For more years than were good for me, I worked as an editor and staff writer for an art magazine. My co-editor, Jennifer, had a valuable talent for finding humor in the dull routine tasks and professional anxieties that came with the job. For example, each time she finished writing an article, Jennifer would email the Word file to me for editing accompanied by the message: "I'm sorry, I was very young when I wrote this." Many of our office hours were spent editing texts by critics who made confident pronouncements on "post-studio praxis" and "the performative dynamics of architecture," or writers whose worldliness had been honed to such devastating concision that their articles might as well have been a single raised eyebrow. The goofy modesty of Jennifer's line was a tonic against the writerly ego. The gag ran for years. I adopted it and like all the best worst jokes its repetition only made it funnier. Tradition gradually compressed the caveat to variations on "Wrote this in my youth" and eventually "Sorry. V. young, etc." It became our incantation against imposter syndrome. A quiet prayer asking for deliverance from the feeling that no matter how long you work on a piece of writing, you will always wonder if you could have done better. Deliverance from the suspicion that only when you reach your dotage, tucked under a blanket in the day room of The Dorothy Parker Home for Retired Critics, will you finally get the hang of exhibition reviews.
We had begun writing criticism within a couple of years of each other. Jennifer was then in her thirties, I was in my twenties, and the retirement home was decades down the road. We were young in both age and professional experience, so our work was technically juvenalia regardless of the comedy caveat. Callowness inflected our thinking to some degree—we knew this—but the gag was itself a callow form of self-assessment. I didn’t understand, back then, that the maturity of a critic’s opinion does not always correspond to their age in years. Writers can be full of themselves or they can be wracked with doubt about their work, but neither arrogance nor insecurity discriminate against age. Youth writes in intense chiaroscuro, describing a world contoured in light and shadow, of ideals seen in high-key. The early years of a critic are hungry and omniverous, a time to learn and hatch plans to turn society upside-down, but they're also prone to craving approval from some form of authority, even as that authority is being giving the finger. (Criticism is no job for those pursuing social prestige in the art world, at least not if you're doing it with any integrity.) The older you get, the more life's tones blanch to a rich grisaille. This brings subtlety to thought, but also torpor. Later comes the comfort of not giving a fuck, but also comfortably fossilized opinions. "Sorry. V. Young" becomes "Sorry. Old enough to know better."
Blaming clueless youth for bad writing was a joke made at the expense of our pre-magazine lives. I had been through undergraduate art school, and so too had Jennifer. Neither of us were trained art historians, curators, or journalists. Until the editorial jobs, we had produced images more often than we wrote about them. I never planned to become a writer, but an MFA was beyond my means and I needed paid work. To apologize for writing-whilst-young was, at that point, to apologize for writing with more years on the clock as an artist than as a critic. (Looking back this was an odd thing to be embarrassed about, as artists have traditionally been excellent critics.)
Both in the emotional and legal sense, I had spent more years in adolescence and childhood than adulthood. My life before art school, before moving to London, had been informed by family and school in a small British town. Visual arts professionals tend to disavow their early years. Unlike concert musicians or athletes, whose time spent playing in a national youth orchestra or regional under-16s team is chalked up to dedication, an early start for the critic is dismissed as precocity. ‘Early’ is art school or university, the starting blocks of professional life. Anything before is pre-historic. Formative experiences are validated by the reputation of your chosen institution and the league tables of who-taught-who, on the networking value of a particular postgrad course. What happened in the pre-professionalized, pre-art-world-hazed critic’s life is of little importance. The languages we speak before we are trained to speak art are forgotten. (For some, sadly, it’s better to forget.) Of course, there are those who later make successful careers from the material of childhood, and in the combat zones of public discourse, the social forces that shape identity from birth can be wielded to justify or de-legitimize another person’s actions. But when we speak about the education of an artist or critic, it's rare to raise the topic of high school, or elementary school; not for the classroom lessons, but for what is learned about the self and the development of a world view. Children should be seen and not heard.
