The Pleasures of Spectatorism

Top End Australian Football Association Preliminary Final

On paper, Peter Clothier‘s career looks like that of a successful academic. He was an art school dean at USC, Loyola Marymount and Otis Art Institute. He published numerous books including art criticism, poetry and memoirs. So it was refreshing to read his book of personal essays, Persist, and to find out he wasn’t inclined to the academic life in the least. And what’s more, he figured out rather late in his career that he wasn’t an art critic either.

Clothier describes an experience he had a few years ago when he submitted a draft review of an art exhibit to a New York publication. The reviews editor wrote him back and said she was hoping for something more “blatant.” That didn’t sit well with Clothier:

I had different, even conflicting thoughts about what I’d seen at the exhibition in question. My response to it had been a subtle exchange between head and heart, and I had wanted, in my review, to say something about the subtlety of that exchange. I had brought with me no latest theory about painting, no set of standards by which I could measure out the paintings’ quality or their relevance to current discourse. I was actually not the least bit interested in proclaiming them good or bad—or anything in between. I was interested in the subtlety of my entire reaction, an integration of body and feeling, mind and spirit, and in using my own art—writing—as a medium through which to give expression to that complexity.

This experience was a turning point of Clothier. He came to understand that criticism was neither appealing nor interesting to him, that the whole orientation of criticism was anathema to his way of thinking and being. In the course of that realization, he came to understand what his mind actually does best:

I have settled for another way of thinking about art writing that feels comfortable to me. I like to think of myself as a translator. I have played with this notion for quite some time now, even though it might seem an odd one when applied to writing about visual art…Translation, especially the translation of poetry, involves an act of experiential empathy, a kind of identification that requires not the suspension of self so much as the merger of self with another. It’s kind of making love, a way of opening to another and giving voice or vision to that other through oneself. It’s the work of a medium. So that’s what I do instead of criticism…

I, for one, am happy with these small flashes of wisdom that I’m granted nowadays; and, with a slowly, slowly more appropriate sense of who I am and what I’m given to do, I have chosen to release myself from the struggle to write criticism and to shed the uncomfortable guise of being a person I do not feel myself to be.

Encountering that level of openness and vulnerability in anyone is striking and it is rare. While I am neither an art critic nor an academic, I don’t imagine those qualities are conducive to success in either of those fields. So it is was not surprising to discover that Clothier now describes himself as a “reformed academic” and has crafted a much more self directed life which includes blogging, meditation and workshops. His blog features a tagline that seems like an indicator of his truth north: “An aspiring Buddhist looks at art, books, and the vicissitudes of life.”

I have thought a lot about Clothier’s self disclosures, particularly while I have been reading the spectacular, insightful, deeply provocative—and yes, very academic—book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, by Sianne Ngai. I’m not finished yet, but every page I’ve read so far is covered with annotations and underlines. Ngai is an English professor at Stanford, and she is so unabashedly brilliant it almost blinds the reader (me) to take all of her thinking in. I absolutely adore reading this book.

And yet it is completely alien to my way of viewing art, making art, creating order in the chaos of 21st century life. Finding Clothier’s book and reading it at the same time has provided an unexpected counterweight. Clothier’s honesty and clarity about his natural inclinations of mind and spirit have helped me feel comfortable claiming a spectactor’s status for myself. Sitting in the stands and watching an extraordinary and esoteric sporting event—like a game of Australian rules football–can produce a lot of passion and pleasure without any longing to play the game yourself. Like Clothier, that isn’t my way or my inclination.

Meanwhile there are many games and many seats. I’d say that’s a win/win.

1 comment

  1. Altoon’s avatar

    Interesting post. I’m with Clothier in his approach to writing/thinking about art. I remember many years ago hearing a talk by Dore Ashton, who said that art writing should be “sympathetic observation”.

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