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What do we see when we look at art? What do we want to see? Answers come readily and are various: we seek beauty; enlightenment; pleasure; escape from ourselves; insight into those same selves. Such questions always hover in the space between viewer and object, reader and page, and they have been on my mind lately as I try to re-imagine (justify, perhaps) the role of the professional critic in this technology-enabled age of democratized response.
Last year’s retrospective show devoted to Michelangelo Pistoletto at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the exhibition catalogue published by Yale offer a point of departure for considering the problem. Begun well before his association with the Arte Povera movement and created throughout the 1960s and early 70s, Pistoletto’s mirror paintings present viewers with reflections of themselves within the painting’s frame. The artist applied photographed images to polished stainless steel surfaces and thus created “canvases” in which the viewer is viewed. Next to one of the artist’s scaled, photo realistic human figures, the gallery-goer can pose, brood or cavort with the simulacra, even as other live subjects likewise enter the frame.
The very first mirror painting, at least in Pistoletto’s recounting, came about accidentally while attempting a self-portrait on a “black background … varnished to the point that it reflected.”
“I began to paint my face,” the artist recalls. “I saw it come toward me, detaching itself from the space of an environment in which all things move, and I was astonished.”
Why the astonishment? He was, after all, essaying his own likeness. What about the reflected image differed from the outcome he sought? Was it the unintentionality of the mirrored face, the fact that the face wasn’t painted but rather something that, as he put it, “came toward him”? The sheer surprise of the moment, it turned out, became an inspirational source for a decade of similar efforts. Pistoletto’s discovery, if we imagine how he felt in the moment, trumped craft and rendered aesthetics (what is verisimilitude in this case?) and meaning irrelevant. These were mere afterthoughts in the wake of revelation.
The mirror paintings can still provide viewers with comparable (though for the art-savvy, hardly as unexpected) visions. The chance movement of people in the room, the lighting, the angle of viewing and our own face (did you sleep well last night? flushed from the overheated room?) are all in flux as we approach the painting. However much you “get” the joke beforehand, if you come to the paintings with an attentive eye, you will be surprised. You will learn something.
The experience is defined by it being both personal and unrepeatable. And here lies the dilemma for the critic: How do you respond to a painting or poem, comprehend its “surprises,” its revelations particular to you, while communicating their value to others? How can you do so effectively, with nuanced feeling? And if effectively, how do you avoid spoiling the surprise (“you will feel joy!”)?
It’s precisely on these points of execution that I distinguish between the vox populi opinion and a capable critic with the very same idea. Responses to art are as numerous as audience members; we all have faces available for reflection. But responses that discriminate and illuminate are fewer; it’s a craft, a job, if you will, that you get better at by doing it over and over. Good criticism seeks out the particular and irreproducible, and then aims to convey some active-tense representation of that fresh knowledge. “Literature is news that stays news,” Pound claimed. If so, then the critic is the town crier who calls upon our attention; who calls us to look into the mirror for what is to be found there.
I look forward to working with my colleagues Thomas Micchelli, Claudia La Rocco and John Yau on Hyperallergic Weekend. I hope we can serve, along with various contributors, as town criers bringing news of astonishments large and small.