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March 26, 2010

In which the singing baby sings

New Englanders are pinballing between two art events this spring: the Meléndez still life show, in Boston, and an exhibit of Pat Steir's drawings, in Providence.  The Meléndez show contains a cauliflower that is a tour de force (also a couple of killer cantaloupes). Steir is known for her "waterfall" pieces, but I preferred her horizontal "wave" drawing, which is full of circular yearning. Its frantic but pleasing marks do not steal from Cy Twombly exactly; she and Cy are more like two drivers in the same make of car, giving each other a nod on the interstate.

These two shows suggest that you could assign critics according to shape. Someone could cover only spherical things. Melons in painting; round characters in fiction; orbicular altos.

Okay; kidding. But we might at least accept the idea that most arts writers, whether aware of it or not, develop themes. (You might drop in on Dave Hickey any old time and catch him extending his meditation on art and money.) The themes may be more about the writer than about a particular art form.

So on to the question Larry Blumenfeld raised in his March 12 posting. As art forms blend and collide, who is supposed to cover what?

One solution offered by The New York Times was to engage art, music and book critics in a roundtable discussion of "The Nose," which just concluded its run at the Metropolitan Opera. But in the end, as one editor noted, the decision whom to dispatch is "based on the venue." If a work is presented at the opera house, off goes the music critic, no matter how many William Kentridge figures may be flickering in the background.

Keeping critics in dedicated silos is of course a luxury only larger publications can afford. The Providence Journal's classical music critic has been doubling on theater for some time now, and doing it well.

So why not simply let good writers follow their noses?

I would not take it amiss if visual-arts critic Roberta Smith were to review Kentridge's contributions to "The Nose," and in passing comment on how it works (or doesn't) with the music. In fact, because she always finds something interesting to say, I would welcome it.

The venue problem, in Smith's case, is even more troubling than it first looks. In an essay Feb. 14 ("Post-Minimal to the Max") she lamented the stampede by major museums toward shows heavy on performance, conceptual and installation art. Painting, for which her eye is fiercely educated, is treated as vaguely embarrassing, though past masters are fine. (The words "single-minded," "singularity," and "personal" stud this piece, not to hammer you with the theme idea.)

The work that seems most to engage Smith right now is in the galleries. So why shouldn't she skip the major museums and go where her eye leads her? Must the venue dominate to the extent that it does?

Venue talk makes me think of those E*Trade commercials, which feature a baby making trades by computer.

In one of the newer ones, Original Baby (the one with the superbly laconic voice) demonstrates for a companion baby how easy it is to make a trade. Both stare at the screen. Companion Baby sings: "Take these broken wings...."

Original Baby disapproves. "It's not the venue," he says.

I think an arts writer should sing wherever the urge forms. The heck with the venue.

March 26, 2010 11:30 AM | | Comments (5)


Kentridge is a perfect illustration of the coverage dilemma posed when an artist crosses boundaries of discipline — so perfect that the Times roundtable might easily have included one of their theater critics. Artists tend to be much more flexible about boundary crossing than journalists are when we decide who's going to cover what. Of course, for publications, which increasingly rely on freelancers rather than staffers for their criticism, the issue of money may be paramount, trumping even space considerations. If they want more than one critic to cover something, they'll have to fork over more cash.

The key here is "good" writers (like MJ). The relevance of the venue fades for a good writer as it also does for a not so good writer. But it bothers me that the move to a generalist approach might be driven more by bottom line budget crunching rather than a desire to provide some fresh perspective from a writer who is worth reading on a variety of subjects. I like the idea of hearing from someone who is looking in from outside, but I also want and need to hear from the writer who might have a deeper understanding of history and nuance because they have been inside. Stop employing smart-ass babies and hire the reporters back again.

Brings to mind the great boundary crosser, Frank Rich, who rather suddenly went from drama critic to political pundit. He held such power as taste arbiter for the NYT that shows he didn't like would close as soon as his review came out. Turns out he really didn't care for all that theatre, after all. Wrong venue?

The notion that Frank Rich was the Butcher of Broadway just won't die. His collection of reviews, "Hot Seat," includes in its appendix two handy lists that counter rumors of his omnipotence: shows he raved about that swiftly died and shows he was lukewarm to negative about that lived long and happily. (Speaking of his power, no critic has power without the readers handing it over. Blame them, not him.) As for his not liking theater, his memoir, "Ghost Light," speaks eloquently to the contrary.

And on the subject of an arts writer leaping to politics: I suspect most people who cover culture are rather fiercely interested in politics — not all of them on the liberal side, either.

When I was still at Newsweek, I was asked to take a look at a Karen Finley performance (not the infamous chocolate one, but a later one, in a little theater down in Tribeca). I protested that Ms. Finley’s work was closer to theater and to one of those one-person shows, than it was to “art” in the gallery-and-museum sense. I said that Jack Kroll, the theater critic, should do it. Jack argued that Ms. Finley’s work originated in the art world and that it was made infamously newsworthy by the contretemps over her being one of the “NEA Four” who, controversially, got artist’s fellowships. He said I should cover the event. Jack won. As my good luck had it, space or timing or an editor’s cold feet or something obviated a story. The performance was—to my amateur’s theatrical eye and ear—neither very good nor very provocative. The only thing I remember about it is Ms. Finley loudly scolding some Asian businessmen who got up to leave midway through the thing.

If there’s anybody who’s burdened these days by the collapse/confluence of artistic boundaries and categories, it’s an art critic. Besides painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, photography and design, there are conceptual art that’s more like science or literature, performance art that’s more like dance or theater, language art that’s more like poetry, “sound pieces” that are more like avant-garde music, “architectural interventions” that are more like architecture, video and film that are more like indy movies, and installations that are more like God knows what. Perhaps it’s a kind of perverse blessing that there are fewer and fewer outlets that want an art critic to write about all this stuff.

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