Conversations with Critics
by Ruth Ezra
A review of Jarrett Earnest, What It Means to Write About Art (David Zwirner, 2018)
by Ruth Ezra
A review of Jarrett Earnest, What It Means to Write About Art (David Zwirner, 2018)
In his essay Under the Microscope (1872), A.C. Swinburne describes his reviewers as a ‘rancorous and reptile crew of poeticules who decompose into criticasters’. The suffixes imply that these men are not just petty in their criticism, but also inferior in their poetry. Vladimir Nabokov quotes the line approvingly in Strong Opinions (1973), a collection of interviews. Having dealt with his share of mandarins, he regards Swinburne’s assessment as a ‘shrewd comment’ and likens the ‘criticules’ of Paris, circa 1930, to those of Victorian England.
In our own age of Yelp, Goodreads and TripAdvisor, many would accuse the -icule and -aster of having turned the entire field of criticism to rot. Their judgments are apt to be ignorant, uninformed, and—worse—unliterary. The decay hastens with every swipe of an iPhone keyboard. Those who disagree must concede, at least, that media-gone-digital has lost its Midas touch. Few words of criticism now turn to gold. While the masses of amateur criticasters swell, the ranks of the professional critic grow thin.
The one area of culture that lacks a ‘social cataloguing’ site is fine art. I know of no aggregator where exhibitions take a turn in the internet stocks. One reason may be that despite the high prices achieved at auction, contemporary art remains inaccessible to a mass audience. People don’t care enough, or look long enough, to foster a lively, user-led reviewing culture. And if the general public doesn’t have strong opinions about what’s on in Chelsea, the same is arguably true for those workaday critics who have managed to stay employed. Consensus rules the day, at least according to Jed Perl, the rare polemicist among them. ‘One thing that upsets me’, Perl says, ‘is that when there’s a big show of a contemporary artist at one of the New York museums, you read reviews in New York, The New Yorker, and the [New York] Times—and basically everyone’s on the same page’. Perhaps that’s why there’s no Rotten Tomatoes for galleries: it’s either a passata shower, or no pillory at all.
Perl airs his views in What It Means to Write About Art (David Zwirner, 2018), a hefty volume of interviews that the art writer Jarrett Earnest conducted with thirty veterans in his field. Earnest chose subjects based on his intellectual interests; a somewhat arbitrary definition of ‘critic’ (no curators); and, one senses, an urge to connect with the people who shaped the course of post-War American art—before it’s too late. The milieu is New York. As with any compendium, desiderata remain. Where are Karen Wilkin and Benjamin Buchloh, or that blogger-turned-podcaster Tyler Green? Is W.S. Di Piero too West Coast, and ditto, Rebecca Solnit? Should Robert Storr be left out for being a curator, when he’s equally active as a critic and educator? Is architecture not art enough? Michael Kimmelman appears only in passing, dismissed by another writer for the ‘sheer racism’ of an old review.
When I asked Earnest about the line-up, he admitted that ‘it felt radical to put academic heavy hitter art historians like [Rosalind] Krauss and [Michael] Fried next to popular journalists like Robert Smith and Peter Schjeldahl, poets like Eileen Myles and John Ashbery, and theorist-critics like Michele Wallace and Fred Moten—and to do so non-hierarchically’. The mix is indeed a departure, and a welcome one. That Earnest thought to ask all these people, then arranged to chat with them, took chutzpah. The real feat, though, was the decision to make of his encounters a group portrait: the burghers of twentieth-century art history. This strikes me as a generous act.
But the mix of interview subjects raises the question of who, exactly, the intended audience is. And for that matter, how are we to engage with the text? As Darby English puts it to Earnest, ‘When someone is faced with a lot of something, she has to make choices’. English is referring to writing about art, which he characterises as an exercise in selective attention. Yet the same could be said for the reviewer flipping through What It Means’s 500-plus pages. This is not a book to be read from start to finish. Arriving at a non-hierarchical structure, Earnest organises the transcripts alphabetically; the table of contents doubles as a dramatis personae. It’s a minimalist list. To navigate the names, it helps to be au fait with the New York art world and to know a thing or two about its late twentieth-century history. Many readers will recognise bylines; I suspect the most devoted could also chart each critic’s respective degree of separation from Donald Judd.
