2.4 / Ghosts

Critical Reflections

By Bill Berkson October 26, 2010
Bill Berkson. Courtesy of Woodland Pattern Book Center, Milwaukee.

Editor’s Note: On October 16, 2010, Art Practical sponsored the second part of its Critical Sources workshop at The Lab in San Francisco. Writers Bill Berkson, Clark Buckner, Whitney Chadwick, and Kevin Killian led the workshop, offering their thoughts and experiences on the process of translating visual experiences into words. To extend the conversation on how and why one might write about art, we'd like to offer here Berkson's 1990 essay “Critical Reflections,” which was originally published in Artforum (1990) and reprinted in The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings (Providence, RI: Qua Books, 2004).

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Yes, when I address someone, I do not know whom I am addressing; furthermore, I do not care to know, nor do I wish to know... Without dialogue, lyric poetry cannot exist. Yet there is only one thing that pushes us into the addressee's embrace: the desire to be astonished by our own words, to be captivated by their originality and unexpectedness.—Osip Mandelstam, “On the Addressee,” 1913

It seems to me that it is not the critic's historic function to have the right opinions but to have interesting ones. He talks but he has nothing to sell. His social value is that of a man standing on a street corner talking so intently about his subject that he doesn't realize how peculiar he looks doing it.—Edwin Denby, “Dance Criticism,” 1949

People who buy art magazines complain that the writing found there is unreadable. Some sense a conspiracy at work. A specific reader is either alienated or accedes by learning—as anyone can, in six weeks or so—to talk the talk. "He sounds like the art magazines" is not how any writer I know would want to be characterized. The magazines, for their part, have style sheets and staff editors geared for the care and feeding of manuscripts. Out of thin air they invent an image of the general reader whose willingness to be informed about art and whose tolerances for specialized language or high-sounding foolishness they try to anticipate. The general reader is a unicorn to be lured so the magazines can maintain their costly looks, which after all say something about the importance (and never mind the fashionable expense) of the visual arts to enough people living in enough places. A modicum of sales and advertising permits the editors of the two or three serious glossies to get on with their missions of providing intelligible facts and observations for the artistically inclined and/or otherwise alert art audience.

Very few individual critics become household names.

Critics are neither culture heroes nor art stars. Assiduous art-world insiders know perhaps fifty full-time critics' names and can identify half of those with particular attitudes or styles. The forms of art writing—the five-hundred-word short review, for instance, in its compression and flexibility comparable to a sonnet—are dictated by the magazines. Members of the wider art public can identify different editorial forms and stances among the magazines to which they do or don't subscribe. Very few individual critics become household names. Even Clement Greenberg, I would guess, hasn't been indexed into the crossword puzzles or the cultural-literacy manuals, but then neither have most of the contemporary artists he has discussed.

It's a truism that the general reader looks to criticism as a consumer guide. The critic is an expert soothsayer whose authority is measured by the seamless suasion of his or her arguments. “The existence of an ‘authoritative critic’ or a ‘definitive evaluation’ is a fiction like that of the sea serpent.” (Edwin Denby) Verdicts and explanations call for fairly transparent and flatfooted prose styles. A critic like myself, who is less interested in systematic argument than in communicating the spontaneously dense, specific and often paradoxical events of consciousness in the face of contemporary works, allows for occasional opacities of language. The critic who faces art's manifold dialectic head-on risks seeming to want to be abstruse when really he or she is only trying to stay true to a complex situation. I like to think that my opacities can be enjoyed for themselves, at face value, as well as for their relation to both the artist's work and the reader's sense of language in the world. Given a vivid sense, in words, of what one sees in the work, one goes as deep and as wide as one can. A typical response to one of my reviews has been: "That was an interesting piece of writing, but I couldn't tell whether you liked the work or not." Liking or not is often not the point, or if so, it is an ulterior point. The main point is to give people something to read, to be accurate about the work without saying the same thing over and over.

As one writes, one's conception of the audience develops as a phantasmagoria of known and unknown persons. Only by negotiating that crowd of possible listeners does the critic find a vocabulary and a companionable tone by which to register what sort of information is meant to be conveyed. Criticism goes wrong when its vocabulary petrifies and its practitioners pontificate aimlessly, having forgotten to whom they're writing. Run-of-the-mill criticism is tone-deaf; it addresses an undifferentiated mass, or no one in particular. Positing a receptivity no deeper than that of the word-processor screen, it fails to conceive of a composite, real-time, colloquial reader who reacts to every word and knows where the commas go. Eventually, the copy editor alone personifies this elusive regulator of humane, if often intergalactic, discourse.

