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Critical reflections.

When the fun is at its height it's time to go.

Irish proverb

Having championed Gary Indiana's critical faculties in the September issue of this magazine, I was slightly alarmed for both of us when I was asked to introduce the following essay. I hadn't seen much of his writing since he stopped covering art for The Village Voice, back in 1988. But I did love the Voice column and I'd begrudge anyone else's claim to love it more.

Indiana's art writing for the Voice had a gorgeous, chic nihilism just below its shimmering surface. For three years, his adjectivally sequined essays simultaneously caught and refracted the variable lighting of the art world in its halcyon '80s autumn. Most of the time, Indiana made it all seem like a careless, tipsy salon--the world as an overturned wine glass spinning and spilling madly over a table set for a gluttonous buffet.

As a writer who had to meet a weekly deadline, Indiana had little time for reflection and no time for second-guessing. To get around those handicaps, he tended to avoid last-wording exhibitions and artists in favor of ambient essays that cumulatively tell us more about the temper of the culture than about the merchandise on display. He avoided the cliches that afflict most weekly review writing by somehow finding his way to issues larger than whatever was on his weekly critical menu.

Indiana wrote in many voices but there was never any doubt where he was writing from--it was Manhattan. It was, to quote Malcolm Cowley, from "the homeland of the uprooted, where everyone you met came from another town and tried to forget it, where nobody seemed to have parents, or a past more distant than last night's swell party, or a future beyond the swell party this evening and the disillusioned book he would write tomorrow." There was in Indiana's column a consistent self-awareness of possessing insider information. He was no nun of art, assiduously avoiding those he chronicled. No, Indiana wrote with a real delight, and occasionally a horror, in being exactly where he wanted to be--dead center--in the community he had temporarily adopted. Being there led to problems (things could get way too personal) but it also kept the essays bristlingly alive (about the art and the artists who made it). Often, his colleagues' and competitors' assessments of the same material felt as if they were telegraphed in from a chautauqua circuit where culture was a placebo, not a goad. In Indiana's '80s, for a megasecond, artists and writers and curators and dealers and collectors could all experience the delirious, cardiac anxiety of, say, Alexander Haig's maniacal lunge for commander-in-chief after the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Indiana always knew the '80s art world was a sham, but he kept the wind at his back and caught the current and, as often as not, soared. Still, read closely, the work of his last year was animated by an awful, weary loathing. Indiana was caught between loving the light that played on the iceberg and knowing full well that the iceberg was tearing apart the boat on which he sailed.

To tell you the truth, I've avoided any prolonged retrospective glance at my art-writing career since it ended. I fell into art criticism late in 1983 and jumped out of it in 1988, and my subsequent lack of engagement with the art world has been more or less total--a catalogue here and there when it's something I really do get hot for, but otherwise, silence. Several efforts have been made to collect my writings from that period, all instigated from outside, and I have always had mixed feelings about these efforts, mainly because other people seem to like that work more than I do. When I washed my hands of the art scene, I experienced a long period of revulsion against the little-big world I'd charted in its years of maximum exacerbation. Its present lack of frenzy has given that faraway time an improbable quality, like a long fever that finally dips to a stable temperature. I am no longer revulsed, but living on the other side of things.

Anyway, that career, which I always regarded as temporary, divides into two periods: first the end of '83 and the entirety of '84, when I wrote several long essays for Art in America, mainly on artists of the '50s, '60s, and earlier; and then March 1985 to I think June of 1988, when I wrote almost every week, in sickness and in health, for The Village Voice.

In the Art in America period I developed a fluency of critical vocabulary. I was not an art historian but I have always been a quick study, and the perusal of several art magazines convinced me that I could think as well as, and certainly write better than, the art critics working at the time. These writers often had something urgent to say, but were not always able to formulate it in transparent language. I view that as a writerly failing rather than an achievement. Not that what one has to say has to be simple, but people will read you more willingly if they understand you. Writers who don't want to be understood are deluded fakes, or just bad writers.

In the years I'd been hanging around artists, I'd soaked up their concerns without knowing it; and of course I shared their temperament, since my main interests were in the theater, in writing fiction, and to a lesser extent in working on movies. So I was often able to figure out what an artist was up to, and to give it language. I was, or could be at times, a Method actor critic.

