May 2014

Patrick James Dunagan


Words for Art: Criticism, History, Theory, Practice by Barry Schwabsky

First and foremost, Barry Schwabsky's Words for Art is ideal reading for anybody interested in ideas about writing and observations concerning art and the artist in the twentieth century. I hope that doesn't sound either too vague or too obvious a summation. It is, however, directly to the point. Schwabsky's range of interest is broad. His knowledge is in depth yet his writing is abundantly clear and not at all off-putting. With no academic credentials as an art historian, his criticism draws upon his firsthand knowledgeable interest combined with curiosity and insight into the topics and individuals covered.

Schwabsky, a poet, dedicates the book "For David Shapiro and John Yau: poets, art critics, friends," and that sums up the spirit with which his own writings engage their subject. There's a close feeling of familiarity and a breezy, but nonetheless serious, chatting quality, which is equally quite informative. But this is not a poet practicing occasional art criticism in the same spirit as say Frank O'Hara or James Schuyler. Schwabsky is more a reader writing about the relationship between the reading and viewing of artworks and works-about-art and the action of then writing about it rather than a keen-eyed observer of a particular painting's details (Schuyler) or social commentator (O'Hara).

Most of these pieces cover texts either by or about artists or historians and critics, all but one originally beginning as a book review. This is a valuable book for fellow readers and writers as well as artists and critics. Schwabsky's opinions on what makes for worthwhile writing about art always offer an insightful perspective, relating practical judgment upon what makes for quality writing. Discussing Clement Greenberg, for instance, he notes:

his criticism remains alive, because of a rare ability to do two things at once: to deliver a clear, coherent, and seemingly authoritative synthetic overview of art's development through time and even (or so he imagined) into the near future -- a view so forcefully argued that it served either as a guide or a lightning rod for dispute -- and to articulate intimate aesthetic experiences with acute vividness.

Or, as Schwabsky writes in his preface and acknowledgements, regarding his views on his own efforts: "part of what it means to me to be a critic: to write as someone whose writing is not backed up by any credential but only by the force of the writing he or she produces, its cogency and perception and eloquence." This is a measure of the high quality Schwabsky successfully holds himself repeatedly to throughout the book.

Writing on Mel Bochner's Solar System & Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews, 1965-2007 alongside Liz Kotz's Words to Be Looked at: Language in 1960s Art, he closes with a wry observation on John Cage's infamous silence piece 4'33" playfully bouncing, for contrast's sake, a concept offered by Bochner the artist against an absence he locates within Kotz the critic's argument.

Having been infected by Bochner's fascination with the ever-receding nature of boundaries, I wonder about something that Kotz never explains or considers in her forty-five pages on John Cage: if 4'33" is a work in three movements, of (in one of its versions) 33", 2'40", and 1'20", how can the work as whole be only 4'33" long? Because if there are three movements, there are also two pauses between the movements -- unscored silences between the scored silences, the times during which David Tudor, in the work's first performance, closed and then reopened the keyboard to indicate the end of one movement and the beginning of another -- and those two intervals must have increased the work's actual length beyond that indicated in the title. Here, time is the infinite labyrinth. If time and silence are essential to Cage's piece, why isn't the actual length of 4'33" an issue? I'm just asking.

Schwabsky's insights arrive sounding nearly offhanded yet always serve to frame the discussion under hand. "Artists, critics, and theorists are more likely to point to Marcel Duchamp's discovery of the readymade than to the advent of abstraction as the really amazing transformative leap in art in the early twentieth century." He's very much abreast of what's happening in the historical cultural moment of the time. Reading his reviews provides opportunity to catch up on recent controversies between art history and art criticism, the art-versus-craft debate, deficiencies of his fellow critics, and most of all enjoy his genuine appreciation of several diverse writers, some of whom aren't regularly associated with art criticism such as Walter Benjamin.

The unofficial and official borderlands of the art world Schwabsky writes from, as a widely published critical commentator but without the sanction of any art degree, offers an outsider's perspective while also giving somewhat of the inside scoop. His striking frankness surfaces when reflecting upon his experiences as a visitor within the academy. His plain directness and honesty are what always make his perspective so valuable.

Often going to art schools as a visiting critic, I have the impression that they fall into two rough categories: those in which the students are steeped in theory and full of ideas about what they want their work to say but are not so good at actually making the things that are supposed to embody these notions (this is the smaller group), or ones where the students are pretty good at making things but don't have a very clear sense of why they should be making the things that they make (most schools are like this). Schools where I find most of the students to be equally good with both their brains and their hands are few and far between. That said, I have a better time and my job feels easier when I visit the brainy art schools, but I secretly have more hope that all this flailing around might someday end up leading to good art at the handy ones.

This observation carries over to many other fields, creative writing MFA programs being the obvious comparison staring back at any writer today. Too much braininess brings poor results in any trade. High-skilled results demand attentive practice that amounts to a prodigious turning out of attempt after attempt before any final, however minor, success. And let's be honest, from a rich flambeau in cooking school to knocking out a sonnet -- or book review, for that matter -- in an hour, the arts when regularly practiced are indeed a trade. After all, even the best of theory writing is only the result of an ingenuous mixing of imagination with well-honed skills earned after long hours disgorging ceaseless amounts of textual trash destined never to be read. Understanding ideas, which are components of any art, or otherwise skilled practice, is a practical matter of practicing the act of producing the work, i.e. producing product. Regardless of the thought compelling their creation, things must first be getting made in order they exist.

Schwabsky's writing hits its points in one clean stride. There's no mess. It's efficient yet evocative, seemingly raw at points but always reaches fitting closure. Where it lacks what some readers may desire, such as complete overall cohesion, Words for Art readily achieves what Schwabsky terms in his final evaluation of The Craft Reader, edited by Glenn Adamson, as "something that might be better":

The Craft-Reader is a good enough book. Someone coming to it hoping to find evidence that the crafts possess a coherent and fully developed critical discourse is likely to come away disappointed. Actually, it seems, they have something that might be better -- the scattered pieces of what might be a few too many critical discourses, waiting for someone to put just enough order into them to shake things up (but not enough order to nail them down).

Schwabsky shakes up our reading mind, opening us to a range of critical viewpoints and outlooks without limiting in whatever sense the ends to which we put them. This is just the sort of thing a good book should do.

Words for Art: Criticism, History, Theory, Practice by Barry Schwabsky
Sternberg Press
ISBN: 978-3956790027
243 pages