Boston Art Critic Greg Cook

Part One of a Dialogue

By: - Jan 22, 2011

Cook Cook

Greg Cook is a critic who publishes the on-line New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. He has also written for print including The Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe and Art New England. He recently asked me to participate in a survey of the worst public art in Boston. He also mentioned me in the context of the demise of the art blog Big Red and Shiny.
During an exchange of e-mails he suggested that we might meet for a beer and burger. For a time I ran a series of reports on such meetings with artists, curators, and gallerists. Now, relocated to the Berkshires that is no longer possible.
Instead, I suggested that we might have an e-mail dialogue. I sketched out some ideas of what form this might take. As well as some of my own art world gripes and grudges. I quoted Woody Allen’s idea that most of life involves just showing up. You get points for surviving.
Without actually asking a question Greg responded. I like what he says and consider this to be the launch of a dialogue. The exchange occurred last fall so some of the dialogue entails events that were occurring at the time. Because of Greg’s commitments it has taken time to shape and edit this text which is being presented in several segments.
Charles Giuliano: Frankly I have become more apathetic about art. For these past three years I have been more involved with theatre and music. It is what is available to me here. There is not that much art in the Berkshires.

I just read the latest issue of Art New England and it bored me to tears. There was nothing I wanted to read. Which is how I feel about most art magazines. I subscribe to Art Forum, Art in America, and Art News.  Of these the least interesting is Art News for which I was formerly a correspondent. I have stopped looking at Art Net. I just find most art criticism boring these days.

Of course that was never true when I was in the thick of it.

So what is that about? Just age and apathy? Or was there a paradigm shift that occurred over time? When the theorists and philosophers took over the academy the result has been enervating at best. Most of the Mass MoCA exercises in the avant-garde are  not worth getting excited about.

The same thing happened when I was covering rock and roll. The more I heard the less interesting it was. Right now there is a steep learning curve in theatre so it is fresh and exciting. I see a show for the first time and chatting with peers it's their tenth production of that play.

Greg Cook: It's hard for me to say if it’s age or apathy because I'm a child of post-conceptualism, post-minimalism, post-modernism. When those movements were already victorious and had taken over art thinking and schooling. It seems like there probably was a paradigm shift when the theorists and philosophers took over the academy, probably in the early '70s. Though I'm too young to have experienced it, so it's hard to say for certain. But I resist blaming the "academy" because it feels too simple. The academy has been the enemy/strawman for 150 years now.

Maybe peg the shift to the founding of Artforum? I pretty much gave up reading art magazines some years ago because I found the writing and ideas so dull. And I get very tired of all the art press (print, bloggers, etc.) circling around the same dumb stories—Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons's latest "outrage," or some crappy TV art game show, or all the same museum shows in NYC. Art writers apparently feel they need to prove themselves by weighing in on the Whitney Biennial and Miami art fairs, instead of finding something strange and amazing and fresh. Yeesh.

I prefer reading newspapers or weekly magazines or certain blogs. They feel more alive. Perhaps it has something to do with writing for general audiences? Or writing while the art is still on view? Or blogging because you're so passionate about it?

Maybe everything is boring. When I first moved to the Boston area 15 years ago, I explored the Boston art scene for a while and found it dull.  I couldn't often afford the MFA's special exhibition tickets. So I didn't pay much attention for several years. Instead I hung around with a bunch of local cartoonists affiliated with the Somerville-based Highwater Books (c. 1997 to 2004) that helped pioneer a new sense of comic book design and cartoony style, and was influential across the country.

Paying attention again to local art and galleries and museums, I still find a lot of it dull. And I wonder a lot about how people can make a community more exciting. I think most of the arts get dull the more you dig into them. Much of art—as with must of all human endeavor—just isn't that great. As you first discover a scene, you can focus on the greatest hits. Or just be ignorant of how blah much of it is, because you've not seen the great stuff. But the more you dig into it, you can't escape the fact that much of it is so-so. Slogging through lots and lots of so-so stuff is depressing. You end up doing the equivalent of channel surfing, seeking something that hopefully will remind you how thrilling and fun and moving and electric art can feel.

CG: One of my favorite quotes is from John Cage. It was a part of a video I regularly showed to an avant-garde seminar at BU. Cage said, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it."

That has always described my decades as a critic. There is in fact no training or licensing to be a critic. In the beginning it was a matter of convincing an editor. Writing for print media there was little or no feedback. The reader was remote. That is of course different now.

Today, through internet publishing, I can track how many readers check the site. We average 2,000 visits daily for Berkshire Fine Arts. We can even measure their attention span which is mostly seconds, or minutes. But the staying time has increased dramatically. So people are indeed staying and reading with an average of six page views or stories per visit.  All those years at Art New England I never knew who read the stuff.

Under the mandate of Duchamp an artist can say, "It's art if I say it is." Today, in the blog world anyone can say, "I'm a critic if I say I am."

So my question to you is "Are you a critic?  What does that mean?" Are there any qualifications and training involved?

Since we come from different generations, but have coverage that overlaps, is there any fundamental difference between us? What are the areas of convergence and similarity?

