Holland Cotter

Bad at Sports

Visiting Artist Profiles

Holland Cotter

By Bad at Sports May 13, 2014

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.


On Saturday, May 17, 2014, the New York Times art critic and 2009 Pulitzer-Prize winner Holland Cotter will receive an honorary doctorate from California College of the Arts (CCA). In light of this occasion, Art Practical is pleased to republish its profile on Cotter, which originally appeared on June 1, 2012. Esteemed for the elegance of his writing, his keen observations, his attention to non-Western perspectives, and his unflinching critiques of the outsized influence market forces have on the art world, Cotter has also advocated strongly for platforms that support emerging artists and critics. We join CCA in celebrating his advocacy, curiosity, and example.

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On May 15, 2012 Art Practical co-hosted with the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium (ACAC-SF) an evening with Holland Cotter at the Asian Art Museum. There, he spoke with Vishakha Desai, President and CEO of Asia Society, and Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum. What follows are Cotter’s own words from an interview with Bad at Sports and ACAC-SF’s executive director, Xiaoyu Weng, that preceded the public program. In presenting this profile as a first-person narrative, we hope to convey a sense of the energy, wit, intelligence, and passion Cotter brought to the conversation with Desai and Xu. And as we occasionally offer a writer’s reflections on why they write and how they approach their craft, this column created the opportunity to offer a more intimate glimpse into the catalysts for as well as the practice of one of America’s most esteemed critics. You can also hear the full interview with Holland Cotter on Bad at Sports: Episode 352.

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I grew up with the idea that if you had the choice between gaining an experience and getting a thing, take the experience. And I’ve always done that. When I take a trip someplace, it lasts my lifetime; no one can take it away from me. I relive it all the time, and that intangible sense is what I really love. Objects I love, too, but not enough to want to have them in my possession.

My recent trip to Africa was extraordinary, really wonderful. I was in four countries: Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Ethiopia. Ethiopia was my pilgrimage place because I wanted to go to Lalibela, which has the rock-hewn churches, which are fantastic. My grandfather had this collection of leather-bound volumes of Stoddard’s Lectures; it was this Victorian thing that was very popular. Back in the nineteenth century, John Stoddard gave lectures about all these different places he had traveled to, and one of the places he went was Lalibela. I read them when I was a kid, and it created this fixed idea in my mind that Lalibela was on my short list of places that I wanted to go. So I did.

It’s all interesting to me; everything is interesting to me; there’s nothing that isn’t, old or new.

Otherwise, I was in West Africa, and I tried to look at as much contemporary art as I could, which is not easy to find, but it is there. I also wanted to see crafts being made, and I had to go out to the countryside for that, in Ivory Coast in particular. The ideas of authenticity and inauthenticity just don’t exist. These things are being made by people who’ve made these things for generations, they support themselves with this stuff, they invent new forms, they re-use old forms; it’s a wonderful mix and really alive.

On principle, I feel we should be covering a lot of different cultures and a lot of different fields—but also for personal reasons, just to keep myself awake and alert, I need to skip around. It’s all interesting to me; everything is interesting to me; there’s nothing that isn’t, old or new. That’s what kept me going these many years.

I was exposed to art really early. I grew up in a museum-going family in Boston. We would go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Saturdays in the winter, and my parents would park me in the museum, at ten or eleven years old. Museums were different then; there were not a lot of people. So the guards all knew me and had no problem with my wandering around; they knew I was a responsible ten-year-old, and I could just do what I wanted. I would look and look and wind up sitting for hours in rooms with Japanese Buddhas, reading poetry or daydreaming. I had this sense of being at home with art from a very early age and a sense of connection to it, just because of the silence that surrounded it. There’s no other place that I could go where this particular atmosphere was created, and I’ve carried that with me all my life. I go to it for those things: for silence, for quiet, for stimulation. It comes from an old, childhood part of me, which I’ve carried through to my adulthood.

