Sebastian Smee wrote to us in December with a few complaints. We run his email in full:
“May I correct a couple of points? I never wrote “I hate video art.” I was so impressed with the various video components of the 2000 Sydney Biennale that, although I had already written one review of the biennale as a whole, I begged permission to write a second review exclusively devoted to video art (SMH, July 8, 2000). I started the review with the line: “I hate MOST video art” but everything that followed about the videos on show was entirely positive.
The artists I praised included Doug Aitken, Pipilotti Rist, Shirin Neshat, Tracey Moffatt, Bruce Nauman and Matthew Barney. You write that I say Matthew Barney is “shit”. But here is what I wrote about him in that review: Cremaster 2, I wrote, was “one of the highlights of this year’s Biennale”…”a ravishing, exquisitely shot montage of obliquely related scenes that build and build in tension.”; Barney is “one of the most jaw-droppingly ambitious artists at work today.” “If you can stand the obliqueness, the allusiveness and the tension-inducing pace, you are in for an experience that is disturbing, revelatory and poetic.”
“Two or three years ago, I interviewed Barney and wrote a piece about him for the Daily Telegraph in London, which was adapted for The Australian and printed prior to the screenings of the Cremaster Cycle at the Art Gallery of NSW. I did, as you report, start that article by quoting Janet Malcolm to the effect that “the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice in one’s head saying, ‘But this is ridiculous.’” It’s hard to know how to improve on a well-expressed idea, but I suppose the point of the quote is that ANY work of art is vulnerable to this voice, since, on one level, all art is ridiculous. It is nonetheless worth suppressing the voice if we want the riches of art to be available to us, even if – as may be the case with the Cremaster Cycle – the voice is “unusually persistent” (because of the convoluted nature of the work, its deliberate sense of conceptual overload, etc). (That article, by the way, was not a review, but a feature, in which I was instructed to introduce Barney to skeptical readers who may not have heard of him.)
“As well as misquoting what I have written about Barney in a way that presents, as my opinion, the exact opposite of what I believe, you misquote my comments on the Anne Landa Awards at the AGNSW. Like you, I did not like much of what I saw in that show. But rather than wasting a 1500-word review picking it to bits, I used the vast majority of the piece to praise video works that I did like, including the Gladwell video, the installation by Van Sowerwine, and, above all, a video at the MCA by Destiny Deacon.
“I have been told that I am much in your thoughts. How nice. I am aware that my job as an art critic makes me fair game – and I would not do it if I minded. I believe that the more robust and intelligent discussion about art on websites and in newspapers and magazines, the better. But only the most magnanimous kind of fool would encourage this level of discussion and this total disregard for accuracy. – Sebastian Smee”
We wrote back to Smee and asked him if it were true that he gave away bottles of Calvados and pasta making machines but he did not choose to dignify our questions with a response. Which is a pity, really, because we would have pointed out that what we had argued was that Smee’s cynical default position regarding video art was consistent with pretty much everything he has ever written about contemporary art. We would have also pointed out that while Smee did in fact say some fairly neutral things about Barney, he might also care to recall that he described a heckler being present at the screening of Cremaster 2 and that, somehow, this was symptomatic of that niggling voice of doubt one apparently feels in front of contemporary art. (Perhaps if Smee had stuck it out to the end of the screening he would have discovered that the heckler was in fact a mentally disabled adult in the company of his elderly mother.)
Of course, we would have said these things but as Smee says he doesn’t want a debate with people such as us (with our flagrant disregard for accuracy and all), we can only imagine what his responses might have been. We’re just flattered that he took the time to write to us and to thank us for being so attentive to his writing – and we’re also pretty damn chuffed he used his usual formula of nice-up-front-disguised-insult-at-the-end he uses in his reviews.
But one last point. Smee isn’t so much on our “minds” as being rather like a persistent ringing in the ears – eventually it will go away but for the moment it’s very annoying.