The Importance of Earnest Criticism
By Felix BernsteinJanuary 1, 2019
I’m sort of notorious for my use of the pronoun “it” without explaining what it means […] We all sort of feel the presence of “it” without necessarily knowing what we’re thinking about […] In my poetry, the pronouns can never be trusted to refer to any one person for any length of time. I believe in a kind of polyphonic effect, which I try to get.
The personal, polyphonic, and Proustian mode of Ashbery’s criticism is shared by many of the interviewed critics in the collection, including Hilton Als, who says, “Proust showed that you could talk about a sensation and then go 20 or 30 pages before you got to the ostensible idea, and that was so refreshing to me.” Earnest conducts his book in precisely the same spirit, allowing aesthetic arguments to develop from tangential memories. This is the best kind of record keeping — the kind Erich Auerbach praised in memoirist Louis de Rouvroy (Duke of Saint-Simon), where “the random and idiosyncratic, the unselected, the at times absurdly personal and prejudiced” springboard into the “depths of human existence.” Earnest’s collection shows how fanciful and peripheral thoughts, as well as social boundaries, shape aesthetic paradigms that are too often seen as rationally over-determined. What it Means to Write about Art makes a bold case for risk and gut decision in criticism, posing a refreshing challenge to staid and formulaic discourse.
FELIX BERNSTEIN: You’re significantly younger than anyone you interview. In meeting figures of great importance to your own writing, did the gap between their ideals and their reality ever lead to disappointment or shock?
JARRETT EARNEST: Anyone who says “never meet your heroes” is either an idiot or an asshole. Because what you’re saying is: You don’t want to let this other person be a human being. You want to keep them “pure” in your fantasy of them. And, that’s very dangerous, because it’s ideological in ways that prevent you from recognizing true human complexity. The only way that you could be disappointed is if you have expectations. In the case of meeting people as an interviewer, I’m approaching them with a kind of seriousness, and I don’t come in with expectations. I really am just curious, so it is hard to be disappointed, because almost anything they do would be interesting. They could yell at you and then that would be fascinating because, first of all, you would have a good story, and second of all, you would recognize that this hostility is not really about you in any essential way but is touching on something else for them, or a situation, or a specific dynamic.
A number of the writers you interview have a history of polemical positions that they no longer occupy. Many end up ambivalently recognizing the social dynamics at force in achieving their polemical position. What do you think of the history of these polemical schisms, which so often define different “schools” of criticism — are they simply alienating grandstanding or can they be intellectually generative?
I wanted at least to make the terrain around those arguments visible. So much of what really produces important intellectual work evaporates with time. Then it’s taken at face value instead of seen in a dynamic relationship with a set of ideas. A lot of younger people now reading the polemics of the 1980s see them as completely ridiculous: they were fighting over this? But at the same time, the level of discourse at that moment was so much higher than it is now — there must be a relationship between those two things. What is hard for us to see is that they weren’t minor quarrels to them. Arguments around the “death of painting,” for example, were really important in ways that were social as much as intellectual and in terms of creating coterie identifications. To have a fight like that you have to care about something. What I think defines our moment is that people don’t actually care about the art. One of the things I’d hoped to portray with this book was what that landscape was like, and what it could be like, and how we all need each other to have discourse. We all need to disagree ardently and push things around, because, if you are like me, that makes it more fun. But even if you are not obstreperous like me, it leads to better thinking all around.
The textbook version of art criticism often alleges that polemical arguments enter the canon by virtue of being argued by the most rigorous, cutting-edge person, whose taste is inevitably validated by either the market or social consensus. This argument works to conceal the competitive negations informing who speaks, as well as the disqualification of certain styles of writing. How did you maneuver working against this authoritative trend?
This book includes popular critic-journalists, poets, and people from very different backgrounds than traditional art historical literature. And that was really purposeful. One of the things that I wanted to get away from was the idea that the discourse around art is something that is legislated and decided within art history as an academic field, because it never has been. Often the major interventions by the people we think of as art historians were not made in the academy but rather in their work as critics, whether it’s Rosalind Krauss or Leo Steinberg. The academy is one little node within this larger infrastructure of culture, which extends to all kinds of people who speak and think differently than whatever is okay with an academic fashion of the moment, and so people like Jerry Saltz and Hilton Als and Eileen Myles are interwoven with Michael Fried and Hal Foster.
