Seeing Past the Gorgons

Seeing Past the Gorgons

The New Yorker‘s art critic turns his eye toward the cultural summits.


Peter Schjeldahl is the only currently practicing art critic whose style I envy. He can do things with words on which other critics can only look with wonder–though he sometimes does them too often or too flashily, so that reading seventy-five of his pieces at a go can be too much of a good thing. Still, the very title of his collection of reviews from over the last decade shows his finesse: what lightness of touch! Just two little monosyllables–contracted from three, admittedly–yet how much they tell us about the writing they somehow summarize. They take the form of an invitation, one without condescension or formality, for they assume an “us” that includes writer and reader as equals. And the invitation, mind you, is to see, not just to look, which is to say that they assume we can not only search but find. But as to what there is to be found, there is no foregone conclusion: “I don’t know–let’s see.” Schjeldahl never writes as an authority, just as a particularly energetic, quick-thinking and vocal member of a club of art lovers of which the reader is also assumed to be a member.

Schjeldahl’s band of aesthetes is hardly an embattled remnant, but neither, surprisingly, is the art world, with its institutions entirely dedicated to fulfilling its needs. “Art lovers are a disorganized minority constituency in the conduct of the art culture,” Schjeldahl once told an interviewer. “We are like selfish children; all we’re interested in is art. And we learn to… we have our improvised guerrilla tactics. Getting in, getting past all the gorgons, and educators, and labels, and getting what we want and then going home.” Schjeldahl’s generation of art critics, now in their mid-60s, mostly created bases for themselves as art historians working in universities–among them Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried. But Schjeldahl was “one of those sixties college dropouts you hear about,” he admitted, and, without having a chip on his shoulder about it, he makes his autodidacticism a point of pride and of solidarity with readers who are assumed to be smart if not erudite.

An aspiring poet when he arrived in New York City in the mid-’60s, Schjeldahl got his start as a critic in publications like Art in America and ARTnews but eventually found his real niche writing for a broader public when he became the critic for the short-lived weekly Seven Days and then for the Village Voice. His move in 1998 to The New Yorker, however, may have been an even bigger leap. The Voice shares with the specialized art press a premium on contemporaneity, whereas The New Yorker has licensed Schjeldahl to turn his eye toward the cultural summits; yes, you can read about painters of the moment like John Currin, Neo Rauch and Lisa Yuskavage in Let’s See, but more of it is devoted to classics like Vermeer, El Greco and Rubens–the blockbusters for whom crowds have lined up at the Met.

Meanwhile, what ever happened to Schjeldahl the poet? Poetry “gave up on me in the early 1980s,” he explains. “I never had a real subject, only a desperate wish to be somehow glorious.” Feelings one suspects are much rawer find a socially acceptable form in the guise of humility; “subject” may be another way to say “the will to persist in the face of indifference.” But poetry lurks within Schjeldahl’s prose, and when poetry is lacking there’s still something nearly as good: the bracingly dialectical rhetoric of epigram. Speaking of a sculpture by Alexander Calder, Schjeldahl notes that it’s “grand but so affable you forget to be awed.” One of his great talents as a critic is that he also consistently forgets to be awed by artists even grander and much less affable than Calder–the “congenitally aggrieved” Cézanne; the “glowering” Jackson Pollock, “whose ruling emotion was fear”; the “truly barbarous” Ingres. Even when Schjeldahl advises that “it is good to be on amicable terms with Chardin,” one suspects a hidden threat. “I’ve discovered a rewarding way of looking at sculptures by Alberto Giacometti,” he announces at the beginning of one piece, inconspicuously acknowledging that he might not have found them very rewarding before. What makes Schjeldahl a good writer on the classics is that, without pretending not to recognize them as such, he likes to bring out the awkwardness, irritability and riskiness in their work.

