For the reader unfamiliar with Schjeldahl’s writing, the Q&A provides clues, many of them apparent in the smoothly crafted, faux-conversational style quoted above. A magazine column, written in the first person, is not only a species of self-portraiture but one of the purest projections of sensibility possible in (so-called) nonfiction writing. The persona that Schjeldahl has created seems to derive largely from Charles Baudelaire. When asked in the Q&A to name the “emulatable virtues” of his role models, Schjeldahl cites first Baudelaire’s “hyperalertness to consequences of the aesthetic” and later refers to the French writer as his “intellectual hero.” Like Baudelaire (and the so-called decadents and aesthetes who followed him), Schjeldahl worships at the altar of (artistic) experience, rejecting any a priori method or belief system. In the Q&A, he describes his sometimes improvisatory approach to unfamiliar art:
If I strongly like or dislike a work, I simply argue for my response. . . . Art that doesn’t excite me, either way, demands a method. . . . I ask myself what I would like or dislike about a work if I liked or disliked it. . . . [I don’t do this] too often. Nothing ruins a critic like pretending to care.
Unlike Baudelaire, Schjeldahl evinces little interest in current art either for its contemporaneity or, despite his espoused allegiance, for its esthetic appeal. His intellectual concerns—at least as expressed in the pieces reprinted in the book—are unusually narrow, especially given that the New Yorker styles itself as the voice of American (multi)cultural urbanity. Schjeldahl is too willing, for example, to dismiss in remarkably few words—rather than to thoughtfully explore—an impulse widely shared among contemporary American artists. His Hilton Kramer-esque response to “political art” sweepingly asserts:
Most political art is poor art and worse politics. . . . How many artists are willing to sacrifice their ambition to a fleeting cause? Most of them strike a political posture only when it’s in fashion. Beyond that who even cares what an artist has to say about politics?
Consequently he ignores much of the most challenging work of his own time and place, and utterly misses one of the biggest international developments of the past decade: the emergence of experimental, often politically inflected, art from China.
Let’s See also underlines the disjuncture between Schjeldahl’s interest in (Western) historical art and his anti-art-historical method. His sketches of the historical contexts for painters such as Rembrandt, Chardin and El Greco are sometimes too broadly brushed, and he occasionally makes surprising errors, as in his review of a Caspar David Friedrich show at the Met (2001), which suggests that many artists working prior to Friedrich’s death in 1840—and outside of the plein-airBarbizon School—painted directly from nature. Articles devoted to monographic exhibitions of painters—many long dead before the 20th century—constitute more than half of the book, while only around a half dozen pieces engage contemporary photography, video or installation art.
Of course Schjeldhal’s devotees don’t read him for insights into social history, queer theory, video art or gossipy promotions of new talent on West 24th Street. They read him for the pleasures that brilliant craft can afford—for exhilarating literary pyrotechnics and bravura flourishes. Here is an example of Schjeldahl’s literary flair:
My favorite picture in “Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): The Drawings,” . . . portrays an ox. . . . The work conveys ponderous mass, rippling musculature, bristling hair, and creased and dimpled, somehow palpably warm, skin. . . . What I particularly appreciate about An Ox is that it isn’t the image of a naked human being.
The passages below, in tandem, are about as close to a statement of principles as Schjeldahl gets. Both are excerpted from considerations of traditional matters only occasionally encountered in contemporary art. In an unusually satisfying review, Schjeldahl criticizes the organizers of “Regarding Beauty,” a 1999 exhibition at the
Hirshhorn, for failing to understand its eponymous subject: The curators approach beauty cautiously. . . . But beauty is not a concept . . . it is a common word. . . . Unless we are desperately sad or angry, we have occasion to use the word every day—almost always correctly, even when the pleasures and satisfactions in question are only a little bit intense and a little bit deep. Is beauty in the eye—and the brain, heart, and gut—of the viewer? Sure. That’s where it can do the most good. . . . Yearnings for beauty in one who is incapable of it give rise to thoughts of suicide: beautiful surcease.
By contrast, he effusively praises the canvases of John Currin, an artist virtually alone among contemporary painters in employing laborious old master techniques. (He is the only artist about whom both Tomkins and Schjeldahl write in their collections.) Schjeldahl concludes that Currin’s brand of artistic outlawry is timely. Today’s establishment loves art not wisely but too well. Art is administered by sentimentally celebratory institutions, snugged into niche markets of dauntingly efficient commerce, and paraded through auction houses as a kind of glorified funny money. In this context, to be frankly unlovable seems a prerequisite for meaning anything vital. For Currin, it’s not that old things—such as gleaming windowpanes of varnish or the use of the female nude to mirror male emotion—are new again. It’s that “old” and “new” are exhausted categories. The past is present now.
Is that the familiar sound of épatez-ing the bourgeoisieI hear? Would that Schjeldahl’s reformulations of old-fashioned avant-gardism illuminated something original or meaningful about Currin’s work or the current art scene.
Schjeldahl’s equation of old and new also applies to his relationship with the New Yorker. In one sense, he is perfectly suited for the publication, championing its time-honored approach to the arts. Despite its self-proclaimed (and actual) sophistication, the New Yorker’s critical reputation—like its commercial success—derives partly from its rejection of snobbery and its eradication of the traditional high/low distinctions between art forms. In the New Yorker worldview, the art experience holds potential appeal for everybody, with little specialized know-how required for understanding and enjoyment.
Consider that probably the most famous review in the history of American magazines—Pauline Kael’s ecstatic encomium for Last Tango in Paris (1972)—was the work of a New Yorker writer who insisted on being called a movie (rather than a film)critic. Her prediction that Last Tango is “a movie people will be arguing about . . . for as long as there are movies” may be questionable. But her writing remains hard to resist, in part because, like Schjeldahl, she so passionately defends the pleasure principle in art. The self-confidence she gave New Yorker readers during the postwar era, when “reading” films seemed to necessitate a specialized vocabulary, was a gift. But times have changed. Perhaps the drive for pleasure, self-expression and “glory” embodied in Let’s See isn’t what our clamorous, know-nothing culture needs from its critics today.
Robert Atkins, based in California, is a writer and head of U.S. planning for the website ArtSpeak China (www.artspeakchina.org), a bilingual, collaboratively authored encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese art.
Books: Lives of the Artists, by Calvin Tomkins, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2008; 254 pages, $26 hardcover, $15 paper.
Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker, by Peter Schjeldahl, New York, Thames & Hudson, 2008; 256 pages, $29.95.