Home Art Reflecting on the Mistakes I’ve Made as an Art Critic

Reflecting on the Mistakes I’ve Made as an Art Critic


Seph Presenting at Pratt
The author making a presentation at Pratt Institute in April 2019 (photo by Mary Mattingly)

What do critics do? I would argue that they tell people who might otherwise be overwhelmed by a plethora of choices how they might utilize their time and attention in ways that will best reward them. As a critic, I’ll suggest that I can sensitize my readers and listeners to what they didn’t see or grasp or apprehend when they witnessed the same art or performance. I think we critics add something to the mix — not always essential, but certainly pivotal and consequential — as when you prepare a meal you had before, but this time, on my recommendation, you add a few dashes of nutmeg, after which the flavor combination takes on more color and depth. The meal opens savory pathways that had been unavailable before. But then, some claim that all we really do is muddy the flavor that you would have tasted anyway. Or, it is also said, that out of pique, jealousy of the artist’s talents, or general meanness of spirit, we condemn intellectual feats that would otherwise have happily been savored.

Like most human beings who ping pong between poles of emotional and intellectual empathy and generosity, mean, spiteful condemnation, and cold, indifferent dismissal, critics vary in what we do. I always endeavor to tell the truth as I see it. I do, not because I think that will earn me more attention or praise or that doing so may be instrumentalized in another way, but because our culture is broken. I tell the truth because I think there are too many lies and blinding myths that surround us and curtail our life chances and for us to thrive we should clear them out — every one — by using our faculties of keen observation, critical thinking, and articulate judging. But sometimes I fail.

After four years this May of being on staff at Hyperallergic it’s time, I think to talk about the mistakes I’ve made. I want to keep myself honest. The truth is that I’ve sometimes missed the import of an artwork or an argument because I have my own blind spots and I can’t predict when they will obscure my vision. If we tell each other the truth, maybe we can make a way to live in it.

*  *  *

The most recent mistake I made was in my coverage of the Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I had found a compelling way to take the reader with me on my own visual excursion through the show by, from the opening paragraph, describing my experience of the first gallery as being on a rollercoaster ride, swung up, around, and through works by Mark Bradford, Jack Whitten, and Martin Puryear, being swept from crest to crest until pulled into the enfilade that followed. It was almost as thrilling to write about this show as it was to see it, and I loved the exquisite lede I had crafted.

2019 Generations For Criticism piece
Installation view of the first gallery in Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art at the right is a partial view of Julie Mehretu’s “Fever graph (algorithm for serendipity)” (2013) graphite, ink, and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 120 in., (installation photo courtesy BMA, by Mitro Hood)

Then I realized after my piece had been edited and was being titled that I had left out a key artist in that first gallery: Julie Mehretu. This omission is particularly awful because at the end of my review I do call out the exhibition for being too male centric in the final gallery — while Mehretu was the only woman artist included in the first one. What’s worse is that in an older article that I had written about a current generation of Black artists using the language of abstraction to assert a political identity, I had failed to mention the influence of Mehretu. In fact, my former MFA professor Daniel Martinez told me after that piece was published that I should have discussed Mehretu because he believes she has had a profound effect on younger Black artists working with abstraction now.

It was a mistake not to pull the piece back and find a way to rewrite it to make space for Mehretu, and this is a failing that is completely my own. I am sorry I made this mistake and hope to have the opportunity to properly investigate her work and come to understand the ways in which her practice has been influential.

I’ve also made errors of misattribution.

