Dear Irvingby Phong Bui
For some time I have been consumed by the notion of dualism. In particular, I’m increasingly aware of the constant effort required of me to maintain my own sensitivity to the hair’s breadth that separates artworks that result from inner ambition from ones that are merely the outcome of a temporary desire for fleeting relevance. So instead of answering your questionnaire directly, I’d like to respond more broadly in this confessional letter, which I hope will address some of my concerns regarding art criticism today.
I have a striking memory of reading Edward Young’s epic poem Night Thoughts and Donald Revell’s translation of Apollinaire’s Alcools in the same cold weekend of February 2003. While the former wondered, “[If] we are all born originals, why is it so many of us die copies?” the latter declared, “Even if it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, the new spirit does not refrain from discovering new profundities in all this that is not new under the sun.” These two remarks—which have nearly two centuries between them—resonate as the primary options available to highly sensitive observers of culture at large. The most emboldened contributions have always come from a relatively small population of individuals willing to negotiate this chasm, yet whereas the idea of progress in science and technology necessitates a “going forward” (in leaps and bounds), this does not apply to the case of art. (Inadequate is the thought that the art of Rembrandt is greater than say, Giotto’s or cave painting. Or that a landscape painting from the Southern Sung dynasty is qualitatively inferior to a Murakami sculpture.)
A work of art or an artifact reveals itself to us in various layers: The first is the unfolding context of its social and political life, of which it is inseparably reflective. Then only with close examination of the form and surface of the made object does one detect the manner and custom of those inhabitants from that specific time and culture. Finally, the most intriguing layer is revealed—the personality of its maker. It’s hard to imagine the impeccable compositions of Shirin Neshat’s “Women of Allah” without her deployment of minimalist restraint and her subtle intimation of Iran’s complex social, political, gender, and religious issues, especially after the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the pro-democracy Green movement of 2009. Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995) as an act of liberation without templates like the 1989 Tank Man of Tiananmen Square and Warhol’s exhibit at MoMA in 1988 (where Ai posed before a Warhol self-portrait, mimicking the gesture). Both Neshat’s and Weiwei’s works are compelling examples of artists who employ works germane to their heritage, despite having been absorbed by New York’s cultural milieu.
We are coming to realize (and are coming to terms with the realization) that postmodernism means more than the rejection of Modernism. As you, Irving, have said, “Pluralism is to contemporary art since 1970 what inclusive modernism is to modern art.” The question comes down to occupying the individual. The challenge then is to overcome the tendency to drown in the pervasive conformism of spoon-fed culture (often identified as a form of anti-elitism), in favor of openness informed by a true sense of tradition that is not inherited but earned by hard work (as in T.S. Eliot’s concept of eliminating at all cost passive repetition). I’ve observed that good art has always been made by remarkable individuals. Whether in the East or West, whether made by anonymous monks, such as the 7th century Book of Durrow (evidently Bernard Berenson consigned the illuminations to tattoo-craft or simply savage, and even the great John Ruskin has written that “only great art could exist in Western civilization”), or by a so-called self-taught artist such as James Castle, or through certified commissioned works as in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Rothko’s de Menil chapel, all were aware of their mortalities and were therefore in touch with their potentials, in spite of reward or consequence.
I began to read art criticism after my first (riveting) art history class with professor Nancy Davenport in my freshman year at Philadelphia College of Art, who suggested I read Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which I followed with John Ruskin’s The True and the Beautiful In Nature, Art, Morals, and Religion and Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life. I must confess that between then and now, I have tried to read as much art historical literature and criticism as my time allows. I read religiously the seminal articles of Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg in Partisan Review; brilliant and short pieces by John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Donald Judd, and your own Irving in old issues of ARTnews; Dore Ashton in Art Digest, long essays by Leo Steinberg, Annette Michelson, Rosalind Krauss, Brian O’Doherty, Barbara Rose, and Michael Fried in Artforum, Linda Nochlin, Lucy Lippard, Robert Storr, Kurt Varnadoe, Nancy Princenthal, Eleanor Heartney, and Vincent Katz, among others, in Art in America, all obtainable for a dollar or two at Strand Books. And I still unfailingly read Roberta Smith, Ken Johnson, and Holland Cotter every Friday in the NYTimes; Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker; Christian Viveros-Fauné and Martha Schwendener at the Village Voice; John Berger in the Guardian whenever he writes, for sure; Raphael Rubenstein at the Silo; John Yau at Hyperallegic; Jerry Saltz at New York; and I indulge myself with James Kalm Report on YouTube for pleasure maybe once every two weeks. I even read bad and mediocre criticism in order to remind myself what to avoid and to get the full pleasure of that which is thoughtful and well-written. I approach looking at works of art similarly: one belongs to the moment and the other to all time.
In 2000, we first launched the Rail as a bimonthly publication; in 2003 a British journalist asked me, “What sort of readership is the Rail trying to reach?” I answered, “Those that read.” The same answer was given recently to a Japanese journalist. In essence I write art criticism in order to understand what compels the artists to make certain objects capable of enriching my life and the lives of others. (As Jung says: “Being essentially the instrument for his work, he [the artist] is subordinate to it and we have no reason for expecting him to interpret it for us. He has done the best that is in him by giving it form and he must leave interpretation to others and to the future.”) I write in order to help me to read more, and the more I read the more it helps me to eliminate my personality, which one day I hope it will be accomplished so that my potential can be fully realized.
I’m grateful to those who write criticism, good or bad. Frankly, Irving, I feel art criticism is very much alive. We all should remember that the artist makes work in order to receive responses, and the art critic could only write when in fact there is something made for seeing. Both are integral parts of each other’s lives, whether dead or alive. The appetite for visual stimulation in our contemporary culture—precipitated by internet technology and globalization that has produced infinite numbers of artists of all sorts in the last decade or two, while disempowering the monopoly of the few in mainstream media by giving rise to endless writers and critics who feel an urgent need to respond to such vast production—has paid greater attention to its temporal condition than any art of the past; I would argue that in the end it’s the great work of art and thoughtful writing that compels multiple viewings and readings, hence rendering both immortal. An exhibition without a written response implies that it did not occur.
Meanwhile, I leave you four lines from a 1847 poem “The Rhodora” by Emerson, which at the moment describes how I feel about the essence of art criticism:
“Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being.”
PHONG BUI is the publisher of the Brooklyn Rail.