An Interview with Peter Schjeldahl
Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn at Blackbird. We're in our office in Richmond, Virginia, with Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic of The New Yorker, and Susan Glasser and Howard Risatti from Richmond. And Mr. Schjeldahl has been kind enough to let us talk to him for a while about art and what's going on in it—a little Polaroid snapshot.
Sort of talking around trying to think about what some people might be interested in, Richard Carlyon, who is a Richmond artist, wondered if you thought there were any hope for art right now, whether it's been subsumed by popular culture, or whether there's a difference, or whether it's even something that people care about any more.
Peter Schjeldahl: Franz Kafka once said there is infinite hope, but not for us. I guess that would depend on whether you include yourself in that us or not. There's infinite hope. People get up in the morning and make art, look at art, think about art, and sell it. No, the art world isn't broken.
Howard Risatti: Could you say, as a way of really adjusting this question again, could you say something about what it's like to have a life, and make a life in art, as a critic?
PS: It's a great luxury and a stroke of luck.
HR: Do you find not being connected to an academic situation an advantage?
PS: Oh boy. I'm one of those sixties college dropouts you hear about. So having as my highest academic achievement a high school diploma, I was shielded from teaching.
HR: Russell Jacoby wrote a book called The Last Intellectuals, and he talked about a time when critics and intellectuals weren't connected to the university, and he thought that was a great thing. And [Clement] Greenberg and I think [Harold] Rosenberg had been part of that group, and he felt that it was an advantage because they didn't get caught up into an academic institution life situation. Could you say something about that in terms of your own writing?
PS: Well, I think academics who write about things write for people who have to read them, and who, if they show any style or elan in their writing, the readers will just resent it. If people don't want to read me, I starve—there are no rewards in being obscure or obstruse or overbearing for me. I don't think it's because I have a naturally good character, but writing things that people want to read is my bread and butter.
Susan Glasser: You said that critics can be wrong, but they have to be right sometimes.
PS: Often wrong, but never in doubt. Having an opinion is part of your social contract with readers. I mean, they want to know what you think, and if you don't know what you think you just take a stab at it. In a way, the advancement of opinions is the least interesting thing about criticism for me, but it's one of the essentials to launch you into a situation, into a conversation.
SG: Are there things that you look back on that you think you've gotten quite right or that you've gotten terribly wrong, in retrospect?
PS: Well, I've changed my mind. Franz Kline, the abstract expressionist, was a jazzy guy, and he had a kind of Zen koan that I often think of. It said, "To be right is the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in." That about sums it up. Right or wrong in terms of what? Right or wrong in terms of judging your distance if you're jumping motorcycles over cars or something, that's important. Going to war, right and wrong? Very important. Right or wrong about art? I mean, Jeez, who cares? It's an activity whose beginning and end point is pleasure, and there are people who are right in boring ways and wrong in exciting ways.
MF: Who's somebody who you've looked at over years, and your opinion and the way you find what is alive in their work for you has changed particularly . . .
PS: Well, a main example would be Philip Guston probably, who in the sixties, when I was new in New York, had the most refined sort of existential abstract expressionist style, the quiveringly intelligent. And I revered him and then he, at the end of the sixties, he switched to this raucous, cartoony style of Ku Klux Klan and did self-loathing self-portraits, and I hated it, I just hated it. It was like the priest of my religion defrocking himself. At the same time I know a lot of people, particularly younger people, were very moved by it, but I resisted it. And then, I don't know, one point maybe in my sleep, I changed my mind and realized, "Live with it, Peter." The job of an artist is not to make you comfortable with your ideals. I've since become an enthusiast for the late Guston. I mean, there's an element of autobiography in all of our stories about art, and I don't regard myself as in some way special among people who look at art. I'm special in that I remember my experience and can analyze and express it. That's my professional specialty, and if everybody could do that I wouldn't get paid nearly as much as I do. But in general I think I'm just another art lover with more time and leisure.
There are critics who seem not to particularly love art or have personal uses for it and I do not understand these people. They scare me.
HR: Well, that seems to be a more recent phenomena, isn't it, ritics who don't like art.
PS: It's generally a product of academic situations.
HR: And I think it is, too. Do you still like the early Guston?
PS: Oh, Christ, yes, it's wonderful stuff. But I've come to understand it with more complexity, as hardly a kind of hope against hope of Guston that he was better than he feared he was, as a person. He was repressing the kind of abject suicide junkman son that he was. His father was reduced to being a junkman when he was a kid and committed suicide when, I think, Guston was about eleven, and Guston found his body hanging. The kind of raucousness of the late work is partly just relief that this exalted ego, the artistic ideal that he had maintained, he just threw it over while retaining that amazing touch, that amazing color. That great painting ability which, early on, I hated because it was being subordinated to sort of filling in arbitrary cartoon forms, whereas I thought it should be the prima donna of the canvas. I don't know. I don't get involved in psycho-dynamics with every artist. I think I do actually, to a mild extent. That was a case where the sensibility I'd been forming in my twenties was challenged and eventually broken and re-formed.
