June 4, 2008

'Art's Willing Executioner'
by James Panero

A review of 'Let's See' by Peter Schjeldahl

Art critics are like thoroughbred horses: They risk breaking down after a short period on the track. It came as a surprise, then, when the New Yorker appointed Peter Schjeldahl as its critic in residence 10 years ago: By 1998, Mr. Schjeldahl had already been around the course more than once. Born in Fargo, N.D., in 1942, he had been writing for the Village Voice since 1980, and before that for ARTnews, Seven Days, and the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times. Back in the late 1960s, the New Yorker's hiring of the Abstract Expressionist critic Harold Rosenberg came as a temporary reprieve from the slaughterhouse. For Mr. Schjeldahl, one wondered if the job would be a similarly green pasture in which to natter on into oblivion.

But Mr. Schjeldahl found his second wind at the New Yorker. He has regularly filed tuneful columns of readable stories with tight structure and interesting twists of phrase informed by his years as both a journalist and a poet. (By the 1960s, Mr. Schjeldahl was already a published poet in the New York School; he abandoned poetry around 1980 to pursue criticism.) Mr. Schjeldahl's latest volume of selected writing, 75 essays from a decade at the New Yorker running through 2007, has now been published as "Let's See" (Thames & Hudson, 256 pages, $29.95).

Those 10 years make for an interesting case study of art, one framed by the unprecedented rise in the market value of postwar and contemporary work — now a global infatuation — and an art-world giddiness that seems untouched, or is perhaps even encouraged, by crises in the economy and the war on terror. The art critic of today must function as a gossip columnist, a stock analyst, and a lifestyle guru. Mr. Schjeldahl plays these roles with brio: At the New Yorker, he has kept up with the art of his times all too well.

At its best, Mr. Schjeldahl's craft produces one-liners that are pleasing and illustrative: "[Gauguin] had the kind of petty run-ins with local authorities that dog arrogant misfits in resort towns everywhere." "One doesn't so much look at a Friedrich as inhale it, like nicotine." Lucian Freud "is less a painter than 'the Painter,' performing the rites of his medium in the sacristy of his studio." "All Picasso's pictures are dirty." Such zingers are ready for Bartlett's.

But the anthology left me wondering how Mr. Schjeldahl's achievements, many but minor, stack up against his shortcomings as a responsible critic. It is not so much that Mr. Schjeldahl has bad taste. As a libertarian sensualist, he is rather preconditioned not to have taste at all, or at least to have sublimated his taste for the purposes of having his readers "engage with art of every kind," no matter how terrible or reprehensible the art might be. In fact, Mr. Schjeldahl belittles taste here as only a "sediment of aesthetic experience, commonly somebody else's." It is interesting to note, however, that in disregarding taste, he heads right for the tasteless — leading me to suspect that Mr. Schjeldahl knows what good taste is all along but chooses to ignore it.

At times, this tastelessness can be unnerving but relatively harmless. Mr. Schjeldahl's ceaseless promotion of the histrionic contemporary artist John Currin, for instance, would put a publicist to shame. He calls Mr. Currin "as important an emerging painter as today's art world provides," whose "virtuosity has overshadowed that of everybody else in the field." He also manages to name-drop Mr. Currin into essays where you would least expect it, including a review of El Greco, and one of Victorian fairy paintings.

Over the past decade, about the last thing the overheated art market needed was more praise for artists like Mr. Currin. But Mr. Schjeldahl sent his coals to Newcastle — or rather, to the Gagosian Gallery — at the expense of endlessly more deserving and underappreciated artists.

Too often in the decade covered here, Mr. Schjeldahl followed the money rather than good conscience. Faced with market forces, he bids "goodbye to critics functioning as scouts, umpires, scorers, clubhouse cronies, and occasional coaches." Rather than regret the loss of critical authority, he welcomes collectors to the driver's seat. "Preposterous amounts of money seem to concentrate the mind," he says. Yet considering the overvaluing of artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and yes, John Currin, the facts just don't bear this out. I doubt Mr. Schjeldahl even believes it.

Far more damning than Mr. Schjeldahl's abdication of critical judgment, however, is his embrace of art used for violent ends. Mr. Schjeldahl came out of the Generation of 1968 with a weakness for violence, which often translates into an affection for fascist and Nazi imagery. He rightly bristles at politicized art, but I find his willingness to aestheticize politics just as disturbing. (There is a difference between the two: Walter Benjamin famously wrote that communism pursued the former strategy, while fascism adored the latter.)

"Art love does not accord with good politics, good morals," Mr. Schjeldahl said in a 2004 interview. "Hitler had rather good taste, certainly in architecture and design. I think the Nazi flag was one of the greatest design coups in history."

Such enthusiasm, a targeted irresponsibility, gets repeated more than once in the current collection. Mr. Schjeldahl describes "October 18, 1977" by Gerhard Richter, another son of the'60s, as "a suite of fifteen somber paintings [belonging] to a tiny category: great political art." Yet Richter's hagiographic icons (not all that well painted, by the way) simply mythologized murderous German thugs.

In fact, Mr. Schjeldahl reserves his highest praise for Der Führer himself, whom he describes as "masterly once he found his métier." Hitler, Mr. Schjeldahl informs us in a review of Nazi art, "embraced cleanly abstracted and geometric styles, which later informed his own design work (notably the stunning Nazi flag) and his shrewd patronage of the gifted youngsters Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer." I have deliberated over what is the most odious part of this remark, and I have settled on the use of the word "youngsters" to describe Riefenstahl and Speer. For Mr. Schjeldahl, it's as if Nazi propaganda was little more than after-school high jinks committed by the Little Rascals.

Mr. Schjeldahl's disagreement with the curator Deborah Rothschild in this same review is telling. He begins with a quote from Ms. Rothschild: "The union of malevolence and beauty can occur; we must remain vigilant against its seductive power." That sounds pretty reasonable, but Mr. Schjeldahl offers a quick retort: "I disagree. We must remain vigilant against malevolence, and we should resign ourselves to the truth that beauty is fundamentally amoral."

Why a critic should feel obligated to accept and even champion beauty in the service of wickedness is incomprehensible to me. Mr. Schjeldahl embodies the critic as an accomplice. At his best, he is gleefully sly. At his worst, he is art's willing executioner.