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Peter Schjeldahl visits Chicago

Schjeldahl’s background is perhaps as unconventional as his approach to art criticism.

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Explains why artists make the worst students (and visits Chicago)

Peter Schjeldahl, head art critic at The New Yorker, is rather unusual in his field: he wilfully resists pretension (at least, in so far as any critic can). In an interview in 2004, Schjeldahl described himself as an “aesthete,” whose role as a critic is to help people enjoy art: “If people don’t want to read me, I starve—there are no rewards in being obscure or obtuse or overbearing for me. I don’t think it’s because I have a naturally good character, but writing things that people want to read is my bread and butter.”

Schjeldahl’s background is perhaps as unconventional as his approach to art criticism. His career as an art critic began in 1965. Having dropped out of college, but with experience as a reporter in Minnesota, Schjeldahl moved to New York and put himself forward as a writer for ARTnews. An anecdote in The Village Voice recalled that: “This led him, legend goes, to place a pay-phone call to Thomas Hess, then crackerjack editor of ARTnews magazine, Schjeldahl breathlessly pumped his nonexistent qualifications. ‘Nevermind all that,’ Hess shot back… ‘Just write me a letter telling me what makes you think you’re qualified to walk into a gallery where some poor bastard has his paintings and tell them they are no good.’ ”

His letter worked, and in the 42 years since that moment, Schjeldahl has written as an art critic for ARTnews, The New York Times, The Village Voice and Vanity Fair, as well as serving as a contributing editor to Art in America. Schjeldahl has also written several books of poetry.

In an op-ed titled “Why artists make the worst students,” Schjeldahl suggested: “An artist, in my experience, is a man or woman of unusual talent and peculiar, highly individual sensibility, with an independent and probably contrarian mind, driven by mysterious passions for which another word is neurosis. In getting from point A to point B, the neurotic goes via point Q. It’s in that roundabout that people are either completely crippled and hopeless in life, or highly creative… A lot of education is like teaching marching; I try to make it more like dancing.”

It is perhaps this approach, one that exists outside of traditional academic standards of art and art criticism, which enables Schjeldahl’s lively and intimate “poetical” writing style in his critiques.

In his belief that his role is to help people enjoy art, Schjeldahl retains a degree of optimism for the current state of art and the future of the art world.

Peter Schjeldahl will discuss major events in the past 40 years that affected both the art world and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) as part of the People Who Shape Our World lecture series. He speaks at 6 p.m. on Monday, November 19, in the MCA theater, 220 E. Chicago Ave., free.

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