HR: Well it seems to like Guston one has to like the late work or the early work. Though the late work has been much more fashionable, I think the early work is just terrific.
PS: I don't think they're in competition. The human spirit takes many forms and anything has a value if you know what it is and if you bother to discern. Otherwise, you're sitting as some kind of judge blocking from the world, from the conversation of culture, things whose values aren't immediately congenial to you, and you're just a jerk. I've got certain rules of thumb for work that isn't immediately congenial. One is, what would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, "Wow, this is great, this is what I like." And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree, but it enables me to write, I think, intelligently, and if that fails, then I sort of back up and say, "What would somebody who likes this be like?" Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I'm writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it's a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively. Other times it's just, "Look what camel has walked into the tent."
SG: Have you ever started working on a review and by the end of it you've ended up in a place very different than where you thought you were going to, or in the opposite direction of where you began?
PS: I think every time. I mean not opposite, but no, I don't know what I think until I write it. I'm often as surprised by my reviews as anybody else.
HR: I think that's one of the wonderful things about real criticism—that it takes you on a journey and you end up some place that you didn't expect.
PS: Yeah, well that's the pleasure of it.
HR: I do find that a lot of academic criticism begins with an opinion and then will . . .
PS: I think the definition of the academic in all things, in art or anything, is that you start from the answer and work back and frame the question. Academic anything devotes all of its energy to secondary matters. The primary matters are already assumed, established, and then it becomes a quibble about secondary things. It's like an academic painting—the foot is drawn great, but you're not interested in the person with the foot, so . . . I'm a pragmatist. I judge things by their consequences. If the answer to a question doesn't make a whole lot of difference to life one way or another, you don't have a question. It's not a real question. So it's really the impact, and significance, and ramification of something that . . .
HR: So you think criticism is a serious endeavor?
PS: Anything serious that you take seriously. I don't know, I mean for some people who don't need it, bully for them, they have more time for other things.
HR: But you think it does something; it's worthwhile doing, that it has an impact.
PS: I just do it, I mean that's not for me to judge. You know, I take over where the artist leaves off. The reader takes over where I leave off. Yeah, I hope so. I hope it has an impact, but that's out of my hands.
SG: Something you said earlier, you mentioned that there was a responsibility in being a critic and that it is, that you take very seriously writing in a way that people are engaged by.
PS: Well, that's, as I say, a survival question for me. No, I think you're responsible to readers. I think that this is any writer who writes for people to read him rather than for tenure track points or whatever, is a propagandist to a tyrant or something. I have a one hundred percent responsibility to readers. That is, that they know that they're getting the straight stuff from me—that I don't have an agenda, or if I do that it's spelled out at the top of the piece. So that they have . . . there's nothing behind the scenes of what I'm writing, to the extent that I'm conscious. God knows, we all have weird unconscious motivations, but I guess that's where I locate responsibility. I don't know that I would take it any farther than that.
MF: People say you're not a theoretical critic in the sense that you think of Greenberg or people who were a part of the abstract expressionist connection. I wonder if that's almost a part of the diversity of the current art world, that there's so many different kinds of things going on. That somebody like you who appreciates a great variety of different kinds of work . . .
PS: Well I'm an aesthete, which is kind of an antique word, but I think my approach to life is to put a metal frame around whatever I encounter and regard it as if it were art. And it gives me a rather active sense of the ridiculous. It's neither here nor there in terms of character or citizenship. I think New York and maybe Los Angeles, the only places in the country where living day to day that way without being clinically depressed is possible. I have respect for ideas. I have respect for even fanatical ideas, because I see how immensely creative they can be, generally for brief periods. They're sort of explosive corrections to the culture. I'm not anti-theoretical. I'm anti-theoretical establishment. I'm anti-dogmatic anything, I mean, that which seems to be a complete misunderstanding of what art is for. So I get cranky about that.
MF: Do you see any trends sort of moving through things that you're looking at now. I was thinking what you were writing about John Currin . . .