Almost every person you know has made a drawing, painting, or sculpture early in life. They will have imagined rich internal lives for inanimate things and, like tiny gods, controlled the destiny of these objects. Some will have written stories in dog-eared notebooks and staged impromptu plays with siblings and toys. But society encourages most of us to forget our early childhood interest in form, color and plasticity. The impulse to make is discouraged beyond a certain point, and consigned to the dressing-up box. It is either disowned as pointless and unlikely to lead to a decent living, or desublimated into some other form of activity. Those that continue making must cross the rubicon of juvenelia. To the mature eye, juvenilia reveals a lack of comfort with our creative and critical selves. It can be a phase of near-comical self-belief, untested against the world. Or a period in which people rehearse forms of pretense that are sad denials about the person they secretly wish to be. In certain stretches it also reeks of earnestness. Even for the most precocious teen, all tastes start out crude and naive. Nobody emerges into the world with perfectly formed opinions about modernism and French theory, but that's what is implied when the young, seminar-fresh critic tries to prove themselves one of the grown-ups. Three years after Prince's death, aged 58, the publication of an unfinished memoir titled The Beautiful Ones revealed that the teenage musician drew comic strips ("Prince's Funnies"), made dorky sketches of record covers for the albums he one day hoped to make, and created family photo albums annotated with goofy, warm-hearted captions. He knew music was a path he wanted to follow, but his adolescent self seemed gentle and shy. Later in life, he would suggest that his creativity had been, in large part, motivated by the trauma of his parent's divorce. All of which seems at odds with the highly controlled image of a mercurial, sex-funk virtuoso that the public came to love; an image that could never have existed without the nerdy comic strip and sketchbook fantasy phase.
Unless you were raised in the rarefied atmosphere of an historically important scene, it's unlikely the teenage you would have heard of Rosalind Krauss or Brazilian neo-Concretism or David Hammons. There was a time when even the most jaded insider did not know that A used to date B which must surely be why C was included in that big show at MoMA—not that they go to MoMA these days because, you know, the tourists. To talk about your influences before you emerged butterfly-like from the incubators of tertiary education into professional life is to confess to being one of those MoMA tourists, staring slack-jawed at a Claude Monet for the first time, temporarily forgetting how self-conscious you feel about your greasy hair and provincial fashions. A time when culture didn't simply influence you, it smothered you, because it was harder to filter its effects without the knowledge of where or when things came from, who made them, and without the tools to know how to wrangle them. An admission of just how unsophisticated you once were. It's worth noting that older definitions of the word 'sophisticated' related to 'corruption', 'adulteration', and even 'perversity.' In medieval Latin, the verb 'sophisticare' related to the tampering of goods, especially food.
In the nearest city to my hometown, there is a restaurant named Browns. My family rarely ate out when I was growing up, so a visit to Browns was reserved strictly for special occasions. A birthday, a homecoming. The interior was panelled in dark wood and furnished with French bistro chairs and marble-topped tables. A grand piano sat under a large skylight in the main dining area, on a small raised stage surrounded by potted palms and tousles of greenery in hanging baskets. The room was animated by candles throwing geometric shadows from pineapple-textured glass holders. I had never seen such beautiful people as the waiting staff, dressed in starched white shirts and small black aprons. To me, at the age of ten or twelve, Browns was the zenith of sophistication, a word I had only just learned. It epitomized a mishmash of received images of European cool, a place where artists and poets might meet. Not that I had been anywhere in Europe outside Britain but maybe I didn't need to with this restaurant nearby. I imagined that, on their breaks, the waiting staff wrote poetry or learned lines for the plays they were acting in. I ate from the kid's menu but enjoyed watching grown-ups being served delicacies such as olives on cocktail sticks, thin-cut French fries and after-dinner cappuccinos. Even back at home I wanted to recreate that atmosphere: using my parent's compact camera, I once attempted to photograph a still life featuring a table lamp, the family piano and artfully arranged shadows cast by leaves from a pot plant. I lost the photograph—or I later tore it up out of embarrassment—but I can still see the composition in my mind's eye.
Not long after I came under the spell of Browns—sometime around the age of 15—I stumbled across the work of Andy Warhol. I scoured libraries and bookstores for anything I could find on the subject. (This was in the early 1990s, pre-Internet.) Thanks to the broad minds of British TV programmers at the time, I had chance encounters with filmmakers Kenneth Anger, Bruce Connor and Derek Jarman from the comfort of home. A BBC TV series titled Moviedrome broadcast cult films late at night, introduced by the director Alex Cox. What was this stuff? What kind of people made them? Who on earth could I talk to about what I'd just seen? These new discoveries cross-contaminated with radio comedy shows, pop music gleaned from older siblings and school, and style magazines on the shelves of local newsagents. My influences were a hot mess but there was something about their surfaces that I was attracted to but struggled to understand why. It was erotic and epiphanic at the same time.
