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Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture (c. 1513–1515) depicts the Jewish Patriarch with horns. Why? It is believed his interpretation of the image is based on an error in a Latin translation of the Bible that was widely used during the artist’s lifetime. The term is nowadays interpreted to mean “shining” or “emitting rays,” so Michelangelo’s version is stranger to us than it would’ve been to audiences in 16th-century Rome, but it’s still a big mistake. (image via Wikipedia)

Earlier this year I challenged fellow editor Seph Rodney to explore the mistakes he may have made as a critic after a series of conversations reflecting on past reviews and articles he had written. It’s not the case that he had made more than most, but it seemed healthy to me that critics assess their own faults, often with the aid of a therapist, trusted friends, or just some good old self-reflection. It was something I’ve been wanting to do in writing for a while, but always failing due to the frenetic pace of my job as editor-in-chief.

What he wrote was very moving, revealing how we writers and critics could move through the world waving the wand of judgment without calcifying our opinions, leaving ourselves open to learning in the process. Sometimes recognizing our mistakes teaches us more than what we get right because they jostle us into questioning orthodoxies that may no longer be useful.

For this Sunday Edition, we invited art critics and art historians to reflect on their own mistakes, whatever they might be.

Taking a close look at mistakes also seems important today, as the boogeyman of “cancel culture” has not only permeated mainstream media discussions but has even been adopted by the platform of the Republican party. Making mistakes isn’t a terminal condition. But we have to fess up to them in order to grow.

Here are the brave souls who agreed to speak out about their own mistakes:

  • John Yau reflects poignantly on being a lower-ranking art critic at the mainstream art publication where he started his writing career in the late ‘70s. He wonders aloud why his younger self didn’t more eagerly accept this outsider status which would have pushed him to consider wonderful artists who were far from the beaten path.
  • Lucy Lippard looks back at almost six decades of art writing with a healthy sense of acceptance of her own foibles with letting “prejudice overwhelm esthetics,” while also generously allowing that the inherently subjective nature of looking and judging means that we can disagree without seeing the other as mistaken.
  • Rob Storr forthrightly embraces some past errors of judgment made as a first-time visitor to Bamako, Mali and a prison farm in Louisiana. He found that these charged moments of cultural contact require putting his own assumptions aside and recognizing that even acting with the best of intentions may not be enough to prevent mishaps.
  • Karen Wilkin reconsiders some artists she had initially hardly given the time of day to: Arshile Gorky, Henry Moore, and Jules Olitski, finding that they became immensely rewarding to her when seen in other contexts that afforded new perspectives. She makes the subtle point that at times we aren’t ready for the art, but if we stay around long enough, we might be.
  • Kimberly Bradley discusses one of the likely most frequently experienced embarrassing situations that occurs in the art scene (and which is almost never publicly acknowledged): pronouncing someone’s name incorrectly. Given the international roster of artists, curators, dealers, and critics the likelihood of encountering a name that simple baffles one is high. Bradley gamely tells us which ones have flummoxed her and owns up to her worst faux pas.
  • Tulsa Kinney relates a unique perspective: considering mistakes from the position of being an editor-in-chief. She reveals that one of her most memorable errors was in some ways also one of her most compelling successes, and that letting go of a seemingly winning column was precisely the most responsible thing she could have done.
  • Erin Thompson seriously considers the anxious relationship between the gallery and museum visitor and the work of art that is “mistakenly” damaged by the visitor’s intentional handling. It may be that these moments of deliberate disregard of institutional and cultural rules about touching the art indicate an implicit judgment on the part of the viewer.

For images to accompany these articles, we decided to pair them with well-known paintings that had a fundamental mistake. It’s a reminder that great artists, writers, and others are all vulnerable to errors, and sometimes those mistakes don’t even detract from the work itself. Does Michelangelo’s Moses stop being a great work of art because of a textual error he foolishly relied on? Or does Courbet’s “Origin of the World” stop being shocking when we realize its anatomy is incorrect?

We hope you enjoy this edition and use it as an opportunity to reflect on what there is to learn when we acknowledge and reflect on our mistakes.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

2 replies on “Sunday Edition, Mistakes: From Oversights to Missteps

  1. This compilation of essays and accompanied images has been so rewarding to read. Thank you for showing so clearly how the importance of art lies not just in how we see the world, but how flawed that vision is. The limits are what makes the works (as the [mis]understandings of the works) remain spectacular, even as our vision gets sharper through time.

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