by Jerry Saltz

This month is my seven-year anniversary at the Village Voice, so I 
thought I'd use Frieze magazine's recent queries to me about the 
"de-skilling of art criticism" and "our post-critical era" as a way to 
write about what I think I'm trying to do here. First, I fretted I was 
the kind of "de-skilled" critic Frieze was referring to. I have no 
degrees. I started out as an artist, stopped painting, and became a 
long-distance truck driver. My CB handle was "the Jewish Cowboy": 
Shalom, partner. I didn't begin writing criticism until I was almost 
40. All I knew was I loved art and had to be in the art world. The 
truth is, I wasn't sure what Frieze meant by "de-skilled." It sounded 
vaguely bad. But to me de-skilled means unlearning other people's ideas 
of skill. All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are 
essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy. I don't look 
for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy, 
experimentation, something visionary, and a willingness to embarrass 
oneself in public. Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency; 
it has to do with being flexible and creative. I'm interested in people 
who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer, say, who 
builds rockets from rocks.

The best critics look for the same things in contemporary criticism 
that they look for in contemporary art. But they also have an eye. 
Having an eye in criticism is as important as having an ear in music. 
It means discerning the original from the derivative, the inspired from 
the smart, the remarkable from the common, and not looking at art in 
narrow, academic, or "objective" ways. It means engaging uncertainty 
and contingency, suspending disbelief and trying to create a place for 
doubt, unpredictability, curiosity and openness.

Dishearteningly, many critics have ideas but no eye. They rarely work 
outside their comfort zone, are always trying to reign art in, turn it 
into a seminar or a clique, or write cerebral, unreadable texts on 
mediocre work. There's nothing wrong with writing about weak art as 
long as you acknowledge the work's shortcomings. Seeing as much art as 
you can is how you learn to see. Listening very carefully to how you 
see, gauging the levels of perception, perplexity, conjecture, 
emotional and intellectual response, and psychic effect, is how you 
learn to see better.

Art is a way of thinking, a way of knowing yourself. Opinions are tools 
for listening in on your thinking and expanding consciousness. Many 
writers treat the juiciest part of criticism, judgment, as if it were 
tainted or beneath them. The most interesting critics make their 
opinions known. Yet in most reviews there's no way to know what the 
writer thinks, or you have to scour the second-to-last paragraph for 
one negative adjective to detect a hint of disinclination. This is 
no-risk non-criticism. Being "post-critical" isn't possible. Everyone 
is judging all the time. Critics who tell you they're not judging or 
that they're being objective are either lying or delusional. Being 
critical of art is a way of showing it respect. Being subjective is 
being human.

Yet people regularly say, "You shouldn't write on things you don't 
like." This breaks my heart. No one says this to theater critics, film 
reviewers, restaurant critics, or sports writers. No one says, "Just 
say all the food was good." Nowadays, many see criticism mainly as a 
sales tool or a rah-rah device. Too many critics enthuse over 
everything they see or merely write descriptively. This sells everyone 
short and is creating a real disconnect. People report not liking 80 
percent of the shows they see, yet 80 percent of reviews are positive 
or just descriptive.

Obviously, critics can't just hysterically love or hate things, or 
assert that certain types of art or media are inherently bad (e.g., no 
one has actually believed that painting is dead since the Nixon 
administration, yet writers regularly beat this dead horse). Critics 
must connect their opinions to a larger set of circumstances; present 
cogent arguments; show how work does or doesn't seem relevant, is or 
isn't derivative; explain why an artist is or isn't growing. As with 
Melville's ideas about art, criticism should have: "Humility -- yet 
pride and scorn/Instinct and study; love and hate/Audacity and 
reverence." Good criticism should be vulnerable, chancy, candid, and 
nervy. It should give permission, have attitude, maybe a touch of 
rebellion, never be sanctimonious or dull, and be written in a 
distinctive, readable way. Good critics should be willing to go on 
intuition and be unafraid to write from parts of themselves they don't 
really know they have.

If criticism is in trouble, as many say, it's because too many critics 
write in a dreary hip metaphysical jargon that no one understands 
except other dreary hip metaphysicians who speak this dead language. 
They praise everything they see, or only describe. These critics are 
like the pet owner who sews up the cat to stop it from fouling the 
sofa: They keep the couch clean but kill the cat.

  2005 Jerry Salt/ Village Voice