The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is a self-inflicted wound that will not heal anytime soon. It will fester and infect other parts of the Social Body for years to come.
Is it evading the question “what is criticism?” to ask instead what criticism does, what it can do, in 2016?
Criticism, like life, but unlike a pear, is too big and too abstract a concept to be easily grasped by hands or intellect. The concept of friendship is possessed of this quality, too.
America was white hot. It seemed that we, the people, couldn’t hold our country. Or, perhaps, the country just couldn’t hold all of us. Misunderstanding, disaffection, recrimination, accusation, bloviating, and lies: a swirling smog of rhetoric cloaked us all. What words could possibly cut through?
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, the craft of criticism feels more urgent than ever, a skill to continually hone at all costs. When I was first asked the question, “What is criticism?” upon entering the Art Writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts five years ago, I’d suggested that good criticism, in the context of considering art, is a civility.
Well, the truth is that I am. At least, I sometimes write about tech. I’m sorry I am, but it pays the bills. I’ve accepted that no one will ever pay me a month’s rent for a day spent looking at and writing about art.
I’ve found that Bob Nickas describes criticism best in his recurrent references to “biting the hand that feeds.” I can’t recall admiring a demure piece of criticism.
I was part of the first class to graduate from SVA’s Art Criticism and Writing program. I started a Ph.D. program two years later, a move that split me between the world of criticism and the academy.
The art world is, equally, a realm where believing goes beyond seeing: pure, untamed thought is rendered on blank pages and empty gallery walls. That is what makes it brave and exciting.
Since I completed the Art Writing MFA program, the majority of my professional writing has consisted of exhibition reviews. I am also a painter, though I write more than I paint, so I tend to identify myself as a writer who paints, rather than a painter who writes.
Pain, whether it is experienced in the body or the mind, often provokes the desire to withdraw, protect, or avoid—to anesthetize rather than discern.
English is not my mother tongue. I arrived at the American field of art criticism like an alien arrives in an idealized land with a sole piece of luggage. I had to invent familiarity with spoken, written, and seen repertoires at the same time that I had to write at ease, as if I were sitting at home on my cozy sofa, so that readers could engage with my language.
This year, it seems, has been an endless stream of events labeled catastrophes. The refugee crisis, Brexit, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, the failed Colombian peace referendum, Aleppo, Standing Rock, innumerable terrorist attacks across the globe, and now the election of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States.
I want to tell you what criticism is to me, and why I write it. But first I want you to know how I got involved with art criticism. It was not by design; it was a development that grew out of a basic gut level adoration of art.
In these dark, unshakable, post-election days—when terrible contingencies claw at one’s balance—what is an art writer to do? Language feels imperiled, rhetoric thrown about like confetti and calcifying into a divisive wall of apathy.