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Interviews / March 19, 2014

Peter Schjeldahl on Fear, the Market and Art Criticism

Peter Schjeldahl at a Toronto lecture presented by MOCCA and OCAD University on February 28. Photo: MOCCA. Peter Schjeldahl at a Toronto lecture presented by MOCCA and OCAD University on February 28. Photo: MOCCA.

New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl has, not surprisingly, an inquiring mind. When I arrived to interview him at the Drake Hotel on February 28, in advance of his lecture presented by MOCCA and OCADU, he immediately asked me where I’m from—not meaning what magazine I’m from, but what city or town. A different sense of origins—namely those that ground our responses to art—then wove its way through our conversation, as well as some thoughts on the fears and market forces that can affect our primary reactions to beauty. What follows is a condensed version of our exchange.

Leah Sandals: Much has been written in the past year about the market’s influence on art, and whether that influence is outsized at the moment. What’s your perspective?

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, for a long time, I was a defender of the market. I thought that rankings generated by price had a rough justice to them, and that they were at least as good as the judgment of most critics.

That changed in the last 10 or 15 years. Being rich used to mean having a lot of money. Now it means having unlimited money.

The couple of times in my life that I’ve bought an artwork made me realize that writing a cheque is so much more sincere than writing a review. Because it hurts. You think, “I must really mean this.” Whereas when you write a review, you get paid. You’re out nothing.

I once assumed that kind of introspection on the part of collectors, too. But now the amounts of money just make no sense. I think art is plainly overvalued now – it’s like, “It’s not that important, people!”

But then again, because people think it’s important, I have a job and I’m pretty well paid.

LS: And you must think art is pretty important too, given the way that you write about it.

PS: Well, there are enough people who want to read me for me to have a job. It’s something I regard it as part of my life, as part of the way I am. It’s a lifelong cultivation of my own sensibilities and sensitivities, a pleasure, something I do in aloneness that I can talk about with other people who do it in aloneness—and we’re sociable, and we make culture.

LS: So, in a way, art criticism provides a balance between introversion and interaction?

PS: Yeah. That’s nice about art.

You go rather deep into yourself if you look at art the way I do. And when you go deep into yourself, I think the deeper you go, the more scared you get. Scared that you might be completely insane, you know?

And then you come out of it and you talk to somebody else carefully and you realize, they saw it too! There’s relief: “I’m not crazy!” Or maybe we’re both crazy, and we’ll talk to somebody else.

You can pleasantly use up a whole life doing that.

LS: Are there any specific instances that come to mind of that experience?

PS: Oh, well, at whatever degree of intensity—from very mild to very intense—it is continuous.

One thing I always tell young artists is that you’re going to learn a lot more from bad art than from good art.

Bad art falls apart, so you can see what it’s made of.

Good art is like the blur of a Maserati going by. All you know is that you’re awed, and you’re now subsumed in whatever went into it, and you can’t pick it apart. And good art throws you back on yourself so your experience becomes the focus.

I never took an art course, but I was put on the scene in the 60s and when all the poets wrote art criticism. And people liked what I did, so I kept doing it. I was in love with art, but I also was extremely insecure, because I felt I didn’t know any damn thing.

One thing I figured out early on is the only subject in which I am the world’s leading expert is my experience. So that always remains my license. No one else can speak for my experience. And writing is a way of offering that experience as a comparison for other people.

LS: I appreciate you speaking to that because I often struggle with how much of my own subjective experience to bring into my writing.

PS: Well, that enters into questions of craft. It’s like, what are you making? You’re making something for somebody to read. The piece will select from you what it needs to be a good piece. There’s no innate significance in your experience except that it’s yours, and it marks the limitation of your authority.

I do think there’s a lot more of my experience in my first draft than in my last one. But it’s all informed by [my experience]. To me, this is just a sort of professional matter: how do you make something someone is going to want to read?

LS: While also being authentic to your own response, though, right?

PS: Oh, that helps. I mean, if you can trust yourself to be sincere, that saves a lot of sweat.

LS: You grew up on the prairies. So did I. What of your early years do you find coming up the most when you look at a piece of art?

PS: Well, I think the prairie is an experience of absolutely nothing—but a very specific nothing. Ha! The sky is always belled down over the grass, and you can see other people’s weather. So you could say the sublime, but I don’t like the word sublime. No, it’s a kind of emptiness—emptiness and loneliness.