Contemplating the art of the Aztecs, Schjeldahl thinks, shows that “a civilization based on slaughter steadied and inspired human genius.” It’s a sobering thought, but the very concreteness with which he imagines Aztec brutality (“Sights and smells of gore attended normal life in Tenochtitlan–children must have grown up liking them”) testifies to the depth of his need to check his own aestheticism. The lesson is clear: art is good–Schjeldahl has no doubt of that–but not necessarily good for you. A persistent warning note is sounded: “beauty isn’t nice.” That’s not too hard to disagree with, but how about “beauty can be a kind of murder”–this, apropos not of the Aztecs but of, again, Chardin? For Thomas Eakins, less dramatically, “the dignity of art may have stood in an inverse relation to the nobility of its motive.” An Inquisitor painted by El Greco seems “repellently cruel,” but the painter “regards severity as part of the man’s important job and a good thing for everybody.” In short, art is always capable of going against the grain of socially sanctioned good or of supporting socially sanctioned cruelty.

One reason Schjeldahl needs to reiterate this insight is to defend art from its credentialed defenders, all those “gorgons” and “educators” whose jobs in art’s “sentimentally celebratory institutions” depend on showing that it is personally edifying and socially constructive–philistines sans le savoir in their attempt to harness art to utilitarian agendas of improvement. Whether in the museum hall or the seminar room, they must seem in his eyes a bit like Mrs. Beale in What Maisie Knew, who exclaimed of some lecture, “It must do us good–it’s all so hideous.” But there’s more to it than that. He’s fascinated by the danger in art for its own sake. He’s a little like a connoisseur of fugu, the Japanese blowfish whose liver contains a deadly poison; if a nonlethal amount of the toxin remains in the fish after preparation, it is said to impart an especially desirable tingling sensation. It’s a good frisson to feel in the vicinity of old master painting, which can so often be made to seem boringly worthy.

In retrospect, it’s a bit surprising that Schjeldahl held out as a denizen of the contemporary art scene for the three decades before he was taken up by The New Yorker–or at least that he retained his enthusiasm instead of setting up shop as an accredited curmudgeon. His taste has never exactly been mainstream. Minimalism he acknowledges as “the dominant idea in art of the past forty years.” He respects it and regrets it, and if he hasn’t warmed to it by now he’s never going to–not to its works, which “succeed by occasioning, rather than communicating, bleak epiphanies,” and not to the milieu that formed in its wake, “waves of academically trained artists, curators, and critics” who could see the point of an art that would be “boring, on purpose.” If Schjeldahl did have a moment when he appeared to be in sync with the zeitgeist, it would have been the era of what was wrongly called Neo-Expressionism. Looking back on “the early 1980s revival of painting and public sensation,” he acknowledges, “I saw great promise in the moment and a role for myself in promulgating it. Its disintegration taught me a lesson in humility.” Rarely has “humility” been such a transparent euphemism for “disappointment.” What’s sad is Schjeldahl’s diffidence about continuing to make a case for the artists he championed in the early ’80s. It would be interesting to know what he thinks now of David Salle, for instance, but mum’s the word. Jean-Michel Basquiat is here, but he’s an easy case if it’s true that, as Schjeldahl says, he made really good work only in the single year of 1982–in that case you can uphold him and dismiss him by turns. Cindy Sherman is a special case among the stars of the early ’80s: she’s a photographer rather than a painter but also one of the few cases in which the taste of those “academically trained artists, curators, and critics” who now define the consensus links up with Schjeldahl’s enthusiasm.

Without the oxygen of what he calls “public sensation,” Schjeldahl would choke. “Your criticism is about the studio,” he once told me, “mine is about the opening.” By “opening,” he meant, I think, not so much the party, the social occasion, but rather the moment when a work first emerges in public view, as yet uncategorized and uninterpreted. At the time, I understood him to be subtly and perhaps rightly taking me to task for misunderstanding my role as a critic–to be saying that if there’s a side to be taken, it’s that of the public, not that of the artist. Schjeldahl and I are both admirers of Charles Baudelaire, who wrote of his art criticism that “as for techniques and processes…either public nor artists will find anything about them here. Those things are learned in the studio and the public is interested only in the results.” But at the same time, I now see, Schjeldahl was revealing his own limitation as a critic, a need not to be at one with the crowd but nonetheless to be where the crowd is. This weakness–if that’s what it is–is inseparable from one of his great strengths as a critic, a sensitivity to the importance of what might be called the group mind in art.

