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March 6, 2010

I Have No Credentials

I used to make lots and lots of very small collages that had in them--in addition to paint, bits of plain colored paper, and image fragments--words and parts of words. Many of the words came in vertical strips of artists' first names that I cut out from the hundreds of announcements for group exhibitions I received at Newsweek. The collages with visible, or partly visible, strips of names I called, as a series, "Brotherhood of Artists." Although I can't remember exactly when that series title popped into my head, the niceties of it were soon apparent to me (albeit, alas, probably to only me): artists grouped under a union-like banner, like the "Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers" or some such; there being little real sentiment of "brotherhood" among artists (although, for a while, "sisterhood" did pretty well); and just the beautiful sound of the phrase itself. And since I made so many of them over the years--there are probably between six and seven hundred packed into boxes, of which the "Brotherhood" series constitutes maybe a quarter--the roman numerals for each one soon got enjoyably ridiculous. ("Canyon III" is one thing, but "Brotherhood of Artists CLXVIII" is quite risibly another.)

Quantitative second place among the collage titles goes to "I Have No Credentials." Again, I can't quite remember when and how it reared its homely little head, but just a couple of years ago, long after I'd quit making the lil' buggers, I had one of those late-night, fatigue-driven (I don't drink) pseudo-epiphanies that disrupt your cognitive life for a few days, maybe a week, then usually fade away. This one hasn't, not entirely, and here it is: There are only two human intellectual enterprises objectively and universally worthwhile--physics (i.e., figuring out how the world, the universe, is put together and how it works), and medicine (i.e., keeping people alive and functioning); everything else--the arts, religion, philosophy, etc.--is more or less bullshit. Stunningly elaborate and wonderfully distracting and palliative bullshit at times, but still bullshit.

The reason why this dubious insight (present here only for me to describe, not to argue as a debate proposition) has stayed with me is because, even at the bullshit end of the spectrum of human endeavors, I appear to myself to be more devoid of "credentials" than the usual denizen of the arts. Like Arthur Miller's traveling salesmen, I'm out there riding on a smile (though with me it's usually a frown) and a shoeshine...and little else.

Let's start with degrees. Mine are in art, not science. And my highest is an M.F.A., which required all of two years and a show of paintings (accompanied by a pro forma written statement, and "defended" in a kaffeeklatsch on folding chairs at the exhibition). None of this three or four years of advanced rigorous classwork, reading competence in three languages, two or three more years writing a huge dissertation, followed by an exhausting defense of it for me.

Beyond long division and a few simple equations, I'm innumerate, having never taken a class more advanced than second-semester plane geometry in high school. This is also a matter of cowardice because, on the tenth-grade "Iowa Test of Educational Development" that we all took back then, I landed in the 98.5 percentile in math. Never taking calculus or trigonometry resulted from being afraid and lazy. Now, when I read those popular-science books about the origin of the universe or the nature of black holes, I have to skip the pages with the funny-looking symbols on them. I remind myself of Chevy Chase's imitation of Gerald Ford, in the Presidential debates, being asked a long, statistic-intense question about unemployment, replying, "You promised there'd be no math."

I don't speak a foreign language fluently. My two linguistic markers of cosmopolitanism are bad French (at which I am barely good enough to say le mauvais francais), and rudimentary, more-than-a-half-century-old high school Spanish that I'm trying, at an age when the brain no longer learns an unfamiliar language very well, to resuscitate with my iPod, Univision, and short conversations with the guys at the garage. This debility has, however, one salutary political effect: humility. It's hard to stay self-congratulatory when I know that everybody in the queue at the immigration offices near where I live are a lot better at speaking two--or more--languages than I am. As I walk by I often think, "Let them in, kick me out."

