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Critic Decides What’s Critical

The 1708 Gallery calls in a ringer.



Style: How do you approach your job? What are your criteria?

Schjeldahl: Like any writer approaching anything, probably. My most reliable guide is pleasure: What I like to write that I believe people will like to read.

The gallery’s statement for the “Critical Mass” show says the selections tend to be work that’s “self-conscious with a humorous bent.” What characteristics do you think the show will have?

“Self-conscious and humorous,” as opposed, I guess, to “spontaneous and solemn,” sounds kind of tacky. Might it translate as “interesting and enjoyable”? I tried to make an engaging, pleasurable show.

Do you remember any work or artists that struck you in particular, and what you liked about them?

No. I remember slides projected on a wall of my bedroom.

In your recent New Yorker review of the John Currin retrospective at the Whitney, you call the painter “a renegade taste, marginal to video, photography, installations and other dominant, paint-allergic modes of contemporary art.” How did your appreciation of Currin, your renegade taste, influence your selections for the “Critical Mass” show?

“Renegade” here is descriptive, not evaluative. Currin’s paintings make him a good (as I think) or bad (as some others do) artist, not his attitude. I hope that I can meet any art on its own terms, be they ever so polite and law-abiding. Of course, controversy and sensation are appealing in their own right. I am a journalist.

If you could eradicate a contemporary art genre what would it be?

I wouldn’t, for many reasons. One is that bad art often gives good artists useful ideas — serving them as compost serves gardeners, perhaps. Another is that bad art, given usually not very much time, eradicates itself. So does a fair amount of good art. Time, not content with being just, is also cruel.

When you look over the works in “Critical Mass,” contemporary art is all over the place in terms of genre and media. As a critic, do you ever worry that you don’t know what you’re talking about?

I’m vexed by the apparent assumption that a readiness to appreciate diverse art forms must indicate confusion or dishonesty. Anything may have a value if you bother to wonder and try to discern what it is. I always know what I’m talking about. Whether I am always or often or ever right is a whole other question. (Thank you for not asking.) S

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