Faculty Interview: Jed Perl, Liberal Studies

By Aaron Miller

Jed Perl is currently a Visiting Professor of Liberal Studies at NSSR, teaching courses on art and art criticism. Formerly the art critic for Vogue, Perl has been the art critic at The New Republic since 1994. His books include Eyewitness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis, Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, and New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, which in 2005 was an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book.

First up: current events. With the controversy over Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, do you think the same kind of thing could ever happen here?

The first thing I think always needs to be said about art is that it has a freestanding power—that’s a term I use a lot in my writing. Although art is produced by particular people at particular times—and thus has a social dimension—I fervently believe what is unique about art is what I call this “freestanding value,” a meaning that is the work of art’s own meaning—unique, indissoluble. That’s why people in countries where basic freedoms are lacking have such a hunger for art—because a work of art has a value that is its own, a value not constrained by societal rules or norms. That freestanding value—that quality of standing alone, at one with itself—is what makes the work of art an ultimate symbol of human freedom.

The Chinese government’s crackdown on the artist Ai Weiwei—he is currently in detention and nobody knows where he is—is no doubt grounded in an authoritarian government’s fears about the essential freedom that art expresses—and the threat that freedom poses to a repressive society. But in more immediate terms, the Chinese governments actions are fueled by Ai Weiwei’s strong campaign for the civil rights of Chinese working people—a campaign that has gained international attention because of his prestige as an artist whose work was for a time embraced by the Chinese authorities. The Chinese government may be interested in working with artists—they worked with Ai Weiwei and others at the time of the Olympics–but they also want to contain and control art’s power. And their extraordinarily harsh treatment of an internationally celebrated artist—one would think they might worry about the response—serves to remind us of the extraordinary perils that face less celebrated dissidents, the many Chinese lawyers and activists who are struggling to help peasants and ordinary citizens who are the victims of a repressive regime.

I know there are artists and civil rights advocates who speak about censorship and threats to artistic freedom in the United States, but I do not believe those threats rise to a significant level. Certainly, we must be vigilant about censorship. But the debates in this country about public funding for certain artists and art exhibitions, although they may affect an artist’s access to some audiences, are not a fundamental assault on the artist’s right to create. I would think this would be clear to anybody who has considered the profound threats to artists and artistic freedom in many parts of the world.

How did you come to be a writer and critic?

In my twenties I was very involved in making art as well as writing about art, but in the early 80s I came to what I guess I would describe as a fork in the road, and around 1985 I just decided to stop painting. A lot of people were not that surprised, they felt that’s where I was going. A little later on, I discovered to my surprise that I could actually make a living as a writer– not the kind of living a doctor or a lawyer might make, but a living. But there is no question that my experience as a painter has shaped my vision as a writer. What matters the most to me are the strong, immediate experiences we have when we look at a work of art. And a lot of what I write is an attempt to describe those experiences—and then to discuss how those experiences are shaped, for better and for worse, by the art world. I have been very disturbed by how market-driven, money-oriented the art world has become in recent decades. This is something I want to tell my readers about. My writing isn’t just about what I’m seeing in museums and galleries, it’s also about how that fits into a broader social picture.

So we hear you used to write for a conservative publication…

Hilton Kramer, who people may not be that aware of now, was the chief art critic at the New York Times. And he left the NYT in the early 80s and started a neo-conservative journal of culture called The New Criterion, with Sam Lipman, a pianist and music critic. They asked me to write about art for The New Criterion. That was a conflict for me initially, because I really did not like the politics of the magazine. I was in the second issue then I wasn’t in the magazine for about a year because I was so upset about a lot of the politics. Then Hilton and I reconnected, and as it turned out, he gave me a completely free hand in terms of what I wrote and what I said.

The New Criterion was in some ways an attempt to revive a kind of magazine that had been more common in the 40s and 50s – Partisan Review was one of the models. The idea was to cover a whole range of culture – art, music, dance, books – and I really enjoyed writing about art within that large context. That fit in with the way I’d always felt about criticism—that it was an attempt, through the medium of a particular art form, to understanding art and society in more general terms. Criticism must address a specific art form, but at the same time it can raise broader questions – about what’s going on in culture, what people are feeling.

And—as I said before—Hilton gave me total freedom. I became the guy who just wrote about everything that was going on in the art world. I didn’t have to tell anybody what I was going to write about each month, nobody asked me, and I had the whole field open to me. As a relatively young writer, that was incredible–I just jumped into the deep end of the pool.

You taught at Parsons?

Well I taught there in the 70s and early 80s. I actually stopped teaching in the mid 80s when I started writing for Vogue. When I started teaching at Parsons in the 70s, the approach was very open, everybody was encouraged to teach the art history courses differently. In the early 80s, there was a big fight about establishing a union for part-time faculty. The administration was of course dead set against it, and that fight had repercussions in the classroom, unfortunately. When I came back to the New School decades later, the fight was still going on—and now, I’m happy to say, we do have a terrific union for part-time faculty.

After leaving Parsons, I didn’t teach for a long time, partly because people didn’t invite me to teach. I’ve never been especially popular among historians of modern and contemporary art. I’m an anomaly, a guy who marches to his own drummer. I don’t fit in. My opinions aren’t their opinions.

How has writing changed since you began your career?

