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Committed and Engaged: A Conversation with Art Critic Michael Brenson

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

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By Dimitry Tetin

“When a connection is made between viewer and work that is intimate and intense enough to convince the viewer that that work, and art in general, is vital to his or her life,” Brenson writes in his “Art Criticism and the Aethetic Response.” The seriousness of the statement, the matter of art’s intense importance to the actual vitality of the viewer and therefore society seem to perfectly characterize Brenson’s attitude to his work. For him art really is a matter of life and death.

He was an art critic for New York Times from 1982 to 1991 and now teaches at Bard College, New York, mainly engaged in his research on painter David Smith while still regularly giving public lectures, curating and reviewing shows.

A collection of his writings since leaving the Times titled Acts of Enagement came out in 2004. The selection of essays presents a critique of cultural institutions, modern and contemporary art, and art criticism itself. Although he speaks with such authority that there is no doubt about his close personal connection to every utterance, he does so without employing lofty “art speak.”

A close look at a painting by a master reveals very little meddling with the actual brushstrokes. Corrections might be made to the composition or the proportion of the subject, but everyhtng is done delibirately. A stroke is made with a purpose and left alone as a certain expression of a kind of truth at the particular moment that it was made. Brenson’s sententences function in much the same way. They are carefully thought out and put upon a page or delivered to the audience not as unquestionable facts, but rather as personal truths that deeply matter to the speaker. There is a humility to him, much like there was to one of his favorites, Giacometti. He writes about the power of “The Dog:” “Two girls, between eight and ten, tagging along with their parents, glimsed the work from another gallery, twenty-five to thirty feet away, and immediately ran toward it. As soon as they arrived, one of them stroked its muzzle with the index finger of her right hand.” It seems that he would do the same to any work that he liked: seek personal almost physical engagement in order to pass on the excitement and the vital essence of the encounter to the readers of his prose.

Michael Brenson is not simply an art critic. For him the existence of art is of vital importance. The matter of art’s importance to the vitality of the viewer and therefore society perfectly characterizes Michael Brenson’s attitude to his work. He seems to live in the moment “when a connection is made between viewer and work that is intimate and intense enough to convince the viewer that that work, and art in general, is vital to his or her life.”

Brenson was an art critic for The New York Times from 1982 to 1991 and now teaches at Bard College, involved in his research on painter David Smith and regularly giving public lectures, curating and reviewing shows.

A collection of his writings since leaving the Times titled Acts of Engagement came out in 2004. The essays present a critique of cultural institutions, modern and contemporary art, and art criticism itself. Although he speaks with such authority that there is no doubt about his close personal connection to every utterance, he does so without employing lofty “art speak.”

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A close look at a painting by a master reveals very little meddling with the actual brushstrokes. Corrections might be made to the composition or the proportion of the subject, but everything is done delibirately. A stroke is made with a purpose and left alone as an expression of a truth at the particular moment that it was made. Brenson’s sentences function in much the same way. They are carefully thought out and put upon a page or delivered to the audience not as unquestionable facts, but rather as personal truths that deeply matter to the speaker.

There is a humility to him, much like there was to one of his favorites, Giacometti. He writes about the power of Giacometti’s sculpture “The Dog”: “Two girls, between eight and ten, tagging along with their parents, glimpsed the work from another gallery, twenty-five to thirty feet away, and immediately ran toward it. As soon as they arrived, one of them stroked its muzzle with the index finger of her right hand.” It seems that he would do the same to any work that he liked: seek personal, almost physical, engagement in order to pass on the excitement and the vital essence of the encounter to the readers.

Dimitry Tetin: In your latest book, Acts of Engagement, you have an essay on artists as diverse as Giacometti and Daumier. To me, they are very different types of artists, as far as their engagement with the public. Giacometti I see as very reclusive, working in the studio, caught up in the subconscious expression of the post-war zeitgeist, and Daumier being much more active politically and partisan. Are you drawn to both of those types of artists or a certain type in particular?

Michael Brenson: I’ve always been drawn to many different kinds of artists. The “Daumier” [“Power Corrupts: For Daumier, Humanity Was in the Streets”], that was a commissioned piece, the Washington Post called me up on the phone and asked me if I would write a review of the Daumier show. The piece was initiated by someone else. If I had not wanted to do it, and did not feel comfortable with Daumier, did not feel there was something in it for me to write about him, I would not have done it.

Giacometti is an artist who’s been part of my life for 35 years. I wrote my doctoral thesis on him. I knew Diego, his brother, and spent a number of summers in the family home. Now I am on the board of the Giacomettti Foundation. So, he is someone I never get tired of. He’s never lost his intellectual, emotional interest for me.

