In Brief: Peter Schjeldahl
Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: my own little book of delights
Unless I am writing poetry, I am bad at writing brief, with lift and lightness, with grin and jubilance to be alive amidst the vortex of early mornings and menopause, hot flashes and soggy sheets lining my way into each new dawn.
If I want to read brief, I read Peter Schjeldahl. I keep his bright yellow book close to me always. At night, it rests on top of the Marseilles-deck Moon card that signals where my bedside table ends and my Saturn-in-Pisces altar begins. By day, it clowns around in the stacks of books that make it hard to work at my desk. Right now Schjeldahl’s Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 elbows Phil Christman’s How to Be Normal, Chela Sandoval’s The Methodology of the Oppressed, and Joy Castro’s One Brilliant Flame. Schjeldahl’s book isn’t greedy, per se; it doesn’t want to steal all of my time and attention so much as it wants to gently cajol me into a better mood, a kinder orientation to my time and attention.
The other books are worth it, its happy-face color proclaims, but maybe only after a few joyful dips into a 1,000-word essay on Rembrandt, another on Basquiat. And if I’m still unsure about wonder and joy being the appropriate ways to approach art and life and writing and critique, perhaps I ought to read what Schjeldahl can do with Koons—an artist he hates, after all, but someone he still manages to hate with loving aplomb, with every right and light-filled sentence. There’s no resentment to be found here or in the essay on Otto Dix, a terror, or in any of the others where Schjeldahl might have wielded his criticism crankily, self-righteously. As a critic, as a person, he rises off the page as the opposite of me in nearly all respects—gleeful, in love with the world, teeth unclenched (but still, somehow, pointed; unafraid to just say it, as he does with Koons: “he gives the term public a weight exactly equal to that of art, or even identical with it. There ought to be a Koons sculpture in a park or plaza of every city. The planet would not improve, but it would be more frankly itself.”)
Schjeldahl does not look at art’s complicity with the markets, with technology, and sneer, as I do, as so many of us do. He simply calls it for what it is (sickness)— “the art market is a fever chart. Its zigs and zags calls less for explanation than for diagnosis”—and delights himself in pressurizing other metaphors for art and her dirty bedfellows— “like all leading couples, art and money understood their responsibility to model style and manners for society’s improvement. Their style was nakedness, and their custom was to fuck in public.”
You know he laughed as he wrote that, because he goes on—he always go on—to write such earnest and lovely sentences about the art he loves, and does not love but still loves; the joy of standing before a painting and needing to weep a little, needing to spin out, to zhush up one’s outfit a bit to be worthy of one’s gaze, needing to gasp and sigh. “Did Pablo Picasso exist? It gets harder to believe,” Schjeldahl writes to open an essay that will ultimately critique the painter’s Weeping Woman, but not before he laughs and bows to and winks at the great artist all the same. “Think of him wielding pencil and pecker, astride a century. He rewired the world’s optic nerves and imagination!”
I used to, when I was glum and bored and wanting a drink in the middle of the day, turn to Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace for a sense of weight and duty, an aphorism to carry me through the daily worst of myself. Now I’m on this Schjeldahl kick. He can be just as heavy, but he has more fun with it. Every opening paragraph of every brief essay is a testament to the fun of it, using the artificial construct of language to uncork, to ping, to rhapsodize the artifice of art and, behind that, the truth of beauty.
He doesn’t mind beauty, either, a rarity in a critic these days.
Here’s the first paragraph from a 1988 essay on Courbet:
The Courbet show at the Brooklyn Museum is right on time for us, but when wouldn’t it be? We are always in the mood, whether we know it or not, for a brash, authentic arrival who is wild for our approval and, cheerfully absorbing abuse, keeps on coming. Gustave Courbet was like that in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, a swaggering fanatic importuning the public with paintings that Edgar Degas said made him feel he was being nuzzled by the wet nose of a calf. Courbet is the same today in Brooklyn, which is a good place for him. He is to great art what a ‘dese, dem, and dose’ accent once was to American speech. In Brooklyn, as in all else, he is off-center in a way that makes the center feel feeble.”
You see what I mean?
In six sentences, Schjeldahl has indulged in us our need for critical authority, sex jokes, art-world gossip, historical background, analogy, a gentle ribbing of masculinity and Americanness, and the kind of philosophizing we can all grasp, the last sentence taking our breath away. He permits himself to write light-and-heavy at once from the authority of the first-person plural, and we let him, because we know he loves us; we know he loves art.
I’ve been having a hard time lately; feeling directionless, without anything other than anxiety to cohere around. I worry about my kid, I worry about death, I worry about money and missing my old self. I read Schjeldahl and am reminded that most worries stem from love, and most love stems from light, that impossible light, threaded through body and perception, being and art, like the first sentence of Schjeldahl’s Laura Owens’ profile, “serious but friendly, a woman who rarely jokes but readily laughs,” please let it be so: a new motto for my life.
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