Artist and Associate Professor,
University of the Arts,
Critic and Curator
It was at the Institute of Contemporary Art: not surprisingly, a panel on contemporary art. The participants included an editor from the Daily News who explained that the paper’s readers were not interested in art unless the review read like a sports story.
There were at least two curators on the panel and two critics: “Big” Ed Sozanski from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inquirer and me, from the free weekly City Paper. They had to set up more chairs for the sizeable audience, there mostly for Sozanski; he was then and is still today the most powerful art writer in Philadelphia. And he almost never makes public appearances.
I’d never met Ed before, and was initially a little intimidated. He’s tall, imposing, and seemingly austere. On the other hand, he and I soon realized that we were peers of a sort, the only people in that crowded room who knew what being an art critic is like.
It’s a job. As part of the panel, I called the job “building a bridge” between the audience and the art. Ed did not entirely agree, but he did not completely disagree either.
What we shared, I felt, was an experiential understanding of the way art flows through time and geography, heralded by press releases, enshrined in exhibitions, and described in catalogues; how there are always shiny new venues and shiny new artists and retooled language and concepts for it all. Especially, we both knew that although one can’t possibly sample every attractive thing on the menu, there will always be another day and another smorgasbord of possibilities.
Yes, I imagined we both thought, the process is intrinsically unfair, but it’s lots better than nothing. I had the feeling that Ed knew that I knew that he knew and so on.
Most of the questions and comments were thoughtful: a primary requirement for an art writer is “must love art;” however, a few in the audience were convinced that art critics are an art-hating, pernicious lot, possibly less of a credit to the human race than lawyers or purveyors of partially hydrogenated fat.
I believe I correctly recall that Ed and I did not agree about whether art writing is an art form. I think it is and Ed thinks it isn’t, that it’s more of a job than a creative endeavor (not his words).
Near the end of the allotted time a large, almost hulking, young man stood up and said, “You art critics, don’t you think that you should donate a percentage of the money you earn to artists since you wouldn’t have a job if we didn’t make art?”
Hmmm. A surprisingly ridiculous and, at the same time, seemingly logical question. I foolishly attempted to
answer by pointing out (truthfully) that as a visual artist I earned more money — much more money —more consistently than I did as a writer. Then I made the mistake of telling this person and the rest of the audience exactly how much I was actually paid for a review.
The figure was so pathetic the entire room was speechless with embarrassment.
Ed at that time wrote about 30% more than I did every week (a fulltime job for him) and got paid at least thirty times what I was paid. His writing and his eye may or may not be superior to mine but the fact that he did not tell everyone what he earns suggests that his common sense is.
A therapist later told me never to reveal how much I am paid. Good advice and I’m still following it.
The program ended. It was late. I trudged alone up the cold, dark hill from the ICA to Walnut Street to catch a ride home. The large young artist ran out of the building behind me and followed me for about half a block, taunting: “Hey! I’ll pay you a couple of dollars to review my work. How about it?” He roared with laughter.
“When you have a show, send me your press materials,” I yelled over my shoulder.
Published May 2007