They [Daumier and Giacometti] are different, but in some ways, both of them are very much involved with drawing and a particular kind of vitality of line. They are very much involved with physiognomy and with a kind of art that could reach a broad cross-section of people, even though you said what you did about Giacometti and suggested the internal aspect of his work, staying in his studio and working on perceptual problems day after day. He made a reputation for himself in Surrealism. He did a lot of radical work in Surrealism. He felt that that kind of work was ultimately … He called it “masturbation,” at one point, “fit for the junkie.” And I think one of the problems for him was–it was completely known in his mind, and it was a question of realizing it. I think that he also felt that there was a certain limitation of audience. Regardless of the strengths of the work it was essentially going to be the art world audience that it was going to reach. I think he really did want to reach a much broader cross-section of humanity. And so he was led back to the human image, back to the timeless traditions of Etruscan, Egyptian and African art. He was led to working in such a way that could communicate something to people about their predicament, what it meant to be alive at a particular moment after the war. Basically, I like both of them, but Giacometti is more of a public artist than he is getting credit for being.

DT: You do talk about public artists and artists as citizens, members of society that carry some sort of responsibility and perhaps are involved in a certain relationship with the government. Where do you see that situation heading right now?

MB: What situation?

DT: The reliance of artists on government support and the availability of funds and its relationship to the freedom artists have.

MB: I think artists hardly rely on government at all right now. The NEA Individual Artist Scholarship program is gone. It was eliminated at the end of 1995. So what you have left, with public funding, is the States’ Art Councils. And I don’t think artists rely on that even though they apply to these councils for grants. I don’t know how much impact the grants have on their lives, except for the fact that it’s great to have money.

I think the collapse of the NEA, the end of the Harper fellowships and the collapse of public funding has had an impact, because it means the artists are forced more and more not just to function within the market but to think within the market, to imagine themselves within the market. And the market is quite phenomenal in a lot of ways. And dealers, certainly in New York … there are some dealers who do amazing things. But I think the whole scene gets a little bit constricted, when the market is all that there is. Now when most students come out of graduate school, they immediately have to think about their careers in terms of getting into galleries. And there are not that many options out there. The NEA, when it existed, they would fund a certain kind of experimentation, and they would fund work regardless of whether it ultimately succeeded in the market or not. The NEA kept open a space between artists’ education and the commercial world. There was a period of years an artist could get a grant and imagine doing what they wanted to do before they went from school into the market place. And that space between the market place and career has very largely collapsed because of the [elimination of] individual artists’ fellowships.

I think there are some good and bad sides to that. I think it does tend to diminish the possibility of certain kinds of really open thinking, which are just based on what the artist wants to investigate and what the artist wants to do. I see that as something of a loss.

DT: Why is it that traditionally the artist is demonized by conservatives.

MB: Traditionally, in this country, to be an artist is somehow “not to work,” to live off of society. It may be that the artists take a position with regard to society that’s not the most responsible one.

And on top of that, being an artist has connections with the bohemian lifestyle, criticism of mainstream values, and certainly criticism of fundamentalist values of conservative traditions. In that part of it, the conservatives are right, but there are also ideas of the artist that are still threatening to a lot of people, with some justification, that would lead a lot of conservatives, certainly not all of them, to demonize artists and simply not want them to have a voice in their society. Think about where we are now, imagine the Evangelicals who are really trying to take their country back, who think of themselves as at war with the liberals and wanting the country to return to what they see as “real” values, “real” roots. What place does the artist, particularly as he or she has been defined over the last 150 years of Modernism, Post-Modernism to the present, have in that conservative world-view?

DT: Is this social and cultural change toward portraying artists in a negative manner somehow reflected in the field of art criticism?

MB: It’s hard to generalize about art criticism because there is so much of it and there are so many kinds of it. Most of the people whom you would want to read as critics don’t feel that way about artists, obviously. But within the field of art criticism there are many kinds of attitudes toward artists. There are critics who won’t be around artists because they feel it would compromise the objectivity or contaminate the legitimacy of their points of view. There are certain critics who still think of artists almost as infants, as inherently narcissistic: people who might make good art, but on some level have to be controlled because of rampant narcissism.

Then you get the perspective of other critics who work with artists all the time, who write for them, for whom the artist would be the first audience. Critics who would not write without being able to have some kind of direct contact with the artist about whom they write in the most sustained manner. It is very hard to generalize, but what you do not find in art criticism is this broad demonization that we are talking about among the conservative religious right.

DT: Is it different to be in a position of an art critic who writes for newspapers and magazines as opposed to the traditional faculty member art critic, who mainly writes scholarly articles and books?

MB: I think that most people teaching at the university are likely to write about art differently than reviewers, or most people who write for magazines like Art News, Art in America, Frieze, to a lesser degree, Art Forum. When you get used to teaching you want to be able to write about something a little bit more in depth. You are writing to a different audience, you are also writing to your peers in universities, which means that there is a certain notion of seriousness that is defining the way you approach a particular subject. Reviewing, for example, in 300 or 500 words you are much more willing to act. The act has a kind of advocacy built in to it. You are much more willing to go to a show, find an artist you believe in, write 300 words that can’t possibly be finished, and can’t possibly be completely resolved but nevertheless give a certain idea of the artist’s work at the time. You can help to build a career or to thwart it, if the critic does not like the work. It is a different kind of writing.

