Perspectives on the Art World / Interview with Robert Storr
There are two opposing views on how to navigate the art world. One view, which I have articulated in different forms, is a corporate-type structure where networking, an elevator pitch, and meeting the right people is what it takes to reach success. Depending on your pointof view, that is either a good path or a bad one. For many students graduating with a Masters in Fine Arts, or another degree, this is precisely the path they want to be on. It is also the path for all the artists who want to earn a full-time living, or something close to it, from their art. The desire to make money is not a bad thing of course, but it gets complicated when applied to the art-making process.
The other view of navigating the art world is one of exploration and investigation into life itself, and money may or may not play a major role in your success—which is defined differently in this case. It is art for arts sake, for the sake of making it and the pleasure the artist gets from that—supported by a second job or a day job, if you will. Most artists and curators that I have talked to—highly successful ones—say that art-making should not be about money first, because that can distract you from making great work that might be disturbing or confounding to the viewer. Can you do both? Yes, there are many examples of that, but you must understand the traps of the market combined with the pursuit of profits.
In most cases, the reason artists want shows and successis because they want love and attention. They want good reviews, and they want buyers who admire their genius and talent. That is a very different goal than the businessperson who wants to make millions. You don’t know the names of most hedge fund managers because they are not interested in fame, they are interested in money and they do not equate it with self-worth.
However, an artist who is looking for attention, love, fame,and ego-satisfaction, encounters what appear to be endless cruelties. There is the bad review, the show that doesn’t sell, the collector that returns work, or a negative comment that is obsessed over. All of these elements, familiar to any artist, can send some into a tailspin of sadness and depression, because instead of receiving love and praise for art, the opposite seems to have happened. The psychological pain from this is acute, because the goal of wanting love and attention has been reversed, and now it is easy to think that in fact your art is not likeable or lovable, and since you made it, it follows that that applies to yourself as well. It becomes a dark day indeed! This is a feeling that you will recognize immediately if you are an artist reading this book. Can you withstand these slings and arrows throughout your career? Have you done so successfully already?
This approach to art-making is the first model, and in thisbook, the explanation of terms and the interviews will help you to navigate those rough waters, but it is essential that you take the larger perspective and recognize the size of your task and the psychology of your need to exhibit.
When taking those things into account, you can seek outsupport and guidance from books like this and from your peers. It will help you to see a larger view of yourself and your internal struggles so you can better manage them.
The first model is to have a day job, and to make artbecause you want to and need to, but not to make a pile of money or even exhibit regularly. The second model is about meeting people and making the right connections for you—in a word, networking. This is the model I use and find success with regularly. I will talk about the second model after the following interview with art critic Robert Storr.
The Art Critic
Of all the figures in the art world, the critic is probably the most controversial. What is a critic for and why do we need them? What is the role of criticism? I have interviewed several critics, some more well known than others, but Robert Storr is one critic that is not only an artist himself, but is also the Dean of the Yale School of Art, was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and has written extensively about artists. In this interview, he tells us two very valuable things: his opinions on current art critics, and his views on art education—in particular the Master of Fine Arts degree and what he feels it takes to survive as an artist. He is actually using both methods—he is an artist that has not sought the market for his own work, yet he has extraordinary connections that have helped his professional career. He is very frank about other critics and is one of the few people who can give a unique perspective on how art is seen and digested by critics and the public.
Carey: I think I’d like to talk about the role of the critic. I’veinterviewed the late Arthur Danto, Barry Schwabsky, Dave Hickey—they all have a pretty varying idea of what it is that a critic does. What’s your perspective on the role of the critic?
Storr: I think there are many different genres of criticism for starters, and there are different audiences for criticism. And I think the first choice a writer who wants to write about art has to make is decide for whom or about what they would like to write because there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of what a critic does.
Arthur Danto was basically a philosopher who wanderedinto criticism because his wife was an artist and he was interested in the visual arts. He was intermittently a very good critic and often really way off base because the undertow of philosophy and the desire to make sweeping statements was just too great to resist. Dave Hickey is a very able essay writer who is actually not a very good art critic at all and has devolved from being an interesting spoiler in the context of the art world to being a tea partier, basically. He mobilizes resentment against arts and he mobilizes people’s sense that it’s all a rigged game andplays off on that to give himself a reputation as an outsider—but he’s an outsider with a PhD in English literature. He is not a tough Texan—he’s a kid from Fort Worth and he’s created this persona which is actually an artfully constructed persona, but he’s not at all what he pretends to be.
He loves to go after academics and curators and assumethat they’re all, you know, sold out and so on but he’s the guy with the PhD, not me. And he’s the guy who has advised Steve Winn and he’s not known as a great Medici. And in the meantime, he’s actually not very good about art. He wrote a whole long essay about Larry Pittman without mentioning Larry is half-Hispanic and gay, which is an awfully big thing to miss when you look at the work. So he’s another type.
