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Christopher Knight’s high horse

Christopher Knight’s disdain for Jerry Saltz has a religious quality. (What is truth; said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.)


Never pass judgment on the merits of art you haven’t actually seen. I would no more review art from reproductions on a museum’s website or in a magazine than I would from seeing it on a TV show. Be there or be square.

My surprise in finding myself stating what I’ve always thought obvious comes from reading an item posted Wednesday on New York magazine’s website. New York’s Vulture blog (Editor’s note: i.e., Saltz), opines that “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” created a new way to practice art criticism. In online forums and the comment sections of blogs and across Facebook pages, “people who would otherwise have no access to art-world opinion, criticism or power were given voice.”

Really? Art criticism is about having “access” to establishment art-world power?

Needless to say, virtually all the “Work of Art” Twitter feeds and
comment threads on all the blogs were written by people who — like me
— have not seen Abdi Farah’s paintings, sculptures and drawings, except
as mediated through a camera.

Art criticism tends to be pretty low-grade without real access to the art.

fact, for criticism that’s the only access that really matters. The art
is where the authentic power does or does not lie. Viewers of Bravo’s
TV show haven’t had that chance, although those who do go to the
Brooklyn Museum to see Farah’s work can then expound. (more)

Get thee behind me, Satan, all ye who confuse replicas with the real. Knight argues for an absolute division between real and fake (virtue and vice). I doubt there’s an art critic alive who doesn’t, on an emotional level, agree with him, especially about painting, even realizing, as John Russell put it, a painting is a “vegetable construct that changes in time.”

A direct encounter is the key that slides into the lock and turns the tumblers, but before getting to the nature of that encounter, let me pause to say that critics who rear up to declaim this first principle as if were a rock solid have begun to sound like Bible thumpers.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me… (more, always more)

To brush up on the complexities of the encounter between viewer and the viewed, I suggest Knight click over to John Perreault’s blog and read his entry, Fakes: Have Replicas Replaced the Real? The answer for me is no, as it is for Saltz, for Perreault, for Knight and for all those hundreds of thousands of people who pour every year into art museums instead of being content to click through images on their laptops. But it is a no inside a muddle instead of a clarity. We can’t go on, we go on.


At a 2007 conservation workshop at London’s Tate, there were “collective
gasps” when an original Pevsner, now looking like a “plate of Doritos,”
was shown next to an image of a recently constructed replica of what it
had looked like in its glory day.

Nobody settles for replicas; we all settle for replicas. Why is it that when the homicidally-repressive governments in Russian and China cracked open enough to let art in and out, the West found artists who’d evolved their work from premises of Duchamp, Beuys and Warhol, with whom they’d never had a direct encounter? Credit goes to reproductions in illegally obtained art magazines, passed hand to hand.

We can’t go on, we go on. No need to be so desperately rude about it. As Carolina Miranda so aptly wrote of Knight, meow!


  1. “No need to be so desperately rude about it.” You are so right — but Knight is always rude, and of course he believes he is always right.
    Why does anyone read him, except for chuckles?

  2. I read him because he’s smart, well-informed and writes sentences as sturdy as old-growth forests.

  3. It’s piffle.

  4. Regina writes: “A direct encounter is the key that slides into the lock and turns the tumblers.”
    I like that metaphor, but in many cases I can tell all I need to know about a work of art from a reproduction. It’s great that “Work of Art” got some people chatty about evaluating quality (though I would bet the vast majority of them already were involved in those kinds of discussions). But “Work fo Art” didn’t work hard enough to elevate or deepen their engagement. It glossed over the meat and threw the audience a soapy emotional sop. The fact that it was televised and not a live experience for its audience wasn’t the problem. The show debased the field for other reasons.

  5. Peter Plagens says:

    A couple of things that are elided or finessed here:
    1. The difference between an original work of art vs. a replica/reproduction of it, and an original work of art vs. how it appears on a television program. I think Knight is concerned more about the latter.
    2. Passing published critical judgment on a work of art without actually having seen it in the form in which it was meant to be seen, and being influenced in making one’s own art by works of art one hasn’t actually seen. The former is a pretty much a no-no, but the latter is entirely A-OK.

  6. Jim VanKirk says:

    Jerry Saltz has done for informed aesthetic discourse what Sarah Palin has done for the effects 200 years of public education on the quality of politics, They made it useless.

  7. Hi Peter: Very nice. Silky never fails you. However, you’re making a distinction that isn’t relevant to this post. Christopher Knight made assertions about judgments based on reproductions, full stop, not judgments based on TV. Yes, a TV show was his springboard, but the leap he took landed him in a wider world. That said, your comments are right on.

  8. Hi Jim. Your troll-under-the-bridge persona is edging into performance art. I read your comment as one long grrrrr. Hard to make distinctions when one is growling, but your gaps in reason are breathtaking. Jerry Saltz and Sarah Palin? Not even a little bit.

  9. A small thought experiment:
    Let’s say, for example, by reproduction we mean a photograph of an apparent three dimensional sculpture, and a critic issues an opinion about this depiction. What if this photograph is completely fabricated and the sculpture depicted does not, in fact, actually exist in any physical form? What is being critiqued? Obviously not the photograph, and not any actual sculpture. Is it the idea of a sculpture? The mind of the critic?
    And so on… etc…
    Anyway, I’ve mostly lost my train of thought, but I would think that any critique of a reproduction only makes sense within a larger context of information about that which has been reproduced, and that this question of critique and reproduction is mostly moot.

  10. Miss Marple says:

    Mr. Van Kirk: I don’t know where to begin regarding your lack of command of the English language. I’ll just assume you were incapacitated by righteous indignation about WOA…..

  11. Christopher Knight is an old-style art critic. Something is true because he says it is. Jerry Saltz is new. He’s willing to probe and be open in public. That’s what I like about you, too, Regina. You’re thinking out loud in your writing, and will admit sometimes being wrong. When I read you I feel I’m part of a conversation you’re having, although it’s usually a better one than I have on my own.

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