PS: I think the sort of theoretical P.C. juggernaut of the nineties is pretty well broken down, and I think it's got a certain kind of residual momentum, generally in universities, but in the art scene, it's pretty hard to find any more. The ball is back in the studio, where people who perceive by thinking are blessedly confused and nobody knows what art is and it's up to the artist. The nineties were very much the intellectual . . . and taste trends were very led by curators in a kind of educational stance towards the unwashed public who, as far as I can tell, never showed up. I think it's really like the whole generation of art activities and shows that were directed to what I think of as the I.S.V., the incredibly stupid viewer. I have a great solicitude for this person, that he or she be enlightened. Of course, nobody ever admitted to being that person. But I like to think that people are remembering why they liked art in the first place, which is generally some kind of epiphany that hit them on the head when they were teenagers, or some sense of extraordinary order of pleasure and stimulus. And that art is responsible for art now. I mean, it won't last. Institutions and dogmas form. There's a lovely period when, for like six months, nobody knows what art is, which turned out to be immensely creative in retrospect.
SG: Shifting the topic a little bit, you've mentioned that you think that the true identity of a museum is in its collections, not in its building.
SG: And I would take that a step further and say that it's also in how they present those collections. There have been a couple of instances where you've been fairly scathing in your observations about museum installations.
SG: What do you think that museums should be doing to facilitate, the kind of a theme that runs through an awful lot of your writing, about reconstituting the pleasure principle.
PS: I think you put the stuff up, and you make sure the light is nice, and that the noise level isn't too high. Anything else you do is on you. The point is that a Rembrandt is a Rembrandt whether it's in the great hall of a national gallery or in a subway toilet. And I'll go to either place. I'll look at it with a flashlight, I don't care. And I hope I'm not being entirely snarky in saying that art lovers are a disorganized minority constituency in the conduct of the art culture. We are like selfish children; all we're interested in is art. And we learn to . . . we have our improvised guerrilla tactics. Getting in, getting past all the gorgons, and educators, and labels, and getting what we want and then going home. Keeping a low profile. I guess maybe I try to serve this constituency which you can't treat as a constituency—it's like herding cats, right?—by amplifying their experience.
SG: Do you think that education is . . . that so many museums in the museum field [have] redefined [their] mission according to the American Association of Museums as an educational institution . . .
PS: Yeah, well it's a deadly aspect of American culture. Educated for what? You know, where do we get our diplomas, at the graveyard? I mean, when do we apply our education? But it's interesting, I think the most sensitive, intelligent, cultivated, exciting people I know in their interest to art do not register on the public level. I mean, they're not part of institutional structures. They wouldn't be caught dead in it. Or sometimes they are, sometimes they're moles in institutional structures. But they tend to feel pretty bad about themselves. No, you put this stuff up, you turn on the lights, and you let the people in, and if they don't want to come in or they're not interested—great. People have to go to football games, too; it's not a problem.
HR: Well, I want to disagree with you a little bit, at least, because I do think that in writing for certain kinds of non-academic magazines, part of what you do is to try and reach an audience and make them understand some things about art or see something or look more attentively. I always think of really good criticism as not, as some people suggested, replacing the art, but actually pointing at things. Look at this, look at that, and look at—
PS: I think it's modeling the conversation. I think the basis of criticism is like some people in a museum or a gallery talking in front of the art. And I think what I do is maybe a refinement and formalization of that. And if it works, it feeds right back into it, and so it's just raising the level, which is like writing about anything. Sports writing is about fans in the stands, and then they see the game and they come back and the next day they read it in the paper and they see the game again, with more understanding, and they have a better conversation on the phone that afternoon.
HR: And when they go back to the next game they see it differently as well.
PS: That is a natural appetite. If you like something you want to know more about it, you want to be more deeply involved in it. You're serving a human impetus. I guess, what really is a problem in America and what I really want to oppose is the idea that art is good for you. It is not medicine. It may not be good for you. There have been people who have been driven mad by art—art love does not accord with good politics, good morals. Hitler had rather good taste, certainly in architecture and design. I think the Nazi flag was one of the greatest design coups in history. Hitler did it, okay? And that was part of the tinniness of the nineties, of trying to associate good art with right-thinking politics. No, and I think Baudelaire was very clear about that. I mean, Flowers of Evil—he wrote about dark stuff, and he had an appreciation of dark stuff. He also had an appreciation of virtue. I think if you read Baudelaire carefully you realize that the wildness of the aesthetic, and how somebody who is only aesthetic is a monster; the late nineteenth-century French writer, Huysmans's À Rebours is about that, what the consequences of somebody being only aesthetic . . . Being an aesthete certainly doesn't fulfill your citizenship. I mean, I'm a voter and a good neighborhood person. But in America we all want to square things, we want to get our aesthetic values lined up with our political values with our moral values. It's a madness. It's a madness which we have survived for a couple hundred years, and we'll probably still survive, but it's really annoying. And I want to make it a little more difficult than it normally is.
HR: I was thinking that museums would play a similar role to the critic in cultivating this sense of taste and looking and understanding. But the problem is . . .