To the extent that art says anything, the critic devises what can be said next.

What good is criticism and why does anyone write it, not to mention whether it is read? For anyone who enjoys looking at art, writing criticism can be an opportunity to articulate in public what is ordinarily consigned to tangential mutterings: your otherwise silent, on-site responses to works of art. As Fairfield Porter put it, "Criticism should tell you what is there." The critic's job is to respond to what is visually and conceptually there, to continue the conversation that making and looking at art both propose. To the extent that art says anything, the critic devises what can be said next. "We do not respond often, really, and when we do, it is as if a flashbulb went off." (Frank O'Hara) The truest criticism, I believe, reveals that flash, or series of flashes, in a language communicative of the intensity or force experienced in looking long and hard at art. Then it can begin to tell the polymorphous story of the thing.

The words go across the topic, making discriminations. Art writing claims to know what it's discussing. It has a topic and a referent; it's grounded in signification and continuity—a prosoid buildup of what Carter Ratcliff calls "language in the vicinity of what it's talking about." In a review, the topic is whatever artistic occasion you have attended and care enough to write about. The homework is endless, and you gather any number of essential facts. But reviewing, with its contingencies of deadlines and short-term looking, involves rhetorics, not essences. Essence is distinct but inarticulate. A review, to be articulate, tends to work away from the experience of essence, and thus is rarely definitive, although it may imply the writer's prior epiphanies. It covers a host of secret, ephemeral, and often unspeakable perceptions.

Criticism's provisionality is intoxicating.

Functionally, art writing serves as commercial expository prose. If one estimates that hardly anybody reads it, one is bound to view it effectively as typographic filler—or a sign of relative importance by the inch—between gallery ads and color plates, which are the magazine's main attractions. Aside from this dismal estimate, art writing should be read—and written—primarily as reportage. An article or review can aspire to the level of a philosophical essay, belles lettres, or a kind of prose poem. It can insinuate itself with an equivalent vitality into the orbit of an artwork as a parallel text. Whether it does this or not, it is unavoidably an exercise in communication requiring first an attention to fact and then a sensitivity to vocabulary and style. An art writer's prime ambition is to discover a critical vocabulary that illumines a specific art beyond the occasion of the provisional piece.

Criticism's provisionality is intoxicating. It's the working critic's siren call, seductive and maddening. The concomitant pleasures and terrors derive from an uncertainty that overrides almost every impulse toward assertion of either sense or value. That's where the fun lies, and the angst, and an eventual stupefaction. Because, ideally, much of the time, I hardly know what it is I'm looking at. Or if I do, I know it in such fashion that putting it into words seems to promise only the most bald-faced fabrication: sheer rhetoric, nothing to do with having seen anything at all. How account for the dumb wonder that accrues the longer one has stood transfixed by a painting that seems to satisfy the situation by being beautiful in one unalloyed respect or many? The stunned initiate riffles the dictionary (or a few trusty critic's texts) to search out a beginning. As in ordinary conversation, the critical faculties face a chaos of impressions, blanks, needs, memories, obfuscations, and intermittent facts for which orderly language makes an absurdly insufficient account. A picture can tell of all this, and so can a sentence. The sentences in a review turn up in a kind of order. Cracks in the order may show an alertness to, and duplicitous tolerance for, the actual chaos occurring in the mental space between the reviewer and the work.

Poets bring a technical proficiency to art writing as well as an attitude that, in art's increasingly institutional settings, seems proportionately ever more off the wall. Their interventions carry a fierce love of language and an abiding curiosity about the world of things. Perhaps more than the full-time critics, they simply want to say something interesting about the things they've seen in words that evoke the excitement and oddness of living in a world where these things occur, things made by contemporary people with a variety of purposes in mind. They would be the last writers to apply "poetic" as an adjective to an artwork, since "poetic," synonymous with "inscrutable" or "soft" to art critics, to them means something technically specific.

The "poet who also writes about art"...is interested in observation for observation's sake.

