What is it like to be an art critic?

by Ken Johnson

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S: I would like to become an art critic. How should I proceed?

C: Just start doing it.

S: Shouldn’t I go to grad school to learn all the things I need to know in order to do it?

C: No, it’s not like you need a license. There’s no exam for art critics.

S: Ok, then what do you mean by just do it?

C: Go look at an exhibition and then go home and write about how it made you feel.

S: How it made me feel?

C: Yes. Did you enjoy it? Did you hate it? Were you bored?

S: My teachers say that how I feel is irrelevant. That’s what Monroe Beardsley thought.

C: Who?

S: The famous aesthetician.

C: Well, he’s wrong and they are wrong.

S: Tell me how you do it. What is it like to be an art critic?

C: Ok, let’s say I’m considering a one-person show of paintings by someone new to me at a mid-level Chelsea gallery.

S: OK

C: in a receptive mood and with hopeful feelings I enter the gallery – a standard white cube, let’s say – and I look around. As I attend to what’s on view, I have certain feelings.

S: What kinds of feelings?

C: Depends on the work. Awe, boredom, confusion, intrigue, surprise, embarrassment, disgust, horror, amusement, disappointment, exhilaration, depression, jubilation and on and on. A particular constellation of feelings starts to dominate.

S: Why should I care about how you feel?

C: Because whatever I write will be grounded in the particular feeling experience I had and continue to have in memory while reflecting on or re-imagining the paintings. My ultimate judgment or evaluation of the work will be determined by how I feel about the whole feeling experience. Which boils down to answering the question, do I think it’s any good or not?

S: This sounds awefully subjective. What about the facts?

C: The usual facts – dates, titles, sizes, historic background and so forth – you can get from the press release. But feelings are facts, too, and they are more important for the critic.

S: So what do you do with all your feelings?

C: When I sit down to write, I try to connect every salient feeling I’ve had to something in the work itself, something available for all to see. I try to describe the work in such a way as to convey the felt experience of the thing in all its particularity.

S: What does this have to do with figuring out what the paintings mean?

C: I think, not what does a painting mean but what does a painting mean to do?

S: To do? How can an inanimate object like painting mean to do anything?

C: To give yourself over to a painting is to accord it a certain as-if agency – to experience it as if it had a life of it’s own.

S: That sounds right. Paintings can feel as if they are acting on you.

C: Often in psychologically interesting ways: they can be coy; they can be overbearing; they can intrigue, hypnotize, expand consciousness. They can make you feel guilty and ashamed; they can make you feel dumb or brilliant. I think that sense of animation in the object is fundamental to what makes it art.

S: What about meaning in the traditional sense?

C: Meaning in art can be known only through feeling. I think interpreting  art is – or should be – more like dream analysis than forensic investigation.

S: What do you mean by that?

C: A given artwork will, like a dream, induce in me a particular cluster of associated feelings, some stronger than others. Artworks, like dreams, usually emerge from feelings of conflict – especially between feelings that seem irreconcilably opposed.

S: What sorts of feelings appear irreconcilable?

C: Desire for order and desire for freedom; masculine feeling and feminine feeling; passivity and aggression; feelings of beauty and of ugliness; sensuous feelings and transcendental feelings; and so forth. Painting itself is a marriage of opposites: it weds physical immediacy and illusory depth into a duality that ultimately reflects the human condition of having material bodies and evidently immaterial souls. That’s why, I think, painting will never die.

S: Yikes.

C: I know. But here’s the thing: if you get it right, if you can accurately verbalize the constellation of feelings in play, the thing lights up like a Christmas tree in your mind.

S: Accurately?

C: What you write has to be true to your feeling experience, which has to be true to the particularities of the object.

S: We haven’t talked about the intention of the artist. My teachers talk about the “intentional fallacy,” which is to think that meaning is to be found in the intentions of the artist. You can’t really ever know what the artist intended, and, anyway, whatever he or she may or may not have intended should have nothing to do with my evaluation of it.

C: Artists don’t make paintings by accident.

S: What?

C: It’s absurd to say you can’t divine the intention of an artwork, and it’s absurd to say the artist’s intentions are irrelevant.

S: How do you divine the intention of a painting?

C: I know it by how it makes me feel. There’s an as-if feeling, a feeling that the painting “wants” to be or is eager to become, to fulfill itself by embodying and thereby conveying to viewers a particular state of feeling.

S: I suppose that’s what’s going on between artists and their paintings in their studios.

C:  Yes. They are trying to match painting and feeling. Just like the critic is trying to match words and feelings.

S: What if you don’t like the feeling experience you had?

C: I’d say that right up front. Don’t bury the lede!

S: But isn’t it mean to write a negative review? Don’t you worry about hurting someone’s feelings?

C: If that worries you, don’t become a critic!

S: Hmm.

C: Seriously. If disappointment is the feeling you get from an exhibition, you can pass it by, or you can look deeply into what it is about the work that disappoints you – what it promised and what it failed tp deliver on that promise. That’s a valuable exercise. A lot of published criticism these days amounts to little more than quasi-sophisticated publicity. Which means there’s a lot going unsaid in public art discourse, which is why it’s so boring. I think if you’re going to do criticism, you owe your readers an uncompromising honesty about your experience of and your feelings about the things you’re writing about. Be true to yourself and you’ll be true to your readers, and they – the good readers — will appreciate it.

Ken Johnson wrote art reviews regularly for the NY Times from 1997 to 2016. He is the author of “Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art” (Prestel, 2011)

4 comments

  1. Extraordinary!

    “C: I think, not what does a painting mean but what does a painting mean to do?

    S: To do? How can an inanimate object like painting mean to do anything?

    C: To give yourself over to a painting is to accord it a certain as-if agency – to experience it as if it had a life of it’s own.

    S: That sounds right. Paintings can feel as if they are acting on you.”

    Thank you!

  2. When considering the sometimes insanity of artist and art popularization as portrayed in the movie Big Eyes or the expose documentary of a child “prodigy” (My Kid Could Paint That, 2007) where her work garnished fame, acclaim and outlandish prices or, even the schlock fad of chimp or elephant “art”; in conjunction with the often accompanied sophistic psychobabble of the effete “experts”; my impression up until the last paragraph was that this Q and A was supposed to be a lampoon of the highly subjective art world. (Especially so if considering Abstract Expressionism.)

    I think the Q and A format and my own suspicious nature preconditioned me to interpret the article as a satire on art criticism. But as I said, the last paragraph brought me up short and somewhat wary that I perhaps misconstrued. After reading the other considered comments I have to admit that upon rereading the article I can see through an effected lens that Ken Johnson was being serious.

    My own art critique: I apologize, but I have forgotten the name of the lady who adorns the EA with her own artistic talent, but her beautifully shocking pink bouquet has, in my mind, channeled Georgia O’Keeffe and created a lovely snapdragon plethora of labial vaginas.

  3. Loved this! Art is recored emotional experience meant to communicate feeling experience and the meaning that lies therein – a non- linguistically bound experience and non-linguistically bound meaning. Well done.

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