Installation Shot Jamaica Biennial for Criticism Piece
Installation view of the Jamaica Biennial 2017 at the National Gallery, with Nadia Huggins’s “Is that a Buoy?” (2015) at right (image courtesy the National Gallery of Jamaica)

When I wrote about the 2017 Jamaica Biennial I had mistakenly referred to a photograph by Nadia Huggins, “Is that a Buoy?” (2015) as depicting a man’s head bobbing in seawater, when actually the images was of the artist’s own bald head. I missed the joke entirely (a play on the patois pronunciation of “boy” which sounds a bit like the standard American pronunciation of “buoy”) and only found this out when I checked in on Facebook with a friend I had made while visiting the island to cover the event. It was pointed out to me that I had missed Huggins playing with gender tropes, and this mistake, to which I readily admitted, was used to make the argument that I didn’t know anything about the art in the biennial and was not equipped to critically assess the show. To be fair to myself, given the tangle of curatorial intentions, competing factions, politics, and intrigue in the biennial which I tried to assimilate over the course of three days there were bound to be things I would miss.

While I am Jamaican, I don’t know the island well, or its National Gallery since I haven’t lived there since I was seven years old. Before taking the assignment, I recall having a conversation with my editor in chief, Hrag Vartanian, about how my arm’s length relation to the island and the biennial would be helpful in encouraging a certain critical distance. (For a contrast in perspectives see the review written by Edward M. Gomez for Hyperallergic Weekend.) Wading into the deluge of comments on FB and defending myself there made it powerfully clear that I make myself vulnerable by publicly admitting my errors and that there are many who wait for precisely this opportunity to shake the dust off the pitchforks and torches. And, I also learned that being exposed is precisely where I need to be as a critic: open to the work, able to be touched by it, in dialogue with people who care about art and representation and ideas.

I’ve also made mistakes of inattention.

dissent overall corrected3000
Installation view of Jason Lazarus: A CENTURY OF DISSENT! at the Hunter East Harlem Gallery (all photo by Benjamin Ohene-Gyeni, courtesy Hunter East Harlem Gallery)

When I reviewed an exhibition by Jason Lazarus titled A CENTURY OF DISSENT!, at Hunter East Harlem Gallery, I wrote mostly about my skepticism regarding protest as political tactic, and doubts about the usefulness of the indicia of protest (signs, documentary images, etc) as art — as opposed to their function within social justice movements. I felt, when I wrote this article, that I didn’t care for the work, which, in the nature of political slogans printed on placards, tends to be reductive, hyperbolic, and essentializing. But I still wanted to give the show some air to breathe, since Hunter East Harlem Gallery is a scrappy, occasionally wonderful gallery that is way off the beaten path and deserves some critical attention. But when my piece was published the gallery director sent me an exasperated note. That didn’t sit well with me. But, a couple years later Lazarus reached out to me to tell me about another show he was involved in and I reminded him that he had hated my review of his previous show. The way he responded was lovely. He admitted to being frustrated with my writing but also said this (used with his permission):

Yes regarding 2017 the traditional review format is frustrating as really these types of projects need a sort of embedded critic rather than a drop-in reading of the work. or said differently, annoyed less by you and more by the format of criticism in general. no one is getting paid to do the work of an embedded critic, it is untenable as you know. the project had a load of programming and engagement that is hard to see on the wall alone, it’s all a learning curve for me too — what is the role of criticism in these longitudinal + exhibition space projects?

also, the archive of protest signs i provided to participants was not the limit of the protest signs as your review mentioned (there may be a simple misunderstanding here), the project invited participants to talk about their social justice interests, view the archive, and per the project, often the participant and i would research images together to find something they were interested in recreating based off their social justice interests (a kind of historical mosaic created by a contemporary concerned resident/citizen lens!)

I was completely unaware of the dialogue with participants, archive study, and outside research. Perhaps because of time pressure, or just being tired from running from show to show, I didn’t grok the full spectrum of what Lazarus was doing — which was less about the signs on the wall and more about the relationships and ways of seeing that he was cultivating. If I had known that these aspects of the exhibition existed, I think I would have written a different review. I’m grateful for Lazarus’s generosity. The good that came out of this situation is that I’ve since learned to stop reflexively looking at art as mainly objects. Sometimes objects are only the remnants of something much more profound that happened offstage.

