[What does it mean to have an “eye,” and why is your judgment better than the average museumgoer’s?]
My policy is not to critique work that I haven’t seen in person, but come on. That Amy Sherald portrait, with Breonna Taylor all but floating in a gentle sea of hygienic blues, looks like an advertisement for menstrual pads. Vanity Fair commissioned Sherald to paint a subject that she would not have chosen on her own, and it shows – this is not a good Sherald.
Meanwhile, the magazine employs some of the world’s foremost experts on photographing women. For some reason the photographer put her in an outfit that suggests that she’s wearing nothing but the summer breeze between her work shirt and her sandals, then sat her down on a ladder in an awkward pose that puts her crotch at eye level.
Nothing about this works. The photo editor should have spiked the shoot. The managing editor should have spiked the feature. Sherald should have spiked the painting.
So, as they asked you, who am I to say so? The short answer is, Try to fucking stop me. The longer answer is, as I once wrote: “A critic is a quintessential member of the audience for art. He is not in a class above his fellows, but at a high point within the same class. His power is to be able to hang apt and moving words upon his experiences—experiences that are often hard to describe because they take place entirely outside of language. His eyes discern nuances. He has put himself in front of art many times. He has educated himself about it, its history and its philosophies.”
The average art viewer does not trouble to do all this work. A flair for language is perhaps not so uncommon, but the ability to hook language to the art experience seems to be rare. Having an eye, as it’s called, is a real phenomenon. This shouldn’t be controversial, as having an ear for music is not, and it’s analogous. But the contemporary art crowd is so allergic to hierarchy that they don’t like hearing it. I’m one of the few critics who is willing to argue that Clement Greenberg was right when he said that taste is objective, at least if you accept the split between the subjective and objective world.
If you don’t accept the split, and I don’t, then quality is a variety of presence, in a phenomenological sense, and taste is a skill we use to achieve that presence. That skill can be better or worse adverbially, and that presence can be better or worse adjectivally. The skill can be sharpened, or go dull. Those ideas were informed by Alva Noë and worked out in an essay I wrote in 2020.
I don’t know if having an eye is so unusual, but we’re living in a profoundly dishonest time. Without fidelity to his eye, a critic has nothing. A lot of criticism gets written in a spirit of faithlessness. Because of the politics of the moment, people expect you to pretend that this train wreck with Amy Sherald is a triumph, and clamor along with them for the canonization of Taylor. On the contrary, my willingness to critique Sherald is to take her seriously as an artist. The so-called right-thinkers would have me infantilize her, to pat her on the head like a five-year-old with a fresh crayon scrawl. They can disagree with me about this Vanity Fair effort if they will, but they shouldn’t mistake their conformity for conviction.