Long Live the Poison Pen

There are two kinds of critics: those who criticize, and those who don't

I was about 12--the age of my own daughter today--when my parents made a decision that scars me still. It was the early '70s, and like millions of Nixon voters, they were scared. Scared of drugs. Scared of youth. Scared of sex and rock and roll. Scared, in short, of everything that makes life worth living for a tender young teen. And so they uprooted my sister and me from the comforts and distractions of suburbia and decamped for a quiet life in the country. To be precise, we were transplanted onto a patch of land about 10 miles outside Midlothian, Texas, population 3,000 or so not counting small animals, home to Dee Tee's diner, two or three stop lights, a Dairy Queen, an abandoned cotton gin, a couple of convenience stores and not much else at the time.

The joke, of course, was that the very pleasures my parents fled abounded in the country. Indeed, in those pre-cable, pre-VCR, network television-dominated days, with the nearest movie screen 45 minutes by car and the nearest excuse for a library not much closer, sex, drugs and rock and roll were the only things readily available to relieve the boredom of small-town life.

But I digress. The point is that, in college, when I finally got back to civilization, the movies filled in the gaps in my knowledge of the world and its possibilities. I haunted the films at the student union and Dobie Center, lived at the artsy movie house on the drag, took every film class I could. From Hitchcock to Huston, Buñuel to Buster Keaton, the movies were what I knew of life. My role models were never the ingenues, but the dames. Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis showed me what women could be. And then there was the wisest, bitchiest celluloid mentor of them all: the late, great George Sanders.

That's no misprint. From the moment I saw All About Eve, I wanted to be Addison DeWitt, the cynical, acid-tongued critic. The sophisticated one, the one who saw all the angles and knew the real story, who sat back, amused, and watched the human farce unfold before his eyes. With the innocent naïveté of a 19-year-old who has just discovered both The New York Times and the New York Review of Books, I believed in the power and the glory of the poison pen.

It was, alas, an illusion, a mere mirage, no more real than the shadows in Plato's allegory of the cave. I suppose it is possible that critics once held that kind of sway, in that faraway time before 500 channels and the Internet and CNN, when the public got its news mostly via print. But even then I rather doubt it, and in any event, by the time I fancied that future, it had long since passed. Silly me, reading Greenberg and Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde and Pauline Kael in class, and out of it waiting impatiently for James Wolcott in Texas Monthly and Robert Hughes in Time and the New York Review of Books, and imagining there was a place for intelligent, combative, biting arts criticism.

Working at newspapers will shatter such illusions, fast. And just in case anybody Out There still harbors any, now comes "The Visual Art Critic," a report just issued by Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program. (It's available at www.najp.org) Based on interviews with 169 art critics at the largest publications in America, it is a dispiriting document, chronicling a profession not just in crisis, but virtually disappearing.

Some of the bad news echoes the outlook at newspapers generally. Columbia's survey found that "the overall trend [for arts criticism] is one of tepid compensation and dim career outlook." To no one's surprise, the majority of art critics work part-time, and almost half doubt they would be replaced if they left. In an age where papers are downsizing and outsourcing, where the bean counters and the flacks rule the roost, this comes as no shock.

It is, however, ironic, given that the visual arts are booming. As the survey notes, "there are over a quarter million people in the United States today who consider themselves painters, sculptors or craft artists...about three times as many as in 1970." Thanks in part to this growth, seven out of 10 critics say they spend the vast majority of their time reviewing the work of living artists. Mind you, the critics don't think this is a good thing; as the report states, "a striking number of critics seem troubled by the quantity of art being produced today."

And here is the rub. According to the report, "almost two-thirds of the critics in our survey claimed that their reviews were predominantly positive." In other words, we all think there's art inflation, but more than two-thirds of the art critics out there refuse to do the weeding they believe is necessary. As the authors note, "There is a proselytizing, missionary aspect to the enterprise" of art criticism. Because critics have little faith in the sophistication of their audiences, it seems, most feel it is their responsibility to educate and to encourage.

What's wrong with this picture?

Here is what I think. I think that too many critics share a dangerous belief, a belief that news is just one more form of soft entertainment. I believe there is an intelligent general readership out there that is ill-served by this trend, a readership that appreciates being provoked and thinking critically. I believe--in fact, I know--that it is easier to write a positive review than to pen a good, well-deserved and cogent savaging on a deadline.

And I believe that critics who do this are a dying breed.

In part, it is a matter of economics. Nearly half of the art critics responding to the Columbia survey are themselves visual artists who display their work in galleries, so there is a game of mutual back-scratching going on. Many critics also curate shows and write catalog introductions--a practice that is never, in my view, ethically acceptable.

Too many of us mistake pedantry for critical distance. Consider this description of the job from a critic at a midsize daily: "Unlike movie critics or drama critics, [art critics] regularly deal with esoteric and obscure art forms that the average newspaper reader might find baffling. The critic speaks the language, understands the motives behind the art. His job then is partly one of the translator, to explain 'difficult' art to the reader.

"Being able to interpret the mysteries bestows a certain importance on the critic, making him essential to the whole enterprise, an insider.It can be a seductive role. It can be very, very difficult, then, for a critic to step back and make a clear-headed, unbiased appraisal, especially if doing so means pronouncing something artistically worthless or nonsensical. He's too heavily invested."

Addison understood the problem. He was an insider, but he understood how important it was to keep his distance, even to be hated. For the critic's role is not to baby-sit, but to trust his readers' intelligence, and to pronounce. Addison was proud, and aloof, and haughty, and sometimes heartless. He had to be.

For pride may goeth before the fall, but it is also, in my experience, a condition precedent to doing good work. And we critics need to have some, or we will soon go the way of the dodo, replaced by flacks and the generic prose of praise. It's a lonely calling, but it's our job, and we need to do it.

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