A Voyage Around Art Criticism (1996)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 29 September 2011 | Updated 18 April 2019
This text was previously published in Art Papers on the occasion of their 20th anniversary issue in November / December 1996.

My commission for this article was to address the question of how someone becomes an art critic. (What art criticism is is another question that we’ll have to deal with in due course.) The route to criticism is often, as it was in my own case, a series of accidents and wrong turns that, to follow the traffic metaphor to its absurd conclusion, is something like the scenario of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend: the film follows a French middle-class couple along a drive in the country— except that every other French couple has had the same idea, and the countryside has become a huge traffic jam, during which civilization crumbles into, first, brutality; then, philosophy; and finally anarchy and cannibalism. Where along that route art criticism lies, you will have to judge for yourself.

In any case, the final stage of my typically indirect route to criticism began when Alan Sondheim (a filmmaker, artist, and writer who spent a couple of years in Atlanta in the ’80s that were extremely productive for the Atlanta arts community) sat me down with Xenia Zed (then editor of Art Papers) and suggested we find something I could write about. I hadn’t written anything since graduate school and had only written about art for seminars on Renaissance and Baroque Italian art, but it happened that I was interested in Kathy Acker, whose work bridges the visual and literary arts in interesting ways. [1] Let’s see, I’ve kind of lost my thread during that footnote… I offered to write about Acker, which led to Xenia contacting the author, bringing her to Atlanta for a reading, publishing an excerpt of her upcoming novel, etc. And leading to me beginning to write art reviews and articles on contemporary art. [2]

The popular image of the art critic is pretty awful. A recent crime novel of some literary ambition is titled Killing Critics (by Carol O’Connell). Aside from the wish-fulfillment fantasy implied by the novel’s title (which got the novel featured in a prominent art site on the World Wide Web, artnet), critics are portrayed in the persona of a man with "a limited range of expression, devoid of emotion even when he smiled, only communicating cool indifference and élan." In or out of the art world, the critic’s image doesn’t get much better: Elizabeth Hess recently referred, in her Village Voice column, to a 1946 horror film with the unique premise that a deranged artist/serial killer is out to get the critics that have caused him to remain among the starving classes. Another thriller, the estimable Charles Willeford’s Burnt Orange Heresy, portrays a critic as ruthlessly ambitious, to the point of murder (and Willeford was a critic himself). Artists seem often to see critics simultaneously as a.) in existence to provide PR for them and their galleries; and b.) arrogant pests standing in their way.

In fact, most critics I have met in my double life as a critic and editor have been interested in promoting communication about art, for the benefit of everybody concerned or potentially concerned with art: the artist, the curator or gallery, the art world, and the public (which has a tendency to be mythical rather than actual— see Grant Kester’s scathing "Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public," in Afterimage, January 1993). At a recent round-table discussion on criticism convened by curator Mary Jane Jacob and critic Michael Brenson for the "Conversations in the Castle" project of the Arts Festival of Atlanta, all the clichés and prejudices about criticism were raised (by both artists and critics), but there was a refreshing openness and seriousness about what art criticism can accomplish in its intermediate role (existing, as it does, in a network of artists, the art world, the general public, cultural history, political reality, and journal deadlines). That group reinforced my experience that critics come to the job with a commitment to art, a writer’s desire to accomplish as much as possible within a clearly defined genre, and an openness to a wide range of aesthetic and non-aesthetic ideas.

My own oblique route to art criticism is rather more typical than atypical. Art critics (both memorable and unmemorable) typically are poets, philosophers, journalists, curators, artists, or anybody who can move a pencil or a cursor across a page in such a way that the result holds someone else’s attention for a moment. And it really is only a moment: the character and strength of art criticism is that it is immediate, of the moment, and engaged with a contemporary artifact and readership. What is called "criticism" in art history classes is actually something else: art criticism as a discipline or a practice is actually based in consumer guides to 19th Century European Salon exhibitions, private letters to patrons (cf. Diderot, the originator of modern art criticism), and the popular press— not in the descriptions of actual works of art that punctuate art historical arguments. The essays produced by the practice of art criticism may contain (and in many remarkable instances do contain) philosophy, aesthetics, dialogue with artists, and distinctive style— but they are essentially temporal and temporary. Art criticism has occasionally produced memorable texts qua texts (cf. Baudelaire), but is normally referred to, after the cover date of the magazine in which it appeared, mainly as an invaluable source of data on the art of the day.