GC: I’m not sure if I understand your questions. I’m not that interested in interrogating if I’m a critic and the definition and qualifications and licensing.

I mean, I write and publish critiques of art. Isn’t that what a critic is? My license is the First Amendment. Ideally a critic would also be interesting and have some sort of audience, in other words, be speaking to someone. But in practice, it appears these aren’t requirements.

I do wonder about the power of critics to shape communities. Most critics seem content with just reviewing the latest shows. But can critics push communities to be more interesting? Is that a crazy question? Is that a presumptuous question? Have you in your career found that you were able to change anything?

I often see the art world as a small town, and art publications as small town newspapers. I think about our respective art websites in this context. In addition, you have taught, curated, etc. Also you seem to be engaged in politics out in the Berkshires. Put this all together and you seem to be taking on the role of a classic small town newspaper editor. And I wonder about the traditional power in that role to shepherd communities.

CG: That’s an interesting observation about functioning as a small town newspaper editor. And shaping the opinion of a community. That’s very perceptive and I hadn’t quite thought about it in that manner.

It would be arrogant to accept that as a mandate. After all you live in the small community. There is a concern about how you fit into the dynamic. Some segments of readers may by inspired by a discussion of issues and agendas. But it also closes as many doors as are opened. There are neighbors who resent the idea that you throw your weight around. So assuming a position of leadership both attracts individuals who appreciate the effort as well as those who resent the implied arrogance.

The overall result is mixed. It is an approach that entails some collateral damage. But it is never boring. The greatest enemy of critical thinking is apathy.  Those pieces you force yourself to write when the subject just doesn’t engage you.

There is a difference between covering the performing arts and fine arts. If you accept tickets from theatre companies or performing arts organizations there is an implied obligation. You pay for the ticket by writing a review. The obligation, however, is to the reader. The fact that you have been comped is independent of the critical opinion. It is not fair or honest to accept tickets without writing a review. You are taking up a seat in the audience. It annoys me to see colleagues who accept press seats but cover only a fraction of what they see. Or post so long after a performance that coverage is not really relevant.

The limit of your authority is to cover the performance. The focus is on the work in front of us. There were issues this past season when some of my peers stepped over the line.  They used their authority as critics to hector  from their bully pulpit. In one instance a critic advised an actress on how to conduct her personal life. It had nothing to do with the performance.  That writer often takes a very personal point of view. The theatre company felt it happened one too many times and took the critic off their press list.

Because the critic was a blog writer they could do that.  On the other hand, in print media there would have been editors who restrain the writers from such personal agendas.

Over the years I was pressured by publishers and editors. At the Patriot Ledger we were doing investigative reporting on the MFA and ICA. David Ross, then director of the ICA, complained to my editor, Jon Lehman. We met with Ross, and Ted Stebbins of the MFA. We resolved the issues and Jon backed me 100%. We were regularly scooping the Globe. Lehman was a great editor and mentor.

Similarly, Alan Shestack, the director of the MFA, claimed that I misquoted him in Art New England. He called the publisher Carla Munsat and tried to have me fired. I told Carla I had the quote on tape and in my notes. It was about the Fuller Museum which was forced to sell works from the collection to cover operating expenses. The museum was forced to do that or shut down. The Shestack quote was harsh and unflattering. In the long run the museum did what was necessary to survive. Today it has reconfigured itself as the Fuller Craft Museum. If they had followed Shestack's mandate it would not be around. I feel I made the right call on that piece. It was a real David and Goliath incident.

In the self publishing on the internet which prevails today there are no editorial checks and balances. Each writer is entirely responsible for their content. It is very tempting to abuse that freedom. Some writers see their role as advancing the issues of  special interest groups: Women, gays, persons of color, anarchists, etc.

What the theatre said in this instance was why should we have to pay for your personal agendas by providing free tickets?  You can come on your own dime and say whatever you like.

A colleague of mine used a review to chastise the theater for not advertising one of its productions as a gay play.  It was a vintage work which caused a flap when its male characters kissed on stage. Broadway in fact.  But that was an aspect of the plot and the theatre was within its rights not to promote it as a gay play.  The reviewer made an issue of this decision. Another critic and colleague, who is gay, told me that he didn’t see it as a “gay play” and reviewed it as an important classic drama that spoke to its era.

In an e mail exchange I stated to my colleague that it was alright to raise that issue but not in a review.  It should have been presented as a think piece or editorial. I did not receive a reply to my suggestion.

Of course works of art raise issues. It’s what makes them interesting. We are indeed obliged to respond by discussing them. It is what we owe to our readers. I try to bring many resources to the writing including my own history and experiences. But it always has to be relevant to the agenda of the work and should not function as self promotion. If it is all about presenting yourself as a character in the narrative that becomes transparent and counter productive to the reader.

While I feel obligated to write theatre pieces because I am comped, well, I don’t think I owe anything to galleries and museums.  It is a different relationship. You can walk into a gallery for free. Perhaps have some wine and cheese at an opening.  With my AICA card I get into museums free. So the sense of payback doesn’t apply.

Cook Two

Cook Three