Poets see art as social behavior and less as a specialized mode. Being artists themselves, whose art brings in next to no money, they look askance at the art-world economy. A few may hang out shingles proclaiming that as critics they mean business, but even those retain a sense of criticism as a minor occupation and of their own pronouncements as groundwork rather than definitive assays. The "poet who also writes about art" (as the contributors notes so often say) is interested in observation for observation's sake. To claim exemptions for poets writing monthly reviews seems like an insult directed both ways: when Eileen Myles wails of poets forced into "flattening...responses into conventional prose...the virgins thrown into the volcano," I wince for such an etherialized conception of poets as special keepers of the unconventional; but when in the next breath she says that as a poet faced with painting "you want to be excited, ennobled, teased alive," my heart goes with her. How many workaday art writers regularly forget that such demands—on oneself as well as on works of art—go with the territory?

As a poet/critic, I often typecast myself for the purposes of argument as a more or less forlorn aesthete. More insistently, and playing down the "forlorn," I would say I'm an aesthetic hedonist. I'm "in" art for the sensual and intellectual pleasures I continue to find there, and as far as the practice of criticism goes, I commit to that for the joy of giving my verbal attentions to things that answer them and usually stay put long enough to allow my views to add up. Criticism that dampens, rather than heightens, aesthetic pleasure seems to me worthless. The aesthete proceeds, by stumbles and veers, along the lines of articulated sensation, cultivating a shifting horde of passions, tolerances, fascinations, glees and disgust that marks the temporary side effects of what keeps promising to be a civilized habit.

The art world, like the freeway system, runs on combustible energies. The supply is all a matter of faith. Every season has its test of faith administered by at least one artist perceived as the exception who might just be delivering the goods, or at least keeping the pumps from going altogether dry. (For "pump," read "discourse"; for what is pumped, read "meaning.") The new season gushes forth its spectacular authenticities: Anselm Kiefer and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jeff Koons as Luke Skywalker, and so on. Current critical surveillance stakes out art as a site of meaning production. Aesthetic pleasure—suspect, illicit—rips in where too much meaning has clamped down. The “meaning-production” racket is funny. In what has come to be read as “normative” criticism generally, the purveying of meaning thrives by syllogism and other brassbound tropes of merciless logic, which are convenient ways of getting around how things work when you meet them face-to-face. Logic tries to erase the distance between correctness and in-your-face truth.

Meaning is critical power.

A determined meaning usually spells a short aesthetic track, which is fine if the issue is an other-than-aesthetic efficacy or critical practice as a power unto itself. Meaning is critical power. A critic's will to power betrays itself to the extent that the critic insists that meaning be explicit and tethered by what the critic writes. The convenience language of the magazines and art-history departments requires constant testing. Otherwise, it becomes predictable and painfully false. Predictable language suits only an art with predictable meanings. If criticism has all the words in place—a fixed vocabulary—it has stopped looking and won't listen for the words that might be there for the work.

Art criticism is a non-profession, and yet there are professional critics—“a tidy guild on the fringe of useful human endeavor,” as Peter Schjeldahl once called them. The rise of professional art critics coincided with the art-school boom of the ’60s and ’70s, which issued forth the middle-aged and younger artist contingents we see today. Artists are educated mostly away from where the art is; they know art—as do the art-history majors who become career critics—by theory and slides, rather than by perceptual confrontation. Slides are more verbal than visual equivalents of works of art. Criticism based primarily on theory and slides tends toward the post-retinal, and art based on the implications of such criticism tends to give one less to look at. Art students view criticism, whether theoretical or not, as a querulous organ or protuberance of the alien art world they expect to confront. For them, as for most artists, criticism by non-artists posits a language foreign to artistic practice and the spoken criticism of studio and street. Eventually, an art student begins to read criticism seriously as a kind of boot-camp maneuver. The student mistakes criticism for either subject matter or the audience, or both.

Why does art writing continue to seem like just so much art writing? Only the layouts and typefaces change. An art writer's self-importance is nonsensical. History shelves all but the few critical pieces that give pleasure and interest as something more than topical position papers. And it recognizes the next work of art as the criticism that matters most. If as a critic I remain relatively unprincipled—an amateur at heart—it's because I've learned that my pleasures come most fully from works that outstrip everyone's principles, and most especially my own—at which point everyone, even the artist, should feel amateurish, and a bit humble. Criticism should be modest in principle and quick or excessive enough so that everyone can enjoy how hypothetical it is.

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