KW EX 2017SJC 2 MAIN 03 for Criticism piece
Installation view: Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present the most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season! at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, (all photos by Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)

The way Lazarus responded to me was so much more conducive to further conversation and mutual support than what I encountered after writing my “15 Questions About Kara Walker’s Latest Exhibition” piece. Some of the comments on our website were remarkably aggressive, but then Jerry Saltz responded to my questions with his own piece published on the Medium site. When he transposed the conversation to Facebook (there’s a pattern here) the insults thrown at me included calling me a liberal snowflake, on one hand, and a sociopath on the other.

With a few years emotional distance I feel that although these slurs were personally directed at me, and intended to harm me, they are also not really personal at all. Now I understand that these kinds of response are the way we talk to each other in a social scheme dominated by the idea of domination. Now escalation is the intuitive move, rather than attempts at forging consensus or explaining our grievances with the ultimate goal of getting someone to understand our position — especially when others oppose it. Cancel culture provides an outlet for anger and resentment at being demeaned, disempowered, and discarded by the prevailing culture that is generally white, heteropatriarchal, conservative, Christian, and vehemently protective of the current racist and sexist social order, but it doesn’t know how to legislate positive outcomes. In other words this culture and its associated behaviors do not forge a way for us to live with difference or articulate a promising future.

I’ve gotten used to anger. Almost daily I am exposed to the rage of various groups across the political and social spectrum, and I recognize that this culture routinely fails to nurture the faculties that could make us enlightened citizens and neighbors. So in my criticism I try to make space for probity rather than fury and willingness to engage rather than to demean or dismiss — as long as what artists, curators, dealers, and other writers are doing is not supporting racist, genderist, and dehumanizing policies.

At other times I should have been more strident in my judgments.

In 2015, before I became a staff member at Hyperallergic, I wrote about a series of photographs by Cindy Sherman in which she used blackface. I wrote that “it feels like there is not a great deal of critical work to be done in parsing them,” which is a really a way of shouldering aside my responsibility to deal with them critically once I decided to take the piece on. I also wrote: “While identifying the obvious problems of the photographs, particularly their approach to their subject matter, we can recognize that they do not represent the artist in her entirety,” which essentially lets her off the hook. However, she placed herself on the hook, by using the same shade of skin tone for all the characters, and by seemingly making the work with the intention that it only be seen by a white audience. In my concern for not being overcome with outrage and indignation I erred on the side of somewhat explaining away her work. I call it “atrocious,” but I don’t quite call it out.

I am wary of calling out artists, art pieces, exhibitions, initiatives, performances or projects. I do this at times, but I do so knowing how this game works. I’ll lob a rhetorical molotov cocktail at the villain and perhaps receive a denunciation in return. Audiences and compatriots will pick sides, whip up indignation and outrage; accusations will fly. In some instances insightful understandings emerge — and this is where I want to be. But we tend not to stay in these insights, but instead retreat to our received and ingrained notions of how to be in the world, inhabiting only the shallowest tides of our beings that are deep and wide, nuanced and able to astonish each other and ourselves. For critics, perhaps part of the reason for this habitual retreat is the risk-reward calculus we compute when undertaking criticism. We see the public acclaim given to certain critics and art historians who have made their reputations by doing the very necessary work of calling out dehumanizing politics. (Some alternatively have had success completely ignoring these conflagrations to pay attention to the marketplace alone, or some niche, esoteric aesthetic garden plot.) But I always want to ask once we’ve taken the culprits to task: What do we do tomorrow? Anger isn’t enough. I don’t want revenge; I want a revolution. This article is about enacting the very habits that I think can help bring one about.

In the four years I have been working more or less full time as an art critic, I’ve learned that there is a great deal I don’t know, and that I’m willing to do the research to fill in the gaps. I’ve also developed a sensitivity for the intricacies of the interrelated systems that undergird art production and presentation. So now I ask better questions. And then I try to quiet myself and listen carefully for the answers.

Editor’s Note: Upon receiving clarifying information from the artist we’ve changed the descriptor used with artist Nadia Huggins, from “shaved” to “bald.” We have also replaced the image associated with the exhibition A CENTURY OF DISSENT!

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