That is to say, art criticism is a "minor" literature, in the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari’s very interesting little book on Kafka. The art critic is a minor or regional writer (in analogy with D&G’s use of those words), speaking in terms of someone else’s work even while exploring his/her own concerns and ideas. The art critic is engaged with both an artist and a reader (who are often, of course, the same person), and, for a writer, some of the most remarkable engagement with readers comes in writing for daily newspapers (your aunt Betty reads it, and you run into the artist you wrote about when you’re in line at the Kroger). Art criticism is journalism, not philosophy, and it accomplishes more when it embraces that immediacy rather than pretending to a more solitary and Olympian [3] position or discourse. As John Perrault has suggested, writing about art is a very effective and enlightening way to look at art, and we should continually remind ourselves that writing about art is about looking at art. I am reminded of Wendy Steiner’s chiding comment on Arthur Danto’s criticism, in which she mocks his position that the meaning or content of art is theory; like Steiner, I believe that we as art critics have to remind ourselves that the meaning of art is expressed as art, [4] not as an encoded text. [5]

Another question is what qualifies us to be critics, in the absence of any universally accepted accreditation or college major [6] or graduate program? In my case, perhaps it was a background in literary criticism, a postgraduate disillusionment with academia as the fountainhead of and podium for intellectual discourse, or perhaps my brief military experience (during which another book, like the works of Kathy Acker, changed the course of my life: How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, by Lenny Bruce [7] In the months after reading Bruce’s autobiography, spent in ostensibly studying to be a Counterintelligence Agent, [8] pretending to study the Vietnamese language, and actually folding sheets in the base laundry while waiting for my application for discharge from the military to be processed, Lenny’s dirty talk sustained me like the voice of an AA devotee’s higher power. I guess the point is that an art critic is best qualified by being a member of the audience, with the privilege of talking back to the artist and (we can hope) the perspective on life and art that will make a valuable response possible.

If we can’t say much with any precision about who the art critic is, can we be any more precise about how to do it? There are a few things that, as an editor, I can tell you not to do. Don’t begin with an epigraph or a quote. Those are the first things I will lop off, with all the pleasure of the guy in the funny hat with his hand on the lever of the guillotine. In fact, don’t lard a review with quotes at all, whether from Homi Bhabha or the artist you are writing about: you are supposed to be the one writing the review. And don’t constantly compare an artist, whether fresh out of art school or well into a career, to Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Rembrandt, or Picasso. Only refer to other artists’ work if it gives you a shorthand that will give a reader some idea of what is going on, never to insert the artist under discussion into art history (remember, art history knows nothing about criticism, and usually vice versa). Pay special attention to your opening paragraph: that is to say, it usually stinks, and is the second thing I will lop off after the epigraph. Many writers use the first paragraph to get themselves cranked up; the wise ones go back and delete it once they’ve decided what they’re going to say.

What you should do most of all (and most clearly based on my own prejudices about what criticism is and does, prejudices that many or most other critics and editors may not share) is remember that description is the most important part of art writing. Not simple description, the anthropoligical cliché popularized by Clifford Geertz is apt here: it is "thick" description that you should practice, drawing into your evocation of the work in the gallery whatever context in life or art will be important for a reader to understand what is going on in the work. No matter what journal you are writing for, no matter what audience, most of the people reading your article will never see the work you are writing about. You owe the audience and the artist some translation into a written form of the experience of seeing the work, whether it is ultimately a personal response or an explicit description (happily, it is possible to do both at the same time, without descending into the bathos of Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa).