PS: No, see, the only education that matters in aesthetics is self-education. You can make things available to people. But if you presume to know something they don't know, or be more advanced than they are, you've lost it. First of all, if they accept that estimation of themselves, they have crippled themselves, they're out of the game. The government of aesthetics is anarchy. It has to be.
HR: What did you think of the motorcycle show or the Armani show and that whole attitude towards . . .
PS: I thought the motorcycle show was fabulous. The Armani show, ehh, but then, I'm not that into couture. Although some of the things were amazing. And the commercial tie-in was just too awful. But in principle, I'm not against it—actually I am against one brand name—but the motorcycle show I think was a kind of shockingly accurate acknowledgement of what museums have become, in a way. And attending this show . . . I have no particular interest in motorcycles, but I was thrilled to attend this show because it was filled with people who had never been in a museum before. Tattooed guys with their tattooed wives and tattooed children, but who were really knowledgeable. They were the consumers. I was the interloper, I was the outsider, and it was very refreshing.
Why shouldn't museums do that? Given that museum are beholden to all of these horrible obligatory values that education and public service and outreach and all that—why shouldn't they just go for broke and be entirely entertainment institutions? As long as they keep the light on the Rembrandt, it's fine with me, okay? In a way, they have these sort of puritanical constraints against commercialism and crowd-pleasing and everything, but it's hypocrisy. Why don't they just admit it? First of all, they do shows like that and they make lots of money, they can get better lights, they can get better Rembrandts, it could work out very well.
HR: If they don't turn the lights off the Rembrandts . . .
PS: No. Then I get cross, yeah.
HR: That would be the problem, I think, wouldn't it?
PS: Well, but nobody is because people really like Rembrandt. I mean, the main impediment to more people liking Rembrandt is the implication that you should like Rembrandt. No, you shouldn't. Who wants to look at a three-hundred-year-old dirty piece of cloth that's kind of brown. I'm sympathetic to that feeling. By the way, it took me till I was in my forties to like Rembrandt.
Rembrandt, I think, was never exactly out of fashion. His greatness is given, but I think for a hundred years, throughout the whole modern period, what makes Rembrandt great was completely excised from modern thinking: basically illustration. We've had a hundred years, or a hundred and fifty years of artists grappling with the issue of decoration. The last illustrative great artist was Manet. And then the impressionists said, "Oh, he's great but you know, we've got to get rid of those stories and people and stuff." So the whole issue for the twentieth century was how can you be decorative without it being exactly decoration. Why is the Pollock not wallpaper? Well, look at it and figure it out because it's not. Or Matisse, why isn't it greeting cards? And I think that all the juice is gone out of that now. I think just because maybe design and architecture and "gay eye for the straight guy" have become so sophisticated in decorative terms that, in a way, picture making has been forced out of that racket. I wrote a column on Rembrandt this fall about a show of his etchings in Boston, where it seemed so hot, he seems so contemporary right now. And it's because it's about storytelling. There's certain works actually in the show I chose in Richmond that have little bits of that, where the storytelling function, the function of illustration—which is this sort of nastiest word you can use in art. It used to be "decoration" was the nastiest word, but it had some juice in it, it had some edginess, some dialectic to it. Illustration was completely submerged. I think it's probably the most interesting word right now, and it's why I like Currin. That's why I think that Currin is interesting, is that he essentially founds his painting on illustration out of unknown stories or weird stories or stupid stories.
By the way, stupid is not a pejorative to me. Well, it is, a lot, but I mean in terms of being afraid of asking dumb questions. And dumb questions, I love dumb questions because, well they're easy, for one thing. Why are they dumb? They're dumb because they're philosophical questions. They're at a level of generality that we're all supposed to know about. What is the magic of the idiot savant, of the charismatic outsider, the brilliant yokel? It's because he comes in and asks a philosophical question that everybody's supposed to know the answer to and you realize you don't know. That in fact you don't know what the hell you're doing because you've assumed a knowledge that you simply don't possess. And to me, actually, the thrill of criticism is when you hit a point like that. Actually, remember the Saturday Night Live Gilda Radner character, Emily Litella? She was this sort of starchy, prim lady who would be commenting on the news, and her commentary would be based on getting some word wrong. She'd say, "What is this I hear about children collecting for unisex?" And she would go on, and finally the other announcer would say, "Emily, it's UNICEF, not unisex." And she'd say, "Oh. That's very different. Never mind." I think any intellectual has got to have a basic fear that he or she is being Emily Litella. It's a terrible realization when you realize that you're way out on a limb and you just misunderstood the first term of the argument. "Oh. Never mind." But, the culture does that, and catching the culture in those moments is real exciting.