This week I had privilege to interview a Pulitzer Prize-winning arts critic Sebastian Smee. The interview originally appeared on the Power Institute website.
25 May, 2017
It was an addiction to good sentences that kept Sebastian Smee at his desk writing at a time when there were no readers in sight. That passion eventually paid off. Smee is now a Pulitzer Prize winning arts critic, a sought-after writer, reviewer and public speaker. He is taking part in three Sydney Writers’ Festival events and will be at the University of Sydney on Tuesday 6 June to give a free public talk on Mark Bradford, this year’s United States representative at the Venice Biennale.
Art students and professionals will also have a unique opportunity to engage with Smee in an intimate lunch-time seminar on art writing and, in particular, writing intended for a public audience.
Curious to find out more about Smee’s beginnings in the industry, his thoughts on what constitutes good art criticism, and his views on the current state of arts journalism, we caught up with him in the lead up to these two University of Sydney events.
IF: You majored in Fine Arts at Sydney Uni. I am curious to know if you were always interested in art criticism, or did this career happen to you by chance?
SS: It was slightly unplanned. I knew I wanted to write, and I was very attracted to long-form journalism—especially lively criticism. But it wasn’t just art criticism. I loved reading—and writing—about film, books, and music, too.
IF: So how did it all start? What were the beginnings of your professional career? And how did you eventually get into writing for the major newspapers and art magazines?
SS: I had an essay on Quentin Tarantino’s films published by a magazine called Australian Style, in part, I think, because the editor, Mark Mordue, liked the fact that I worked in a video store, just as Tarantino had.
A few months later, in desperation, I sent out twenty copies of everything I’d written (little of it published) to editors and a few writers, asking for advice. John McDonald, the art critic at the Sydney Morning Herald, was the only person who got back to me, and he then helped me get a job on the Metro section at the Herald.
IF: That’s quite an achievement! You mention desperation as a motivating force, but it must have required some courage and confidence to send your materials out? Did it?
It was mostly desperation. I had quit law after three years of a combined arts/law degree, and needed to prove I had a viable alternative.
IF: What would you say are the most important character traits to have when beginning in the industry?
SS: Show up. Show up at your desk and write. Every day. It makes you better. And without that, you haven’t got much to show people. So you really have to do it.
IF: So write write write, even when there is no one out there to read it. That requires quite a lot of motivation. I am fascinated that you were writing that much even before you had any audience, anyone who read your work. What kept you motivated?
SS: I just wanted to get better. It gives you a good feeling when you feel you’ve written well. Even just a good sentence in amongst a lot of dross gives you a little high that’s addictive.
IF: And when you started writing, as a young student, there weren’t even such things as blogs to publish your work. Do you think that nowadays blogs help writers get in, or is it pretty much the same, difficulty wise?
SS: Blogs and online magazines are great. Does it remove some of the sense of things being at stake to be able to publish anywhere, any time, with or without editing? I don’t know. Maybe.
IF: In 2011 you won the Pulitzer Prize for art criticism. Was this awarded for a specific piece of writing or for the body of work?
SS: It was awarded for a body of work: ten articles that (unbeknownst to me) colleagues at the Boston Globe had chosen from among those I’d written that year. They were submitted in a package, then judged against the work of other critics from around the country.
IF: What made your work the winning one? What do they look for when awarding someone with the Pulitzer Prize? What are the boxes you need to tick?
SS: I don’t know if it’s a question of ticking boxes. They just have to think it’s exciting, a bit different, or for some other reason worth recognising.
IF: I have found a note on one of the websites that says: ‘In 2011, Smee won the Pulitzer with a glowing citation: “vivid and exuberant writing about art, often bringing great works of art to life with love and appreciation”.’ What, in your view, makes art criticism exciting and different, ‘vivid and exuberant’? What makes a good art critic?
SS: Hard to say. I’m most excited simply by good writing. But writing can be good in so many different ways, and that goes for criticism too. I’m attracted to a combination of authority (I like learning stuff as I read) and open-heartedness. That can mean a certain gaucheness, wit, a willingness to stake a lot on some idea or assertion, and always a background hum of sincerity. If it’s specifically art criticism we’re talking about, it really helps if you like looking at things and are sincere about developing a feeling for form, colour, technique, medium, and so on. These things connect to ideas and emotions. It works in that order.
IF: Looking purely at the use of language, what would you say are the best language practices for art critics?
SS: I like writing that is aimed at a general reader. There is no idea that shouldn’t be able to be expressed in clear prose. But clear prose should be alloyed with excitement, and a sense of urgency, which often means risk-taking. I like writers who take risks.
IF: What do you mean by risk-taking? Could you give me an example?
SS: An original thought. A surprising metaphor. Something that’s self-revealing or heartfelt without being self-indulgent. A willingness, above all, to think for oneself, to see past prevailing clichés and received wisdom.
IF: How do you keep yourself fresh as a writer, so your style has a feel of freshness to it? Or do you find it important to stay more less the same style wise, so you are recognisable to the readers?
SS: I don’t work on maintaining a ‘style’; I think it should come out naturally. You stay fresh by getting up from your desk, going to galleries (or just going outside), and looking at stuff. But it’s strange: going back to your desk and trying to make sense of what you’ve just seen is also a way of staying fresh. The act of writing enhances your appetite. You discover stuff as you write. You want to see more of it!
IF: If you were to pick three of your best pieces of art criticism, what would they be and why?
SS: I’d leave that to others – sorry! I’m not the best judge.
IF: Does writing come easy to you? What is your process like, i.e. do you take notes when at an exhibition, sketch some initial ideas? How long do you brew over your experience before you start putting the text together?