Earnest has little patience with the academic study of art. His book, on the other hand, is a gift to art history. The publisher, a commercial gallery, should be congratulated for having pulled off what has been attempted, though never quite realised, by such non-profit institutions as the College Art Association (‘CAA Conversations’) and the Association of Art Historians (‘AAH Oral Histories’). It reflects the greater mission of David Zwirner Books, a publishing house that, according to its editorial director Lucas Zwirner, is part ‘cultural service’, part business. Zwirner has struck a winning balance: Simon & Schuster just signed on as distributors in the US. And all that blue-chip money buys expensive fonts, distinctive design and savvy marketing. Take the house’s ekphrasis series, for example. These diminutive volumes recall the ‘little yellow books’ of Reclam Verlag. Whereas Reclam’s colours change by subject (the art and architectural history titles on my shelf are magenta), ekphrasis offers a new shade for every title. Surveying the palette, I was reminded of back issues at Print Quarterly. The founding editor sat regularly for Frank Auerbach, and the artist would choose PQ’s annual colour. Zwirner’s design team has no less of a painter’s eye.
Like the ekphrasis paperbacks, What It Means makes an immediate aesthetic impression. When I first picked it up, I was overcome by the effort involved. Earnest researched, transcribed and edited each interview. Why take on such a project, I thought. And: Wait, who is this guy? We learn a bit about him in an exchange with his teacher, the poet Bill Berkson. Berkson recalls being struck by how the young Earnest ‘behaved like the gay guys I knew at the end of the fifties and early sixties, and nobody behaves like that anymore—how terrific!’
New York in the Sixties is likely the setting Earnest would return to if he had a time machine. To pick up Jed Perl’s lament: ‘When you go back and look at ARTnews in the Fifties and Sixties, you find that by and large the criticism reflected a sense that everybody was here because they had complicated, passionate feelings about the nature and possibilities of art’. One way to interpret What It Means is therefore to see it as an attempt to recover, and record for posterity, the golden age of art criticism in American letters—an age its millennial interviewer missed. But if that were the goal, the book would be called What It Meant to Write About Art. The present tense to this project is Earnest’s own critical practice. The interview form represents what it means for him to write today.
To learn more about Earnest-the-critic, I listened to an episode of Dialogues: The David Zwirner Podcast. The host, Lucas Zwirner, moderates a discussion between Earnest and Peter Schjeldahl. (Yes, pass the mic and surrender the hot seat—it’s musical chairs. What I know about Zwirner I learned from a sycophantic interview in the Brooklyn Rail, conducted by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, who also happens to be a subject in What It Means and the senior art editor of the Rail, the publication that first commissioned Earnest’s interviews.) Zwirner praises Earnest for ‘developing a new form of criticism […] that incorporates someone else’s voice’. Earnest himself characterises it as a form of triangulation: he, the critic-interviewer, pivots between creator and creation. We might detect a parallel structure in Zwirner’s show. The podcasts are actually tri-alogues, with the editorial director as hypotenuse—he connects two guests of more-or-less equal footing.
Intrigued, I decided to read something of Earnest’s prose. In his background research for What It Means, Earnest benefitted from the paper trail left by legacy media. A reference to Roberta Smith’s juvenilia elicits a somewhat sarcastic, ‘My my, you have been deep in the archives!’ I was disappointed, then, to find that jarrettearnest.wordpress.com is no longer available. (The blog, ‘Tongues and Oysters’, is referenced in a 2014 interview Earnest did with Art is about.) I settled for a mature essay, ‘Sarah Sze Paints a Picture’, which appeared in Elephant last June. Earnest narrates a studio visit. As I walked along beside artist and interviewer, I could see what Zwirner meant about Earnest’s experiments with triadic structure. But the punch line of the piece is that while Earnest and Sze may be in dialogue with each other, there is a miscommunication about who the third party is. Sze takes Earnest to see her ‘paintings’, but he initially fails to recognise them as such.
The humorous exchange reminded me of an anecdote Michael Fried tells in his interview with Earnest. In order to demonstrate a ‘rule’ he has about criticism, he relates how, in 1966, he paid a visit to Frank Stella’s studio with his wife Ruth. Ruth asks, ‘So, Frank, why did you go from the stripes to this [the Irregular Polygons]?’, at which point Fried has to practically shout, ‘No! If he’s going to answer your question, I have to leave. Otherwise, you have to withdraw the question’. As Fried explains to Earnest, ‘I’m the critic—it’s for me to figure out what the paintings are up to’. In other words: no triangulating between artist and work.
