The Critic’s Doubt

“My God!” the old critic said. “You're covered in glitter!”

She leaped up from her spot on the couch, carefully laying her laptop beside her. The light tapping of keyboards elsewhere in the dark, woody room continued uninterrupted. The boy behind the counter announced an iced macchiato.

“Can’t. Can’t,” the young critic said. “So much glitter.”

“So what did you think of the show?” the old critic said to the young critic, wrapping him in her coat. She guided him toward the couch.

The young critic sighed heavily and shivered. “I have no idea what any of it means.”

“Don't start that again,” said the old critic.

“The works are gorgeous; all that glitter and sequins! Mickalene’s outdone herself. The reinterpretation of Manet. That fabulous odalisque! Is that what a better world looks like?”

“Have some coffee.”

“I mean, what I want to know is, is she doing it right? Is she just making jewelry for the walls of rich collectors? What is the consequence of all that glitter? I want to be sure.”

The old critic looked hard in the eyes of the young critic. He was distraught. “Listen,” she said. “You're all hopped up on Greenberg and Rubinstein. It's causing you to ask all the wrong questions. The last time you mixed those two, it kept you up for days. We found you wandering the West Side Highway snorting scraps of your Joan Mitchell essay off the back of your hand. Don't you want more for your life?”

“Can't. Can't.”

“You're pathetic. It's pronounced Kant. And he won't save you now.” The old critic sipped her coffee. “Stop looking for a better world. The artists seem mostly concerned about a world that is better for some of us, a few at a time; they possess no coherent idea of what a better world in general is.”

“But, Kant.” the young critic stammered.

“What did you just call me?” returned the old critic. “That's a very offensive word.”

“I want a better world,” said the young critic. “And I have to know if the artists are taking us there. I'm sick.” He leaned forward on the couch. “I'm sick of the of the deflationary populism of unaccountable private opinions.”

The old critic rolled her eyes at him. “You think there's no way out because you're trapped. Trapped in the idea that you've got to have authority; the final word, or at least a word that counts. You think you've got to have an opinion that adds up to something like a data point in a spreadsheet.” The old critic took another sip of her coffee and looked worriedly at her laptop. How serious was her editor about that deadline? She looked back at the young critic. “What if the real question here isn't whether or not Mickalene's doing it right? What if the real question is how hard it is to figure out the terms of what is right?”

The young critic looked at her, a question in his eyes. The old critic went on: “What if what matters most now is letting everyone know how impossible it is to know whether restaging Le déjeuner sur l’Herbe adds something or not? What if you told everyone that the trouble is figuring out whether the work has any obligation to benefit anyone at all? What if that's what this historical moment needs?”

The young critic looked away and then back at the old critic. “Then every piece of writing,” he said, “ends with ‘I don't know. I can't know.’”

The old critic nodded solemnly. “That sounds right.” She went on after a pause: “Listen, that doubt, that's liberation. That's what's going to save us, the realization that you just can't know what's right. All you can know is how hard it is to figure it out. That's what's going to keep people from chucking bombs––physical and metaphorical––at enemies that can't even see. That's the only thing that's going to reverse a nation of tribes.”

The young critic looked into the distance. A flake of glitter fell from his blinking eye. Satisfied with her tutelage, the old critic heaved a light sigh. “So what are you going to say about the show?”

He looked back at her, the afternoon sun glinting off his face. “I'll say what's important,” he said. “I don't know.”

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Cinqué Hicks

CINQUÉ HICKS has written criticism for Art in America, International Review of African American Art, Artvoices, and Public Art Review, among other publications.