SS: It doesn’t come easily, no. Twice-weekly deadlines force you to con yourself that it’s easy. And sometimes they do concentrate the mind in a way that’s conducive to a sense of flow. But writing at speed is not often good writing. You need time. I need time. I wish I had more of it.
IF: Do you find talking to others about their experience of an artwork or an exhibition, and reflecting on your own in the conversation with others, useful or distracting?
SS: Talking with others can help, but generally I don’t. I like to read what I can, ask questions, do my research—but only up to a point. I think good criticism directly expresses gut responses—including uncertainty and embarrassing changes of mind. It should be urgent and honest, not tweedy and aloof.
IF: How do you write about things you do not like? How subjective or objective should an art critic be? Where does personal taste sit when it comes to art criticism?
SS: Big questions. It’s subjective, of course. On the other hand, in broad terms there is extraordinary worldwide consensus, when you think about it, about what’s beautiful, and what speaks to the heart—perhaps because we all have bodies, we share the same world, and at some point we die. I’m as interested in those points of commonality as I am in what breaks rank. The best art is so often an amalgam of both.
Taste is a social concept. It relates to art. But only up to a point. Great art, in my opinion, exists at a certain remove from social concerns like taste (which is obviously not to say that it can’t be concerned with society and politics). It speaks to our inner selves, our interior life. You don’t want to talk to people when you’re looking at Vermeer, I find.
Bad art is hard to write about – perhaps because what makes it bad is its fundamental lack of traction. You just sort of slide off it.
IF: Do you feel a sense of responsibility as someone who introduces art to the public and has a capacity to make or break an artist’s career?
SS: I don’t think about it. I know I’ve affected some artists’ careers through what I’ve written (mostly for the better, I hope), but it’s incidental to what I do, and it would poison the well to dwell on it.
IF: Do you find it important to be more forgiving in your criticism when it comes to emerging artists?
SS: Yes, I do, by and large.
IF: What would you say is the main difference between your early writing and more recent one?
SS: Um, that I’ve become more forgiving…? It’s funny. There’s an egotistical appeal, when you’re younger, to expressing, in emphatic language, what you don’t like about stuff. It’s part of a fairly natural process (to put a forgiving spin on it): trying to make the world a slightly friendlier place for you and your sensibilities. But as you get older I think you give up, just a little, on that urge. You realise that the world doesn’t need to conform to your sensibilities to be interesting, and that in fact your sensibilities could do with some expanding. Still, some stuff is awful, and you need to say so—otherwise your readers won’t trust you when you tell them something’s wonderful.
IF: Who are some of the critics you personally admire and love reading?
SS: James Parker, Peter Schjeldahl, Janet Malcolm, Jeremy Eichler, Dan Chiasson, Helen Garner, Adam Gopnik, James Wood, Zadie Smith, Michael Hofman.
IF: What makes a bad art critic? What are definite no-goes when it comes to writing about art? What are the most common mistakes?
SS: Being boring. Getting your facts wrong. I’ve been guilty of both.
IF: When you talk about ‘boring’ do you think that comes across as a lack of effort and care? Or is there something else you are referring to?
SS: I’m talking about clichéd, insincere writing that parrots academic platitudes or is filled with jargon or is simply lazy, or—like most political speech—sounds as if it is talking to no one in particular.
IF: What are your views on the state of art criticism today in general (i.e. reduced print publications etc.) and where do you see things heading?
SS: I really don’t know. It’s depressing to see how many newspapers are cutting back on their critics, or forcing them into other roles.
There’s some hope (though not much, because it doesn’t seem to pay well in most cases) in the proliferation of online and alternative publications. Many of them have much more freedom and do smart, enlivening things with that freedom.
IF: One of the artists you are currently impressed by is Mark Bradford, this year’s US representative at the Venice Biennale. Your Power Institute talk at the University of Sydney will focus on his work. Why this particular artist?
SS: I think he’s one of the best artists around. His work, which is flat-out beautiful and physically impressive, also makes you think hard about how materials and abstraction might relate to biography and politics; how they might both connect us with the world and (deliberately) hold us at a distance. He is representing the US at this year’s Venice Biennale, so it feels topical. I’ve just written the text for a book on his work.
IF: Which book?
SS: A monograph to be published later this year by Phaidon.
IF: I have recently read an article that described Bradford as contemporary Jackson Pollock, not so much for his artistic style but more so for his ‘powerful vision of the artist’s role in society’. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, you are participating in a panel discussion titled ‘Do Bad Times Make For Great Art?’ What is your view on this? Is art better the worse the times are? And is it important for an artist to respond to what is happening in the society? In other words, can art be good if it ignores the turbulent times and social aches? If it, for instance, focuses on pure aesthetic.
Huge questions, but in brief, I don’t think ‘bad times make for good art’—it’s not nearly as simple as that, and in fact you might be able to argue more persuasively that the opposite is the case. But good art is often made during bad times, and we can’t help but be fascinated by the ways in which social conditions affect its creation—which of course they do, consciously or not. Goya is an exemplary case.
IF: In your University of Sydney seminar, you will discuss the tension between experience and interpretation; between viewing art as an informed spectator and as one who has little idea about what they are viewing. This has always fascinated me and as an Art History student myself I often wonder if I will lose something (i.e. the pure, spontaneous reading of art) by learning too much. What are your views on this? And how can one preserve the spontaneity and instinct whilst learning and appreciating the theories?
SS: I always think of something Lucian Freud once said: ‘When you find something very moving, you almost want to know less about it. It’s a bit like when falling in love, you don’t want to meet the parents.’ On the other hand, if you stay in love, eventually you do have to meet the parents and it’s often very interesting when you do. I think knowledge helps a lot in the appreciation of art. But often, it has nothing to do with your most intense, inner experience in front of great art, which in the end is what we most value about it. It’s what I most value, anyway.
Interview by Ira Ferris
24 May 2017