Fried shares this rule with several of the What It Means crew. Jerry Saltz, asked by Earnest why he hasn’t done more interviews with artists, responds that he doesn’t care what the maker has to say about the work. ‘I do not want to know what it means’, he riffs. ‘Because it doesn’t. Whatever you [the artist] say it means, it doesn’t’. Hilton Als expresses similar scepticism. As he sees it, ‘If I’m interviewing [artists] I think I go more on observation. I’ve found that words are suspect in some way, and the thing that is most helpful to me is the language of bodies—what they are doing and how they are responding to me, as opposed to what they are saying. I think I go much more with behavior now than with the standard “telling quote”’. It’s tempting to read this as a critique of Earnest’s own project. If you’re used to eavesdropping on podcasts like Dialogues, or reading New Yorker profiles, the back-and-forth of What It Means’s black-and-white pages start to resemble Platonic exchanges—like telegraphs from a vacuum.
Earnest puts his trust in words, and offers nary an observation. Words also figure prominently because these are interviews with critics, not artists, and thus the ‘third man’ is another text. This can create conversational cul-de-sacs. Certain authors renounce ownership of their early works, or at least claim not to recognise them as their own. But if the author of the text is now as far estranged from them as the reader, why look for meaning at the source, rather than trusting one’s own interpretations or those of someone else altogether? I get the sense that I’d learn more about Clement Greenberg’s ‘Collage’ (1958) from the Bois-Fried seminar at Johns Hopkins—recounted in these pages—than I would from any interview conducted with its late author. Earnest risks putting too much store in the continuity of a writerly self.
To return to the problem of presenting interviews in book form, in the introduction to Strong Opinions, Nabokov claims that ‘in dealing with the results of interviews as they appear on the printed page, I ignore the floating decor and keep only the basic substance’. He goes on to describe an editing process whereby ‘the thing is transmuted finally into a more or less neatly paragraphed essay, and that is the ideal form a written interview should take’. Earnest would concur. He makes no attempt to conjure atmosphere, and offers very little in the way of stage directions. Everyone thinks and quotes in italics; typographic emphases convey verbal stresses; and occasionally, a subject ‘[laughs]’. Given that Earnest’s interviews first appeared in the Rail, it comes as no surprise to learn that Thyrza Nichols Goodeve shares his—and Nabokov’s—view on the ideal interview form. In Goodeve’s opinion: ‘They are really essays—an essay built from the dialogue between me and the other person’.
If interviews are built, Earnest has a knack for construction. He also thinks about his process in architectural terms. As he says to Zwirner, interviewing is like ‘draw[ing] a little magic circle around something you do every day, which is, like, talk to people that you’re interested in but, like, in the space of doing the interview, you’re completely committed to the rules of being present and listening and talking to them—’. It took me three tries to transcribe that passage, and even now, I’m not sure whether the article before ‘interview’ was definite or indefinite, or if it exists at all. What an immense effort transcription is! On Dialogues, I also noticed that Earnest kept being interrupted by Schjeldahl. It put into perspective how good a listener he must be—and how much patience it must have required to sit through session after session with one’s less-attentive elders.
Given that I seem to have adopted Earnest and Zwirner’s triangulated stance, I might as well quote Earnest-on-Earnest one last time. In his remarks to Zwirner, he reflects that ‘every critic is supposed to figure out a form for themselves, and that form is a product of things that they’re good at and things that they’re not good at’. This comment recalled to mind what W.S. Piero says of William Carlos Williams: ‘[he] was a lousy rhymer, so after some juvenilia he quit trying and instead developed a magical sense of timing and idiom’. Earnest, I suspect, was a lousy describer. Reading the piece on Sze, I tried to conjure the ‘paintings’ in question, but simile after simile stood in the way. With each figurative turn, my mental image changed. First it was ‘like petals on the ground below’, then ‘like pinned and mounted butterflies’, next ‘like a handful of wiggling pearls’… But Williams was no poeticule. Nor is Earnest a criticaster. For him, the interview is where the magic happens.
This suggests another interpretation of the What It Means project. The book documents Earnest’s critical formation. It tells the story of his attempt to master one kind of art writing—descriptive prose—and his subsequent arrival at a different form: the interview-driven narrative. To become a poet, they say, read poetry; so too, it seems, with criticism. By interviewing authors of the sort of text he must once have aspired to write, Earnest had an excuse to read closely, and even got paid for it. But as Di Piero puts it, ‘Some artists abandon what they can’t do well, some knock themselves out trying to master what doesn’t come naturally’. Earnest had enough self-knowledge to abandon descriptive prose. At the same time, his line of questioning circles back to description again and again, as if he’s still trying to understand why it didn’t come naturally for him.