What I want to do is be persuasive. That’s my main goal for writing

I think criticism is a very personal thing in many ways. There are no guidelines for it; there are no rules. Art criticism is learning on the job. Clement Greenberg said that, and it is really true. You make mistakes and you find things out as you go, and that can be embarrassing because you’re doing all this discovering in public. I made mistakes when I was first looking at contemporary art from Asia. And one of the mistakes I was making—this is twenty-five years ago—was thinking that they were adopting and using Western forms, and there was something wrong with that. I couldn’t get beyond the Western-form part. It took me a while, and then I did get beyond it and saw that there was this amazingly different content; they’re using these forms to give us a different content. It’s an evolutionary thing for me to figure out my own prejudices and preconceptions of what art should be like. I think this has happened a lot in contemporary Chinese art.

What I want to do is be persuasive. That’s my main goal for writing, to invite people to share the experience I’ve had with art and see my enthusiasm for it or lack of enthusiasm for it, whichever may be the case. I don’t want to rap them on the knuckles and say, “You must know this.” I don’t want to talk down to people; I just want them to share my love of this stuff and my interest in it. To give people a way to latch onto it and realize why it’s important to their life that this stuff exists is my main goal.

Holland Cotter (center) in conversation with Jay Xu and Vishakha Desai at the Asian Art Museum, May 15, 2012.

I’ve always thought that my job as a journalist for a general-interest newspaper—for my readers at the Times—was to give them a reading experience; that’s first. That’s a question of language and how much information you can give, the rate at which you give it, what to take out. Much of what I do is editing. I’m a very inefficient writer in newspaper terms, because I don’t start at the top and work my way down to the bottom, which a lot of my colleagues do. I come from magazines, so I do draft after draft after draft. It drives my editors nuts. It is just a question of figuring out that pacing through the revisions; it’s not there in the first draft. I have to keep taking things out and then bring it down to a manageable level that is still full of information.

I rarely, unless forced, go back and re-read anything I ever write. I almost never do. I talk with my colleagues about this, and while some do go back and read themselves with pleasure, many don’t. When I was a young critic, back in the ’70s, writing first for ARTnews and then Art in America, I was panning a lot of shows. Looking back now, it doesn’t make sense to me. I know why I did it, because when you’re young, you’re feeling and using the power of words for the first time, and you feel that the job of the critic is to be hard-nosed about stuff, and you want to call attention to yourself. That’s all forgivable; that’s all young-people stuff. But I would never today tear apart a show by a young artist starting out; I just wouldn’t do it. 

 I am a perpetual graduate student.

I’m in a funny position now because I’m working on a book of writings, but I agreed to do it on the stipulation that I could rework things rather than publish them as they appeared initially. Because all I am aware of, every week, is: “Didn’t have enough time; didn’t say what I wanted to say; could have done this much better.” This is my chance to take the time I always think I should have taken on something, to rethink my ideas a little bit. This unfortunately does require re-reading, and that is a little painful.

I consider myself a committed generalist. When the Times called and asked me to come to work for them, I was in a doctoral program at Columbia. I had started a dissertation; I was teaching in the department. I had to make a decision because I knew I couldn’t do both things; I couldn’t write full-time for the Times and continue this scholarly work. I pondered it for quite a while, tried to balance the two of them, and finally realized that my inclination was to go with the generalist route, where I would get different topics all the time, almost like homework assignments every week. Constantly learning, constantly reading—I would stay a student, basically, which is what I consider what I am, and I love that. I am a perpetual graduate student.

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Holland Cotter has been a staff art critic at the New York Times since 1998 and is currently the co-chief art critic. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, for coverage that included articles on art in China. Between 1992 and 1997 he was a regular freelance writer for the paper. During the 1980s he was a contributing editor at Art in America and an editorial associate at ARTnews. In the 1970s, he co-edited New York Arts Journal, a tabloid-format quarterly magazine publishing fiction, poetry, and criticism. He has served on the board of directors of the International Association of Art Critics.

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