Roberta Smith on Looking at Art

by Art Fag City on October 1, 2008 · 5 comments Blurb

Jan Benzel, editor of the Weekend Arts section at the New York Times enlists art critic Roberta Smith to answer a reader question.

How Do Reporters Experience Art?

Q. I was wondering if you could talk about what kinds of things art reporters think about when they look at an art piece (painting, ceramics, sculptures and so on — but particularly paintings) and have to decide whether it’s a worthwhile piece to write about. I know part of the job is done for you if the pieces are sitting in the Met or other well-established museums, but what is often elusive is the criteria reporters might use to judge and talk about the quality of an art piece. What elements should a painting satisfy at the very basic level? Before you even see a piece, what things might you anticipate looking for before you can get to the part where you say, “O.K., now let me look at how this painting is speaking to me.” — Chandra Tiwari

For this meaty question I offer the floor to one of our fabulous art critics, Roberta Smith, who spends her days (and nights) not just in the great museums but in the nooks and crannies of the art world, not just in New York but in thriving scenes elsewhere in the United States and abroad:

A. My main activity is looking, looking and more looking, and trying to listen to my subjective reactions as objectively or neutrally as possible. I learn from everything I look at, good, bad or indifferent. I follow my eye reflexively; if it is drawn toward something, I pay attention and try to find out why. You train your eye, build up a mental image bank, and constantly try to pinpoint why some things are convincing and others aren’t.

When I look at new work, my image bank goes into action. I pay careful attention to the names of other artists that flash in my brain as I look at the work. How many other artists exactly come to mind? There’s nothing wrong with this up to a point. I always loved Frank Stella’s observation that when you start out as a painter, you make other painters’ paintings, then you gradually begin to make your own paintings. I try to figure out what’s left in a younger artist’s work once I’ve subtracted the other artists’ influences. Does what remains seem original or at least promising? Is the younger artist aware of the debt and trying to get free of it? Or is that artist just unconsciously accepting received ideas and therefore making work that is generic or derivative? Obviously, the fewer names that come to mind, the greater the odds that you are looking at something fresh that you haven’t quite seen before.

And I do feel that there is a basic human drive to see something new. We don’t want to listen to endless cover bands playing Beatles’ songs, why should we look at the same abstraction or still life, the same photograph or Conceptual performance piece being done again and again by different artists with only slight variations?

At the same time, “newness” or originality are often matters of subtle degree. The new doesn’t have to be an epoch-shifting breakthrough. Just as we all have different fingerprints and handwriting, we all have a potential for some increment of originality. I am always on the lookout for a spark of necessity — a feeling that this particular artist had no choice but to make this particular artwork this particular way. That is the only way authenticity or even originality can start to emerge.”

Interestingly, the desire we have for the new is closely related to what we do with it once we find it.  We listen to a new song until we’re sick of it, discuss a few artists until their work no longer seems fresh, watch reality shows until they no longer seem real.   A more cynical take might describe our basic human drive as a need to consume, and newness as a necessary (but increasingly deficient) nutrient feeding that hunger.


paul October 1, 2008 at 7:17 pm

man, i’d love to hear carol vogel answer!

paul October 1, 2008 at 7:17 pm

man, i’d love to hear carol vogel answer!

paul October 1, 2008 at 2:17 pm

man, i’d love to hear carol vogel answer!

Art Fag City October 1, 2008 at 7:18 pm

Ha! It’s funny, I thought the same thing!

Art Fag City October 1, 2008 at 2:18 pm

Ha! It’s funny, I thought the same thing!

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