In a Guardian obituary for the art critic Stuart Morgan, published in 2002, Ian Hunt and Adrian Searle recounted how a visitor to Morgan's apartment was "impressed by his wall of books, [and] said he must be very deep."The critic replied no, explaining that "he was interested in the problem of describing the surface of things, the difficulty of which he thought had been underestimated." If I had looked closer at the surface of things, I may have discovered that Browns was part of a nationwide restaurant chain, and that the beautiful staff were broke high school students and undergrads. I would have learned that the bistro furniture could be ordered bulk from a catering supplies company, and that the thin-cut French fries were likely from a supermarket frozen food aisle. Although it felt expensive, it was hardly an upscale joint. Yet still, decades later, the memory of a candlelit birthday treat at Browns is the first image that appears in my mind when I hear the word "sophistication." Such is the indelibility of artifice. Surfaces imprint themselves deeply on our malleable younger selves and although they fade, they never fully leave us.
Jonathan Miller, the late opera director, neurologist, satirist and writer (now there's an index of sophistication) said that "it's my passionate, almost religious belief that it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found.” I find it hard to deny the ways in which the negligible has impacted my work as a critic. Those ‘negligible’ times I stayed up late to watch Moviedrome, the Saturday afternoons spent looking for new information on Warhol in a local bookstore. When I first saw the work of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers—installations furnished with lush green potted palms and delicate wooden folding chairs, and text pieces featuring old-fashioned French cursive handwriting—my first thought was: Browns. Broodthaers influenced the work of British artist Cerith Wyn Evans, whose piece has the film already started nods obliquely to the Belgian’s palms. On visiting the Evans at White Cube Gallery, London, in the early 2000s, there was that association again: Browns. Which is all well and cute, but the danger is that such associations forge a chain that binds the critical mind to parochial models, convincing the critic through the power of nostalgia, cultural conditioning and emotional blindspots, that they are seeing something that’s not there—something the artist is certainly not themselves seeing.
For this, and other semi-sensible reasons, the professional critic is trained to drain their work of subjective froth, or at least know what dose of subjectivity concentrate is 'tasteful', or useful, in a given piece of writing. The critic learns to read a work in its present and historical context, to translate an optical or auditory experience into words, and specifically words suitable for the context in which it's going to be published—newspaper readers, say, or professional peers in the art world. But these assessments may be subtly shaded by conditions that go unspoken—for example, what kind of work is fashionable (an industry that sells work on the promise of art's eternal power doesn't like to be reminded of its fickleness)—and forms of micro-expertise and micro-gossip that rarely surface themselves but may affect how the critic wishes their work to be read. For a critic with a reputation—a 'voice,' as they like to say—they may be concerned to give their readers more of what they've got to sell: ice-cold dialetics, stunning perspicacity or a tedious, impossible-to-please hauteur. And then, like a kind of tinnitus, there are the things that the critic can hear but tries to ignore; mood, health, the bad back, the blood-sugar low, and the rent hike you were told about that morning. "Nothing is denied by me as an effect or influence," writes novelist and critic Lynne Tillman. "Uninvited memories spring up. Forgetfulness is its own omniscient realm."
When I am asked to go to a museum or gallery and write about a work of art, I try to remind myself that a person, subject to all the world throws at them from birth, is responsible for taking the time to make this image or object. Like me, they too once knew nothing. They were unsophisticated, ignorant of current discourse, of how the system works, of historical context, artistic precedent. They had no professional contacts. They were excitable, impetuous, curious, innocent, dumb, embarrassing, badly dressed, greasy haired. And that person is still with them. No matter how hard you try to cover that former self up behind the costumes and slang of seasoned professionalism, the early you still lurks there, ever so subtly inflecting your tastes and critical judgements. On good days, you can still sense their excitement. That person wrote your future work when you were very young. No need to be sorry, etc.