Second Take

art critic schjeldahl

The art critic Peter Schjeldahl. Credit Gilbert King.

Learning something about a picture — how it’s made or its origin, for example — can trigger or enhance appreciation. I wonder if an artist really wants that? Wouldn’t he or she prefer that the work commune directly and totally with the viewer? (Poets do, I think.)

Art critics make a living telling people what they (the critics) think and feel about art works. Although they’re not necessarily prescribing how viewers should react, critics qualify as influencers if they’re good at what they do.

What does being good at criticism entail? The looking is important, of course, but a large part of the knack is in the writing. Charles Finch (a novelist and critic) bestows the crown of “artist” on Schjeldahl’s output straightaway in his review.

Peter Schjeldahl is a great artist… Is criticism an art? It’s a valid, exhausting question. Criticism follows other people’s work; then again, so does all human invention. What lab-pure operant-conditioning chamber do we imagine “real” artists spring from?
(Charles Finch, “The Penetrating Gaze of One of America’s Most Brilliant Art Critics,” NYTimes, 5-24-19)

Weakness for a glib turn of phrase makes me vulnerable to critical rape. Something Roberta or Peter (or Charles) has written may have me looking anew at a painting, searching for what she or he saw, before realizing I’ve been molested.

When I was a professional student (irony noted), I would bridle internally when literature professors called me to account for the critical theory surrounding a particular school or period — the secondary writings. Wait! I would think. Let me have my unfiltered moment with the primary writings first!

(Flashback: The most awkward moment during my dissertation defense was when Juan Bautista Avalle-Arce asked me had I read so-and-so’s book on the subject. My reply in the negative felt lame. Excuse me, I was busy with the subject! I harrumphed silently).

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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