The Art of Critical Comparison

The Art of Critical Comparison


And the Lessons to Learn From It

Sitting in my dorm room at eleven at night and shivering from the lack of heating, which never actually turned on, I was typing what will become the final “essay” of my first fall semester. An essay, essai, attempt at a comparative academic paper analyzing the styles and writings of two living art critics.

Wake-up call number one: I am not an avid art criticism reader. I never have been. Although, I am poised to start—I purchased a $6 subscription for The New Yorker, specifically to read the art criticism section which I subsequently could not find on their website. I am not even sure it exists. I was a bit frustrated.

Wake-up call number two: start writing, I’m running out of time.

Two art critics fell into my lap. I plucked Mr. Ben Davis off the shelf that had grown from zero to twenty-two books in the course of fourteen weeks. Testing the criteria for Ben Davis: Alive? Check. Art critic? Check. He sufficed. Then, I searched through my journal. Yes, Professor Noterdaeme, I took notes. Peter Schjeldahl. The titanic art critic who recently passed. The only dead critic we were permitted to explore for this essay.

These were the only two art critics, minus deceased Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, to whom I had had a brief introduction. If it were not for Professor Noterdaeme, it is very much possible, quite probable actually, that I would have continued to live a bland existence—as Oscar Wilde would say: ugly and dull—flipping through world news, political, and financial columns with utter looks of disdain and discomfort on my face, feeling powerless and cringing before returning to my daily agenda. That is what the news brings. Rarely a sliver of glimmering hope, and always a damnation, a brief moment of wondering of when this devolving world will be excommunicated from the mysterious beauty of the universe, if it hasn’t been already. Caught too short, the wondering is stripped of its potential with the jolting noises of car honkings or an irrelevant Google Calendar reminder to submit economics homework by midnight.

As I decided what to write, I challenged myself with a little departure from the academic FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY, MLA CITATION, INTRODUCTORY SENTENCE, BULLET POINTS, CONCLUSION, STRONG THESIS—the basic high school monotony that had been so ingrained in us all that you could practically see those lines chiseled in my brain tissue. Rather, I opted for a pure stream of attempted contemplation. I knew that if any teacher appreciated this departure, it would be Professor Noterdaeme.

With Davis’s recently published book in hand and previous works pirated off the web, as well as Schjeldahl’s articles from The New Yorker and his book Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, also illegally obtained, I was prepared to become an expert on Peter Schjeldahl and Ben Davis, overnight.

My analysis of Schjeldahl began with an essay titled “Andy Warhol.” What did I expect? Warhol. What did I get? Schjeldahl, contextualized by Warhol.

As I read, I realized I should have known better from the start. Oscar Wilde said, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Now, this entire semester was premised with yet another Wildean idea that the critic is artist. He wrote it so eloquently in proposing his scripture, “The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing.” The critique is just as important as the art itself. Or perhaps, the critique’s place in this world supersedes that of the art, for after all, the critique gives rise to an active manifestation of contemplation.

If the critic is indeed artist, then Schjeldahl’s criticism is a portrait of none other than himself. He wrote of his experience with art, a sensual entanglement of mind, body, and vision that transcends intellect. He penned his conversations, thoughts, feelings, and past and proceeds to recontextualize them with historic information that veils him with a scholarly excellence. In his witty self-elegy published in The New Yorker following his cancer diagnosis in 2019, “The Art of Dying,” Schjeldahl made clear that he was the world’s leading expert on only one thing: his own experience. And thus, as a writer, he wrote only of that. Art conveniently provided him with multiple prompts for self-reflection. Meanwhile, the scholarly costumes are learned in minutes by the deadlines (as is true for me at this very moment).

Schjeldahl wrote with dual purposes; he was an art critic and a journalist, chronicling the memories for those without the privilege of seeing a work of art or collection in-person. His articles are transportive, allowing readers the privilege of peering into his mind. His literary style was a result of skilled craftsmanship refined over years of experimentation with the English language. Reading his work, we can learn how to write, how to challenge the rules, and how to weaponize every word to your sole advantage. Gifted writers have that effect; when I read a Schjeldahl piece, I not only get a linguistic apparition of a painting, but I also learn that words can be used a certain way or that grammar can be bent in this or that direction. In Schjeldahl, I get a rare glimpse of genius, of an artisanal mind so intricately molded to do the one action which we have been robbed of: thinking.