Barry Schwabski is a poet and a successful poet, a good poet. I would say he belongs to a belletristic type of criticism and he’s terrific. At least he’s written nice things about me so what can I say? I mean as a painter, but you know, there are all kinds of critics.
The theoreticians Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, andso on—I think they have a lot of problems, as does Dave Hickey with actual art history. They know almost none. They’re technically art historians academically but they know very little art history. They’ve done very little primary research. They don’t know history very well because they read theory about history but they don’t read history.
So they will write articles predicated on certain sweepinggeneralizations about the 1930s in Europe and then apply them without any adjustments to circumstances which are not those. I admire all of the Frankfurt people but I don’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt schoolin contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody.
(Laughs) That’s being a critic of critics!
Carey: Understanding the different roles is helpful to a lot ofpeople. And then there’s someone like Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith who write for New York magazine and the New York Times, respectively.
Storr: Jerry is appalling. He’s the class clown. He is somebodyI’ve known a long time, since Chicago days, and he’s turned into a travesty. And the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world and at the same time playing the game of the art TV show that he did—and that he should be championing women and then dissing the first African-American woman curator to do Site Santa Fe. All these things are about Jerry, long and short. And about Roberta, it’s all about Roberta, long and short—and it’s too bad because they are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness, but there are no principals, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.
Carey: And how does that figure in with these other schoolsof criticism? I mean, Jerry, he’s also achieved this popularity that’s . . .
Storr: He’s playing to the peanut gallery. He’s playing to anaudience that actually doesn’t know about art, that doesn’t really like art. Roberta’s the same way. I mean, she’s writing for the New York Times and she’s writing insider writing for outsiders. If you read her criticism carefully, and I have for very a long time, she’s constantly playing into myriad battles about the art world—who’s in, who’s out, and who she has a grudge against—but she’s publishing it as if it was informationthat everybody needed to know, does know, etc., which it’s not.
If she would write about the art right in front of her, if shewould suspend her own sense of self-importance long enough to really give more attention to the complexities of being an artist, she’d write better, and Jerry the same.
Carey: But that’s not going happen because that’s part of howthey . . .
Storr: Because they get paid for it.
Carey: I suppose that has something to do with where journalismabout art is today.
Storr: Journalism now is at the lowest it has ever been. There was a time in the 50s when you had Greenberg who was an empire builder but a very gifted one, and Fairfield Porter, Donald Judd. Bob Morris. A lot of people were writing a lot of stuff that is still worth reading, you know, and I can’t imagine how much of this stuff anybody will read ten years now. Mostly, you can’t read it a week after it’s published.
Carey: And why is that? What’s happening? Is it kind of the dumbing-down of journalism? I was talking to a reporter not long ago who was saying everything is about comments now.It’s about how many comments you can get in an article, and the way that you get comments is by saying something inflammatory, and has this affected the art world and critics, too.
Storr: Totally, it is like critics have gotten confused about the issue of what their role is. I mean, they’re there not just to admire or just to observe but they’re there to weigh and think and look better than the average person in order that the average person can be tested and do it better themselves, right?
So if you set a model of what it means to look hard at something, think a while about it before you open your mouth, and then articulate it carefully—you will have done your job as a critic and then you can write about anything you want. There are many critics I read with whom I fundamentally disagree, but I always learn from them. But today it’s about instant response. It’s about the number of likes you get on your Facebook page. It’s all about the ego popularity presence of the critic. And frankly, none of these people are interesting enough to really merit being a presence overall.
Carey: So is there a way out of that? What is the future of writing?It seems that we’re devolving into this kind of popularity contest. What’s the hope for that?
Storr: Charlie Finch was the pioneer of this kind of vanity criticism and spoiling criticism. And, you know, does anybody read Charlie Finch? Now? No. Does he even write? No. What’s the future for it? Not much.
I’m a craftsman, I may have many faults and I’m sure I do, but I’m a craftsman, and I work very hard at writing well and I work very hard at looking before I write. And I do homework and I listen to artists and I do everything I think I need to do before I sit down and deliver an opinion that I hope would be thought about, not agreed with.
One of the people I greatly admire, Virgil Thompson, was a composer and critic and he wrote for the old Herald Tribune, and he wrote something I think is my motto. He said, “Never overestimate the information base of your reader and never underestimate their intelligence,” and most of the people we’re talking about do both—but backwards.
Carey: Are there other critics that you admire who are walking that road?
Storr: There are a lot of people that I read. I used to read Peter Schjeldahl with much more interest than I do now because I think he’s burned out. I like Christian Viveros – Faune, who, I think, is actually trying hard to write a principled criticism.Martha Schwendener I like reading. I really admire Holland Cotter, he’s doing a very good job. Mike Brenson tried to do the same thing at the Times but he was basically driven out. Chris Knight in Los Angeles.