I can neither read music nor play an instrument. For somebody who purports to be a critic in the arts--let alone a critic of the arts--this is well-nigh unfathomable, maybe even unforgiveable. (My son in L.A. is a musician, a singer-songwriter; where he gets it from is beyond me. Perhaps this stuff skips generations; my father played some schoolboy trombone and wrote a few reviews for Downbeat.) I mean, what right do I have to say anything in print about music, even the slightest allusion to something as musically straightforward and simple as Creedence Clearwater's "Who'll Stop the Rain," when I can't even tell you what friggin' key they're playing in? (I can tell major from minor, and I read somewhere that Cole Porter said that Jewish = minor key, but that's about it.) The only cushion for me in this is that so much commentary on music never comments on the music in the music. When I lived in Los Angeles I used to read Robert Hilburn in the Times and, while he almost always quoted lyrics (as poetry, but that's another issue), he almost never said anything about keys or time signatures. And when I used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts while painting in the studio (knowing neither the specs of the music nor the meaning of the words, I'd just yet the opera wash over me), I noticed that the questions on the intermission's "Opera Quiz" always concerned trivia about the libretto or performers' biographies, but never technical stuff about music.

Finally, I am below D-minus weak in those areas that traditionally marked one as learned. (Didn't Judge Learned Hand say that men were once "learned," then they were "educated" and "now they are trained"?) I never studied Latin (or, heaven help me, ancient Greek), I know near-zilch about the Bible (though in my childhood the family Bible was one earned by me for perfect Sunday school attendance, first through fifth grades), and I can quote but a few scattered lines of Shakespeare, and those with the utmost inaccuracy.

Even in my own specialty (I'll cut my tongue out before I start saying "artistic practice"), I operate with few definable skills. In college, I was a whiz of a figure drawer (see, "Prud'hon, Pierre-Paul--imitation of") and learned to mix oil paints with reasonable competence. Sculpture--all that welding and cantilevering--and ceramics (kick wheels! firing cones! glazes!) were one-and-done for me. Ever since, I've painted with easy-to-use water-base paints in bastardized combos that, for all I know, may someday spontaneously combust. I still stretch and gesso my own canvases (something just about any doofus can do), but lack of a woodshop bids me have the strainers made by a local carpenter and delivered. And those collages with which I opened this confession? Scissors, white glue, a matte knife (known more pungently as a "case cutter" when I worked in a supermarket in college) and a metal straight edge. Again, any doofus...

There's no clever kicker to this post, save to say that occasionally the feeling of being a credential-less poseur is exhilarating in a "Talented Mr. Ripley" sort of way. Mostly, though, it's a low buzz of subliminal shame. If I had it to do over again, I don't think I'd want to be an actual subatomic-particle physicist or a bona fide neurosurgeon. But I sure would like to be an abstract painter and art critic who's fluently bilingual, can comprehend the pages with the funny little symbols on them in the popular science books, is able to rattle off soliloquies by Shakespeare and quote from the Latin poems of Milton, and relaxes in the studio by plucking out a Rodrigo concerto on his Cordoba C10 Guitar.

March 6, 2010 11:53 AM | | Comments (9)


it appears that's what most Artists are.People who passed on most opportunities but expend enormous amounts of energy trying to operate as if they hadn't.

Thanks for this post Mr. Plagens. Most of us are out here finding our way in the dark and wishing we knew more. It's always nice to hear a successful person acknowledge how ill equipped he is for his chosen field. (It's also nice to see how far someone can get on desire and curiosity, even if the object of that curiosity is rather narrow.) Carry on.

I saw Mr Plagens give a lecture in 1975, near the beginning of his career as a critic; at the time he struck me as rather cocksure about his opinions. Now, near the end of it, he sounds like a sick old dog, moaning regrets. In view of your present wisdom, Mr. Plagens, which parts of your past written work should we take seriously now, and which should we dispense with?

Thanks Peter, for the self-description that I share with you in all details except that for a decade in the '60s, I earned my living and paid for college as a folksinger and pizza parlor musician. I claimed I was the world's third greatest wash tub bass player. It was a distinction that nobody took exception to. Yes, I can read music.

Frank Owen

For Patrick Frank:

The amazing thing is that in spite of having no credentials, I've never been wrong about anything in my life. Go figure.

(The sick old moaning dog crack was unnecessary, no?)