I think it serves academic art historians to bring their cloistered canonical axioms into dialogues outside the textbook lionization of “the most cited” ideas. These people are all linked in the market place of ideas, but this has been obscured by each of their auteur domains on autonomous pedestals. I saw Sylvère Lotringer give a talk this summer about Rabelais and Bakhtin, after he showed an early film he made on Rabelais for French TV in the 1960s. Discovering the carnivalesque was a foundational moment in his transition from structuralism to post-structuralism, and Semiotext(e) was founded in the same polyphonic spirit: not keeping academic knowledge separate from aesthetic experimentation. Is your book also invested in dissolving the academic/artist-writer boundary?
I love Mikhail Bakhtin’s reading of Rabelais and his theories of the dialogic, polyphony, and heteroglossia — how we are all operating in ways that are not at all clear in their proximity to each other, but, somehow, inextricably interwoven in the fabric of human reality. And Rabelais himself is so funny! Every chapter is written in a different form, maybe this is a letter, maybe this is a fairy tale, and all of it just goes together into little facets of this world. It is everything that was conceptualized around postmodern literature but actually really fun and dirty and sweet, which the best postmodern literature can be too. So I interviewed Chris Kraus, not only for her own writing, but also for her important work as a publisher at Semiotext(e), which brought together many of the writers that I most admire.
Your teacher, Bill Berkson, famously wrote: “[T]he art world reads only trash. They read Eurotrash theoretical literature hastily and probably sloppily translated, middlebrow fiction, and probably no poetry and no serious philosophy, either.” But in your book, even those who widely apply French theory to American art complain about the way it is dumbed down, de-radicalized, or overplayed, if not totally invented and hallucinated by Americans. However, there is also a sense among some that the turn away from theory toward blogging and online criticism has led to an even greater deficit of seriousness. For instance, Hal Foster claims there is a digital divide between the journals and magazines with which he has affiliated versus Hyperallergic and The Brooklyn Rail, which he respects for doing “cultural commentary” but not criticism.
Writing and thinking can be smart or dumb, whether it engages postmodern theory or metaphysical poetry.
The digital divide is usually a straw-man argument to bolster the certification of academic writing, especially when we consider the importance of critics who are poets more than historians such as, in this collection, John Ashbery, John Yau, and Eileen Myles. Academic or not, a number of the people you interview have a relationship to poetry, including Fried (who writes poetry), and even Foster, whose dissertation was on W. B. Yeats and Ted Hughes. Conversely, Ashbery downplays his art writing. Though, as he notes, his ekphrasis of Parmigianino, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” made him internationally famous as a poet. You didn’t include critics who are primarily well known as visual artists, citing in part the way their writing is often used for self-positioning. Why, in contrast, do poets make the cut?
In part, poets make the cut because I was introduced to writing about art through my teacher, the critic and poet Bill Berkson, whose relationship to poetry always seemed very natural and alive. Poets are artists who work with words and are thinking about how to bend and expand the language of criticism — how to push it closer or farther from certain kinds of experiences. Their role in the last half-century of American art writing has been suppressed. I wanted to not just look at how important it is to be a poet-critic, but to say, these people really contributed to and wrote some illuminating things not only about art history but also for anyone who wants to look at art and think about it. That is what the writing of Ashbery does. Among any of the critics included, he downplays his art writing the most. Of the many people who write today, my favorite writers on art are artists; I have a special interest in artists writing, but I felt like the book needed specificity to make it hold together. Otherwise, the energy would just dribble over the sides. So there were a number of people who write about art that I interviewed or was planning on interviewing, including Coco Fusco, whom I really adore, and David Salle, who has started a really significant phase of his life writing criticism. Yet I came to feel that the artist’s relationship to language as a medium is different than it is for someone who is a writer. I can think of exceptions to that rule. In some ways, it is just an arbitrary rule, but all rules are pretty arbitrary once you get really close to them.
Your introduction references a moment in Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist” when Gilbert says to Ernest that the future belongs to criticism. Did your interviews grow out of a visual art practice? Did you, like many of the critics you interviewed, start out painting?
Yes, I was always an artist. I taught myself how to paint and did it every day. Then I went to the San Francisco Art Institute for art school and learned immediately what I didn’t like about the art world by interrogating the status of the “celebrity artists” who would talk at our school. The idea of art stars was so alien to how I imagined the serious art world. I started doing performances to explore the role of the fan, in which I felt I was being positioned, because a star needs fans, structurally. At the same time, Berkson encouraged me to write in a way that never occurred to me — he would very casually give me books to read and not make a big deal out of it. He was an extremely elegant person who was not authoritative, while still having a huge amount of gravitas. So from there, I set out trying to find how to be in the art world in a way that was authentically intellectual, curious, critical, and engaged. Whether that took the form of being an artist or a writer was not a big issue for me. I landed on being a writer because that role made the most sense, but I still think of myself as an artist. As I was finishing this book, it occurred to me that the kernels of it were already there back in my art schoolwork: very intense research that culminated in a person-to-person confrontation.