And it is possible to accomplish a great deal in art criticism, both in the furthering of communication about art and artists and in the unique opportunity that the medium allows for bringing together cultural, personal, global, and local matters of interest. It is not, however, very easy to make a living. Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding that artists have about art critics is that they fail to grasp the fact that almost all critics, like almost all artists, do not make a living from their work. We share a way of life in respect to low income as well as commitments and interests. Most critics, like most artists, do what they do from inner necessity as well as love and admiration for art—rather than from the naked arrogance and ambition of the clay-footed critics of the popular imagination.

I owe a great deal to Art Papers, and to the long-suffering staff who shared with me the nine+ years I was editor, and to Xenia, the long-suffering editor who hacked up my articles before I became an editor and had the chance to pass the favor along to others. Let the useful information in this article stand as a tribute to those who have taught and assisted me in the craft and profession of art criticism and art publishing. I also take no responsibility for the digressive and useless information, which is due to the recent influence of Xavier de Maistre’s Shandean Voyage Round My Room, which thanks to New Directions is back in print in English, and for which you can blame the concluding epigraph that I plan to squeeze into the space below (unless the editors delete it). De Maistre also said that a particular work of sculpture "is the tuning fork according to which I adjust the variable and discordant assortment of sensations and perceptions that make up my existence," succinctly rendering the power of art in everyday life.

Imagination, realm of enchantment!— which the most beneficent of beings bestowed upon man to console him for reality. —Xavier de Maistre

Glenn Harper is the former editor of Art Papers, current editor of Sculpture, and a contributor to numerous journals, including Art Papers, for whose editors he has enormous respect and sympathy.

[1] I once removed what I considered to be digressive material from an article by Alan Sondheim to a series of footnotes that ultimately were longer than the article to which they were appended—it seems only fair to do the same with my own digressions. Kathy Acker’s recent novel Pussy, King of the Pirates, offers me an excuse to revisit the work of that remarkable writer. She has written several books and brought several earlier works out in new editions since my last article on her work, and the additional material has changed my ideas somewhat about what she is doing in her writing. One factor is that the work is extremely repetitive, with the same themes coming back to the surface over and over again in each text and among all the texts (particularly a family scenario of abandonment, abuse, suicide, and this yacht that keeps bobbing up into the picture). There is not actually any narration or dialogue: the texts consist of outbursts from a complex narrative voice in several, variously gendered personae, shifting from breathless descriptions of destructive daily life within the family to passages of brisk and not particularly erotic pornography to hortatory philosophical statements that derive from thinkers like Luce Irigaray (whose influence I emphasized in my earlier articles on Acker), Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, Antonin Artaud (whose name is used several times for characters in the books), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Genet, and so forth. Curiously, Acker’s splintered narrative style has been praised by current proponents of hypertext media (like Arthur and Mary Louise Kroker) as cyber-writing, when in fact the models for her work are almost without exception writers from the near or distant past, and the frequent illustrations in her work by her own hand and others as well as the often striking cover art for her books are without exception based on retro styles derived from German dada and expressionism (particularly Georg Grosz) and comic books. When she reads from her work (and excerpts of her readings of Pussy, King of the Pirates can be heard on the very interesting collaborative CD based on the novel and performed by Acker and the English political-punk band, the Mekons), her voice is both matter of fact and securely placed culturally and geographically in New York City and environs. She does not indulge in the ’80s performance art strategies of Karen Finley (trance-like recitative) or Eric Bogosian (theatrical impersonation of characters). She reads the text in her own voice, flatly and with little intonation, recalling authors reading in bookstores or university auditoriums rather than performance artists in galleries or virtual authors in cyberspace. She writes books, and though the books are really exploring (as she says at a crucial point in Pussy) the discovery of the visual, her influences, her style, and her medium are all archaically literary. That literacy, in spite of the often unlettered quality of the voices in the text, is one of her substantial conributions to "postmodern" art and writing. With her obsessive and limited stock of narrative material, her insistence on originary literary texts (such as her ostensive thefts from Dickens, Cervantes, William Gibson, and Robert Louis Stevenson [whose pirate book is the supposed source of Pussy, though Acker’s book bears less resemblance to the original than does Muppet Treasure Island]), and the obsolete visual and textual style of work (even when thrust into contemporary media like a punk-rock CD, an underground film [Bette Gordon’s ?] or a multi-media "opera" [Empire of the Sensless ?]) is personal and direct, even though fragmented and inconclusive. Acker is ultimately a writer, an artist of an old-fashioned sort, rather than a MUDDer, MOOer, hypertexter, or cyberpunk. Her "authorized" World Wide Web page has more the quality of a book jacket than a video game.