And yet, again, [any artwork] can be a way to get deep down into yourself with a lifeline, with something you can pull yourself back up on. It’s vicarious, it’s secondhand, it’s negotiable, it’s sociable. What a great invention art is!

And nothing changes psychologically when it crosses the boundary from “not art” to “art.” I mean, there are many arts that are shared by almost everyone, like television and movies and popular fiction, which I consume along with everybody else. It makes for a certain level of conversation which is perfectly adequate for most people. Some of us freaks want something more, so we insist on pushing it. But it’s a continuum, not a separate country.

Aesthetic experience is also when you go outside and you say “It’s a beautiful day.” In that, you’ve just had an experience of beauty which hasn’t cost you anything.

LS: Now I’m curious about what kinds of popular fiction and television you enjoy.

PS: Detective novels. Good Hollywood stuff. I had my period in the 60s and 70s when I was very into foreign films and arcane, but I just don’t have the time or energy anymore. I do have a late-blooming enthusiasm for opera. I’ve seen seven of Wagner’s 12 operas, and my bucket list includes the rest of them.

LS: Opera is an interesting choice, and would seem to mirror your increasing interest in historical art. Can you tell me more about that?

PS: As I get older, I tend, for pleasure, to look at older and older art. You know, Rembrandt or Velasquez—your National Gallery has a nice Rembrandt I wish I could see.

I go to these types of [historical] artworks now because they’re more reliably satisfying. They’ve been sorted out.

There’s lots of great contemporary art out there, but none of it is sorted. So you’ve got to go through a whole warehouse and pick through to find something.

Whereas you can go to a good museum, and for every painting that’s hung, there are 20,000 paintings that you know are somewhere else and you’ll never see them.

LS: So historical works have the advantage of being more concisely edited.

PS: Yes.

LS: Speaking of editing, some of my colleagues are very curious about how you work with your editor at the New Yorker, as well as with the magazine’s intensive factchecking process.

PS: Well, it’s hard work, but I appreciate it very much. They will not let me make a fool of myself unwittingly.

LS: And yet some people say there is a very uniform style in the New Yorker. What concerns have you ever had about losing your voice through the editing process?

PS: There is kind of a house gloss when you read the New Yorker. There’s a consistent kind of precision. But if you think about it, writers sound like themselves. There is not a house style; there are house standards.

It’s really a writer’s magazine, and I am so lucky to have that job. And boy, if anyone wants to hear me complain about it, they’re just going to have to hold their breath and listen hard until they die.

LS: Understood. Last year, in a blog post for the New Yorker, you suggested that Detroit sell its art collection—then, after some online controversy, you retracted that statement. How do you look at that episode now?

PS: Blogging is very recent for me. It’s a lot of fun. But sometimes you hit “send” and then go, “Oops, wait a minute!”

And the reaction to that [Detroit] post was absolutely appropriate, you know. I put forth a false choice, and I took it back 24 hours later.

In this case, I was working up in mountains in my summer place, and I was thinking about the idea of pensioners starving [in Detroit]. And what I was reacting to in general—but you know, inopportunely—was a kind of conventional sentimentality about the glory of art.

There’s also this kind of hysteria when any museum de-accessions something, you know? It’s like, they’re not burning it! It’s going to be somewhere, and if it’s any good it’s going to get back into a museum.

So those were some of the general things that were on my mind when I wrote that post. But [the Detroit situation] was not the right moment to indulge that hobby horse.

LS: Overall, what do you think the art world is getting wrong and getting right at the moment?

PS: Um, it sure is getting!

I mean, if I closed my eyes and fantasized about what the art world should be like, it would be kind of like it was when I showed up.

But that’s always the case, you know?

My daughter, [Ada Calhoun], is writing a book about St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, where my wife and I live and where she grew up. One title of the book is St. Mark’s Is Dead—and anyone whose life was ever changed there will tell you exactly when the scene died—when they left! Ha!

So…. I don’t know, I mean, if I can be of some slight relevance, interest, or entertainment to young people today who are staying up late to do things that I vaguely understand, then boy, I have no complaints.

And anytime anyone wants to put their feet up and hear old stories of the way things used to be, I’m perfectly happy. But now is now.

One thing I would like is if everyone could just be given a set of “get out of jail” cards, or a set of “sorry, I’m stupid” cards, when it comes to art. People sit on themselves for fear of saying something stupid—which, if we keep rattling on, we are all inevitably going to do.


Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via