“I don’t think anyone here should be allowed to make a judgment about what I’m doing.” If I had to pick just one, that comment represents the moment I knew I needed to take a break from academia. Delivered to me by a beginning undergraduate student lodging a complaint about a professor, a criticism that not surprisingly unraveled, I remember sitting in my office and thinking “it’s time.” I promise it wasn’t my ego that provoked me to ask the student if they took the five minutes while they were waiting for me to do a Google search of my name. That went something like this: “You have no idea who I am, right? One bit of professional advice: try to know something about who you are about to meet. If you had taken a moment you would have realized you were going in to complain to someone who has been making judgements for a living as an art critic for nearly thirty years.”
Nonetheless, the greatest thing about art school is that there are always a few amazing young artists, and some of them I’ve taught have even gone on to become amazing young critics (plus curators, dealers, and even the rare collector). So many of them (thankfully) are open to examining their assumptions and knee-jerk reactions, and it’s been my experience that those that do end up making better art for themselves before they walk out the door.
Several years ago, when I was about the receive tenure for the first time, the head of the review board, a professor of Philosophy who I respect congratulated me on my work because “subjectivity is coming back.” I thanked him and reminded the committee that for me it never left.
One of my tired but true teaching clichés: “the great thing about art is that none of us get to be right.” Over the years I’ve gotten to enjoy being wrong so much that it has energized me to look back at my work to celebrate my most embarrassing moments. My favorite remains one of my earliest, about (of all things) the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1990: “The instructions ‘please take one’ were included on the checklist, which made the substantial asking price for each stack confusing, to say the least. They brought to mind the hundreds of flyers we get thrust into our faces on New York’s streets.”1
Ouch. Thankfully if you keep doing art criticism long enough you get to rise to the occasion, something I’ve been doing ever since with the life force that is Felix’s work.
The focus of this Guest Critic section is something I’ve been wanting to do for some time. To ask several writers whose work I respect (often by disagreeing with it, and I hope that favor has been returned) to respond to a simple prompt: “I was wrong.” So, then, yes, I know each of these writers personally (some for a long time) but, I’m sorry, art criticism is personal no matter how bloodless it can often be. I’m grateful that each of them has risen to the occasion in their own way.
Another prompt for my prompt was to provide some relief for my ongoing frustration with what I read again and again as the deadly sanctimony of rightness that spreads across blogs and comment sections about art and artists and the art world. Put another way: art criticism—hell, writing—needs good editors!
But no critic worth their salt need apologize for being wrong. It’s the job.
- Terry R. Myers, “From the Junk Aesthetic to the Junk Mentality,” Arts Magazine, February 1990, p. 63.