[2] Fortunately for me, contemporary art was at that time undergoing a process of theoretical introspection that was basically literary in character, and the importance of literary critical discussions (much of my education was in literary criticism) for the visual arts gave me a foothold in the dialogue of the day in the visual arts. Fortunately for me, I became disillusioned with the literary character of much of the discussion at about the same time the art world as a whole did, and moved on to other forms of inquiry better suited to the visual material that is, after all, the object of study in the visual arts.

[3] Pardon the reference to the Olympics; I wasn’t there and didn’t watch on TV. It just feels so satisfying to use an Olympic-related term without prior approval from the Committee.

[4] My favorite quote from the very quotable Ad Reinhardt is that "art is not the spiritual side of business," and it is equally true that art is not the illustrative side of philosophy.

[5] Steiner’s comment on Danto also reminds me of another chiding commentary, spoken by the editors of Serpent’s Tail Press, who publish a very good series of crime novels under the banner "Mask Noir;" Serpent’s Tail’s editors proclaim that their mission in publishing crime novels about working class and out-class people is to refute the amazing comment by well-known crime writer P.D. James that crime novels must be about the middle class, because "only the middle class is capable of moral judgment."!

[6] Does anyone think it simply accurate or somehow more culturally incisive that the head of the "department of unemployment" on the Public Radio Program “Car Talk” (known for its list of parodic department heads and technicians) is "Art Majors"?

[7] I read this book while riding the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan to Stony Brook, to meet my brother at an Astrophysics conference (his conference, not mine), while on leave from the Army. As I sat on the wooden bench, next to the wood-framed window on the old rail car (the cars at that time on the LIRR were more like the trains in Doctor Zhivago than the sleek, graffiti-resistant cars of today), which was standing still because the tracks had washed away on the rail bed ahead of us (we ultimately reached Stony Brook by bus). In that context, Lenny Bruce’s autobiography produced a Brechtian alienation that changed my perception of both where I sat and where I stood.

[8] This experience was excellent training for art criticism, better than graduate school to the extent that it involved interviewing skills, typing skills, keeping your audience in mind, and constant confrontation with absurdity. I’ve told these stories so many times they seem more like oral tradition than autobiography, but perhaps they are relevant here, or at least digressively relevant.

After arriving at Baltimore’s Fort Holabird as a PFC in 1969, I spent several weeks on temporary duty while waiting for Counterintelligence classes to begin. We would stand in formation in the cold morning air, which stank of the primary sources of nearby Colgate Creek: Colgate Palmolive, the Shaeffer brewery, and General Anodine and Foundry—on good days the creek looked like a cesspool, on bad days like a tarpit). We would be picked out of line like migrant workers, to perform duties like pretending to be taxi drivers in hostile countries (actually we were pretending to be taxi drivers who were pretending to be taxi drivers but were actually agents working for U.S. military intelligence—an oxymoron if ever there was one).

We would cruise around Baltimore until the officer (we usually taxied around officers who were in Interrogation classes, for some reason) we were assigned to flagged us down and repeated their bona fides (look it up in your LeCarré), and then we would take them out to an old gun emplacement that was built to protect the Chesapeake Bay from Nazi invasion, where other volunteers (often PFCs who had finished Interrogation classes) would interrogate the officers who were taking Interrogation classes (to give them first-hand experience of the procedure: the PFCs had a great time stripping the officers naked, tying them up, and threatening them).

