I’m tempted to write art criticism in this column, but I’m afraid of the repercussions. If you tell people what you think of their lame art in print, you make enemies. Some openly lash out at you, in their pain and shame, and that’s tolerable, even enjoyable. But others hate you without ever showing any sign. They nurse secret grudges for years, as they smile your way at parties and openings. Like a puff adder on a Kalahari trail, they patiently wait for an opportunity to strike.
Picture yourself mountain climbing with a colleague you think is a buddy. A minor accident leaves you dangling from a rope 1000 feet up, against the face of a cliff. Instead of rushing to help you, your friend hesitates. He sits on the top of the cliff and looks down at you. You call out Buddy! Buddy! Pull me up! He doesn’t respond. There’s an eerie silence. You hear a hawk in the distance. You look up and he’s staring down at you with a strange smile. He says loudly, but conversationally, So my use of collage is pedantic, huh? There’s a long moment while his words echo. You slowly realize what he’s talking about. The review from 1991! He shouts down, Am I too PEDANTIC to pull you up here, Mr. Art Critic? Maybe I need to DROP — he shakes the rope — Maybe I need to DROP my use of collage because it’s JUST SO FUCKING PEDANTIC!
Picture yourself falling helplessly to your death as you explain that you meant pedantic in a good way.
More commonly, vengeful artists end up on the critic’s peer review panel, when he’s up for art world perks like a job, a promotion, or a NACHO grant. As his Powerpoint presentation plays, they gut him in the dark, and he never knows. Weak, they say, in an impersonal, professional tone. I don’t get it. I just see so much stuff like this. They bring out their darkly sarcastic sympathy. Yeah, he’s been struggling with a lot of personal problems lately…and it shows.
Of course, I’m a huge star, and my career is secure. Up here in the lofty pantheon where I perch, everyone is very careful not to ruffle my feathers, lest I quit layin’ them thar golden eggs. It’s nice, and I’m willing to give something back to that sweet, sad art village I used to call home, the one that always seems so tiny, ignorant and bestial whenever I go back down. I could help misguided art morons with my gentle, healing words! I would be a god-like art critic, a noble, sweaty, muscle-bound miner down deep in the gloomy art-shaft, pointing out veins of gold in that mountain of art-shit.
Yet I feel this powerful reluctance! It’s not that I care about hurting the artists’ feelings, or crushing their youthful dreams, or unfairly ruining their careers, or just carelessly destroying innocent people’s lives. Not at all. I am worried that there might be a hint of social discomfort for myself. I hate those awkward moments when I’m at some chi-chi art event and everybody’s chatting, having a lovely time and then suddenly some tattered, drunken zombie looms up, yelling accusations, pointing his blackened fingers. If I were shredding artists in Objects in the Mirror, it would be some pointless loser that my amusing witticisms had left for roadkill a hundred columns ago. He would have somehow scraped himself off the pavement, and then spent the night in Pet Sematary. He’d be back, and he’d think he’d earned the right to embarrass me and my acquaintances. By the time crashers like that are tasered into submission, the whole mood of an evening can be dampened.
It’s enough to make a little taste of crab cake come up in the back of one’s mouth. Say what you want about the difficulty of decorating around metal-detectors, and the offensive manners of rent-a-cops. This is not a period of art history when it’s practical to scrimp on security.
Anyway, I have a million great ideas for judging everybody’s art but absolutely no interest in taking any responsibility for my actions. So I’ve floated some practical alternatives to traditional criticism. Let’s herd all our local artists into a Gitmo-like concentration camp, I’ve suggested, to protect their security and everybody else’s. Within those sheltering walls of vibrant barbed wire, they could be thoroughly interrogated about their artistic practices and beliefs, perhaps even rehabilitated. I see myself as the dynamic Aesthetic Inquisitor, sitting on a massive golden throne with a lot of attractive servants kneeling nearby on beautiful antique Persian carpets, telling me how important I am. To protect my identity, I’ll wear a purple velvet hood. I think a hooded falcon on my shoulder might be a nice accent. One by one, local artists can crawl before me naked, with one of their works, and I’ll give a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. It’d be like a more decisive Big Show, only with a huge roaring bonfire of rejected works, and a lot of tormented screaming.
I’ve submitted that proposal and we’re all waiting. Meanwhile, I offer a compromise, which I’m willing to pretend everyone can agree on. I’ll write a column roasting all the varieties of bad art that are out there, but in a generic way, without naming the actual practitioners. All you artists, that fraction of you that can read anyway, will want to pay close attention, because you may see the reflection of your own appalling output in my beautifully written tirade. If that happens, please consider no longer embarrassing yourself, and everyone else, with your ludicrous art ambitions! Step up to a real job, at Home Depot or Taco Bell, servicing important people who make real money. There’s no shame in realizing you’re worthless, not for me anyway. If you’re haunted by suicidal thoughts, it may be time to think about actually finishing a project for once.
Theres a scene I love, in Cronenberg’s The Fly, where the half man/ half insect vomits his acidic digestive juices onto the leg of a helpless man. The leg dissolves into a bubbling, steaming puddle. That creature is my image of the art critic — a selfless, caring innovator, all too often misunderstood.
Artists, you need to remember that a life in the arts is a spiritual calling. Look deep inside yourself, with your eyes tightly closed, and your hands away from your genitals. Think about whether art’s really right for you. Maybe you’re just mentally ill! It’s a common mistake because that borderline is a genuine gray area. Art professionals can help. they’re trained to pick out the genuine talents, those with unique, possibly disturbing visions, and separate them from the herd. Then, these gifted individuals can be taken somewhere and killed.
If I don’t have to worry about oversensitive nuts seeking vengeance, criticizing art will be fun, like torturing anything that can’t fight back. It’ll be just like shooting big fat koi in a barrel. When I walk over, they all come swimming up, thinking I’m there to feed them. Boom boom boom.
It’s a dirty job but no one’s gotta do it. However, I will be getting paid. So expect some messages from a power pretending to be greater than yourself.
Any review is a good review.
Clark Flood is a freelance writer living in Houston.