I think artists, in all disciplines, frequently get not softer but kinder with age. I wonder, Peter, whether you believe that's true, more often than not, of critics. I think it might be. The bluster and arrogance of youth are survival instincts; if we knew, at 20 or 25, how much we don't know, we'd never get out of bed in the morning. And so the young versions of ourselves judge others, and their work, with more harshness than we do once we've acquired the thoughtfulness that comes, if we're lucky, with age.

Complete rubbish passes for high intellectual activity in the art world. Most of its members would meet with crushing defeat if faced with the challenges of science and math, not because of qualitative differences of intelligence between professions, but quantitative ones. As far as visual art is concerned, you have performed a necessary service by writing clearly about what you have encountered. That clarity, given the lack thereof in art writing on the whole, puts you in the top decile of art writers. This sounds like damning with faint praise, I know, but the damnation goes to the obfuscatory claptrap dumped upon art by the eminently credentialed for the last fifty years.

I always enjoy your writing and this article is no exception. Very funny, almost sounded as if you were talking about me. Can't play an instrument or read music, intermediate algebra was the height I attained, don't really speak a foreign language, college dropout but with 6-8 years of art classes, painting, life drawing and sculpture.
I am a sculptor and work primarily in welded steel.
Not everyone in the arts is as well rounded as you think they are, most concentrate on what they do best.

Sorry for the length of this. But here goes:

Years ago, when I was a full-time theater critic for what we used to call a Major Metropolitan Daily, I was a bit flummoxed when the Competing Major Daily hired an actual Equity Card-carrying actor as their new drama critic. I've never acted, never took a 'real' theater class. Most of my knowledge of theater (Shakespeare to Beckett) came from lit classes, and from my brief stint as a staff writer for a performing arts center (churning out the programs and ads and whatnot).

So after the New Guy went around to local theaters telling them how he was one of them, I asked a good friend, a smart, long-established director and teacher what he thought of the New Guy and his credentials.

"Oh," he said. "That's what every director wants judging his work from the seats. An ex-actor with a grudge."

And it hit me: Training or direct experience in a discipline can be highly overrated. It can, in fact, warp or limit one's judgment. And it's no guide to whether someone's a good critic. I suspect, for instance, we've all had teachers who may have been pre-eminent scholars in their fields. But they were lousy teachers, boring or incomprehensible in the classroom.

The same with critics. The issue here is one of authority. By what right does Peter Plagens (or any critic) pass judgment on anything? Well, if a PhD. doesn't grant a critic (or teacher) that authority, what would?

A critic earns our attention through what he writes -- just as a teacher does in the classroom. Each review is essentially an argument to persuade a reader, to prove a point with humor, grace, knowledge -- yes, knowledge, this isn't a defense of ordinary-man ignorance -- and acute observation. This is why so many of us as critics have heard that famous line, "I don't always agree with what you say, but ... " and what follows the 'but' is something along the lines of "I read you anyway" or "I always learn something from you."

In this way, a critic can gain a cumulative authority. "She was smart about that one film," we think upon seeing a new column from her, "what does she say here?"

In short, a critic earns our respect with what's on the page, nothing else matters. If you read a horrid mishmash and discover, at the end, that the author graduated from the Sorbonne and was Marcel Duchamp's personal assistant for testing urinals, would it really make much difference to the quality of the review?

So what does one need to be a good critic, to gain that authority? You need to have seen or experienced the art form a lot. You need to have thought about it a lot and, one hopes, clearly. And you need to express those thoughts compellingly, entertainingly, accessibly. That's all. On those grounds, Mr. Plagens, I think you qualify. And, if you happen to work as a professional journalist, you better be able to do this very quickly, briefly -- and repeatedly -- and do it on deadline. Donald Barthelme, who started as a writer for the Houston Post, where I worked for two years, and who never earned anything more than a BA in journalism, used to say back then, "Give me 45 minutes in the newspaper library, and I can sound like an expert on anything."

And readers are still laughing at his jokes about Kierkegaard.

The New Guy, by the way, turned out to be an absolutely horrid critic, who soon left.

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