No More “X Over Y Equals Fog”
What Artists Want from Critics / What Critics Expect from Criticism and from Artists
Friday, November 17, 1978
Artists Talk on Art, New York
Moderator: Irving Sandler
Panelists: Leon Golub, Philip Pearlstein, Jeff Perrone, Deborah Remington, Corinne Robins, and Barbara Zucker
What do artists want from critics? Barbara Zucker answered for us all: “I want them to be my fairy godmother, champion my career, say I’m a genius, and stand behind me unequivocally.”
Although she and others went on to discuss the importance of dialogue and the wonderful insights that artists might derive from criticism of their work, nothing rang as true as these opening remarks. Criticism may be literature, may even be “an art form,” as Jeff Perrone insisted, but for artists, criticism is chiefly survival. Good reviews mean sales, jobs, grants, and more shows. Bad reviews or no reviews mean oblivion.
This was the conflict that ran through the entire evening, artists trying to build some safeguards into the practice of criticism, critics insisting on their right to self-expression.
Philip Pearlstein and Leon Golub were the most outspoken about the unequal power relationship between artists and critics. Pearlstein has been crusading on the subject for some time now, and opened the discussion by reading his guidelines for art criticism, published in Art Journal (Winter 1977–78). An established artist, Pearlstein did not need to take such a controversial stand. and deserves the respect of all artists for doing so. (In a conversation after the panel, he noted that, although he didn’t want to seem paranoid, his exhibition shortly after the article was published was the least written about he’d had.)
Pearlstein’s principal point is that an artist’s career is vulnerable to a critic’s power. Golub added that critics present ideas, but artists have no way of responding to or offsetting those ideas. Critics have access to the public; artists can only gain that access through pleasing critics, or curators and dealers. “The main problem the artist faces is how to get to the public,” said Golub.
So, willy-nilly, the critic presents the artist to the public. Although most artists, on and off the panel, were of the opinion that critics with nothing good to say should just say nothing, Corinne Robins pointed out that this is not always possible. She differentiated between the short journalistic review, usually done on assignment, and the long critical article, which is more often the critic’s choice. “What are we supposed to do when we have to write about a show we don’t like?” she asked. “Differentiate carefully between opinion and fact and present the facts as fairly as possible,” said Pearlstein. The short review was disdained by all critics on the panel, but Pearlstein pointed out that it frequently is the only historical record of a show, particularly for a young artist.
How does the artist get to the critic? Don’t call or send said one and all. And don’t expect us to come to your studio unless we already know and like your work. “Critics see lots of shows,” said Irving Sandler. “We hear about interesting things and then we go to see them.” (“Critics see with their ears,” mumbled a cynic near me.) Like love, these things are just supposed to happen. But as we women-who-are-artists and artists-who-are-women know, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes action to falling in love.
Was there anything the panel could agree on? Everyone was down on nasty writing, on dense impenetrable prose (Deborah Remington called this “x over y = fog”), and everyone agreed on the necessity for a personal encounter with the work, rather than with photographs and press releases. But that was it. Critics discounted any feeling of power they might enjoy and claimed they were at the mercy of editors. Artists insisted they are at the mercy of critics. The artists wanted critics to listen to their ideas about their work. Perrone, who said he didn’t know any artists, any art history, or what happened in the ’50s, said, “There’s no need to talk, or listen, or go to artists’ studios.” Unfortunately, artists cannot so easily discount the work and ideas of critics.
Some years ago, June Wayne made a succinct analysis of power relationships in the art world. “The artist is a woman,” she said, and detailed the ways in which artists, like women, must act through others, be devious and use flattery and other “feminine” wiles to survive. Although no such brilliant feminist analysis emerged from this panel, it was a good solid attempt to deal with the issues on at least the first of the three questions of the title, “What Artists Want from Critics.” The other two questions got lost in the shuffle and were never really answered.
Letter to the Editor
The following letter arrived in response to the report above:
The positions I stated on “What Artists Want/What Critics Expect” are not even remotely recognizable in Patricia Mainardi’s writeup.
Her review of the panel appears to make me a supporter of Philip Pearlstein’s “crusading” on the subject of art criticism. I do not subscribe to his position and made comments in precise opposition to it…. I tried to point out that the making of art and the criticism of art face (obviously) similar problems of definition and context in relation to how information today (which includes the look of art) is picked out and distributed. Mainardi missed (or ignored) all that.
Pearlstein made a big point of accusing critics of blanketing out realist painting. This [is] far off the mark and an incorrect perception, particularly in his case….
The crux or irony of the situation is this: Mainardi quotes Pearlstein as asking critics to “Differentiate carefully between opinion and fact and present the facts as fairly as possible.” But she is as irresponsible in reporting on the panel as the critics (unnamed) she and Pearlstein find wanting.
—Leon Golub, Manhattan
In Terms Of count: unknown.
Written by Patricia Mainardi, “No More ‘X Over Y Equals Fog’” was originally published in Women Artists News 4, no. 7 (January 1979). Leon Golub’s letter was originally published in Women Artists News 4, no. 8 (February 1979). Both texts were reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 108–9. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.