Axiom for Gallery-Goers

Before we get too far along together, it would be wise to clarify terms. The two that matter most are contemporary art and what can only be called, for lack of a better one, critical approach . More specifically, this weblog’s approach, its guiding axiom.

The former is an objective category; the second, highly personal. So let us begin with the second, if only to set the stage—clear the decks, come clean—or whichever other cliché works best to bring the Big Picture into focus.

Start with a day dream. Imagine that the art cops pull you over and demand to see your credentials as a bona fide art appreciator. How would you prove yourself a lawful citizen of the art precincts? Doubtless, you would hurry to produce a quotation from the fathers, something incontestably persuasive. Something on the sublime and the beautiful will get you off. A passage from Hegel, one or two from Kant, are always useful. Reference to Schiller is good, too. Do not forget Goethe. Diderot comes in handy; so do Ruskin, Baudelaire and that wonderfully indiscreet pair, the Goncourt brothers. Or, if you need to present yourself as au fait with more recent intellection, mention your subscription to Artforum, your favorite issue of Parkett, or the latest piece in Frieze .

The Art Connoisseurs (1823-28); Louis-Léopold Boilly
The Art Connoisseurs (1823-28); Louis-Léopold Boilly

Details do not matter quite so much as tone. And delivery. What counts is that you establish your identity as a Serious Art Person, adept at granting the written word primacy over the evidence of eyes. SAPs are skilled in refraining from judgment while disguising the abstention with knitted brows. If art criticism is “massively produced and massively ignored” except as marketing copy—as James Elkins argues in What Happened to Art Criticism?— SAPs have something to answer for.

I try not to get pulled over. Me, I keep Ogden Nash at hand. His “Plea for Less Malice Toward None” has wide application for consumers of art appreciation. It trims fustian, and firms the treacle that oozes from formulaic pieties:

Love is a word that is constantly heard,
Hate is a word that’s not.
Love, I am told, is more precious than gold,
Love, I have read, is hot.
But hate is the verb that to me is superb
And love is a drug on the mart.
Any kiddie in school can love like a fool
But hating, my boy, is an art.

Those final two lines, rightly applied, are invaluable.