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Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art
Book by John Canaday; Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962
FOREWORD: Author to Reader
Most of the essays collected in this volume were written in the course of duty for The New York Times, and hence were produced under circumstances that most people do not think of as applying to a writer. When you work for a newspaper, you do not sit down to invoke the muse at your, or her, leisure. A critic on a newspaper is subject not only to short deadlines but also to the journalistic institution called "the news peg," a current event upon which his essay must hang. Sometimes this means that an exhibition by an important painter gives you the chance to write a general discussion of his art. Or several exhibitions opening by coincidence during a single week will suggest, in combination, a subject. And occasionally there appears to be nothing to write about yet there is still your space waiting on the page, so you have to find some nominal connection between the calendar and something you have wanted to say for a long time, and you have a chance to say it.
On the whole, the news peg is a rewarding discipline. It forces you to extend your boundaries because it may demand that you look into a subject you would otherwise neglect. But after a few weeks, the topical reference is superfluous to anything the essay manages to say of lasting interest, so I have eliminated the pegs from the majority of the essays here. For instance, the piece on "Children, Amateurs and Artists" was originally pegged to a convention of teachers held in New York City and a display of art-education techniques held at the Museum of Modern Art for the delegates. No reference to these facts remains. On the other hand, difficulties were involved in excising references to the exhibition that occasioned some comments on Mir and Calder, so I have simply let them stand. The reader will recognize that this is true of occasional other pieces. Frequently I have combined two or three articles, or parts of them, into a single essay for this book. This explains the appearance of more than one date of first publication given at an essay's end, as well as connecting passages that never appeared in The Times.
Something else that newspaper readers do not realize is that the articles they read are affected by being tailored to fit a given space. Normally, space is short. I have heard of newspaper men who write short and have to add to fill, but most of us write long and have to cut to fit. I have put some of these cuts back into the essays as they appear here, and I have also changed a word here and there for one that seemed more felicitous. But I have not allowed myself the privilege of second-guessing through rewriting. There are statements in these essays that I would modify in one direction or another if I were making them again for the first time, but it has seemed best to let them ride, with their datelines explaining that any apparent contradictions represent changes of mind. A critic should be allowed to change his mind, and in fact should not be permitted to continue as a critic once he has lost the capacity to do so. I have been particularly careful not to modify any statements that have brought me under fire. A petition for my discharge from my position on The Times was widely circulated by a reputable professor because I stated that brainwashing went on in universities and museums, rather than saying "some" universities and museums. It seems to me that even a professor of art education should have recognized that "some" was implied in context, but since I had originally considered putting in "some" and then had decided not to slow the sentence by this superfluous qualification, I did not change the passage for republication. In an effort to give this volume some coherence, the essays are grouped under several classifications rather than ordered by date. "Happy New Year" was my first article as art critic for The Times. It appeared on Sunday, September 6, 1959, and was also the first of several articles that so offended one group of avant-garde painters and their sympathizers that a letter of objection signed by forty-nine of them was presented to the paper. It was published on the art page of Sanday, February 26, 1961.
Although this letter caused me distress upon receipt, I have since grown so fond of it that it is reprinted here as an appendix, along with a fair selection from more than 600 letters which it in turn inspired. The selection is based on letters published in The Times on the two subsequent Sundays. I cannot let this book go without admitting that the one brilliant spot in it, where painting as practiced today is compared to the art of fencing, is borrowed. It appears in the second article, "A Blue Note," but it was first tossed off in a letter to me from a friend who is without question the finest critic and art historian at work today. He refused to let me give him proper credit, contending that this kind of borrowing has always been "good humanistic practice." Nevertheless I thank him, although he must remain unidentified. I would like also to thank The New York Times Company for permission to reprint, as well as the magazine Horizon. Articles that originally appeared in Horizon'are acknowledged individually at their ends.