Peter Schjeldahl’s lecture at The New School was titled “The Critic as Artist,” taken from an essay by Oscar Wilde by the same name. It could have easily been called “The Critic as Rebel,” given the degree to which it reflected the worldview of a self-taught Village Voice homeboy who works at home largely because he can smoke there. A well-behaved, well-dressed sexagenarian, Schjeldahl is a cutting writer and speaker who can’t always resist wielding his talents for making people laugh out loud. Such was the case when I heard the following description of artistic movements that had emerged during his time as a critic:
“Marcel Duchamp kept being hauled from his grave and sent, zombie-like, against imaginary oppressors.”
Just to confirm: there’s always room for zombies. How a person with such an old-fashioned reverence for art criticism can so often confront his audience with the nonsense of it all is an interesting contradiction. In Seven Days in the Art World, Schjeldahl described his profession as superfluous, the last thing a civilisation needs. He nevertheless sees the nobility in making it his life’s work, holding fast to Wilde’s observation that critics be important as artists and equally deserving of defense.
Indeed, the best artists are critics, as far as either Schjeldahl or Wilde are concerned. Both groups are bound with tasks of shock and awe, shining light on “the conventional wisdom that we didn’t know was conventional yet.” For lack of a more original way of putting it, both groups force audiences to reconsider their view of the world. “Like the artist, the critic creates and affirms values to the degree of his or her individuality,” Schjeldahl observed on Thursday. “This is a rule without exceptions.”
With air running audibly past his moustache and through his two front teeth, he continued: “Independence of spirit doesn’t rule out the worldly-wise career with dealers and assistants and a house in the country, but I do insist that an original, burning dissatisfaction, likely inherited ignited in early childhood, distinguishes artists from their fellow citizens. The same goes for critics as artists.”
I don’t consider myself a critic, but the personal resonance I felt with Schjeldahl’s lecture hit its zenith on this point. I am someone who admires rebels, but seldom identifies as one. It’s the sort of attitude that suited me well to the University of Chicago, where, in the winter of 2005, I listened with few rebellious inclinations as a graduate student showed me some sidebars in the resume of Ã‰mile Durkheim.
A Frenchman of Jewish ancestry, Durkheim had a healthy audience of readers when Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer in the French army, was wrongfully tried and convicted of treason. Reactions to the charges against Dreyfus, who was also Jewish, were divided along cultural lines; if you were still proving your worth in ambitious society and wanted to flex your conservative muscles in public, then you echoed the frequently anti-Semitic sentiments of the anti-Dreyfusards. If the bleak, bellicose conformism that the trial represented concerned you, then you joined Durkheim, whose essay, “Individualism and the Intellectuals” described Dreyfus’ innocence as a matter of common sense. It was the duty of France’s intellectual élite, Durkheim argued, to wake up and speak up, but above all to take themselves seriously.
As with Schjeldahl’s lecture, hearing the graduate student tell this story was like watching the part of a Rocky movie where he sprints up the flight of stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a Friday afternoon. Instead of returning to my dorm room to relax or spend time with my girlfriend, I was enraptured by visions of Durkheim stopping students in the hallways of the Sorbonne to sharply demand: “Why aren’t you studying?” I marched to the library, resolved to make something of myself. As I walked through campus, my path was crossed by several groups of students out together on a run, their shoes crunching over patches of wet sleet and snow. They were almost completely naked. Only decorum prohibits me from evoking the image of Peter Schjeldahl jogging happily among them.