Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker’s art critic, has been covering the art world since the 1960s, back when he was a bohemian living in a cold water flat in the East Village. “I came right on the heels of the big revolution,” he recalls. “Abstract expressionism, pop, and minimalism, when the international art [scene] gravitated from Paris to New York.” Known for his distinctively populist viewpoint, Schjeldahl is unafraid to call the conceptualists on their cleverness (he once dismissed blue chip darling Damien Hirst — who you may know for either his diamond-encrusted skull or that shark suspended in formaldehyde — as a “perculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth”) and was the first art critic to break the “high brow ice” around Norman Rockwell. (And, if ever you find yourself in the Catskills during the Fourth of July, try to snag an invite to Schjeldahl’s crazy, even volcanic, fireworks party.)
Recently in town to lecture on MOCCA’s current “Misled by Nature: Contemporary Art and the Baroque” exhibition, assistant art curator Rea McNamara spoke with Schjeldahl, and got his opinions on beauty, the professionalization of the artistic class, and his annoyance for artspeak.
Rea McNamara: Your recent OCAD keynote lecture discussed the drama, opulence, and excess that inspires the neo-baroque artists featured in MOCCA’s current “Misled by Nature: Contemporary Art and the Baroque” exhibition. Given that baroque is so associated with the vivid and the grandiose, what’s your opinion on the existence of beautiful things?
Peter Schjeldahl: I don’t think beauty exists. What is beauty? It’s a word. A word in the dictionary. It’s a word we use every day. We use it correctly, and it’s defined as a quality present in a thing or a person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind. Now, I know what that means – everybody knows what that means. And, somehow, it’s been a very strange development in culture, which is less intense now, but was very intense for a long time, which somehow excluded that experience from discussions of art. By the way, I don’t think beauty is a quality or experience particular to art – I think it’s particular to life. There are reasons why, I mean, I think it got overly promoted by the Victorians. It came with a lot of baggage, but it doesn’t change the fact it’s a physiological phenomenon that is familiar to anyone who is not clinically depressed.
RM: You’ve been called “America’s most important living art critic”, even though you’ve stated in the past that you started writing about art as a means of supporting your poetry writing habit. What are your thoughts on the professionalization of the artistic class, which seems to really encourage this specificity regarding different mediums, resulting in a separation between different creative worlds?
PS: Yeah, it’s really tiring and stupid. I mean, art is gravy. It’s the gravy of life. You got a place to live, enough to eat. We’re in the era of a word that drives me crazy: “practice”. Artists have “practices”. They used to have studios, where they made their work or their art. Now they have “practices”. I think the art world is turning into one great big medical arts building where there’s doctors and dentists and there’s room for anyone who can pay the rent. There seems to be an incredibly aversion to competition – good, better, best.
Now there’s this great spreading delta, where artists are each doing their little practice, which I’m sure is very reassuring to their parents, because it sounds like medicine or the law, running up school debts they’ll never be able to pay back. I guess I’m sympathetic, but I don’t know..
RM: Does it drive you nuts trying to keep up with the art world’s so-called lingo of exclusivity?
PS: Yeah. Basically, nothing changes. [There’s] no past, no future. You have to say, “oh, who is this person influenced by?” It’s hard to tell anymore. What brand do they relate to is more like it. I’m not saying that young artists are making perverse choices – they’re taking the world as it is. I have to keep reminding myself that nobody gets up in the morning intent on making me feel bad.
RM: Who are the young artists not making you feel bad in the morning then?
PS: Well, there are quite a few. In terms of writing art criticism, I’m a journalist, and I feel I’m responsible for what’s up, and what’s interesting in the moment. There’s a lot of art that I really like, but I don’t write about. I can’t think of how to convince readers that it’s significant, that will make a difference to them. I think there’s quality, and [there’s] significance. When you get both of them in the same place – you have a moment, you have a great artist. That’s like, Picasso.
RM: I bet people don’t consider how much of a challenge it is to write about what you like.
PS: Pleasure isn’t exactly significant, but it is pleasurable.