Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Frailty of Judges and Critics

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons

Ever since caveman-times, no doubt, people have tended to huddle around communal fires for warmth, for mutual comfort, for survival.  We would all like the support and good will of our fellows.  But if we covet those things too much, we betray ourselves, we fear being too original or honest, we shun certain people or ideas just because the group won’t accept them.

What many artists don’t realize is how much power such basic emotional cravings and fears have over the art world, including its leading critical writers, judges, gallerists, and curators.  My early mentor in poetry, a famous and “politically” savvy writer who had worked as the poetry editor for prominent magazines and publishers, shared with me this insight into the editorial process:  He said that editors, like other people,  are insecure and afraid to step out on their own, nervous about exercising independent judgment that might draw the scorn of others in the literary food-chain.

Whenever you make a submission to some judge or judges — for an exhibition, a grant, for publication or awards — and whenever you see the results of such judging, you should keep this in mind.

That same mentor of mine also told his students, in the first session of his class on Yeats and Joyce, “I know that these authors can be difficult at times, and I know that no matter what I tell you, you’re going to read criticism about their writings.  But when you do, I want you to remember that 95% of it is going to be pretentious junk that will muddy your experience of these works, not improve it.”

Some critics are more insecure than others, of course.  But too often we forget to consider their flawed and frail humanity when looking at reviews or juror’s selections.  Let me give you a couple of examples in which two of our prominent art critics displayed their fear and trembling when faced with the possibility of leaving the circle around the fire.

I’ve read pieces by these two critics that I thought were, in whole or in part, insightful or eloquent or gratifying.  My point here isn’t to condemn them, but to pull back the curtain of people’s unwarranted deference to titles and reputations like theirs.

My first case involves Roberta Smith, a visual arts critic for The New York Times.  With respect to two of the most notoriously successful and fraudulent characters in the world of contemporary art, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, she has, on more than one occasion, written refreshingly direct statements about what crap they’ve put on public display.  And you feel, “Great.  I’m glad that she’s telling it straight.”  But then, as you go on reading her review, there comes a point at which she starts to take it back.  There comes a disappointing “But” or “however.”  And her resolve starts to disappear in smoke.

If she held her initial course, she would likely offend not only the owner of the gallery that represents both Koons and Hirst — Larry Gagosian, one of the richest and most powerful gallerists in the international art market — but the many directors of art institutions and the many rich collectors who have spent millions of dollars on works like Koons’ basketball floating in a fish tank or Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (a kind of pornographic object for oligarchs).  She would also be insulting the many foolish, albeit erudite, critics who have praised Hirst’s severed cow-halves suspended in tanks of formaldehyde or Koons’ ceramic renditions of a plastic inflatable dolphin or the Pink Panther embracing a topless buxom blonde.  If you want a perfect, laughable, example of the profundity of Koons’ approach and accomplishment, follow this link to one of a series of his commentaries on his “works” (Koons provides only basic concepts, while an army of artists and art students “execute” his products), as published in the Times:   http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/07/03/arts/20090703-vogel_6.html

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