Sunday, February 15, 2009

I used to write print-media reviews of exhibitions, back in the day before Lehman Brothers went under

Blogs exist to get thought into the world in a hurry. Whether the thoughts were worth thinking, whether they might not have been improved by the time taken for their maturation and slow reworking—well, that’s the question with almost any piece of writing.

It comes as a shock to realize that I am within a few weeks of the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first piece of art reviewing, of “Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years” at the High Museum. It was based on my research for a book idea that I soon abandoned, and I insisted it was a contribution to art history, not an exhibition review—when Xenia Zed convinced me to write an art historical piece about the “Demons and Angels” exhibition at the Center for Puppetry Arts some months later, I insisted that I didn’t have enough time to research the traditional masks and had no idea how to write about artists of whom I knew nothing and who had no secondary literature associated with them.

My first attempts to write about art, on request from artist friends years earlier, had been even more awkwardly literary. But most working critics have had a steep learning curve. Few of them decided in high school that they really wanted to be art critics someday.

I soon realized I had better learn how to produce some of the works of art I wanted to see that weren’t already in existence, if only to get the processes firmly in mind and thus remember what any given artist was up against. (The thought was an extension of a remark in a letter by my mentor Robert Detweiler, who had said that all literary critics should be required to write a certain number of short stories, poems and/or novellas—all of which should then be destroyed as an act of kindness to the world.) But I ended up making only the art I wanted to make, except when an auction deadline pushed me to create something. When I didn’t like the results, I sold them cheaply, once to the woman who today is the director of the Walker Art Center. (Well, actually, Marcia Wood sold that one on my behalf, out of a group exhibition called “The Shrine Show.”)

I feel like a complete troglodyte when I recall that my first published essay and that first published piece of art writing were both marred by entire lines omitted by the typesetter and names misspelled by the proofreader. Today we are required to submit copy ready for electronic composition, but editors and proofreaders still do their dirty work, and an unnoticed highlighting plus a random keystroke can wipe out a phrase as effectively as the eye of a tired typist ever did.

Almost all of my newspaper reviews, some of which I am now in the process of posting to a wiki in their original rough-draft format, bore titles for which I bore no responsibility. Headline writers are as prone to cutesy misunderstandings as reviewers themselves are.

And the format is murderous. There is always more to be said, except when there is even less to be said because one has no idea where to start. After a few years of paring down and discarding paragraphs, one learns to think in five-hundred-word segments, then in three hundred fifty words, and then two hundred fifty. There is no point in delving deeper because it will all have to be dumped in favor of the next deadline.

Blogs allow for two thousand or ten thousand words, but there is no deadline and sometimes the words never get written. Other times, they ought not to have been.

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