rail, first online and then in its print edition
Though I had originally wanted to be a painter and I had continued to haunt galleries and museums, I had never seriously considered becoming an art critic. I did not, in the first place, have much interest in evaluating works of art or exhibitions, arguing that they are good or bad, powerful and illuminating or irrelevant, nor did I have much attraction to the issues that preoccupied writers for art publications like October in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, though I admire real scholars, I was wary of being a “specialist,” since I had always thought of myself as a generalist, a humanist, and I wanted to keep in that way. My fears were, it soon became evident to me, completely unfounded, since there are countless examples, from Diderot and Baudelaire on the Paris Salons to Roger Fry on Cézanne to Guy Davenport and Lawrence Weschler on more or less everything, of writers who managed to write about the visual arts from a broad perspective. For me, art is just one among the many ways of thinking about life and the world, and for that reason I think of writing about art, from feature essays to short reviews, as participatory rather than prescriptive: I contemplate and write about art because I’m interested in new and deeper ways of envisioning the world, and it is this envisioning that I’m drawn to more than any narrowly defined category called “art.” If I were to write a review of an exhibit that, it turned out, did not exist in reality but had come to me in a dream, that would be fine with me, nor would it matter if a particular sculpture I had gone on about proved on closer inspection to be the product of a geological process rather than the human hand.
Apart from the vagaries and corruption of the art market, which I do my best to ignore, the evolution of the art world over the past decade or so has suited my eclectic approach to writing about art. The 20th century was, as is well known, the age of fierce aesthetic movements from Cubism and Futurism to Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and everything in between, and criticism made it its business to take sides. It was not enough for abstract forms to be a legitimate type of art; they had to render illusionistic art obsolete and even backward. It was not enough for conceptual artists to propose that ideas could be works of art without ever materializing in the world; they had to imply that traditional art objects, focused as they are on craft and visual beauty, are morally and politically troubled. Friends were lost over these issues, punches thrown. This era is decisively over, and while it is easy to feel nostalgic about the passionate debates that once took place over abstract versus figurative painting or the politics of representation, this is almost certainly a good thing—for both artists and writers. Whether based in Los Angeles, New York, London, Berlin, Mexico City, or Shanghai, artists today by and large do whatever they feel like doing. They paint dense abstractions packed with allusions to the history of painting, like Bill Jensen; they paint vast, ecstatic visions using everything from the kitchen sink and more, like Chris Martin; they film intractable, private allegories, like Matthew Barney; they sit motionless in museums for hours, like Marina Abramovic; they organize extemporaneous sit-ins, like Thomas Hirschhorn. Aesthetics has undergone a process similar to what has happened to religion in the West since the Reformation: it has become less sectarian, more a matter of private devotion.
Critics today have significantly less impact on the careers of artists than they did even 25 years ago: both the art world and the media are too vast and amorphous for any single publication like the New York Times to have ultimate authority. This, I think, liberates critics from their traditional role as arbiters of taste (there are no such arbiters anymore) to being what I think of as instigators of conversations. I write about art that helps me think about questions I regard as important—the nature of memory and personal identity; our relationship to the natural world in an era of dwindling resources and vanishing wilderness; our longing for transcendence—and that I think my readers will find important as well. As a general rule, I prefer to write for general interest publications rather than art magazines because I think of art as addressing, not a cadre of specialists, much less academic theorists, but anyone interested in thinking about and reimagining the world, and those are the people I want to speak to. In a way, I don’t think either art or art criticism exists at all; there is just the mind and the imagination, people making things and people writing about things. In the end, what I aspire to as someone who writes about art is to recreate my initial experience of talking to Phong Bui 13 years ago: a passionate conversation about everything that matters.