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Words Remembered

James Scarborough: How do you conceive your critical practice? James Auer: For the better part of my life I have worked on newspapers. By definition, a newspaper is a general-interest publication, rather than a specialized fine-arts magazine. My intended audience is, and has always been, the nonspecialized but intelligent reader. Criticism, per se, is only one component of what I do. In addition to arriving at my own assessment of the work (which often is implicit in the published piece, rather than blatantly stated), I attempt to convey some biographical material, an idea of the artist’s process, something of what has gone before, and the physical setup of in the gallery or museum. This is, I think, essential for anyone who is attempting to write about the arts for a nonspecialized audience, especially when the story is being featured. The vocabulary employed by an arts journalist must be expressive and inclusive rather than restrictive and exclusionary (words like “bimorphic gesturalism” and “chromatic plagency,” however useful in a scholarly sense have a way of turning off the bright but otherwise untrained lay reader). Flatly stated, most newspaper readers bring far less information to a visual-arts review than they do, say, to a movie, music or TV review. You’d be surprised how many otherwise accomplished and successful people have a limited background when it comes to painting, sculpture and graphic multiples. It’s endemic, I suspect, to our culture. And it’s a great pity. Professionally speaking, I have tried to be a generalist, in an art-history sense, rather than an advocate of a particular school or mode of expression: (Though I have by virtue of my position, been an avid chronicler of Wisconsin art and artists.) Furthermore, it may come as a shock to some of Art Muscle’s readers to discover that I invariably hope to like, rather than dislike or dismiss, the work I see. I am a chronic optimist. I look forward to discovering a vivid new talent, exciting work. I say this despite the fact that it is far harder to write a positive review than a negative one. (Many readers mistakenly believe it’s the other way around) All to often, alas, I am disappointed. What about practical concerns? In terms of decisions about what to cover, I try very hard to balance major institutions against smaller, less prestigious galleries, and well-known names against newcomers to the exhibition scene. For every show that I review, there are at least five that I do not. For this reason tempers are ruffled and egos bruised. Long ago I came to the conclusion that no matter where I am, I should be somewhere else, and no matter whom I’m writing about, I should be writing about someone else. I am now comfortable with that unfortunate fact. It is somehow consoling to reflect on this in the midst of so much unfettered ambition and so little editorial space. What in your background prepared you to write about art? At Lawrence, where I majored in English composition and literature, my principal tutor in the craft of criticism was Warren Beck, a then-famous authority on Faulkner and the author of several well-regarded novels. Warren drummed into me one idea that has served me well over the years: criticism is largely valueless unless it is focused on a particular artwork or object. Broad generalization and egotistical philosophical showboating are largely valueless. Warren was above all a connoisseur of fine writing, and he taught me that nothing can be conveyed if the observation is not precise and the use of language is not scrupulous. As a result, I approach a review (of art, music, theater, whatever) as a sonnet, rather than an epic poem. To pack everything that is necessary into 12 to 25 column inches of newspaper type requires a poet’s sensibility as well as an architect’s eye for structure. I have often said that whereas politics is the art of the possible, criticism is the art of the particular. Some final comments. The pity of it all is that the means exist…in television, theatrical films and the print media…to inform people about the historical richness and potential pleasures of the visual arts. But popular culture has its own agenda. The only artists who seize and hold the public imagination are those that have legends built around them. But then, I suppose, I’m part of the legend-making apparatus myself. Now if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to practice a new sleight. I’ve a magic show to give tonight.