On Thursday night, Roberta Smith, addressing a near- filled Collins Theatre, impelled audience members to ask questions by asking us to keep her “psychological health in mind.” Laughter followed. It was a happy start to an evening of both pragmatic advice and beautiful, if widely- ranged, comments about the nature of art and criticism.
Smith, who is now a staff art critic at the New York Times, began her journalistic career writing for the Village Voice and moved to her current post in 1986. Thursday’s talk saw her give a summary of this professional history, detailing both her time at the Voice and her move to the Times. (A suggestive mention or two was made of the dark one-year period in between.)
The talk opened with an optimistic remark – Smith told the audience “if you have the love of art in your life, you are very lucky,” Much of what followed was a discussion of how this love for art turned itself into Smith’s critical profession.
“We’re all critics,” Smith said, her point being that all of us are born with critical faculties, and are exercising them all of the time. The tragedy, according to Smith, is that while we’re taught to train some of them, the visual side gets ignored.
For Smith, early experience as a critic of the visual world came not from art, but rather from time spent with her mother: she recalled being asked, as a young child, for advice about their home’s interior design.
While both education and the society that shape it expect us to develop a high level of verbal literacy, Smith explained that what she calls “visual literacy” and “visual IQ” are essentially perceived as useless (see the cuts in art education budgets for more evidence of this temperament). The result, she said, of ignoring such visual resonance is that “most things designed in America at this point are toxic.”
Outside of this pronouncement, perhaps the most affecting of Smith’s notes on criticism was her reminder that everything one finds themselves thinking during an encounter with art is worthwhile – that none of it should be dismissed or denigrated. For Smith, being a critic requires not only an open eye to what’s beyond, but also a willingness to listen to one’s own reactions, and the confidence to believe in them.
In keeping with this agenda to champion individual taste, Smith revealed herself again and again to be a champion of outsider art, esteeming work by those who have been forgotten or never even considered by the mainstream art establishment. Perhaps most indicative of this was her comment on the quiltmaker Rosie Lee Tompkins. Smith then asked the room who had heard about Tompkins. When no one responded, she said with conviction, “She will out. Quality will out.”
Smith’s brazenness was also palpable in her answer to a question about the practice of renowned museums sourcing the majority of artists to feature in large-scale exhibitions from those represented by just a few major international galleries (though unnamed, it’s likely that the galleries being referred to were the Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace, Hauser & Wirth and Marian Goodman) – all Smith had to say about the strategy was that it was “unimaginative.” She betrayed a similar distaste for the recent MoMA retrospective on Björk, calling the almost universally-derided show “a very extreme failure,” and for the lack of retrospectives for women artists – which she called “inexcusable.”
Though from her comments seem to convey a general pessimism about the art world as it stands, Smith’s opinions brightened in a mention of the new Whitney Museum, opening May 1st in lower Manhattan, and an optimism overall.
Image Courtesy of the Davis Museum Student Advisory Committee