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March 3, 2011

Tengo setenta años.

Birthdays are a dime a dozen, and decade-turners aren't really that big a big deal. Or they shouldn't be. But waking up one recent morning to discover that I had officially entered eminence-grisehood (O.K., maybe just grisehood), gave me a bit of a start. This is a guy who (I was told by an old high-school flame at a reunion) was known among the cute girls as "The Brat." Indeed, my stock-in-trade as an art critic has always been a kind of brattiness, a glib, smart-aleck, colloquial approach to contemporary art, which was, back in the mid-1960s when I started writing about it in Artforum magazine ("the house organ for Minimalism," a lot of people called it), pretty academicized and dense. After the publication moved to Manhattan from Los Angeles, and its roster of writers grew thick with heavy-duty New York intellectuals, I became comic relief from the West Coast. When I moved to New York myself and, a couple of years later, happened into the Newsweek job, my vernacular approach to art criticism turned out to be a nice fit. (My rhetorical style is much a product of my limitations--I'm not and never have been a intellectual, a theorist, a scholar--as a conscious choice. I like readable writing and have always thought that good art criticism could be delivered in fairly plain English.)

But at seventy, I now have the creepy feeling that it's incumbent upon me to put the dignified long view, accompanied by the concomitant throat-clearing, ahead of snarky immediate reaction. Bummer. Even if I could maintain my status as irritant, it gets more difficult to keep up with all the flash and filigree of the current art world. I can't drag myself to out-of-the-way galleries in Brooklyn that often anymore (it's not a physical problem--I'm a bit of a gym obsessive and I walk almost everyplace--it's a lack of desire); I can't make myself plow through the art magazines with any thoroughness; I can't stomach all the empty gassing about "theory"; and I haven't much patience for long, pretentiously self-referential or inherently preachy videos. And other than an occasional glance at Artforum's online who's-doing-what-to-whom blog, "Scene and Herd," I don't know much, or care much, about who's doing what to whom. (An American friend in Moscow, a businessman who used to be a dedicated art collector, e-mailed me, in response to my asking what he knew about those over-the-top Russian artists who do things like stage orgies and have been pounced upon by the police, "Contemporary art has a bad rep here as tasteless and completely seeking notoriety and money and social standing among the crass elitny. So few pay attention, and English press here ignores it." If he hadn't included that remark about the English-language press, I might have thought he was living secretly in the States.)

The world of art exhibitions (not quite the same as the "art world," which waxes scene-ish) is different from that of, say, pop music. The past is more with us. Exhibitions of work by dead artists are often treated as if the work is as revelatory as something created last Tuesday by a 26-year-old MFA grad on an iPad2. Cared-for objets-d'art made fifty a hundred, three hundred years ago still have--when adroitly installed under good lighting--the same presence as they had when they were new. Amid the simultaneous past-present of shows of, broadly speaking, sculpture and painting (video, installations, "interventions," "relational aesthetics," etc. are different), the long view comes in handy.

But the other side of the matter is what to do with the advantages and disadvantages of the view from behind the increasingly rheumy eyes of a seventy-year-old. I took a buyout and left my art beat at Newsweek eight years ago and, with my erstwhile culture editor finally leaving, won't be doing even the occasional piece for the magazine anymore. My columnist's gig at Art in America is rotating away from me as of the summer (Dave Hickey started the thing and put in a year; I'll have done about a year and a half), and the only other bun I have in the oven is a monograph on Bruce Nauman, which won't be out for quite a while. Not being published at least semi-regularly in periodicals is, while of some fiduciary consequence, not as financially urgent as it is with other writers, who have a lot more reason to complain. (Am I complaining? I thought I was only musing). I'm amply pensioned, married to a professor, and both of us are exhibiting artists. (Plug: She has a show up through March at Gary Snyder Fine Art.) Finally--as the late editor/photographer John Coplans told me the wonderfully prickly painter Irving Petlin said to him--"I have my files!"

I've said in male sartorial metaphor in lectures that there are basically three ways to cope with the prospect of superannuation. You can dig in your heels and announce by newly conservative dress--Harris tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, a real non-clip-on bow tie, and wingtips--that you think that contemporary art has gone to hell in a handbasket. Or you can mellow out and just cruise along being what you've always been: keep the leather vest, rodeo belt buckle, cavalry boots, turquoise bracelet, and--in spite of going gray and balding on the top--the pony tail. Or you can reinvent yourself in a nice Italian black suit, black silk T-shirt, tiny bright blue circular sunglasses and shaved head. None of these approaches is really satisfactory. With the first you miss a whole lot, maybe a truly great work of art in a manner you never imagined possible. (Yeah, the odds are 10,000 to 1, but still...) With the second, you overestimate your own era. And the third is affected, not genuine.

At the bottom of all this, of course, is the need to belong. Even critics, even cantankerous critics, need to belong. But 'tis the nature and fate of brats never to belong. And believe me, folks, turning seventy doesn't help matters.

Off to the art fairs!

March 3, 2011 5:57 AM | | Comments (4)


Peter, it's ok. A man like you does not grow old. laurie

Is it too late to wish you a happy birthday? I'm not sure you are a brat (which, in Wisconsin, is a thing you eat on a bun), but if you are, I say brat on.

Best wishes!

Buenos cumpleanos, 'mano!

This won't ever happen to me, of course. I'm forever young. Which reminds me, to go straight for a second, that rock and roll, which retains its teen origins as part of its myth, often speaks more meaningfully about this dilemmas than most arts. But I will say this--if some similar fate should befall me, and I should, well, blog about it somewhere, I hope I get some comments, and am positive the first three won't all be by women.

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