Incidentally, I had to live on the meager income from those early days. I did not have a trust fund, and I was rather tardy in discovering that most of the people I knew did. If I was prolific, it was because I needed the money, and lacked the agility at careerism that many writers my age parlayed into high-paying magazine jobs, screenwriting jobs, etc. That's just a talent I lacked, and one that I'm still trying to cultivate in early middle age.

At the time, it was rather fun to make money writing about art. When I was offered Roberta Smith's job at The Village Voice, New York's "alternative" weekly newspaper, that looked like it might be fun too. I didn't think it would last; neither did anyone else. It lasted about a year longer than I wanted it to.

One thing that immediately bothered me, and that no advice could have prepared me for, was the fact that I almost always had to write about "the new," which, at the time, practically every artist in New York was desperate to establish him- or herself as. Between 1985 and 1988 there were fortunes to be made out of a rather narrow band of collectors eager to snap things up at bargain prices, to get in on the ground floor, etc. I met these collectors and was amazed by their craving for novelty--they seemed to be constantly scouring artists' lofts and galleries, and throwing lavish dinner parties. How did they have the time to make money? The art world felt to me like a hot-air balloon that would eventually burst. I said that once at a symposium and was instantly accused of wishing people ill. I didn't wish anyone ill, but I did get a little nauseous watching certain people inflate. I think in the '80s one constantly sensed the blind side of inexorable historical forces: the insensible need, for instance, for one or two artists to be "great," to represent their era, to have their moments of glory consolidated into permanence by the vast institutional machinery of museums. (I especially distrusted Museum People, the worst-of-the-worst bureaucrats and nonentities--except when they weren't.) The artists that got picked may in the end have been perfectly appropriate, but I thought this reflected the shittiness of the period more than any "greatness." Because the Voice and the New York Times ran the only reviews that appeared while shows were still hanging, each had an unseemly amount of power--the power to make people talk about specific artists, shows, galleries. This talk would steer the money to a particular location. I worked hard to make the writing lively, and often went overboard poking fun at people, which I knew provided the art world with its favorite dessert, gossip. I tried to skewer only people who obviously deserved it, and who, for the most part, couldn't be harmed by it, except in their egos, which were way too big to begin with. I fucked up a few times, thinking I was doing something clever, but actually venting malice--not a good emotion to work from as a rule, but let's not pretend that criticism can ever be divorced from the pathology of the person writing it. Fortunately, I never seemed to have the same pathology operating from one week to the next. From week to week, I tried to take the art I was seeing seriously, on its own terms, but also to measure it against the wider world, and this upset people a good deal. Often the artists themselves were impatient with notices more complex and less exalting than the customary mush-mouthed rave, though most appreciated the truth of Ross Bleckner's bon mot, "Ink is ink." The unavoidable problem always was that writing about an individual's art fed into the cult of the proper name. Once the name became well-known, the ideas behind it became illegible and irrelevant. Because the underlying ideas were, in the end, so beside the point of the art world as a social phenomenon, I felt that there was only an ephemeral sense of community in that crush of '80s art-consumption, one that would vanish as soon as the merry-go-round stopped and the bank accounts froze in place. Surprise, it did.

The irritation people sensed in the column was mainly produced by the circus of importunity, and the craving for art stardom, that I had to deal with week after week. Artists and dealers had myriad subtle strategies for getting my attention. I always felt bad for the artists, good and bad, who hadn't mastered the art of dissembling ambition: they would just blatantly get my unlisted phone number and call me up, beg me to come to their studio, write about them, anything. The clumsier and more craven they were the worse I felt for them. I recognized in them the naivete and idealism I had lost: the sense that virtue or talent or good intentions should provide their own reward, that the prize goes to the best instead of to the best hustler.

The worst feeling was to walk into an opening and know that everyone felt they had to be nice to me, and that only the most resigned-but-maniacal losers would march up and insult me. Not that I craved insult by any means, but I came to despise the shrewd calculation that led so many people who disliked me to manipulate my sympathies. Obviously people were playing for big stakes, I understood that, but I also understood that we're all going to spend eternity in the same dirt. Maybe it's simply a matter of temperament. I've never been able to spend ten minutes in the company of anyone I truly couldn't stand without giving it away. The late critic Paul Taylor once told me, at one of those interminable Art Dinners at Il Cantinori, "You're the only person I know who can palpably turn his back on somebody while you're still looking them in the face." Actually Paul was pretty good at that too.