Let’s be honest. There is no more thinking. I think. You think. You want to think that you think, just as I do, but if we are truthful about what we really desire, then admit with me that we only want answers. Concrete answers too, I might add. We want closure just as much as we want to know that there will be a tomorrow, that the sun will rise again, that it all gets better. We want to know that we have thought, and we want to be proud that our thought produced such intelligent rationale. But, no, I am sorry to say that we do not truly think, we just presume to think.

Society is plagued by this fallacy—the same fallacy that arises when mountains of visitors brisk through a gallery seeing every piece of art in the span of ten minutes or less yet walk away seeing absolutely nothing. True contemplation only ever adds mystery, never absolutes. True thinking does not imagine an invisible reality for us to unpack. True thinking shatters this visible reality, this visible abstract.

Critic Ben Davis is what Susan Sontag might describe as the “revenge of the intellectuals upon art.” In his books, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class and Art in the After-Culture, I read everything that is wrong with humans and the corrupted art-world. His books are filled with buzz words—aestheticization of capitalism, mirror of conspiracy, radical chic—that give me the Marxist impression that art is in capitalistic shackles. Without knowing much about the art world and the disciplines on which Davis draws, his books are a collection of words describing an invisible apparatus of art and a poisoned society. But if you keep reading, and keep learning, Davis’s writings become a reality. After all, the more you know, the more real this world becomes.

Davis is an academic, breathing intellectual idealism into a world longing to be independent from rational thought. He does not think quite the same as Schjeldahl does, but rather, he reasons. As a logician, Davis raises some alarming questions about the state of the art world itself, questions that startle me and scream at me to WAKE UP. I simply cannot help but feel sorrowful, though, when reading Davis compared to Schjeldahl (perhaps that is slightly his goal in Art in the After-Culture aligning with an almost dystopian futuristic concept of the art world).

I admit Davis is one of the most knowledgeable authors I have had the pleasure of reading, but what he writes on can be awfully dull at times. Ironically, his writing style compared to Schjeldahl (not quite a fair comparison, I am aware) is a prime example of how I wished to write. With his abilities to think across disciplines, I’d easily call him an expert on political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, and, of course, art. Even more importantly, Davis can see how all these elements come together and interact. We need more thinkers who can bridge disciplines and hold conversations in a middle ground. Scholars like Davis will be the centerpieces of global movements, harnessing the beauty of art and the insight of the present and future of society and technology.

Davis’s blatant objectivity, however, de-poeticizes his writing. After all, he writes prose, not poetry. In a conversation with Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, Schjeldahl said, “the difference between academic writing is it’s written for people who have to read. They have to read it and the writer knows that and if the writer shows any kind of style or flair or humor, it’s just going to be resented.” Davis’s academic writing style is parallel to institutionalized learning; in each line, he is teaching me about the art world and its interconnectedness to society to the point that no art exists in a vacuum. There is no doubt that I am educated on art’s intersections with Marxism, AI, injustice, economics, and a growing socio-technical world.

His tendency to hyper-scholarize art detracts from art’s mystique. After reading Davis, I imagine that each work of art has a “gotcha” hidden argument buried behind the top layer of paint. This is not to say that Schjeldahl is neither an academic nor an intellectual. However, Schjeldahl’s writing blurs the lines between literature and the formalities of the “right” way of writing. As a reflection of himself, his essays convince you that you are reading a true art lover’s account that just so happens to be written by a knowledgeable poet.

Do not think that I disagree with Davis’s reasoning. His arguments are far from incorrect. And I feel that my complaints of him are frivolous; I actually enjoyed his work. Truthfully, my grievances are not with Davis himself or his writings, but perhaps rather with the aesthetics of academia—an institution which villainizes every human creation, idealizes the ideas which will theoretically solve all our issues but will fail in practice, and provides us with provocative knowledge about the state of the world, while so eloquently and intelligently doing absolutely nothing except for interrupting my harmless interaction with Cézanne who I now have to know painted this still life to reflect some civil unrest caused by blah blah blah—can you shut up?

A reminder from Oscar Wilde: the importance of doing nothing extends to the importance of knowing when to also say nothing.

I find myself living too much in the world of prose. Academic texts, the news, books, and even the little blurbs next to a painting—these are all written in prose. They are all meant to impart a thought rather than provoke one. I am tired. I am tired of being told what to think rather than being invited to engage in perpetual contemplation. To model Schjeldahl, I go to museums. I sit with art. I talk with them. I engage with them. I add mystery to their mystery. And most importantly, I let art exist in its own right.

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