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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

29. (Saint Marks Place)

Having achieved by his early 30s far more success than he could have reasonably hoped for when he first arrived in New York as a Midwest college dropout—his byline appears regularly in the Times and the Village Voice and he has published several well-received poetry collections—a poet-art critic decides that it’s time to choose: poetry or art criticism. He has learned enough about himself to realize that he can’t serve two masters. If he continues to work full-time as a critic he will never achieve anything significant as a poet. Similarly, if he continues to insist on pursuing the muse of poetry, continues to aim for the greatness of his literary heroes, his criticism will always be hobbled, he will always be holding back the deepest part of himself, or at least the full force of his verbal dexterity. Maybe Baudelaire and Apollinaire and Frank O’Hara could be great poets and great art critics, but whatever it was they possessed (just genius?) seems denied to him. So, which will it be?

After some weeks of quiet agony he plumps for poetry. As much as he loves art, he loves poetry more. Plus, isn’t it more admirable to be a creator than a commentator? Besides, it’s a fairly dull moment for contemporary art (mid-1970s). Galleries are filled with photography (which he doesn’t really know anything about), video (likewise) and uninspiring paintings and sculptures that pay diminishing returns on the daring investments everyone (including him) made in the 1960s. Not trusting himself to stick to his new commitment—no more criticism, only poetry—rather like an alcoholic (which he also happens to be), the poet (as he now must think of himself) comes up with what he believes will be a foolproof method of staying on the poetry-only wagon. Invited to deliver a lecture at a major museum, he writes a long poem in which he insults by name nearly everyone he knows in the art world. He hopes that after he reads the poem (titled “Dear Profession of Art Writing”) all his bridges will be forever burned. At first all goes as planned. The audience at the reading is outraged. News of his scandalous poem travels quickly. At openings and on the streets of SoHo artists, dealers and even other critics avert their eyes from his and engage in elaborate maneuvers to avoid coming face to face with him. The way is clear for poetry.

Over the next couple of years, supported both emotionally and financially by his actress wife with whom he shares an apartment on Saint Marks Place, he rededicates himself to the writing of poems. But he hasn’t accounted for the fickle nature of human passions. Gradually, much to his surprise, he begins to lose the desire to write poems, and at the same time he realizes how much he misses art criticism: seeing new art in galleries every day, having to make up his mind about it, changing his mind, then squeezing an impossibly wide range of thoughts into a few reader-friendly paragraphs—all under a tight deadline, and getting paid handsomely to do so. One day he swallows his pride, hopes that everyone has forgotten his insult-laden poem (they have—after all, it’s only a poem) and calls up a few of his former editors, all of whom are overjoyed to hear from him. Art critics who combine readability, intelligence, and promptness are always in short supply. Within a few years he has not only regained his earlier success, but far surpassed it to become the most widely read, most fervently admired (except in some high-theory academic circles) art critic of his generation. He is, indeed, amazingly good and, when he finally stops drinking, gets even better.

(Peter Schjeldahl)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

All Issues