Sometimes we would ferry the officers out to Fort Mead, which was substituting for the rural area of this hypothetical foreign country (all this was before "Mission Impossible," but just as hokey), where the officer was supposed to instruct us in where to drive to meet his contact while avoiding the hostile military or police. Of course, if we managed to get the officers picked up by the hostile forces, we could spend the rest of the day parked in an empty field, doing nothing, so we would talk the officers into getting out of the taxi when we saw a car coming that we recognized from previous trips to Fort Mead as the pastel Plymouth with Pennsylvania license plates that the hostile forces always used.

One night after dumping a Lieutenant and a couple of Captains in this manner, I picked the wrong spot to park and was nearly flattened by a tank that suddenly reared up out of a gully and slammed down onto the road right in front of me.

After getting into a class, we would line up every morning in fatigues, each PFC with his own Samsonite briefcase at present arms, and then march off to class across the Colgate Creek bridge. In class, we studied the techniques of picking locks (though with little hands-on practice), the variety of night-vision devices, the means to sabotage a car without blowing it up (some of which we Southern boys in the class already knew), how to type on old manual typewriters, and how to interview the neighbors of people applying for security clearances.

Most of the classes were occupied by this latter course of study, since Counterintelligence Agents stationed in the U.S. would generally be interviewing neighbors or taking down the names of war protesters, a skill they didn’t see the need to teach in school. The questioning technique was rigorously limited to devices to extract information without influencing the subject, a style of questioning invaluable for interviewing artists in later life. If you veered away from the predetermined path, tha actors portraying the target’s neighbors would make merciless fun of you. These were ultimately to be the most hair-raising encounters of my entire military career.

These interviews and the field exercises in surveillance (much more fun) were the subject of a book on World War II era Fort Holabird’s role in training the famous OSS, You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger. Fortunately for general readers, though perhaps not for serious spy aficianados, the Counterintelligence course described in You’re Stepping is just as funny and hapless as my own experience in the course would prove to be.

Just to give the flavor of the experience: real surveillance isn’t one guy following another guy. We would always be in groups of three, following a single "rabbit." All of us, of course (this was the military, after all) [would] be dressed identically, in "civilian" attire: identical white shirts, black ties, black pants, army haircuts, and spitshined shoes. (Reportedly, the same logic of civilian dress was followed in Saigon, where the outfits immediately marked the wearers as Intelligence officers and, therefore, marked men. The response was to put them back in uniform, but instead of wearing the normal collar insignia of U.S. on one side and the Intelligence "sub rosa" emblem on the other, they would wear a brass U.S. on both lapels— which of course immediately identified them as Intelligence agents.) If the rabbit went into a restaurant, all but one of the surveillance team was supposed to go in and order something. So three or four of the rabbits would get together and agree to meet in a 10-seat diner. Six or eight of the surveilors would go in and order something, while three or four would mill around outside. All 12-16 of them in white shirts, black ties, black pants, military haircuts, and spit-shined shoes.

Earlier classes at Fort Holabird had caused the students to be banned from downtown department stores, because they had been using the elevators, starting keystone-kops elevator chases. The keystone influence remained, however: one day, three of us were following someone through the streets of Baltimore, and the rabbit turned a corner quickly. The three of us spilled around the corner in sequence, careening into one another as we abruptly stopped at the top of a steeply descending street, empty save for an old man in coveralls sweeping the streets. He looked over at us, bunched stupidly at the corner, and slowly raised his arm to point in the direction our quarry had gone.

Auto surveillance was just as sophisticated. One rabbit car, with a driver and no passengers, was to be followed by three surveillance cars, each with a driver and three passengers (there were not enough vehicles for each student to drive a separate car): each car a pastel Plymouth with Pennsylvania license plates. On one occasion, three of the rabbits drove to an out-of-season, nearly deserted fishing camp on the Bay; nine identical cars followed them in, and 39 young men in military haircuts, white shirts, black ties, black pants, and spitshined shoes milled around in front of the bait shack for half an hour, trying to look inconspicuous. Naturally, all of this experience has been invaluable for getting in and out of galleries before the owner or executive director notices that a critic is in the place, and bends your ear with an hour’s marketing speech for the artist of the day.