I’m easy. I can be lured away by beauty, incongruity, formal rigor, brilliant execution, prescient wit, the elegant solution, the titillating thrill of art. But from the start, my heart has belonged to art that asks the big human questions about what it means to live in this world and to die of it. This turns out to be a startlingly capacious category. Think Jasper Johns, or, for that matter, Barnett Newman.
My job description as an art critic, as I see it, is professional interpreter. I translate the language of the eye into words with the capacity to weigh, parse, describe, contextualize, make connections, and bear witness to the inchoate and evanescent. All this was a lot easier in the days when the crafty world of Jasper Johns, however cryptic, could be approached by hard looking, researching what he wrote and what he read, and drawing on shared experiences of place and culture. Particularly culture.
Remember, way back before the turn of the ’80s, when the culture we all shared in our circumscribed art world was European in origin, American in realization, Modernist in its roots, and Post-Modernist in its irony and disaffection? For a while such short-hand knowledge seemed sufficient, even when applied to the art from the margins of our society which we began to notice with the Decade Show that overflowed the Studio Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, and the New Museum in 1990. But it wasn’t enough, not then and certainly not now.
Recent revisionist exhibitions have hammered home just how much we overlooked. Alexandra Munroe’s Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 – 1989, at the Guggenheim Museum in 2009 itemized the scope of the Asian influences on American art. Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward delineated the impact of homosexual experience in their 2011 exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” at the National Portrait Gallery.
Blinkered readings simply aren’t up to comprehending, let along explicating, the art from far flung corners of the globe which has been crisscrossing borders since before the turn of the new century. Artists who engage the big questions do so out of their own cultures, their own histories, out of local commentaries on larger discourses. As critics we’re at a real disadvantage here. We start by knowing so little, we’re ignorant of what we don’t know.
Nevertheless, it’s irresponsible to write about the art of El Anatsui, Sanja Ivecovi, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, William Kentridge, Shirin Neshat, or Walid Raad, to name just a few, without making a concerted effort to get where they come from. This was brought home to me in 1987 in Moscow, where I first encountered Kabakov and his circle: Eric Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, Andrey Monastyrsky, Pavel Pepperstein, Igor Makerevich. Their discussions were complex, nuanced, informed, and as foreign to a New Yorker as the lives they led. Their art meant one thing within that discourse, and something entirely simplistically other without its benefit.
Of course the perfume of extraordinary art transcends coherent understanding. Of course, the uninitiated can get the experience—or at least an experience—even in ignorance. It is we critics who have our work cut out for us. Forget about staying home and watching from the window. There’s a whole world out there.