It definitely seems the fan-fiction work rehearsed the strategies you use in this book — evoking, exposing, and reveling in the uncomfortable social matrix.
The French philosopher Edgar Morin described the relationship between the fan and the star as that of an earthworm stretching toward the heavens. It is an inherently debased position to be in, and at the time, I connected that explicitly to the cultural sphere. I’ve never felt like an art fan. I’m a fan of Dolly Parton, but I would never say I am a fan of Jasper Johns in the same way. Inhabiting that fan role, as a performance, was very instructive in that I learned how ideas and realities are not the same thing — the line between them is very messy. The way I approach doing interviews now is geared toward that intersection, rather than toward grasping someone’s intellectual constructs or their historical narrative. It’s more about finding the weird human desires that drive someone to create and generate active antagonisms with the people around them.
In your interview with Foster, he talks about how theory became a placeholder to speculate on politics given the failure of revolutions. How would you relate speculative theorizing to your process of making the book?
I see the book as more than just a set of 30 individual interviews; it is also a conceptual project. I was very influenced by Linda Montano’s interview book of Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties. My interviews collectively offer a proposal for a future, in which you have all of these really different kinds of people in the same room talking who have always had an extremely oblique relationship to each other. Today, in the present moment, I see people become more and more stratified even within what should be a relatively united cultural sphere, so that people who disagree with each other don’t talk to each other. Their positions are entrenched and extremely vitriolic, which does not allow for discourse actually to develop — you are throwing acid into the face of the discourse by not talking to people you don’t like, and to be honest, many people in my book vehemently dislike other people in the book. I had this fantasy that as a welcome for the book I would have a dinner party for all of these people and the more I thought about it, the more I realized this would be the worst dinner party in history.
In some ways, the book is a conceptual art project but it is also a Romantic one. Just as for Wilde, the critic provides a conceptual methodology but also a Romantic project of how to stylize one’s life. And most importantly, Wilde’s critic gives an ontological speculation on what life is — an imitation of art. Did you find yourself creating a certain persona while conducting these interviews?
I don’t have any perspective on the character in the book that is supposed to be me — the “interviewer.” The only way that I could have some sense of what that character is doing would be through the reception in the world — and that is very exciting prospect. That’s one of the profound aspects of the role of criticism. Anyone who makes something can only ever partially know what they’ve done and its penumbra of implications. It’s both essentially made by them, and not made by them. And so probably the reason why I would think of this book as an artwork is because I have that unknowing relationship to it.
The enigmatic and contradictory aspects of a critic’s work are rarely addressed, and their positions are accepted or denied at face value, whereas an artist’s psychological ambiguity is dissected by everyone from their professors to curators to reviewers and friends. Most canonical artists receive critical apologias deriving every conceivable alternative to their pronounced views (Warhol being the most notorious example), but for critics, a wall of silence often leads more to hostility than to discursive exchange. There are endless panels and forums discussing dissenting styles of arts, and public conversation contesting market values and curatorial practices, but the critic can be isolated from that contestatory discourse, becoming a priestly kingmaker in an echo chamber. How do we use this sort of mystification of the critics as a distancing mechanism?
I’ve seen artists get a bad review, and then they will walk around like they’ve just been told they are going to die. Wouldn’t it be a little useful if you had some sense of who that person actually was, where they’re coming from, what their larger values are, what they want from art? It is very hard to gather that information in the way that you can about an artist. We know Picasso’s entire mistressology, but who knows anything personal about his critics? I thought it would be useful for artists of all ages, but particularly young artists, to see that these people who write about art are embroiled in a very complex living web of which artists are also a part.
When Henry James was 22, he wrote a takedown of Walt Whitman, whom he later grew to admire and with whom he corresponded. Social media’s viral dissemination, coupled with online ineradicable archiving, makes moving between critical positions more conspicuous. How has this change affected criticism?
I don’t think it is sustainable: people have to be able to take polemical stances because that is the only way one learns how to write. One could do that throughout the 1960s or ’70s and then emerge like an actual writer in the 1980s or ’90s, and people wouldn’t remember your earliest works. Both professionalization and, to some extent, the academy have exacerbated this problem.
It could happen anywhere — if you’re in MFA programs and publishing with magazines that are risk-averse, then you aren’t going to take risks! In contrast, certain places might push you to take risks to gain readership, and say things that are shocking.
