Monday, July 13, 2009

What Is To Be Done, Part Four: The Enigma of Sins of Omission

The joke will be lost on those not brought up in certain types of Christian theology, but my subject heading reminds me of the, probably Reader's Digest, tale of the child who was asked by the Sunday School teacher to define sins of omission, and who said, "They're the sins we should have committed, and didn't."

In any case, I am feeling appropriately guilty for having passed over in near-silence or total silence a certain number of exhibitions I should have made a greater effort to cover, especially in our present condition of inadequate arts coverage in general.

But once freed from the constraints of editorial word counts, all the suppressed issues of arts coverage become almost paralyzing. What if one has only fatuous or possibly outright wrong things to say about an exhibition, because to do it justice would require more interview and research time than one has available (given that most of one's reading and writing takes place very late at night)? What if one's provisional judgment, in a first draft, sounds dismayingly like damning with faint praise when one intended no such thing? What if one's first burst of unrestrained enthusiasm proves distressingly hard to justify on more than subjective grounds?

For there are probably thousands of artists in the world, if not tens of thousands, whose work deserves some form of recognition, but what sort remains to be worked out. Is the artist destined for global fame? Probably not, but then some make it onto the covers of magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, or into world-famous biennials. Is the artist reworking well-worn genres? Sometimes. Is the artist supreme in the field in a local context that may or may not be able to stand against competitors in comparable cities? Sometimes. Is the artist as good as anybody in a genre that the tides of fashion have deemed unworthy of further discussion except to local yokels? Sometimes. Should the tides of fashion be queried appropriately? Always. Should an emerging artist be recognized for what may or may not mature into something far more intriguing? Always. Should an emerging or even a midcareer artist be recognized for a personal best that may not yet contribute much to a larger dialogue? Well, at this point we are getting into the problem of neither exaggerating the accomplishment nor damning with faint praise. And when one is consumed with such baroque niceties, one's most offhand adjective is likely to be misconstrued as conveying unqualified celebration or disguised disapproval.

It is so much easier just to say, "Here's some stuff," and sometimes to explain why one is forgoing evaluation. But there are times when forgoing evaluation is itself a form of evaluation, and that is when after the first couple of drafts, one simply gives up in mild embarrassment. The beauty of print deadlines was that something had to appear, however inadequate or formulaic, and sometimes it was both.

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