Carey: Let’s talk about the academic environment, why does an artist need to go to school? What is the importance of that? And I know that some of these are obvious questions, and you can take this anywhere, but a school like Yale, the MFA program in particular, in one sense carries this kind of mythic weight in the art world—and then there’s plenty of artists that come from Yale that don’t move on to mythic careers.
Storr: Most artist don’t move on to mythic careers and the importance of getting an arts education is not measured by the fame index. To be able to sustain yourself making your work over a lifetime is an achievement in and of itself. It’s very hard to do. To become a good teacher of art is very hard to do. To gain enough from your work, from all angles, to be able to do it properly is very important in and of itself.
The fame factor is very disturbing, right. Some people got fame very early. Jasper Johns got it very, very early, relatively. Frank Stella got it even earlier.Jasper has been famous since 1957. It’s a long time, and to stay on top for that long is a very hard thing to do. Most people don’t, most people have a relatively short run and many of those people have very short runs early, and the ability to stay in the game, to make good work, to hold your head up and so on and so forth, it’s a real accomplishment and I think—to go back to your initial question—one of the things is that in art school you meet a certain cohort of your contemporaries and very often they become very important people for the rest of your life. And it’s not like college alumni buddies in other fields.
It is a group where the struggles and the difficulties that you face are shared in certain ways. These people are often more reliable as friends later on.
Carey: So you are talking about peers, classmates at school.
Storr: Yes. I think most good arts schools are distinguished by the dynamic among the students, and the teaching is secondary. The schools that are fostering energy among the students are, in a way, yielding to them in letting them do it themselves—those are the great schools. And often they don’t have great teachers or sometimes they have one or two great teachers.
Carey: But that also assumes that they’re going to get togetherafterwards, which seems is beyond the school and may or may not happen. When I interviewed John Currin, he told me he graduated, making paintings that nobody particularly liked and he was painting houses and at one point four years out of school thought, what am I doing? He’s crying on the scaffold thinking, I’m wasting my time, and he did essentially what you’re saying—called up some friends from school, started meeting regularly and saying, “How can we help each other out here?” But that wasn’t something that was even fostered by the school, really.
Storr: It’s because you create a situation where these bondscan grow, right. Of course it depends on the individuals and John’s story is actually a fairly common story and I think that the people who go the course often find themselves in situations like that.
Before I came to Yale, I did this as an experiment: What was it that students made here before they made the works for which they’re known? Nancy Graves was making Braque-like paintings and Chuck Close was making kind of Claus Oldenberg paintings.
Once when I did my first dean’s talk here I put a drawing on the screen. It was a drawing of a kind of a lumpy, middle aged woman, standard, you know, life-drawing class kind of thing. And at one point one of the female faculty members said, “Why do you have this nude woman up on the screen?” I said, “I’ll explain in a minute.” And at the end I said, “Okay, this is a drawing by Eva Hesse.” So first, it was the female gaze on a nude woman, not the male gaze. Secondly, it was a drawing nobody would have pegged as an Eva Hesse drawing, but it allowed you to see the enormous leaps that she took while she was here, and she was one of Josef Albers’s favorite students.
Now, she took those leaps while she was here and that gave her the ability to leap altogether when she left here with Tom Doyle and went to Germany. She took a series of major leaps so that when she came back—she had a very short life, you know, she died when she was thirty-four years old—she crammed more really serious art making into just a few years than anybody I know other than Felix Gonzalez Torres. I think it’s the kind of sense of seriousness of vocation and the risk-taking that needs to be done that occurred here that made that possible.
Carey: That makes sense and, of course, those are success stories and then there’s the stories you hear that I think Robert Gober touched on a few years ago when he gave a talk here at Yale. As he put it just kind of blatantly, he said, “You know, a lot of my assistants come from the MFA program and as far as I’m concerned it fucked them up. They can’t make work now.” Now this is not the case for everyone, but there is a phenomena where people get out of MFAs and I don’t know whether it’s not being able to withstand critcs, but some students feel that they can’t produce work after that.
Storr: I don’t want to sound like a social Darwinist, but if they can’t, then they’re not made for this profession. People have got to have a kind of need to do it. And they have to have, not self-confidence as a sense of knowing they will succeed, but a fearlessness about the possibility of failure. Franz Klein once said, “the artist is different from people because they have a higher tolerance for embarrassment.” People who come to programs like this and think only in terms of success and don’t think about failure are really ducking the issues, right?