That is why I love those Princeton volumes of the complete prose of Auden, because he wrote and wrote and wrote. It is both fascinating and repetitive. Another example is Clement Greenberg. In the complete Greenberg, which is four volumes, he wrote a lot of really interesting, weird stuff that was not at all what one might imagine from the reductive Greenberg program that coalesced around him in the 1960s. Often, when critics gather their own writing into more limited volumes, it creates a retrospective shaping, like Greenberg’s Art and Culture. A fuller archive provides a richer, more contradictory, picture.
The personal voice is never far from the critics you feature. There is a prominent queer and feminist lineage of bringing the personal, material, and corporeal to bear on allegedly objective determinations in criticism; something that both Douglas Crimp and Holland Cotter talked to you about as part of a response to the AIDS crisis in New York. But there is also the recent shift to hybrid writing as a compulsory discipline in MFA and PhD programs. Sometimes this writing bypasses contested values in a social field and rather tunnel-visions onto coteries and subcultures that have pre-established cultural capital to be mined. What do you think of the hyper-contemporary and self-reflexive turn of recent art writing?
The biggest problem that I have with the high percentage of young art writers getting degrees in contemporary art history — which is far and away the larger percentage of people pursuing PhDs in art history right now in the United States — is that they will write dissertations without talking to a single artist. There is a weird condescension toward artists that sees them as unable of forming as complex thoughts as historians are, or are complicit with the market in ways the academy is not. Yet the group we think of the Golden Age of critics had a very different approach: Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Rose, Michael Fried, Peter Schjeldahl, and Lucy Lippard were all enmeshed socially with the artists about whom they were writing. If you write about contemporary art, you should be involved with contemporary art; otherwise, why not be a historian on an earlier period?
As for the personal voice, I love Nouveau Roman writing, since there you can have first-person narrative, but that doesn’t mean that it is about you. The interview that was clearest on this point was Lynne Tillman’s. She says: you are not a piece of writing. You can use your experiences, but it’s not you. That little slippery distance between the performance of the self on the page and one’s lived experience creates a nuance that has been lost from our current cultural conversation. We interpret every single artwork as the seamless transparent transposition of the authorial identity in the first person. That is why Dave Hickey is so important: he understands the “Dave” in his writing as a character, and he approaches it that way, with that freedom.
It is great to see the work of critics alongside their contemporaries, rather than simply as hagiographic accounts. Otherwise, their writing stays in its own lane, which prevents us from seeing the squabbles and mistakes that most critics made on their respective paths. This book shows that there is lot more ambiguous incoherence and intentional artifice in the works of canonical theorists than is commonly acknowledged. Did the depth of contradictions ever surprise you?
In 1972, Krauss wrote a really sweet thing called “A View of Modernism,” at the end of which she says that when she was younger, people would meet her and say, “Oh my god, you’re young, I thought you were 40 years old,” because she had this particular voice in the writing. She then concludes with the importance of learning to speak with your own voice, not the opaque authority she associated with modernism, and as a critic, that is a kind of mission statement. On the other hand, your self is completely open to definition, which is why Wilde is the patron saint of critical performance, because it feels with him that something is so true and has some tremendous core, and at the same time, it is every moment slipping and sliding away in masquerade. Like Wilde, I’m profoundly anti-essentialist.
I love that you offer these anti-essentialist reading of the tropes, paradigms, and characters that dominate art criticism. Rather than present the maxims of these critics as seamless glimpses into authorial identity, you show them as part of a social matrix that is being reconstructed continuously, in real time. I think Wilde’s criticism becomes art not just because he employs a fictive voice but also because of the dialogic unfolding of paradoxical positions. Are there critical stances that you hope your book generates, or potentially, undermines?
The biggest point of my book is that critics should make up their own rules — a lot of the writers included did precisely that, at great risk, despite eventually becoming renowned. I’m not here to give anyone specific rules, but there are certain attitudes that are taken for common knowledge which need to be undermined and disrupted, and one of those is about the relationship between critics and the artists they write about — the idea that if you know artists or talk with them you are somehow in their pocket and therefore not a real critic or historian. If you can’t be real with people you care about, who are you real with? In the current situation, it feels like too many critics lack an investment in the development of someone else’s work in a way that could help them to blossom or find fulfillment, or discover the implications of their projects. That is part of our job for one another — to help facilitate each other’s work and potential in the fullest possible form. The critic is a vital part of that; that is why critics exist.
Felix Bernstein is the author of Burn Book (Nightboat, 2017).
Banner image by Garry Knight.
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