Writing art criticism has become a way to watch my own habits of thought, and to observe that these are not simply my own habits but observable in the world as ways that thought happens. For example, one of my first observations as a critic was that negative criticism is a lot easier to write than positive criticism. People are fairly comfortable with rather quick dismissals of people and things, and with reasons that are ready-to-hand. The effect is that of encasing something in a shell and kicking it away. At its worst negative criticism is an intellectual laziness that takes the form of posturing, related to the taking of a position but not quite there. In my arts writing it can have the function of being a device - providing the fall guy or the foil against which stronger work appears. However it appears, negative criticism most usually occurs as a lazy form of thought.
It is much harder to describe something that you love and why, these works of art are harder to find and the words just don’t come so easily. This difficulty is also true of people - you can come up quickly with disregard, but it is always difficult to explain why you are so drawn to the people you love. It feels like the difference between rhetoric and poetry, and there is a fear and rarity of poetry. It is also a place where the taking up of a position does not apply, but there is much at stake.
Good description is how the language of judgment is arrived at, and it is generated by the art work. I stand by the distinction between interpretation and description, one can fuss about a matter of degree, but the distinction stands. What I have learned, though, is that there are different forms of description and that one form is more evasive than another. In my own writing I might tone down or even hide what might be a rather scathing negative criticism of an object inside of an analysis of a more broadly understood visual culture. But it is also the case that the visual culture approach can raise the art object out of the shell of dismissal and towards an understanding that surpasses judgment.
I am not someone who wants to participate in the tepid and docile journalism that passes for art criticism these days, and would not be writing if I did not know there is something at stake. Rarely, however, does this take the form of staking out a position, even when judgment is made. For me, thoughtful description establishes the ground on which things are already standing. On this blog, the art tours are a new form of writing where chance - that Max Ernst is down the street from Laurie Simmons, or Mariko Mori from Alan Saret - becomes history in the description of the field. No such thing exists in any magazine or newspaper, indeed, anywhere else that I can think of. Without being bound to traditional media forms and by going straight to where the objects are in their conditions of visibility, this is how thought appears.
Image: Fred Sandback, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (Sculptural Study, Twenty Eight part Vertical Construction), 1991/2006, red blue and yellow acrylic yarn, dimensions vary with each installation, Courtesy Zwirner and Wirth, New York. (My review of this work appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Sculpture magazine, Volume 26 No. 6.)
By Catherine Spaeth