Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee, and do not try to make the universe a blind alley.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Sullen” in this context means “solitary,” not just moody. It was the writing of poetry that used to be called the Sullen Art (see Dylan Thomas’s poem, published in 1946, titled In My Craft and Sullen Art) (“In my craft or sullen art / Exercised in the still night / When only the moon rages….”). Thomas here makes the act of writing poetry seem deliciously clandestine, private to the point of masturbatory.

My feeling, after decades spent as a restless tenant in the house of art criticism, is that the critical act is far more sullen than the poeticizing one. Sure, as a critic you go out into the world. You go to artists’ studios, art galleries and museums. You take notes (often on the sly), you conduct interviews, you drink a lot of ruminative coffee.

But then, in the end, you go squirreling back to your sullen computer and type up some piece of hopefully spirited and pointed prose that you fully expect will pin the artwork in question to some public wall (newspaper, magazine, catalogue, book or blog) where, like a dead butterfly, it will be examined, praised or denigrated down the long hallways of history.

I never aspired to being an art critic. I just wanted to be a writer. It was a sinister day of undertow when I discovered that editors would pay me to write about art.

In the course of all this, it is inevitable that a critic will inevitably, rapidly, form an opinion of the artwork he is attending to. But surely this is a matter of only minor interest, and is likely to change, anyhow, under the impress of subsequent thought.

Opinions, for me, are cheap to come by and boring as hell. It was the great romantic poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who noted, somewhere deep in his intellectual autobiography, Biographia Literaria (1817), that nothing was more tedious than an opinion, whereas, on the other hand, nothing was quite as fascinating as the examination of how one came to hold that opinion. It seems to me there is no reason why anyone should care much about a critic’s mere opinion. But if said critic can offer a glimpse of the mental route by which that opinion had come to light, well, now we’re moving closer to something useful.

When I began writing about art, it was my intention to do as Charles Baudelaire had done and provide, within the boundaries of critical language, some textual equivalent to the work of art itself. In one well-known section of Baudelaire’s The Salon of 1846, titled “What is the Good of Criticism?”, the great poet-critic noted “I sincerely believe that the best criticism is that which is both amusing and poetic: not a cold, mathematical criticism which, on the pretext of explaining everything, has neither love nor hate and voluntarily strips itself of every shard of temperament.”

Viva temperament. Without the full employment (or permitting) of “temperament,” the critic is condemned to writing sociology or cultural anthropology or philosophy. These are heady disciplines, certainly, but folded into art criticism, they tend to muddy the waters they were supposed to purify. Surely nobody reads, say, Jacques Derrida or Gilles Deleuze for their employable contributions to art criticism (regardless of how many critics have regularly cited them and the other denizens of Parisian post-structuralism, like Barthes, Foucault, De Man etc. in their writing). Philosopher-theorists are a delight to read (their music washes over you like the rising tide), but they never help anything. Even the Derrida book specifically about visual art, The Truth in Painting (1987), studded with galvanizing ideas like cherries on a baked ham, is really only a delightful tool for honing one’s perceptions—a process that is exhilarating, but still peripheral to the art-critical undertaking.

What is art-critical description worth? To be able to describe an artwork vividly and palpably—so acutely that the reader feels able to see the thing under discussion in a way that is almost a virtual reality projection of it—is no doubt useful and admirable. But it is always, or ought to be, a preliminary critical gesture. What follows after description should be meaning—if the artwork can generate any, and should the critic ever manage to winkle it out of the visual experience.

What about taste? It’s a trap. Gertrude Stein famously said so a century ago and she’s still right.

What about praising—and denouncing? As a busy art critic for a number of newspapers, primarily The Globe & Mail, I found myself being more often enthusiastic than denunciatory. I remember photographer Geoffrey James once accusing me of “delectation.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. And it was true that I often came to praise rather than to bury because a) I chose to write about what excited me and b) I decided that with only a thousand words per week at my disposal, I’d be more widely useful as a cheerleader than an assassin.

It’s easy—and sadistically enjoyable—to denounce. And if you do write a vitriolic review, you wake up famous the next morning (repressed people love anger). But the thing is, praising can be effected by a couple of well-chosen adjectives, whereas savaging simply takes longer.

If you denounce something, you then have a moral responsibility to explain why you did so. If you don’t do this, you’re just a hit-and-run driver. And negation takes far more writerly space than a couple of compliments do.

I never aspired to being an art critic. I just wanted to be a writer. It was a sinister day of undertow when I discovered that editors would pay me to write about art.

That is why the art critics I enjoy most are first and foremost fine writers. I like Meyer Shapiro writing about Cezanne’s apples. I like Leo Steinberg writing about De Kooning and Pollock and Rauschenberg. I like Max Kozloff on cubism and futurism. I Iike Rosalind Krauss when she’s being schoolmarmishly severe. I Iike John Berger when he isn’t too full of himself. I like John Yau on anything.

These are all writers of lavish “temperament” of the Baudelairian kind. That’s what I love. For myself, I’ve never written anything critical that didn’t sidle up as close as I could make it to literature. And sometimes I would get all the way there.