Slowed, but not Silent
By Tom Wachunas
…So now you come with open hands, mirrors in your eyes, to lead him from this foreign land, so once again he tries. And each day’s passing cuts another string, like snow atop the mountain, melting into Spring. – lyrics from “Each Day’s Passing,” a song I wrote in 1975
In her 1970 song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” a distressed Joni Mitchell sang, “Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?” Paradise paved indeed. Thanks to Covid 911, ARTWACH has been quarantined (or imprisoned?) - sentenced to remain disconnected from our local galleries and museums, theaters, and concert halls. They’re empty. Lights out, doors shut. OK, not ‘gone’ completely - just on indefinite vacation. Still, in this protracted viral moment, I’m feeling somewhat bound by the exceptionally taut strings of sheer anxiety.
So what’s this critic to do? Of course I’m still making visual art in my studio, albeit rather slowly. That said, my state of mind has been nevertheless paved with unsatisfied longing – call it a benevolent obsession – to celebrate and wonder, or to speculate, or doubt, or reconsider. I greatly miss the actual going to a place, to be in the physical, real-time presence of, to look at, to hear, to think and feel and write about other artists’ works. I miss the connecting, the solidarity, the fulfilling of a purpose - the sharing of things discovered.
And isn’t that the function of a critic? But enough about me and my introspection already. Do you find any of the following, randomly selected musings from various thinkers, writers, and artists useful, entertaining, or at least mildly interesting? Can we talk here?
Don't be an art critic. Paint. There lies salvation. - Paul Cezanne
One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture: it's like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don't have any control over the action going on upstairs. - Robert Hughes
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means. - Susan Sontag
Art criticism, I would say, is about the most ungrateful form of 'elevated' writing I know of. It may also be one of the most challenging.. if only because so few people have done it well enough to be remembered.. but I'm not sure the challenge is worth it. - Clement Greenberg
Art criticism everywhere is now at a low ebb, intellectually corrupt, swamped in meaningless jargon, distorted by political correctitudes, anxiously addressed only to other critics and their ilk. - Brian Sewell
Criticism talks a good deal of nonsense, but even its nonsense is a useful force. It keeps the question of art before the world, insists upon its importance. - Henry James
In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. – George Orwell
Modern art always projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed. It is always born in anxiety, at least since Cézanne. And Picasso once said that what matters most to us in Cézanne, more than his pictures, is his anxiety. It seems to me a function of modern art to transmit this anxiety to the spectator, so that his encounter with the work is--at least while the work is new-- a genuine existential predicament. .. the picture seems arbitrary, cruel, irrational, demanding your faith, while it makes no promise of future rewards. In other words, it is in the nature of original contemporary art to present itself as a bad risk. And we the public, artists included, should be proud of being in this predicament, because nothing else would seem to us quite true to life; and art, after all, is supposed to be a mirror of life. – Leo Steinberg
Good art-writers break conventions, hold a few sacrosanct, innovate their own. They measure their limits by instinct, not by rote. Mostly they learn by seeing miles of art, and reading good literature in bulk. There is no substitute, for a writer, for possessing a natural ear for language; a rich vocabulary; a flair for varied sentence structures; an original opinion; some arresting ideas to share… - Gilda Williams
I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? ― Peter Schjeldahl
When art is made new, we are made new with it. We have a sense of solidarity with our own time, and of psychic energies shared and redoubled, which is just about the most satisfying thing that life has to offer…This being so, it is a great exasperation to come face to face with new art and not make anything of it. Stared down by something that we don't like, don't understand and can't believe in, we feel personally affronted, as if our identity as reasonably alert and responsive human beings had been called into question. We ought to be having a good time, and we aren't. More than that, an important part of life is being withheld from us; for if any one thing is certain in this world it is that art is there to help us live, and for no other reason. – John Russell