Vivid and argumentative description is hard. Fried, who happens to have a flair for it, grants that ‘it’s [not] that common a gift’. But does anyone really still believe that it’s innate talent or bust? What about K. Anders Ericsson’s theory—popularised by Malcolm Gladwell—that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice engender expertise? And if we’re going down that route, how many hours would it take to read the bibliography at the back of Earnest’s book? How many to complete an art-history degree’s worth of formal analyses? I’m not sure how many hours of practice Earnest has logged, but his stance often seems like that of an apprentice in a studio: he studies the master’s work, then asks her to reverse-engineer it—all while busily carving his own piece.
Aspiring critics may pick up this book hoping to understand what it takes to write about art. If the goal is Gladwellian expertise, how to ‘practice’? Well, go look at art and ‘describe’ it. That, at least, is the best response Earnest’s compendium can offer. It’s certainly the one I’d give if a book-shop browser pressed me to answer the true titular question, which is, What does writing about art mean? If ‘description’ is the normative answer, it’s also the resolution most debated in these pages—a debate that lends What It Means its most compelling inter-interview thread.
Regardless of who has the talent for it, opinions diverge as to the role description ought to play in criticism. Is it a starting point for art writing or an end in itself? Is it best practised by the politically engaged or the disinterested? And is it always already an interpretation? On one end of the spectrum, there’s Holland Cotter, for whom description is only the ‘language’ part of criticism, and, as such, not the ‘main interest’. On the other end, there are those like Huey Copeland who consider description central to their process: as ‘polemical’ as it is ‘provisional’.
Vivid description—often called ekphrasis, as in the ancient rhetorical device—has a long history in writing on art, and it’s a perpetual point of contention in academic circles, for two reasons. First, there’s the problem of whether describing art is any different from describing other phenomena: emotions, say, or the weather. Michael Baxandall felt that finding words for pictures was distinct from finding words for everyday life. Fried disagrees. The second point of contention concerns the difference between art criticism and art history, a debate that does not rear its head as much as one might expect in What It Means, but lurks there nonetheless. On this score, Jaś Elsner has argued that art history is ekphrasis: nothing more, nothing less. That much it shares with criticism. Others would say that while description may suffice as criticism, it is necessary, but not sufficient, for a historical study of art.
The lines blur further when we try to cleave art writing from fiction. Elsner wonders why art historians are embarrassed to be ‘caught writing fiction with footnotes’; Zwirner’s editorial direction suggests that he shares Elsner’s view. For one, there’s the title he chose for his series: ekphrasis. Moreover, the back of each book includes a sort of publisher’s manifesto, declaring that ‘David Zwirner Books aims to encourage a richer conversation between the worlds of literary and visual art’. There’s a readership for this kind of writing. Witness the success of Julian Barnes’s Keeping an Eye Open (2015); Michael Jacobs’s Everything is Happening (2016); and Marina Warner’s Forms of Enchantment (2018). All three reject not only the tweedy pedantry of art history, but also the ephemeral now of art criticism. They arrive at a third way: ekphrasis, which both enlivens and endures.
In the realm of contemporary fiction, ekphrasis went mainstream with the 2013 publication—and ensuing popularity—of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. James Wood’s praise for ‘the eventless calm of [Tartt’s] ekphrasis’ was novel enough to earn him a citation in the OED. Contrasting Tartt’s patient account of the book’s eponymous painting with her otherwise ‘adventurous storytelling’, Wood drew a distinction between the description of an artwork and the narration around it—a distinction more familiar to academic historians of art than to Wood’s New Yorker following. Ekphrastic encounters feature prominently in another critically acclaimed novel, Teju Cole’s Open City, which came out the year before The Goldfinch. Here, though, what’s notable is the absence of the distinction that Wood observes in Tartt’s writing. Cole’s protagonist Julius often lets descriptions of paintings stand in for descriptions of real life. A woman at a church with a vacuum cleaner ‘possessed her secrets fully, as did those women that Vermeer painted in this same gray, lowland light; like theirs, her silence seemed absolute’. Another woman, this one observed on the subway, has such a play of depth to her clothing that it brings to Julius’s memory ‘the virtuoso black-on-black passages in certain paintings by Velazquez’. Cole studied for a graduate degree in art history; he now teaches creative writing at Harvard. His spring seminar course? ‘Writing Critically’.
I would argue that Earnest, in his triangulated prose, is trying to achieve something similar to the porousness of Cole’s fiction. The critic enters the studio with Sze, starts describing its contents, then realises that what he’s actually describing is the work of art itself. Cole’s character tries to remember a burial, but as he’s searching for specifics, he finds that his memory of the day has melded with art-historical depictions. Has he ‘taken the form of the priest’s surplice from El Greco’s painting [of a burial] or from Courbet’s’? This is triadic fiction: it’s a conversation that unfolds between a man, his past and the musée imaginaire.
