Michael Bonesteel is an independent scholar, curator, and contributing editor to Raw Vision. He is the author of Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings (Rizzoli International) and was an art critic for Art in America and Artforum magazines and Chicago Bureau Chief New Art Examiner. His writing appears in the recent book, Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Artists (Quarto Publishing).
I sometimes describe myself as a ‘recovering art critic’ because I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with the role. I’m essentially a self-taught critic and art historian and was never trained as one. My undergrad background was in English literature and creative writing, with a minor in psychology. I made two stabs at finishing my graduate studies but dropped out both times. There were various reasons for this, but paramount among them was the fact that I wanted to be a full-time writer and not a teacher. I was publishing poetry in small magazines during my immediate post-college years, but I knew, of course, that I could never make a living at it. So rather than fall back on teaching – which is generally what most practicing poets and artists resort to – I aimed at becoming an arts journalist.
I was doing poetry readings in art galleries, and as time went on these evolved into performance art pieces. Hanging out with artists and devouring art magazines gradually gave me a practical education in contemporary visual art, while reading up on classical art history filled in the gaps. Soon I was regularly publishing freelance art criticism in local newspapers. I might have pursued employment as a film critic, rock critic, theater critic, or literary critic since I enjoy almost all the arts. Why a critic? Because for freelancers in the 1970s, writing criticism was about the only game in town. Why an art critic? Because, paltry as it was, art publications paid the best. So, to survive as a writer, I sold my soul and embraced that most hated (at least by artists) of occupations.
Once I had my foot in the door of art critical writing, I was allowed to write longer ‘think’ pieces. I really preferred these because I could stretch out and explore more ideas about the art and artists that excited me. I worked at menial day jobs and wrote at night for many years until I scored a job as a full-time publicist at an art museum in 1977. My big break came in 1980 when the New Art Examiner hired me as a bureau chief to hold down the fort in Chicago while it expanded nationally to Washington DC. Following that, I took a job as an arts journalist and editor with a suburban Chicago newspaper chain and made a pretty decent living for 27 years. Having written literally thousands of art reviews throughout my career, it seemed to me that art criticism, as I defined it, was basically just one person’s personal taste and educated opinion informed by intuitive insight and intellectual argument. My approach was to try to offer my readers an entry into the artist’s work from my own perspective, and the vast majority of my reviews were generally supportive in nature. Yet I felt it was my job to not only point out what was effective in an artist’s work, but also what did not work by my lights
I confess that in moments of weakness I tried to show off at the artist’s expense, entertaining the reader with clever word plays or snide remarks. At my best, I offered constructive criticism; at my worst, God help me, I indulged in hatchet jobs. For the latter, I have definite regrets. Hence, my need to be in a critical recovery mode. At times I’ve questioned how important the role of an art critic really is. Beyond being a sort of cheap publicist for the artists reviewed, I wonder if my or anyone else’s judgments, positive or negative, really make any difference at all. Every once in a while, an artist who I’ve written about will surface on Facebook and tell me how much she/he/they appreciated (and in at least one instance, did not appreciate) a review I’d written decades ago. That can be gratifying … or not.
Things came to a head in 1988 when a sea change began to roil the art-world waters, eventually building to a tsunami. For most of the 1970s and 1980s, there had been a healthy eclecticism of expression, when many different types of art were being investigated. However, as the 1980s drew to a close, French post-structuralism and deconstructionism took hold among many younger and emerging artists and critics, and I knew that this vice-grip of conceptual intellectualism was not for me. It seemed like we were experiencing the 1950s/’60s era of Greenbergian and Rosenbergian art theories all over again but dressed in the latest fashion of emperor’s new clothes. At the same time, I was becoming attracted to the ignominious yet wildly original and independent group of art brut practitioners – the so-called ‘outsider’ artists – and most particularly the astonishing oeuvre of one very controversial Chicago figure: Henry Darger. I held as my credo Wassily Kandinsky’s pronouncement from Concerning the Spiritual in Art: “I value only those artists who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of their inner life; who work only for this end and cannot work otherwise.” I came to a momentous decision. I drastically curtailed my writing of art criticism and eventually began writing longer articles almost exclusively devoted to Outsider art for select American, British, and European publications. By the time my monograph about Darger was published in 2000, I had transformed myself professionally.
Having become a scholar in the field of self-taught art, I began teaching classes in 2003 as an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My late New Art Examiner cohorts Kathryn Hixon and Jim Yood tried to lure me into teaching art criticism courses for the department of art theory and practice, but I demurred. For the 14 years I taught classes in Outsider art (and sequential art/comics at the suggestion of my department chairman), I exposed my students to legitimate artistic work beyond the academy. My classes filled to capacity and had waiting lists every semester. The intention was to advocate for all forms of art: from insider to outsider, conceptual to kitsch, fine art to the art of popular culture. I operated under the mistaken notion that the traditional walls between high and low art were crumbling in the post-postmodern art-world and that the academy was opening up to other artistic expressions outside the margins of the formalist canon. How wrong I was!
There is not space enough here for me to go into the litany of examples, but it soon became apparent that everything I found so objectionable about the self-serving snobbery of my professors in graduate school was still very much alive and thriving among many of my art school colleagues. In the end I resigned – dropping out yet again – for reasons other than those discussed here (see ‘The Offender’ in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2017).
As for being an art critic, I am still in recovery although old habits die hard. I fall off the wagon once in a while and publish a critical review, but for the most part I no longer have the stomach for it. To paraphrase a corny old adage, if I can’t write about something I like, I don’t write anything at all. Then again, I’ve obviously failed miserably at that with this little gem of passive-aggressive invective, so there you go.