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. I come from a family of writers, but I was terribly dyslexic and couldn’t read or write until fairly late. And then it was such a challenge, and so many people assumed I was “slow,” that I was a very hesitant reader. I didn’t start to really write until college, where I discovered art.
Years later I found my way into a fledgling program in Art Writing run by David Levi Strauss. In the opening seminar he asked us to write 500 words describing what we thought criticism could be. I found that text. It’s bouncy and jocular, but it lacks sincerity. I’ve been writing art criticism for almost a decade now, and it means more to me now than it ever has.
You see, our country just elected a leader who is unabashedly hostile to his critics and considers the media in general to be insidious and untrustworthy. He is a cultural-barrier builder, and I have always understood art to be one of the greatest bridges to appreciating cultures other than our own. Culture is the character of a society and the product of creative labor. To appreciate the labor of another person is to validate their effort. To appreciate the culture of another society is to validate your own. Criticism is one way of doing both.
I didn’t know that when I started out; it’s something I learned along the way. I also learned that the act of concentrated critical attention can be a path to discovery, and that giving your attention as fully as you can to the products of another person’s creative labor can be deeply fulfilling. What art criticism fails to return in financial gains, it makes up for in immeasurable personal enrichment. Money can buy things that bring pleasure, but pleasure is not the same as happiness.
I don’t want to give you the impression that writing criticism is fun. It’s not. It’s work. A lot of work, actually. And there are a lot of people who don’t value it. I have felt frustrated, stifled, burnt out, and at times deeply cynical about the role of criticism in the art world. But that’s politics. That’s separate from the relationship of the writer to her subject. To be nakedly honest, I write art criticism for myself. I write to know what I think, to try and understand what I feel, because for me there is true joy in the culmination of a well articulated and fully realized pattern of thought.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.