Every publication has its own conditions. There is no writing that is not conditional. Sometimes those conditions can be fairly difficult. Almost the more difficult they are made, the more serious you want to be. There are limitations on space. There is a notion of audience, where the dumbing down still affects a lot of art magazines if they are not the theoretical publications. Each publication has its own editing structure. And that structure can be quite inhibiting. So if you do write a lot, and God knows I’ve written a lot over 25 years, you are aware of the different conditions of every publication you write for. You go where you feel there is a certain kind of freedom and they will allow you to say what you want to say and you tend to stay away from those [places] that won’t.

Book writing is a different kind of writing, it still depends to some degree on the publisher, there still will be a particular editor you work with. But by and large, I would imagine that there is a little bit less of an editing style that a writer will have to subordinate him or herself to when writing a book.

DT: You seem to enjoy writing for all types of publications from newspapers and magazines to books.

MB: I’ve done increasingly little for magazines over the last six or seven years. And that gets back to this question: “Where do I feel I can write what I want to write and say what I want to say?” I feel more and more uncomfortable with institutional frameworks. Every publication is an institution. Although I respect a lot of them, and I will probably do some writing in them over the next few years, I don’t think about them anymore when I write. I found many different ways to get myself published, and I am more and more interested in books.

At this point in my life, I really need to say what I want to say, in the way that I want to say it. I don’t want to feel that there is any kind of control over the particular voice that appears in the writing. It’s very hard when you write for publications, not just in terms of editing styles, which they all have, but you never know what they like. You never know when you get commissioned to do a 3500 word piece and then at the last minute its 2000 because something else happened in terms of advertising. I don’t want that anymore.

DT: Speaking of that, what are you working on right now?

MB: The big project is a biography of David Smith. I have a publication date for 2008, but I don’t think that I will be able to meet that. For me it’s a phenomenal project. If you are interested in looking at art from the multitude of angles aesthetic, social, political, economical, psychological then I think that biography is the ultimate platform for a writer. It’s the one form that allows you to bring together everything that you can bring to bear a particular subject. And I think that David Smith is a remarkable artist. Everybody knows his name, but I am not sure how well that work is known, even by people who think they know him. There is an awful lot to figure out. He is a remarkable, complex personality. I see it as, if not the greatest project of my life, certainly as one of them. Probably the one on which I will spend the most years.

DT: Do you find that the last four to six years have had a serious impact on your writing? As far as the rise of conservatism and the state of perpetual war, are you concerned with these issues as an art critic?

MB: I reached a point earlier this year when I felt I really needed to give up a lot of stuff just to concentrate on the Smith because it is just too big and it wouldn’t get done otherwise. I have functioned so publicly for two decades, and I have changed that way because I really feel that for my on sanity I have to keep functioning somehow within the public realm and that to me is not just writing for publication, it’s talking, it’s giving lectures, doing panels. It’s finding a way that I feel I can actively communicate with others about what I care about, what I believe in, and I what I feel people need to think about and deal with.
It has been a very painful and difficult political time. Seeing that the country is going to be run by Bush for another four years, in which it’s not a situation I can hold back, and just do my own work. Plus the fact that a lot of the difficulties that are caused by these politicians, I need to get out in public. I need to deal with questions of memory and audience. I do feel that the Bush people [have been conducting] an assault on memory and an assault on process.

What do we know? You have Abu Ghraib and you have Guantanamo and the Washington sniper and you got the whole situation with Iraq, which means you got these events that are in the public consciousness. We are not allowed to get inside them. So there is something of an assault on us as a result of them. We never hear from the people in Guantanamo or the Washington sniper. These people will be punished. It’s not like anyone will ask them: “Why did you do that?” These “Why?” questions are not asked. And then we get the Abu Ghraib situtation, which is terrible and traumatic. The government just tries to get a hold of it and stop it, that’s what they do. You get this emotional trauma. The process by which one is allowed to live through it and learn something and go beyond it, is completely short-circuited. All these connections, various forms of connective tissue are lost. And part of what I do is a continuous attempt to reestablish those tissues and connections. I think a lot of people need them, but I also do it for my own sanity. So the way I talk, the way I write now, what I feel I need to do in public and what I do in the classroom is very much about a certain kind of energy and a certain kind of connectiveness and willingness to go where you need to go. And not being afraid of going there; not feeling that you need to stop the process for one reason or another. This is all where the politics of the moment inevitably winds up influencing me and what I do at a particular moment.

Photo courtesy of Michael Brenson

February 2005

One Response to Committed and Engaged: A Conversation with Art Critic Michael Brenson

  1. halide salam says:

    Are any of Michael Brenson’s complete lectures on the web?

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