After 53 years living in Manhattan, I recently moved to the country. Yesterday evening, while admiring the stars in a clear north sky, I heard a rustling in the bushes: It was a skunk, a friendly sort, who chased me off the patio while politely neglecting to hose me and thus setting my pen again to criticism.
Henry Miller advised that one should read less and less as one grows older, and George Bernard Shaw, who made his living as a theater critic well into middle age, coined the cliché that, "Youth is wasted on the young," which invites the corollary that aging is the crusted womb of criticism.
H.L. Mencken, in his essay "The Critic," dared to propose that criticism was the highest art form of all; that the object of criticism was not the piece under consideration but the naked declaration through the prism of art of the critic’s own "raison d’etre."
Our best art critics, regrettably, are a small coven grown well into middle age. Each has marked his or her territory with a singular superannuated eccentricity beyond the objects at hand: My colleague Jerry Saltz, for example, is revealing himself to be a sans-culotte the equal of Abbie Hoffman. Roberta Smith, the must-read critic of the New York Times, remains as buff and brilliant as the Reena Spauldings youthquakers she cherishes so much.
My old schoolmate Mark Stevens adapts a pose of amused regret like Maurice Chevalier in Gigi: "Ah, yes, I remember it well!" while Peter Schjeldahl swims in the drowning pool of his own melancholy, visiting pictures of Napoleon at the Dahesh Museum and wondering whether, with a different turn of the cards, that could have been him.
We omit the Hal Fosters, because no one reads them but sycophants at Artforum, but can’t end this rumination from country comfort without a nod to Artnet Magazine philosophe (and Artforum contributing editor) Donald Kuspit.
George Condo remarks is the current Vogue that Picasso taught him not to regret his creative fecundity. Not for Condo (or Kuspit) the conceit of limited production. For Kuspit is an archaeologist "avant la letter," providing the material, the expedition and the dig. If art is the sum total of existence which knows that it must expire, Kuspit demonstrates, then why not embrace it all, in it’s low magnificence?
It’s not for me, prince of the pithy, but it’s excellent advice for the aging.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).