Your review of Jerry Saltz’s book How to Be an Artist implies that there is a risk that an art critic is actually a failed artist at heart. You manage to combine both vocations. What’s the secret of your success?
Saltz’s book is a fantasy about what it’s like to be a visual artist, written by a longtime voyeur. Sometimes it’s an accurate fantasy, but you can tell that he’s looking at the subject from the outside.
It’s no wonder that he couldn’t get anywhere with painting. I gather from his advice that he thinks that art criticism is a parallel activity. It is not, it is a subsidiary activity.
Here’s a secret, though it doesn’t explain anything: being an artist is sometimes like having an incurable mental disorder.
Did Saltz have a comeback to your latest essay?
I haven’t seen one. Strategically, he should pretend that he never saw it, and save his comebacks for his therapist.
American abstract painter Walter Darby Bannard, who inspired you to become an art critic, was described by his friend as ‘an artist cursed with the ability to write’. Do you see this ability as a curse?
Let’s call it a mixed blessing. I have an unusual, even weird degree of writing acumen for a visual artist.
On the one hand, writing doesn’t help much when it comes to art-making, and maybe even somewhat works against it. On the other hand, this makes a lot of things easier. If I need to write an artist statement, or a grant application, I can do so with no trouble. The written word horrifies a lot of visual artists, and the contemporary art world demands writing from them in a way that the art world of, say, the 1960s did not. I’m glad that I don’t suffer from that like many of my colleagues.
Describing Seurat, Pissarro said, “He’s mute.” Paul Signac and others in that circle of Post-Impressionists were all but screaming at each other in the press, while Seurat kept his head down and adjusted his dots. Today, hardly anyone has read Signac’s criticism, but everyone knows the great Pointillist. As a famous composer once said, a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic. But also, Seurat seems to have done nothing but paint. Art may finally require that, though contemporary life hardly allows it.
What does an art critic have to do to retain his ability to see art for what it is?
Orwell said that “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” We do not talk enough about the nature of that struggle.
When you look at an art object, the whole universe has been conspiring since the beginning of time to give you that unique moment, and it will never repeat again. But you don’t see anything you don’t understand. Without understanding, light hits your eyes, and the signal goes to your brain, but that signal folds into the mush of unconscious experience. Incomplete or faulty understanding results in misunderstood experience, however conscious, and no one has a complete or perfect understanding. So I am the foremost authority on my own responses, and at the same time, I am aware that my responses may be flawed or even ridiculous. This dual recognition assures that I see art as itself, I hope.
In fact I think most critics fail because their honesty buckles under external concerns. Any critic will tell you that he has independent judgment. Name five American art critics, go look at their Twitter feeds, and tell me if that’s true.
You write about issues of freedom, particularly freedom of expression and the cultural assaults on it. What do you think are the principal threats to freedom of expression in the modern world?
Political repression is sadly common. China recently arrested 400 people for protesting a new law that prohibits making fun of the country’s national anthem.
But a lot of the problems in the countries that are not autocracies are self-inflicted. People from the art world often think that their government should generously give them money, perhaps even to the degree that it spends on the military or a similarly giant chunk of the budget. Yet they also think that very same government should have no grounds to object to what they’re making.
Eventually, the government finally does object, the money disappears, the artists cry “censorship,” and I wonder why anyone thinks that the arrangement could have turned out any other way.
Many people in the art world refuse to recognize threats emanating from the art world itself. They want to criminalize “hate speech,” which American law does not recognize, correctly, because restrictions on speech are more dangerous than any speech could be. When Poland made it illegal in 2018 to say that the country participated in the Holocaust, the legislators appended that rule to the law that criminalized Holocaust denial. These art worlders understand political power so poorly that, metaphorically, they want to plant land mines in the driveway.
In America, we have to deal constantly with the threat of Cancel Culture. Here in Boston, activists have tried to shut down programming at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute for Contemporary Art. Protests in response to the vicious murder of George Floyd have raised awareness about the nature of the state as a monopoly on violence, which is old but under-appreciated wisdom. But the protests have also emboldened the Culture Cancelers. The progressive journalist Matt Taibbi just called them Twitter Robespierres. Public monuments of people who fought slavery have been defaced and torn down.
For the past few years, artist friends of mine who identify as progressives have complained about fellow progressives subjecting them to vigorous thought policing. There is a lot of self-censorship going on, which strikes me as an enormous tragedy — to live in a free country like ours, but to have to maintain a miniature, private Stasi in your head because you fear your creative circle. I would say, get a new creative circle. Make one if you have to.
Your interests include emergence, spontaneous order, and anarchism. What kind of impact do these subjects have on your art and your writing?
We see a lot of examples where politicians try to perfect the economy or society via rules, regulations, laws, and other forms of coercion. We call these politicians technocrats. The rules consistently fail because they rely on contingencies that flicker in and out of existence.
Individualist anarchism proposes that these human systems are magnificent in their harmony and complexity. They are imperfect, but tend toward incremental improvement and useful adaptation. Technocrats insist that they can perfect them. Instead, they tend to replace incremental improvement with sudden degradation, and useful adaptation with perverse mutation. It is an ancient hubris. Instead, we should let people find their own way. In the Tao Te Ching it says: “When the sage leads, people say, Look at what we did!”
