The Column: How I Became, of All Things, an Art Critic

The Column runs once a week. Michael Fallon writes a column on issues in the visual arts once a month; Andrew Knighton will cover cultural affairs. Other columnists will weigh in on performance and music. Look for The Column; let us know what you think!


introductionThis is the first installment of what will be a continuing feature of The Column. Michael Fallon will cover issues in the visual world; Andrew Knighton will write about culture more generally, from architecture to literature to social life. Other columnists will write on performance and music. The columns will appear at the rate of one a week; each columnist will write one column a month. Expect a developing picture of the cultural landscape to emerge from this collaboration of writers and thinkers.

The first time I admitted to anyone I was interested in becoming an art critic, it came as a surprise to me. You know how it is in a new situation–say, among strangers at a swanky holiday party–you grow uncertain and feel strange words, words you never knew you possessed, rising to your lips and out into the world. This is what I said one night in a semi-shout to the boyfriend of a coworker of my wife over the house band: “I’d be interested in submitting some articles or something on art sometime.” It happened that I was talking to the arts editor of City Pages. I didn’t know what I was saying. I plead temporary insanity brought on by the cold.

It was 1998. My wife had just landed a job at MPR as a reporter, and I had followed her up from Alabama–a place I’d come to like over the few years we’d lived there. At the party, I was in a state of something like shock. Saint Paul was about as far away from everything the California-cum-Southern-boy in me thought good and natural and normal. Saint Paul was frigid and dark and distant. It was a furrowed brow of a place, white-walled as a Lutheran church, as closed off as a disapproving cousin.

The editor asked me about my credentials, then nodded. “Sounds good. Call me sometime when you have a story idea.” And just like that, it was all but done.

Before that night I’d never given any thought to writing about art. Instead, after studying the subject for nearly a decade, I thought I was supposed to be an artist. And upon coming to Minnesota, I had started the long contemporary artist’s career climb–lining up exhibition opportunities and seeking teaching jobs and grants.

People rarely think of criticism as a calling. As literary critic Leslie Fiedler said in a recent interview, “It’s funny to be a critic, I never met anybody in my life who says, when you say what do you want to be when you grow up, ‘I want to be a critic.’ People say I wanna be a fireman, poet, novelist…. When somebody asks me what I do, I don’t think I’d say ‘critic.’ I say writer.”

Truth be told, the reason I could get in with City Pages at all was the paper’s former art critic, Julie Caniglia, had recently fled for New York and no one else was clamoring for her job. I should have known something was amiss; Caniglia’s kiss-off to local artists was a screed she wrote for the April 24, 1996, issue of City Pages–a piece that locals still recalled five years after the fact. It was called “57 Cultures and Nothing On,” and subtitled, “The local art scene has turned into a refuge for the creatively challenged.” In it, Caniglia attacked the mannerist tendencies of her generation of “politically correct” artists. She started the article as if commencing battle:

I HATE ART, I’ve taken to saying to friends lately, and only half jokingly. I’m not talking about pretentious beret-wearers, or obtuse theory masquerading as art, or even just bad art. I’m talking about art that’s had vitality and surprise and play and pleasure sucked out of it, art that’s only concerned with its rightness and virtue, art that urgently–desperately, one might say–foists its Message on the audience. I’m talking about a particular, not insignificant share of the art that enjoys recognition by major funders these days, and has found a measure of prominence in local galleries, museums, and performance spaces.

I could only shrug at her passionate dismissal of art–who was I to contradict the seasoned critic? Yeah, there were some screwy things about contemporary art, but I didn’t know exactly how to cure them. And, as I would soon discover, art criticism too seemed to have had the “play and pleasure sucked out of it.” As I heard over and over from the artists I began to meet in the Twin Cities, there was “no good criticism” in Minnesota; the practice was all but moribund here. A big reason for this was that a regional magazine of arts writing–Artpaper–had died off in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, an organization called the Center for Arts Criticism had faded away from its apogee in the early 1990s to an arts educational organization that had nothing to do with criticism. Then, an important source of fledgling arts writers, the A&E section of the University of Minnesota’s campus paper, The Daily Minnesotan, was shut down for budget reasons after thirty-four years of publication. Several startup magazines-particularly Push Magazine and Object Magazine–tried to step in, but both failed in turn after six months or so of well-meaning effort.

These doldrums were not limited to the Twin Cities. In the late ‘90s, several national art magazines–the highly regarded Art Issues out of L.A., Dialogue out of Ohio, and New Art Examiner of Chicago–quietly shut down. One might attribute these closings to coincidence, or to natural attrition in the cutthroat field of magazine publishing, if these publications hadn’t had more than six decades of collective publishing history. There was a sense now that art criticism was quietly disappearing from the world.

Tragically, this loss of criticism came at a time when criticism was most needed. To my eyes, the world had taken a very ugly turn during the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s. Even as CEOs and Presidents abused the trust of the public in the later 1990s, and an ugly election and an ugly act of terrorism kicked off the millennium, so did visual offensiveness seem the order of the day. Witness the increasing ugliness of our rim-city manner of urban development, the airport security checkpoints, the increasing number of bloated boats that ruled the dangerous highways, the trashy fashions of the brazen youth culture, the predominance of greed over beauty in most things. And instead of focusing on beauty, arts coverage in the national media instead hopped from controversy to sensational controversy–from crucifixes submerged in piss to madonnas decorated with elephant dung. Suddenly the only art you heard about was offensive to some interested party’s sense of decorum; that is, art was now used as trumped-up evidence to support particular political leanings. I couldn’t help but think the country had never seen such a dearth of elegance or grace.

Considering my feelings, I suppose it was inevitable that I would jump up, throw my hat in the ring, and begin to start making aesthetic judgments about the visual environment. Six months or so after the Christmas party I finally got up the nerve and called up the arts editor to pitch him my first story–about a throwback modernist painter who, at age 70, had a rare show coming up. The story angle was this: here was a guy who had seldom exhibited his work despite fifty years of continual practice at it. It was a perfect message of inspiration for these troubled times, I said; ars longa, turpitudo brevis. The editor bought it.

I had mixed emotions driving out to Fridley to visit the old artist’s warehouse studio. The sun was shining and I felt good, but I couldn’t shake my misgivings about being on the critic’s side of the canvas for the first time. My story appeared in City Pages on September 2, 1998, and seems rather superficial now, more than 100 art stories later. I do like this passage, though, toward the end of the piece:

In his work, (Aribert) Munzner relies on jazzy intuition and improvisation in one moment and on scientific logic and structure in the next. This adds depth and charm to his paintings, yet it also makes them difficult to understand. As Munzner riffs on the paradoxical nature of ontogeny and ontology, cosmogeny and cosmology, inner and outer space, the kairos and the chronos, the artist’s energy seems to swell while the listener’s begins to flag.

“I consider what I do a dance,” he says at one point, demonstrating by stepping agilely and making a few imaginary swipes with his brush hand at the painting that sits on the table. “I am always listening to music as I work, and I’m caught up in the moment, always moving. I dance around the painting….”

Not great literature, to be sure–but sufficient. For better or worse, the artist had become the writer.