Surrounded by black sweatered people, wild haired with thick framed glasses, a sea of New York critics, I made my way to the front of Tishman Auditorium. Hosted by the International Association of Art Critics, we were there to hear Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker, lecture on the job of an art critic. I've been reading Schjeldahl since he began at The New Yorker, of course, I'm paying much more attention to his writing now that we share a hometown. Schjeldahl puts together sentences worth underlining. What I didn't expect, I mean, far, far from expect, was his dry, funny sense of humor. He made me want to spend time with him, smoking, even though I don't smoke, over a glass of whisky and talking about art and writing. He began his talk by saying he would keep it short, or as he said, "in the words of an old preacher, no soul saved after twenty minutes." Moving quickly through his promised short lecture, I jotted down as many things as I could. I don't think I can string them together into a clear piece, so I'll just include a few of the things he said that made me smile, or just hit home.
About reading a critics work:
"They operate in the flashing presence and when in the past read as outdated." I've actually been reading quite a bit of historical criticism, Pauline Kael, Leslie Fiedler, etc. and this definitely rings true.
On his job as a staff writer for The New Yorker:
"To hear me complain (about working for The New Yorker), you would have to have the ears of Superman and to concentrate. Until you die." Who doesn't want to work for The New Yorker, okay, maybe not everyone, but if there was a line to get a job at the magazine, and there was one of those deli ticket machines, I would be in the front grabbing every single number I could stuff in my hands.
On the craft of writing:
It takes me three days to get a sentence I like. The first paragraph is rewritten thirty times and the last paragraph is written once.
On what to do with your life, how to pick a career:
"Jasper Johns once said, find out what people like about you and exaggerate it."
On his education:
"Everything learned about art I learned on deadline."
Sitting in the audience I looked up towards Schjeldahl and thought, damn you have it good. And, I also thought, damn, you deserve it.