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What great news—Sebastian Smee, art critic for the Boston Globe, has won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Hats off!
Smee is the first art writer at the Globe whose opinion has mattered to me. His reviews are carefully crafted and thoughtful. And as knowledgeable as he is about contemporary art, his writing is engaging for anyone to read. With the current oversupply of mandarin, self-referential, “for the cognescenti only” art criticism, Smee goes against that trend. In their announcement of his selection, the Pulitzer board pointed to Smee’s “vivid and exuberant writing about art’’ and his knack for “bringing great works to life with love and appreciation.’’ All true. Refreshingly so.
On a more personal note, I have been carrying on my own “dialogue” with Smee over the past few years on Slow Muse. So much of what he has written has been noteworthy to me, and the following posts all make reference to his writings:
Chilhuly at the MFA
Mark Bradford: Silent Strength
Stella, Smee and Subjectivism
Bad Art Poisoning
Liang at the ICA
The Intuition Deliminator
The Fundamental Geometries
Fascination of Feeling: Pick One
That Damned Underbelly
Fairey: The Conversation Continues
Elizabeth Peyton: In Between
For those of you who are not familiar with Smee, here’s his bio from the Globe:
Sebastian Smee is the Globe’s art critic. He joined the paper’s staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. Before that he worked in London, where he was art critic at the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Art Newspaper, Modern Painters, and Prospect magazine. In 1994 he received a bachelor of arts degree, with honors, in fine arts from Sydney University. He reviews books regularly for the Spectator and is himself the author of books and essays on the British painter Lucian Freud as well as “Side by Side: Picasso v. Matisse.”
The New York Times Book Review last week had a simple headline: “Why Criticism Matters”. The editors set the stage by describing our current age as one where opinions are “offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones”—by anyone, anytime. So in that context it is reasonable to ask where the serious critic now sits in the cultural flow. “Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?” Six critics were asked to explain what they do and why it matters, with Afred Kazin’s view of criticism as a tether point:
The critic, Kazin wrote, “is a thinker, and it is the force . . . of his thinking that gets him to say those things that the artist himself may value as an artist, the reader as a reader.” He “is not an artist,” Kazin asserted, “except incidentally.” Yet the critics Kazin commends all wrote in a high and even virtuosic style.
I found the essays remarkably varied, some more successful than others. My favorite was by critic/poet Adam Kirsch. Here’s a passage worth remembering from his essay:
If you are primarily interested in writing, then you do not need a definite or immediate sense of your audience: you write for an ideal reader, for yourself, for God, or for a combination of the three…Like everyone, I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what Virginia Woolf called “common readers,” still exists. If it does, the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it. But measured against the audience for a new movie or video game, or against the population as a whole, even the Book Review reaches only a niche audience. Perhaps the only difference between our situation and Arnold’s is that in Victorian England, the niche that cared about literature also happened to constitute the ruling class, while in democratic, mass-media America, the two barely overlap.
What this displacement takes from the critic in terms of confidence and authority, it perhaps restores to him in terms of integrity and freedom. Or maybe it’s just that, as a poet, I am all too used to making excuses for the marginality of a kind of writing that I continue to feel is important. Whether I am writing verse or prose, I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well — that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.
A similar statement could be made about painting, about the visual arts that actually produce that rarefied, old school thing called an artifact. I resonate with Kirsch’s point of view, paraphrased for those of us who are visual art makers:
What matters is not exercising influence or force, but painting well—that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.
A heads up for anyone interested in getting an overview of the state of arts journalism: Regina Hackett has put together a good list on her blog, Another Bouncing Ball, In the fast-morphing world of art criticism, I found this posting helpful.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Brookyn Rail does not pay its contributors. Living on air gets thin. Other favorites from the visual art category include:
Art Fag City, Triple Canopy, Departures, Big, RED & Shiny, Bad At Sports, Dinosaurs & Robots, Idaho Arts Quarterly, Glasstire, Of Note, Kung Fu Art Critic and a site under construction, East of Borneo, which will be edited by Thomas Lawson.
There are flashier sites on the list, most prominently, FLYP Media, which is gorgeous and technically inventive. Good luck to FLYP, which seems to be aiming for an undifferentiated audience, one that will be impressed by the site’s click power and not put off by soft, feature-style arts writing.
People already in the game, on the other hand, aren’t likely to want to read what they already know, even though production values are stellar. As a bridge builder between the art audience and everybody else, FLYP serves the purpose. Its texts are elementary, but its mainstream taste is reliable. If you’ve never heard of John Baldessari, this site’s for you.