« Art Critics' Reading List


David Pagel is an art critic who reviews exhibitions for the Los Angeles Times and writes catalog essays, recent examples of which include Tim Bavington: Poptimist (Azusa Pacific Arts Press), Leslie Wayne: Rags (Jack Shainman Gallery) and Kathy Butterly: Enter (Tibor de Nagy Gallery), all published in 2014. He is an adjunct curator for the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y., where he has organized “Damaged Romanticism” and “Underground Pop” and is currently working on a Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl and David Salle exhibition. An avid cyclist, he is a five-time winner of the California Triple Crown.

Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. First published in 1874. Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980.

Nietzsche wrote this 58-page zinger before he turned 30, but long after he had sensed that there was something deeply wrong with the culture in which he had been raised. His booklet begins, like disaffected adolescents everywhere, with hatred—for all of the usual suspects: authority, hypocrisy, convention and general dim-wittedness. Almost immediately, Nietzsche puts his anger to good use, sniffing out what is living and dead in the culture around him; clearing some space for individuals to do their own things; and, ultimately, arriving at love as the touchstone of art, life and every other DIY enterprise worth doing. There’s nothing sappy about Nietzsche’s valorization of passion, just the wisdom that without intimacy art doesn’t stand a chance. Although published three years after the German Empire was formed, his essay feels as if it were written yesterday, its critique of falseness as applicable to our managerial culture as it was to his.

Oscar Wilde. The Critic as Artist. First published in 1891. New York: Mondial, 2007.

Wilde’s playful meditation on the relationship between art and criticism is just the antidote for people who think that art is one thing and criticism quite another. It’s also strong medicine for readers who believe that truth sits still—and can be delivered in Twitterable takeaways. The 50-page conversation, which is not much longer than what is increasingly required of MFA students, takes place between set-up-man Ernest and star-of-the-show Gilbert. It’s as stilted as any Socratic dialogue, but the moves Wilde makes with language—and the liberties he takes with our expectations—open eyes, change minds and make room for the sort of imaginative thinking that makes freedom not only possible, but the likely outcome of engaged reading. All sorts of shibboleths fall away as Wilde makes a great case for formalism, subjectivity, art for art’s sake and sustained contemplation. His defense of art’s immorality spirals into a beautiful vision of world peace, human sympathy and transhistorical understanding. Not bad for someone who started out arguing against criticism’s utility.

Harry G. Frankfurt. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Frankfurt’s tiny book starts with something people all over the globe look down on—bullshit—yet delivers things just about everyone values: focus, clarity and passion, as well as sustained thought, persuasive argumentation and great respect for people’s capacity to know the truth when they see it. Making something out of nothing is one of the mysteries of art I love most, and Frankfurt’s no-nonsense essay does so in spades, using everyday language to make nuanced distinctions about stuff with real consequences, like the differences between bullshitting and lying, casual and calibrated deceit, and deep cynicism and short-sighted selfishness. Along the way, his read-it-in-one-sitting masterpiece speaks volumes about contemporary art, politics and humanity. The virtues of craftsmanship, the freedom of imaginative fabrications and the swindle at the heart of sincerity play key roles in Frankfurt’s bracing booklet, which gives humanism its due and brings the Enlightenment up to the minute.