Artists and dealers tended not to comprehend what writing on a weekly deadline was about. It meant going to as many shows as I could bear to--and that meant being cornered and courted by virtually the same number of art dealers. This was more problematic for me than for a "professional" art critic, that is, for someone who derived his or her social gratification from being important in the art world. Being important in the art world made me feel unimportant, since I wanted to write novels and hadn't gotten around to it. Writing every week, under the hideous pressure of the deadline, tended to convince me that I never would get around to it. Generally, dealers didn't have the slightest idea and artists didn't care that my concerns were about writing, about themes and ideas, about hunting up reasons to keep going, rather than about some fetishistic "love of art." Or that I was almost hysterically shy, that my extravagant persona concealed a deep reserve.

The deadline made it impossible to consider more than a fraction of the art that was appearing, and the paper's editorial bent excluded any disproportionate coverage of museum shows and "alternative" spaces: the emphasis was supposed to be on galleries. I'll admit I was more comfortable with downtown ones than with the ones on 57th Street. (I've never had a problem with bladder control, but downtown I never felt inhibited about asking where the bathroom was--in fact, Robert Miller won my heart one day by saying "Pop in any time, ignore the show, and use the bathroom if you need it.") Another complication was the Voice itself, and the unwritten ukase that a Voice writer should emit a certain political rectitude. I had my own ideas about politics and art, and a growing impatience with demented readers from one or another faction who regularly wrote disgustingly abusive letters, correcting me for some slight against a newly victimized segment of the artmaking population. The letters editor of the Voice seemed to feel that the most insane kinds of personal attack were desirable expressions of "controversy," and insisted on printing them. After a while I simply stopped reading them, though the Voice continued running them, sans reply.

Everyone wants to be loved for herself and not for her golden hair, and before I'd put in too many weeks at the Voice even I, normally so starved for affection, began to recognize the difference between a genuine interest in me and a ferocious interest in what I could do for people. The fact that I could do a great deal for people that I could not do for myself--lift them, practically overnight, out of bohemian poverty into a life of financial security (of course it wasn't just me, but I helped)--naturally took its toil, as did the many overtures of friendship I rejected out of suspicion, as well as certain friendships I did make in good faith with people who dropped me the minute I dropped the column. I could name them here to provide a little frisson, but on second thought I owe them thanks for unintentionally providing insights into the stratagems of venality.

This doesn't tell you much about criticism, but then I never wrote criticism in quite the same spirit that others did. For me, a weekly column was a narrative challenge, also a descriptive one. When I first tried to write novels, in my 20s, I was so self-absorbed, so indifferent to the external world, that I could never remember what a character was wearing, or what color his eyes were, or what the room looked like; as an art critic, my secret agenda was to learn how to enjoy describing the look of things, the plasticity of objects, and to place things in context. So I could never describe a painting without talking about the space it was in, the people who passed in and out, the press release, the garni--it was all one thing, and ended up a sample chapter of a novel I would someday write. So what looked like a flirtatious involvement with post-Modern theory was really a selfish exercise in writing. In any case, in the '80s, the scene had become the subject. You couldn't look at all that money, all that fame, all that expenditure gurgling up before your eyes and pretend the only significant part was this static object on the wall. Even formalist critics found that they ignored the procession of vanities around the object at the risk of their credibility. I think I probably caused a lot of people who weren't as familiar with English, or with reality, as I was to make a big fuss over their own metacritical cogitations--I'm thinking of one critic who launched a polemic about me by asking, "What's eating Gary Indiana?" (The better question would have been, "Who's eating Gary Indiana?"--at the time, nobody very thrilling.) The piece went on to bemoan the fact that by 1987 I had become "obsessed by AIDS," an obsession that came to be shared by the rest of the art world a year or so later. I like to think I brought a breath of scandal, suspense, and fresh air to a period and a place, that I punctured a few follies and got things better than right at least part of the time, and I especially like to think I bailed out at exactly the right moment--that leisurely half hour before the aircraft hit the ground.

Gary Indiana's third novel, Rent Boy, is being published this month by Serpent's Tail/High Risk Books of New York and London.
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Title Annotation:reflections on art criticism by a critic
Author:Indiana, Gary
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Words:2898
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