The lecture goes back a few years but reminders of it keep arriving. In November, 2003, while he was here for his exhibit at Gagosian, Howard Hodgkin gave a talk at the Frick. The subject was one of those airy things that weigh a ton: an artist’s perspective on the relationship between painting and its audience. The topic presupposes a certain consciousness on the part of painting itself, that it might reach out, as they say, to hold up its part in relationship with you and me.
The pathetic fallacy at the heart of the topic defeated Hodgkin. He went to the podium, made a few stammering starts at a lecture and went silent. The audience shifted about, crossed and uncrossed its legs but went on smiling expectantly. This was, after all, a famous painter. A Brit, no less. This went on until Hodgkin decided to abandon his assigned role. He took the microphone off the podium and paced back and forth on the stage. He could not give a coherent talk on an incoherent subject but he could take questions from the audience.
So he did. And his answer to one question has stayed with me since. What did he think of critics? Of art criticism in general? Not much. Explaining why he did not pay much attention to art criticism of any stripe, he said this: “Most critics don’t read. People think they can write without reading.”
It was the most trenchant thing that could be said about writing criticism. Contrary to the assumptions of artwriting programs, criticism is, above all, a matter of having ideas. That does not mean reading Art in America. It means being intimate with sources that provide a context for critical judgment. In short, the critic must have a center that is fed—along with the prose itself—by wider reading. Studying the other guy’s artwriting is circular inanity.
Hodgkin’s comment came to mind again while I was leafing through Josef Pieper’s lovely little book—extended essay, really—Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. The second chapter begins: “Man’s ability to see is in decline.” By that he meant the spiritual capacity to see things as they are, not as we imagine or would like them to be. And the reason for this loss of sight? Pieper blames it, in part, on the fact that there is too much to see!
Surrounded by “visual noise,” clear perception is impossible:
The ancient sages knew exactly why they called the “concupiscence of the eyes” a “destroyer.” The restoration of man’s inner eyes can hardly be expected in this day and age —unless, first of all, one were willing and determined simply to exclude from one’s realm of life all those inane and contrived but titillating illusions incessantly generated by the entertainment industry.
Our gallery and museum worlds are equal distractions, high end diversions but diversions nonetheless. But that is the kind of thought students of artwriting programs are carefully shielded from. The swollen course structure and workshop merry-go-round would collapse if young writers found out that all it takes to cultivate the critical spirit are a few good books. And a prayer life.
©2010 Maureen Mullarkey