The Book Club

On the Art of Being an Art Critic

Every now and then, Slate varies our standard Book Club format (in which two critics discuss a new book) by asking one of our critics to interrogate the author of the book in question and allowing the author to respond. This week, Stephen Metcalf will correspond with Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, and the author of the recent The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa.


For a very brief while, I was a political speechwriter. At the beginning of every political speech is a brief panegyric known in the trade as “the suck-up.” Ours is an odd format, with one of us (er, me) addressing a set of public letters to a writer (er, you) about his newly published book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, and if nothing else it requires a suck-up. You’ve made my job blessedly unawkward, though, by writing a terrific book—really and truly, a thoughtful, unpretentious, funny, pop (in the best sense of the word) monograph (in the best sense, etc.) about the delightfully vexatious relationship between art and life. I have to admit, I cringed a little at the subtitle (the title I unreservedly like) as it reminded me of all the grim and condescending middlebrow vade mecums recently published, touting the Oprah-esque therapies available in the Great Works. But this book is both so immediately companionable and so nuanced that my fears were quickly banished, and what followed was a pleasure from beginning to end.

Before I plunge in with observations and queries, let me lay out my qualifications for writing about art: none. I think I like Cézanne and Degas and something called Fauvism, but if the authorities were to tell me otherwise, I would cease immediately. On the other hand, this makes me (I hope) your ideal reader—moderately ignorant, suspicious of the art world, but ripe for conversion experiences.

Probably the best way to start is to summarize the book, which is divided into 10 essays. Each essay introduces a broad theme—collecting, pilgrimages, “the sublime”—that is then worked through by mixing personal history, art history, anecdote, lore, and reportage. Some essays focus most intently on a single person or artist; so, the essay on collecting has at its center Dr. Hicks, who amassed a collection of 75,000 light bulbs, many of them rare specimens; the essay on nudes is almost exclusively a profile of the painter Philip Pearlstein. Many essays, however, are driven more by theme. And several artists—and non-artists—are discussed. A guiding theme overarches the entire book and is laid out in the introduction:

The idea behind The Accidental Masterpiece, the one that popped into my head at some point, is pretty simple. It is not that I should write a book of art history or criticism, exactly, or dwell on the accomplishments of the greatest or my favorite painters, sculptors, and photographers. Nor is it that all art is salutary. A day of looking at bad art can be long and dark. Instead, it is that—whether the example is the life of an artist as lofty as Bonnard or the passion of the lightbulb enthusiast Dr. Hicks—art provides us with clues about how to live our own life more fully. Put differently, this book is, in part, about how creating, collecting, and even just appreciating art can make living a daily masterpiece.

Along the way, you treat a wide variety of artists, from Bonnard, in his own time the démodé impressionist, to Matthew Barney, now an à la mode multimedia superstar. But you seem (correct me if I’m wrong) most attuned to that artist whose life is an intense and often self-consciously unworldly devotion to his or her own tightly circumscribed routine; so that when the signature of that artist finally emerges, it doesn’t appear as something sudden, cheap, and public, as the commanding gesture of naughty self-branding that many people now associate with modern and postmodern art, but as something worthy of a similarly intense devotion on our part. Unschooled as I am, we seem to share a taste for: Bonnard, Charlotte Salomon, and Ray Johnson. Not coincidentally, these were my favorite chapters in the book. The essay on Bonnard is simply narcotic, as it lovingly describes Bonnard’s marriage to Marthe as the tender prisonhouse that became his universe. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but that last sentence, and that last image, are—well, what is the word when pathos is completely earned?

Let me round this out with some questions. Am I right in thinking that the subtext for the book is an open question of your own about how to assume the proper attitude toward art as a critic? Those dangers being: humorlessness, pedantry, in-group preciousness? When someone like me looks at art, he also sees implied behind the canvas or installation a complex economy of competing egos and interests, and sometimes decides to check out of the whole affair. To put it bluntly, as the chief critic for the New York Times, aren’t these your Scylla and Charybdis: a philistine majority culture that “knows what it likes”—i.e., Thomas Kinkade—and a hyper-refined minority culture, made up of absurdly fastidious palates? How do you find room to turn people on to the Good, when you have provincial distrust on one hand, and cosmopolitan ego-jockeying on the other? Was this book an answer to that dilemma at all? As I read it, in The Accidental Masterpiece you were saying our own lives, as we actually live them, help arbitrate our tastes and keep them from becoming either too vulgar or too precious. And to conclude: I liked hearing the voice of my own distrust, especially directed at someone as gigantic in egoistical proportion as Donald Judd, echoed by none other than Clement Greenberg, who claimed Judd trafficked in little more than “aimless surprise.” Isn’t that an apt description of everything bad about the art world these days?