I see no fundamental difference between art criticism and the criticism of dance or poetry or movies or any other creative endeavor. I regard all criticism as related, more or less, and I believe that the critic, before all else, is an individual with tastes and passions and prejudices. There is no disinterested criticism, at least not that I want to read. What I do want to read is the critic who is immersed in the particulars of an art form and who can convey the excitement of artistic experience. I also read criticism to see how the arts fit into a broader context, how artists relate to audiences and audiences relate to artists, and how the work of art relates to the workings of society. There is no particular way for a critic to proceed, although the best critics persuade me, at least as long as I am reading them, that criticism ought to be written in their particular way. Nabokov titled a collection of his interviews and occasional prose Strong Opinions, and without strong opinions there is no possibility of criticism. That’s one thing of which I am absolutely sure. Speaking of my own work as a critic, there are times when all I want to do is describe my strong response to a painter’s recent work. At other times what interests me is how museumgoers are responding to a blockbuster show. What I write is a function of what I’m feeling at a particular time. The challenge is to explain what I feel in such a way that my readers can feel it too.
As to how the writing gets done, all I can say is that the critical voice must be alive on the page. The art of criticism is a mongrel form, wonderfully so, a literature that grows out of the absolutely natural desire to discuss our reactions to paintings, movies, novels, symphonies, and poems. The argument that the only way to learn to do something is by doing it holds especially true for criticism, which by its very nature arises from the hurly-burly of immediate experience. The critic must be compelled to write. Otherwise, criticism is closer to reportage, a different matter entirely, without the fierce, fiery, intimate emotions that fuel the critic’s art. Critics will quite naturally draw some of their language from the shoptalk of artists. They will also reach for whatever seems useful in the literary toolbox, and can certainly learn a lot from poets, novelists, and nonfiction writers of all kinds. The critic can wax philosophic or turn to the lessons of history. Or the critic can do nothing of the kind. Criticism is essentially improvisational, intuitive. And the critic who is lucky enough to have a regular gig must constantly struggle against the regularization of taste, method, and opinion. The predictable critic is a worthless critic. This helps to explain why some of the best criticism has been written by poets, painters, and philosophers; by men and women, in other words, who were occasional critics, writing not as professionals but as impassioned observers. I could endlessly cite examples, but it will suffice to mention James Merrill on Corot, Fairfield Porter’s “Against Idealism,” Merleau-Ponty on Cézanne, and Sartre on Calder and Giacometti. Another important point is that criticism does not need to be accurate in order to be great. Gertrude Stein’s little book about Picasso and Walter Pater’s study of Giorgione are masterpieces of hyperbole, wildly speculative, and yet they take us to the heart of the matter.
As for how critics are doing today, the times are surely as challenging as they ever have been, if not more so, but I do believe that where there is a will there is a way. The shrinkage of print media has certainly been disastrous for criticism. And in the art world a new Gilded Age has made a mockery of critical discernment. In the face of all this, critics must do what they have always done best, which is to present strong impressions and opinions in beautiful prose. I fell in love with criticism when I was still in high school, inflamed by Edmund Wilson’s attack on Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin and Pauline Kael’s takedown of Antonioni’s Blow-Up. What I responded to in those essays was an anger sharpened and energized by the love of an art form. Their attacks were celebrations. They taught me that criticism matters because art is a big part of what makes life worth living. That is still true today. Nobody can persuade me otherwise.
JED PERL is the art critic for the New Republic. Among his books are New Art City, Antoine’s Alphabet, and Eyewitness. A new collection of his essays, Magicians and Charlatans, has just been published by the Eakins Press Foundation.