Our Blog

Art Criticism as Crisis & Conversation

January 28, 2019

Zeny May Recidoro reflects on her 2018 ACC Fellowship experience, art writing, and art criticism.

Through the auspices of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), I was able to come to New York to take an MFA in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I would like to think that the events of 2018 were a series of kind and generous gestures for which I am deeply grateful. Here, I was able to meet friends and colleagues with whom I share common interests, ideas, the intention to further improve our craft as writers and artists, and the pursuit of developing a voice that we could use to respond to the contemporary world. The ACC fellowship has given me the opportunity to see works by Utsa Hazarika, who curated the exhibit Convergence (Aronson Galleries, the New School, 17 November – 5 December 2018) [which I had written about: https://3510b75.wordpress.com/2018/12/21/convergence] and a virtual reality performance by Sangmin Chae at Brooklyn College. I also had affirming conversations, shared ideas and projects with other ACC fellows. The works of these artists and scholars are a survey of the possibilities and potentials fostered by the ACC.

From West 38th and 5th Avenue, New York. Copyright ZMD Recidoro

The Art Writing program at SVA is a program in poetics, the study of how things are made. It was also modeled after the Poetics Program of the New College of California in San Francisco (1980), which was built around the teachings of the poet Robert Duncan, an important figure in the Black Mountain school of poetry, a devotee of Hilda Doolittle (also known as H.D.) and the Western Esoteric tradition. Other poets involved in shaping the New College Poetics Program were Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, Michael Palmer, and Duncan McNaughton [i]. The spirit of the Art Writing program at SVA and the inclinations of its faculty were fortuitously in line with mine. It was a good fit. Coming to the program is also a continuation of the pursuit for purpose, however particular this purpose is.

When asked to define what criticism is, I wrote: “Criticism is an exercise in humility, a kind of humility that also defers to humor. A humor that resonates with tender ideas like hope and compassion, with tenderness itself.” Adopting a more urgent tone, I would also like to share MFA Art Writing program chairperson David Levi Strauss’ response to educator, critic, and art historian Irving Sandler regarding the state of art criticism at present: “Criticism is not in crisis. Criticism is crisis... And crisis leads to change. There are many pressing social and political crises in the world that criticism needs to address. When the art world tries to buy out or subsume or subdue criticism, or to tame it into irrelevance, there is a tremendous loss of energy. Trying to remove risk from the system doesn’t make it stronger; it enervates it. [ii]

Criticism is also conversation. To be able to consider a piece of criticism and to converse without falling into invective is an exercise in humility. To write these words is to extend a metaphorical arm and hand. I try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost [iii]. Writing is an act of patent attention, explorations and attempts at precise meaning-making, discernment and remembrance. A question I think about more often these days is how to balance the need (or want) for innovation and achievement with qualities such as thoughtfulness in one’s writing. How can one make space for oneself while opening doors for others?

With these thoughts, I approach the subject of criticism in relation to my home, the Philippines, through education. Particularly, how criticism as crisis and conversation could possibly contribute to the cultivation of ways of thinking and seeing.  I think of how to possibly create a level with which to navigate the complex and contentious issues that bind culture, criticism and education in my country. Criticism is crisis that leads to change: How can this principle transform communities? What needs apply? Rather than transplant what I can describe as a Western, hegemonic way of defining education, I want to contribute in the fostering of spaces and opportunities for many others. The ground has been laid out through the work of countless, outstanding Filipino scholars and cultural workers. I hope to be part of the initiatives that care for their propagation and continuity. 

[i] The following information is from an interview by Amelia Rina (Class of 2015) with David Levi Strauss.

[ii] The exchange was prompted by Irving Sandler’s article in the 8 December 2006 issue of the Brooklyn Rail titled “A Call to Art Critics”.

[iii] Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”(1884).

(Below) From 86th Street, Jackson Heights, autumn. Copyright ZMD Recidoro