“In view of the some four thousand publications on Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio,” the author of a very recent book about him writes, “one might think that everything that could possibly be said about the artist has been said—but not by authors currently reaching for their pens or switching on their laptops.”* No doubt the verbosity of commentary on old masters is partly an inevitable product of our ignorance. Because we know so little about Caravaggio’s life, discussion involves speculation. But as the bibliography in the exhibition catalogue of almost any mid-career figure reveals, famous contemporary artists also inspire endless commentary. Cindy Sherman has enthused maybe as many and as varied interpretations as Caravaggio. This art writing literature is massive because there are so many writers. Academics need to gain tenure; independent scholars seek recognition; and up-and-coming artists want to be discussed. When there is so much writing, inevitably there is a great deal of repetition.
In this situation, it’s natural to worry that visual art is being overwhelmed by the mass of words devoted to its interpretation. When we write more and more, can we still see the art itself? I have long been fascinated by the gap—spatial and temporal—between looking at visual art and writing about it. No doubt this fascination is partly a product of my personal situation: I live in Pittsburgh but mostly see art in New York. People who are within walking distance of the galleries face the same situation. And even if you carry a publication into the exhibition, still, you must refocus and turn to the art it describes. Try this test then: Go before the work of art itself and see if your reading changes how you see. If it does not, then perhaps the interest of that publication is, to be very polite, merely sociological.
Many years ago, Leo Steinberg gave me a great piece of advice. Always have a large image of what you are writing about in front of you. A good interpretation should reform your experience of the art itself. This gap between looking and reading is a gap that can be bridged only when the writer’s interpretation causes the art to move, as it were, right before your eyes. What we really experience, then, is a hybrid—the work of art as seen by the art writer. That experience cannot be easily undone. Once Steinberg called attention to the site-specific features of some Caravaggios, it was not possible to see them as straightforward exercises in naturalism, as was earlier the case. Of course, only strong interpretations have this radical effect. Since deep originality in art writing is as rare as in the arts themselves, nearly all commentary merely repeats the claims of such revisionist accounts. The problem, then, is not that we have too much writing, but that we have too little great art writing. To find significant young artists, you need comfortable walking shoes. To identify promising writing about visual art sitzfleisch is demanded.
*Note: My opening quotation comes from Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012). My Writing About Visual Art (New York: Allworth, 2003) discusses this gap between art and art writing.
David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.