Rosalind Krauss had to relearn how to write after she had a stroke. Her solution? Read Dickens. Of Bleak House, she says, ‘I kept thinking, how does he produce that satisfaction in description?’ This particular comment by Krauss does not appear in What It Means, but rather in an article I read upon the release of her 2011 memoir-cum-theoretical text, Under Blue Cup. It has stayed with me. In 2011, I had just finished an MA in art history at the Courtauld. I wanted to be a professor, a teacher of art writing. Library daydreams often took the form of drafting syllabuses for future seminars, lists not unlike Earnest’s ‘further reading’. But Krauss’s admission induced panic. If she went back to novels in order to write about art, should my syllabuses be composed of nineteenth-century novels, too, and, if so, why not get a graduate degree in the literature department? Did continuing with art history necessitate some kind of tacit agreement with Baxandall, an assertion that words for pictures are in fact different than words for other words? And if we were all just practicing the same thing—description as argument—why have disciplines at all?
Earnest would certainly abolish them, and for his money, art history ought to go the way of numismatics. As he puts it, there aren’t ‘very many people making interesting claims for why art history as a methodology or a field of inquiry is urgent today’. He calls the discipline ‘stagnant’, and, elsewhere in the volume, questions the future of the university as an institution. His interviewees offer a corrective. Molly Nesbit, of Vassar, rates art history as ‘fine and ready for the future’. Yve-Alain Bois, of the Institute for Advanced Study, praises it as ‘ten times smarter now than it was twenty years ago’. Others tout the discipline’s value as a lens through which to view—and celebrate—the cultural contributions of historically marginalised groups. But Earnest’s drubbing of art history won’t surprise anyone. Fear-mongerers in mainstream and academic circles have been peddling the field’s irrelevance for quite some time now. If Barack Obama couldn’t resist poking fun at this rarefied corner of the liberal arts, why would Earnest?
I suppose that if we were to instrumentalise art history as education—think, the visual analyses that undergraduates are often assigned—we could say that looking and describing is a useful exercise for anyone who intends to write fiction. Take these footnotes as training wheels, but lose them once you’re further down the path. Earnest’s scepticism, though, concerns whether an art history degree is appropriate for those who intend to write criticism. Again, do we assign Dickens—or Alpers’s The Art of Describing (1983)? Earnest would probably say that there’s no need to choose. Sure, read both on your own, but consider taking another route entirely: that of making art.
Earnest went to art school and his bio still calls him an ‘artist’. Many of the critics he interviewed likewise traded their paintbrush for a pen. Yve-Alain Bois turned down a Paris gallery show at 16. Siri Hustvedt copied an Edvard Munch Crucifixion at 14. Jed Perl, the most precocious of the lot, stopped drawing and painting at 13. He tried again as an adult, sticking with it long enough to earn an MFA, but once he began getting work as a reviewer, he shrugged off the hybrid identity, transitioning from being a ‘painter who writes’ to ‘just a writer’. What would Swinburne make of this crew? A bunch of ‘artisticules’, yes, but instead of decomposing, they went the other way and blossomed into critics.
To write about art is not, of necessity, to give up making it. Giorgio Vasari painted and designed buildings. In a more recent past, Meyer Schapiro practised what he criticised—and well. A 1987 exhibition of the Columbia professor’s paintings and drawings won praise from the New York Times as ‘perhaps the most surprising show of the season’. These days, with the so-called material turn, many art historians oversee studio practicums alongside gallery visits, and deliver labs as well as lectures. ‘Making’, with its gerundial emphasis on process, increasingly comes before writing. Which is to say, what it meant to ‘write about art’ for those whom Earnest interviews—look, describe, repeat—is no longer a given. Students are trained as much to reconstruct what they see as to verbalise it. It’s as if the kind of technical education a critic like Jerry Saltz received by virtue of an abortive painting career has now been institutionalised: artistic failure has become an accepted academic research method.
Still, college seminars continue to meet in classrooms. In such a setting, can we teach art writing, and how? Elusive as it is, I know I begin with ‘description’; no aspiring critic can avoid it. We must all learn to strain the excesses of the visual through the sieve of language. The trick is to isolate something solid enough for the reader to grasp as an argument, while still preserving the overall atmosphere of an aesthetic experience. To attempt and to fail at description engenders a melancholy that’s particular to the task of art writing: there is too much to see—and alas, too few words with which to capture it. Yet, as Earnest found out, the sting of ekphrastic defeat makes for great conversation.
[Forthcoming in the Cambridge Humanities Review.]