How do you deal with failure? What do you with failure?How do you retool failure to turn it into something else? How do you just withstand the emotional strain? I’ve had a lot of failures in my life and that’s why I’m tough and that’s why I’m still at it. I think a lot of kids now are hothouse flowers. They come through very high powered programs in secondary school and college and then they arrive and they just think they’re going to continue succeeding. It’s not like that. It’s not like another profession where you can sort of get on the escalator and just go up.
Carey: It’s so complex because of that, and I understand thatas an artist and writer myself, but is that part of what they’re learning here at Yale—how to manage failure? How to retool failure? Even the emotional stress of what that means to someone?
Storr: There was a kid who was here, a few years ago. Hewas an Asian man. He was gay. He came from the South and he made work that was, I thought, quite interesting but many people did not. And there was a very famous gay photographer who was in the room and who took him apart, really took him apart. And did so from a position of an older gay artist saying this is not the way to deal with these issues—and he did it, I think, out of sincere regard for the guy but it was really rough and I cringed, you know, partly because I kind of liked some of his work more than the other person did.
I saw the student a couple of days later and I asked him,“How are you doing?” And he kind of had this wonderful plucky attitude and he clearly didn’t get wounded—anybody would have been wounded, but he had that ingredient. He had what it takes to bounce back. What it is, is hard to say, but you know who’s got it and who doesn’t. Some people do it by grinning and bearing it, some people do it by smiling through the disaster—he’s more of the smiling through the disaster type—but there are people who are just not going to stop and you can feel it and you know it. And they are the ones who become artists.
Carey: In conclusion, you’ve done an awful lot in the art world.You’re an artist yourself, a writer and critic and commissioner/curator of the Venice Biennial and, of course, this is your second term as Dean—what’s next for you? Those seem like peaks in the art world for an academic, for an artist, for a critic. I can’t imagine doing more, but what would be next?
Storr: I’m going to do what I started out to do, which was to make my own paintings. Most of the jobs that I have had, I did not compete for, they are things that people asked me to do, they were jobs I did because I needed to make a living to support my family. So now that I’m kind of at the age where I have enough money tucked away, I don’t have much else to do professionally, I’m just going to make my paintings. See how we go from being a quite well-known curator and critic to being a totally unknown painter and I’m really going to like it a lot.
Carey: So let’s just hear a little bit about what’s happening inyour paintings. You’ve been consistently painting, haven’t you?
Storr: I’ve painted always, though very little in recent years.I’ve done some print making. I’ve never, ever said I was not an artist or stopped being an artist because I know the minute you turn the switch off that way—you’re done. Inside, you’re done. So I’m always giving myself projects to do and I went to Yaddo—and I spent half the day writing a catalogue and half the day making drawings. I’ve been giving those drawings to benefit auctions ever since. There’s not a lot of work of that type but there’s enough so that I can work and say, “Yeah, this has got something going for it.” And so now I’m just going to go in the studio and make lots more. We’ll see.
Storr: Those are drawings but I’m a painter, basically.
Carey: And what do they look like now?
Storr: Abstract, geometric paintings on paper. Once upona time, I was a realist painter, an observational kind of new realist type. I was a big admirer and now still am a very good friend of Phillip Pearlstein, friend of Alex Katz, admirer of Katz. So that was my neighborhood for a while but I just decided I didn’t want to do that much describing so I was much more interested in the spaces in the paintings than I was in the things that occupied them, so I shifted over. We’ll see, who knows, maybe I’ll come out wild and wooly and do something else.
Carey: We’ll look forward to that!
The Other Path, the Other Way
Before that interview, I wrote that there are basically two waysof navigating the world as an artist: networking for pleasure and profit versus the less aggressive art-making with fewer exhibits. The first, which is more aligned with a corporate structure as I see it, is what Mr. Storr was articulating here. It is the most common model because it is about making a living from your art in most cases. It is about networking with peers and others who can help you. It is about being able to withstand the critiques of your artwork and to continue to make more.
There are always exceptions to this rule, of course. RobertStorr might be one of them; perhaps because of his intellect and his ability to write, he never competed for a job because it was always offered to him, and he took it to support his family. Other exceptions might be writers like Gore Vidal who do not do much self promotion of any kind, but find themselves in a very successful position.
But in the majority of cases, most artists follow the paththat Mr. Storr articulates, that is, they find ways to meet people that might help them with more opportunities, like exhibits, studio visits, and other ways to get artwork out in the public. We will get to specific tactics soon, but first is an interview I did with John Currin, who is one of the most successful artiststoday, with paintings selling in the high six-figure range. He is a figurative painter, does not paint what is popular, and has not turned his practice into a more conceptual mode; he is simply making the paintings he wants to make and has met with criticism as well as great success with the subject matter he has chosen. In the interview with Robert Storr, when I mention this interview and how John Currin worked with his friends to build his career, Storr said his story was a common one—that is, gathering support from your peers can be a key to success and what it means to “network” within the art world.