Notes on Looking, Thinking, and then Writing
“Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as ‘evidentiality,’ inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay.”
—Joshua Foer, “Utopian for Beginners,”
The New Yorker, Dec 24, 2012
The problem is not too many words; it’s the way they are used.
Imagine if art writers had no choice but to indicate “evidentiality.” Instead of interposing received ideas between the writer—and therefore the reader—and the work in question, wouldn’t Wakashan grammar impose a useful critical responsibility?
Habits of academic discourse distance us from art rather than articulate and nurture whatever experiences the work affords. Language that is abstract, generalized, and categorical becomes a barrier against and sometimes even a protection from the art in question. We speak of “beauty,” “pleasure,” or “nature” as though the words were adequate rather than taking it on ourselves to specify: what sort of beauty? What particular pleasures? What nature? Such descriptions may depend on metaphor, requiring the skills of a novelist or poet. Think of Baudelaire, Rilke, Issac Rosenberg, Frank O’Hara, Peter Schjeldahl, Bill Berkson, and too many other worthies to name here. Artists with a literary bent: Eugene Fromentin, Marsden Hartley, Gowing, Porter, Forge, Peter Plagens, and again, too many to name, are also often adept at eliciting the singular qualities that animate a work.
Critics might learn a lot from studio talk, the mix of observations, subjective responses, questions, advice, and random remarks while paying attention to the work itself. Attention to the work’s formative stages, its process, would also be part of the conversational mix.
Much art historical writing and criticism sometimes lump together artists of distinctly differing qualities in order to cite movements or construct historical theses. Often this happens to support a polemic or, by generalizing, to support a soft entrée into a new complex of styles. “Pop Art,” for example, grouped diverse and distinctly different artists by linking them categorically to “popular culture.” The term signaled a break between its designated artists and the established artists and critics who proclaimed schlock and commercial imagery to be enemies of art. But “popular culture” is itself a gross generalization, suggesting some monolithic entity. In fact, the Pop artists went to different locations for their material: Warhol to low-end notices on matchbooks, trade magazines, the supermarket; Roy Lichtenstein to narrative cartoons; James Rosenquist to magazine and billboard advertising; Oldenburg to all sorts of everyday stuff. And all of them moved on in different directions.
“Pop” also suggested a domain of fun and final release from the strictures of high culture. What about Warhol’s persistent morbidity? The social critique of Rosenquist’s F-111? The diverse appropriations that were Pop’s legacy to deconstructionists like Richard Prince, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger (themselves so different from one another)?
I am not making a case for anti-intellectualism. Building on perceptual and emotional experience, the intellect’s functions, “the logic of organized sensations which give the means of expression” (Cézanne’s words) is indispensible and ultimately inseparable from seeing and feeling.
For a musician the study of theory before some experience of making music has its cost. Jazz musician Willie Ruff told about asking a student in a well-regarded program to play a line of music. “What period?” the student wanted to know, unable to respond in a direct fashion, “What style?”
Do our undergraduate, M.F.A., and Art History M.A. methods of instruction wean students from intimacy with actual works of art rather than illuminating them? My advice to one who would write about museum or gallery exhibitions is simple. Spend hours looking at art—every kind of art including what goes counter to taste. Put off verbalization rather than attempting to sum up what the work “says” or what your opinion might be. Write then about your experience of that work, testing your ideas against repeated encounters with it. And then look to the work’s larger context, its relevance to contemporary and historical art, and to whatever else—philosophical, political,sociological, historical—concerns you.
Equally important: delve into the literature concerned with visual arts. What furthers understanding, what merely categorizes or, worse, imposes its will or ideological stance on the work? What writing successfully characterizes the work rather than merely describes it?
If I am not here taking up questions of the crisis of the art world’s seeming devolution into a bazaar for the 1% and its corollary devaluation of critical discourse, it is because I too am stymied. It may be that much contemporary art and the discourse it engenders have become a special domain unto itself and that many of us are cultivating gardens whose significance must remain for the time being in question.