I think there’s always a struggle in writing – in any creative activity. On the one hand, you must figure out what you really think and feel—what’s true to your intelligence, your spirit, your sensibility. On the other hand, you have to figure out how to express that through a particular medium – and that’s true whether you’re a writer, a painter, an actor. You have to be attentive to both sides of the equation—both to understanding your own insides, and to revealing yourself to others. Writing involves giving a public face to something that’s inside you. Everybody who has written knows that when you put it down on a page, it seems different than it seemed in your head.

For many of us who love the act of writing—even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy—there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader. I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page. – “Alone with Words,” The New Republic, June 2010

I think blogs and online magazines create enormous opportunities for people. Clearly many younger writers—and older writers, too—are using new media to develop a relationship with the public. Whatever medium you’re writing for, though, you’ve got to constantly be asking yourself: What do I really think, how do I express what I feel? One of the challenges involved in the speed of the new media—the speed with which words can travel from the writer to the reader—is that we’re in danger of losing the distinction between writing and talking. Writing and talking are two very different forms of communication. I spend a huge amount of time figuring out how to begin a piece of writing—figuring out the first sentences or paragraph—whether it’s a 700 word piece or a 5000 word piece. I will sit with a pad for a day or two trying to decide what is it I want to say first – what is the first impression or fact or thought I want my readers to have. And that is obviously totally different from having a conversation—which is spontaneous, improvisational. I think it’s very important to make that distinction.

Do you think it is now harder to draw a distinction between this public and private face?

One of the things I love about writing is the weird kind of private/public aspect it has. You sit and do it alone, it’s extraordinarily solitary. But if you’re lucky enough to have places to publish, and to have people who read you, then at the same time it’s a very public act.

Every society struggles with the distinction between public and private experience. 150 years ago there may have been too much privacy; people were forced to keep too much inside, in terms of how they felt, in terms of their desires and frustrations. We probably live in a culture where there’s too little sense of privacy– people are all too willing to discuss just about anything in public. I suppose that sex is the most obvious example. What does it mean to advertise one’s private sexual experiences all over town? How could they possible mean to other people what they’ve meant to you or me? – unless, maybe, you are a great poet? I do think that public and private are totally different realms. Creative people need to struggle with how to navigate those realms. In my view nothing is out of bounds, I think anything that somebody wants to put out in public is fine, I’m an absolutist about freedom of speech. But I think all the more so, because we do live in an open society, we need to be willing and able to make those tough decisions about what should be public and what should remain private.

You usually teach a Picasso class as well as a mid-twentieth-century American art course – any plans to mix it up?

I probably will continue this rotation of a Picasso seminar and a course in mid-twentieth-century American art. But I’m also working with Jim Miller on a new course which will be a history of the critical essay – both a history of the essay going back to Montaigne and also a survey of styles in critical writing. It will embrace writing about literature, music, the visual arts, theater, performance of various kinds. This is something I’m very excited about doing,  because for me there’s never been a distinction between art criticism and other kinds of criticism. To me criticism is one thing. The idea that all of this is part of some whole—well, I believe that passionately.

Why does art criticism matter in the big picture?

I’m always excited when my writing about art kicks off a strong positive response in readers whose primary interest is elsewhere—in, say, dance or philosophy. A reader will tell me that something I said about the art world resonated with things they’ve been thinking about their own part of the cultural world. And that makes me happy, because it means that we’re not all stuck in our own boxes—it means that we’re communicating with people in other parts of the society. That to me is just enormously exciting. Ideally, that is the kind of discourse a university is meant to encourage.

And now, fair sir, any advice for the students?

One of the great things about studying at the New School is that you’re spending time in New York. When I teach my course in mid-twentieth-century American art, I try to take students on a tour of the New School neighborhood—where Duchamp and de Kooning had studios, where Hans Hofmann ran his great art school and artists gathered for raucous conversation at the Artists’ Club. It’s extraordinary how much history—cultural history, art history—has occurred within a few blocks of the New School.

Something I always tell people about the writer’s life is that you can’t calculate it. If you want to do criticism, any kind of writing, anything creative, you just have to take a deep breath and proceed. It’s never clear how you’re going to get to the next place, you don’t even know what the next step is. But sometimes it does work out. You just have to have a kind of blind faith in your abilities, at least at first. That’s certainly how it was for me. The opportunities that came my way were impossible to predict.

How do you get heard above the din? I think that is always a challenge—it’s always been hard. Remember this – you will be heard because you have a viewpoint, because you have something to say and you figure out a way to say it. One of the problems that many young writers have is that they’re always waiting for someone else to tell them what to say; if they get some time with an editor, they’re waiting for the editor to tell them what he or she wants. The reality is that the writers whose voices are ultimately heard are the ones who always have an idea about what they want to say. There will be times in your career when the most important thing is to be true to what you feel—at times that may be more important than whether you are “right” or “wrong.”

I started as a writer with a very strong viewpoint, arguing for the value of painting—for the value of art as a highly structured experience–at a time when a lot of people were saying that painting was dead and anything goes. I stuck to my guns, I was very passionate about what I was doing, I was sometimes crazily passionate about what I was doing. And it worked out. Even when I was the art critic at Vogue in the ‘80s, I wrote some pieces that were very critical of establishment figures. Interestingly enough, Anna Wintour gave some of that stuff the okay. Because she understood, as all good editors do, that there are a lot of sides to a story and that readers want to hear a surprising, original view. Writers need to know what they want to say. Writers must not be discouraged when editors or readers say: “That’s not what I want to hear.” If you cave to those kinds of comments, in the end you’re going to find that you’re left with nothing, that everything evaporates into thin air. There’s got to be something coming out of you—some strong vantage point you’re willing to put on the page. ❉