Consider this passage: “In the early twentieth century, influential artists and intellectuals in Europe and America agreed to exalt Cézanne’s obstreperousness as the echt modern mind-set, thereby instituting a cultural oligarchy of experts which even now, though with mounting self-doubt, stands against popular taste.” Most curious, and indicative of Schjeldahl’s fineness of touch, is his choice of the verb “agreed.” He’s gently poking fun at what Harold Rosenberg called “the herd of independent minds” by pointing to a contingency verging on arbitrariness in the self-appointed experts’ election of Cézanne as their totem. But if you think Schjeldahl is aiming to debunk the cultural consensus–to suggest that somehow it would be better if we could all just forget the whole thing and go back to some form of untroubled pre-Modernist representation–forget it. He respects the social nature of opinion formation as much as he understands its fragility. He reminds us that there is no objective basis to the judgments that have become tokens of cultural belonging, like that of Cézanne’s greatness, but that it can become nearly impossible to judge otherwise. And so it’s just the case that “you can’t say something bad about Cézanne in the discourses called ‘modernist’ any more than you can gainsay Jesus with language from Christian liturgy.”

But that doesn’t mean that praising Cézanne is enough to make you a Modernist any more than praising Jesus is enough to get you into heaven. Maybe in religion there’s wiggle room, but in art, salvation definitely lies in works, not faith, as shown by the fascinating case of Norman Rockwell, to whom Schjeldahl devotes some pages of beautifully calibrated assessment. Remember that when Schjeldahl started out, it would have been impossible for an art critic–as opposed to, say, a highbrow critic of mass culture like Leslie Fiedler–to attend seriously to a figure like Rockwell. It would have been–to give Schjeldahl’s analogy with religion another turn–like allowing fair response from Beelzebub in The Book of Common Prayer. Yet as Schjeldahl points out, Rockwell rated Picasso “the greatest,” and his famous image–you see, I hesitate to call it a painting!–of an old fellow trying hard to make heads or tails of a Pollock painting “expresses Rockwell’s perplexed admiration for an avant-garde that he seemed never to resent for scorning him.” Schjeldahl doesn’t scorn Rockwell. He’d like to like him and finds much to admire, both in his painterly chops and in the lessons his art was devoted to broadcasting. “Most of them,” Schjeldahl says of Rockwell’s works, “play variations on the theme of tolerance.” The problem is that, in the eyes of a critic who spent his boyhood, as Schjeldahl did, in the kinds of small heartland towns that are the inevitable settings for these pictures, Rockwell “got everything right–except the confusion that flowed in and through my experience”–except, that is, its soul. He left out the poison that gives art and selfhood (not unlike fugu) their savor.

Still, Schjeldahl thinks, even to concede as much to Rockwell as he does constitutes a swerve away from Modernist orthodoxy–“no mere adjustment of a reputation but a shift in how we identify and value visual art.” As a reviewer on the beat it’s not incumbent on him to theorize that shift, but the very lucidity of his examination of Rockwell’s art–along with his finally reassuring realization that he can’t commit himself to the artist’s cause–makes it easy to overlook the depth of the transformation that the attempted rehabilitation of Rockwell would represent if taken seriously. It’s not a change Schjeldahl wants to resist. He thinks he’d like art to be rescued from the “cultural oligarchy of experts” to whom Cézanne delivered it and that eventually solidified into the academy of the minimalists. He dreams of the artist “as story-teller, as bard”–an artist who would be illustrative and popular but just as great, as dangerously soulful, as the Modernists.

The problem is that the artists who fill that bill already exist. They have names like Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee. If Schjeldahl really wanted to dwell on that kind of art he could have become a film critic. Luckily, that never happened. When he tries to convince himself that “important painting of the past forty years, from Gerhard Richter to John Currin, has become ever more illustrative,” well, that never happened either. Such artists quote illustration without deigning to engage in it. And Rockwell hasn’t really been accepted; we’ve just gotten used to him. The end of Modernism shows no sign of ushering in a more popular form of fine art. Of course, you never know what’s just around the corner, so why not stick around and see?

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