Modernism, as I understand it, recognizes art as a human system that defies rules, and must be worked out by individual practitioners according to their own preferences and desires.
There are art technocrats—curators, critics, and even some artists, who believe in X, and go around saying that art that supports X is good and art that fails to support X is bad. That template describes most criticism, the majority of curating, and way too much art.
Matisse, answering one such critic, said, “Rules have no existence outside of individuals.”
You are credited with creating the very first anthology of comics poetry in 2012. How did you get into it?
In 2006, a bunch of people were working on different approaches with alternative comics. We found one other on the internet. For a long time, I studied the work of Hakuin and his followers – Torei, Sengai, and Fugai. Seeing John Porcellino’s comics clarified how I wanted to make them, not very similar visually, but related in feeling, and drawing on the aesthetic of the circle of Hakuin. I had just completed a residency in Taiwan in 2005, and concluded that I was never going to learn to handle ink properly in the Asian manner, but perhaps I could come up with my own American, contemporary take on the poet-painter tradition.
It seems that comics, graphic novels, and sequential art, in general, are experiencing a golden age. Why do you think that is?
Because comics became sophisticated enough to move into the cultural gap vacated by fine art. Joseph Epstein, the longtime writer at Commentary, lamented that “fiction, and especially the novel, may now be joining visual art and poetry in the dustbin of former cultural importance.”
Meanwhile, comics artists tackle increasingly ambitious subjects with ever greater formal invention, and there are still wide areas of the genre that have not been explored.
You transform and augment your practice for comics poetry with computer programs. What challenges do you face when using digital platforms for your creative process?
I wanted them on the Web so that everyone could enjoy them. That entailed a lot of fiddly, repetitive work. After long hours of troubleshooting broken animations, you start wondering whether anything is real.
The tools give you so much power that you have to decide what you’re not going to do. I had eight weeks to work on Regarding Th.at, my Fulbright project in Vienna last year. I spent three and a half of them determining the format of the images and how to present them. I had big plans, and I threw most of them away in favour of a couple of good ones. This is true of art in general: technique is what you put in, art is what you leave out.
You once said that programming plays the kind of role for you that theory plays for other writers.
I was thinking of the theorists who write like how Derrida sounds in English. Derrida wrote like how Kant sounds in French, so you have this long line of affectation of philosophical language with negligible increases of human understanding to show for it. You can now be taken seriously as a thinker by saying utter nonsense, as long as the nonsense seems to reinforce the values of your audience.
Programming forces you to think clearly and specifically. It rewards concision. It values above all else comprehensible elegance. As someone once said, you would never agree to fly in an airplane built by postmodernists. I want the opposite: writing crafted with the care of an aeronautics engineer.
How do you see the future of art? Will it all be “go online or go home’?
I recently described a hypothetical future of art criticism for AICA-USA. In it, I left a clue for artists, regarding new virtual spaces: “It will soon become clear to presenters, particularly to galleries that lost their real-life spaces, that drywall can be arranged any old way when it consists entirely of math. Eventually, some clever artist is going to build a veritable cathedral to himself in 3D, the sort of space that would be the envy of the art world if it were a real building in Chelsea or Berlin.”
This has disastrous implications for art critics, but pretty good ones for artists. Caroll Michels, the woman who all but invented the profession of the art career coach, has long wished that artists would start doing for themselves what dealers typically do for them. Artists have always been able to learn to cultivate clients and ship work and whatnot, but dealers had a lock on maintaining good-looking, well-located spaces for showcasing art. Until now, that is. Once artists get access to the technology that the dealers are using for their virtual exhibitions, the artists will have jumped over one of the last obstacles. The longer the galleries and museums stay closed, particularly in New York City, the more the virtual exhibitions will become normal.
Is it important for an artist to have a website in the age of social media?
Get off of social media, right now. In that review of Saltz, I called Facebook the place “where breezy inattention joins forces with quick-hit outrage to produce the most depraved arena of public communal experience since people gathered to watch lions eat Christians.” And Twitter? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently said in a podcast, “If someone is in pain, I’m in pain, ultimately, over time.” I heard about that and thought, dude, if you really felt that way, you would tell your sysadmins to grab hammers and bludgeon your servers into particles. Dante Alighieri could not have dreamed up a more tormented hellscape than Twitter.
I’m interested in the Fediverse, a federation of open-source social media projects that interoperate with one another. I’m on Mastodon. I have an account at Minds, which is also open-source and has a serious commitment to free speech. Adoption is not nearly as wide as the commercial social media platforms but the incentives encourage better behavior all around.
But really, take that social media effort and put it into your art, your website, and your mailing list. That little dopamine hit you get from a “like” on a post pales in comparison to the one you’ll get from accomplishing a project you care about. Would Seurat have a Twitter account? No. Go adjust your dots.
Why did you choose .art?
Because my last name looks like some German language collided, at high speed, with a wall. German speakers think my name is hilarious, because it means “objection,” in the sense that you would use it in a courtroom.
The opportunity to acquire franklin.art allowed me to build a web presence around my unusual but not harrowing first name. Doing so engenders an informality that I like, as if to say, this art stuff is serious, but it’s for you, whoever you are.