I may be wrong... but I don't think it's proper for one critic to criticize another critic (I apparently have misplaced my Critics Book of Manners for reference on this issue). However, a nagging voice in the back of head needs to vent a bit.
Blake Gopnik is the chief visual arts critic for the Washington Post. Despite a number of differences of opinion, I generally respect what Blake does (envy it even). It's important for there to be a public voice for the arts and an open discussion about what is exhibited. Blake, however, fell a few professional notches in my book after I read his review of New York light-artist Leo Villareal's installation found in the National Gallery of Art's concourse (i.e. underground moving sidewalk) connecting the East and West Wings. The piece, called Multiverse, is made of approximately 41,000 computer-programmed LED nodes that run through channels along the entire 200-foot-long space. In his November 28 review, Blake gets it wrong. His critique is not wrong because our opinions differ; Blake is wrong because his arguments are flawed, sloppy and made without accurate facts.
The crux of Blake's dislike for Villareal's Multiverse is that he believes it does not rise to the level of great art that should be found in the National Art Gallery. Apparently, it does not provide Blake deep insights or a transforming experience like the National Gallery's holdings of Titian, Cezanne, Picasso and Newman. Say what?!? Since when should every piece found in the National Gallery's collection stand up to the historical significance of a Titian or Picasso? This is the elitist art snob attitude that keeps so many people on the wrong side of the velvet rope when it comes to art appreciation and understanding.
Blake tries to be analytical in his argument making us believe Multiverse is obviously unimportant because passersby linger no longer than the time it takes them to clear the tunnel (writer's note: moving sidewalks creep me out – makes me think we really are turning into the fat blobs portrayed in Wall-E). Blake, however, did not say he put his stopwatch to the passersby in the Titian gallery to compare. I bet he would find a vast majority of people spend even less time looking at a Titian than the Villareal. And if there was a moving sidewalk in the galleries, I bet it would be even shorter.
Blake also uses assumptions to support his argument: Regarding the cost of Multiverse, Blake only guesses. He really has no idea what the National Gallery paid for it (it is actually on loan to the NGA from the artist). Instead he sullies the piece's reputation by suggesting it has a nearly $900,000 price tag. This is complete bunk and poor reporting (yes, Blake, you work for a newspaper; you have an obligation to get the facts). If you want to suggest the National Gallery overspent for the piece then find out how much it really cost.
Blake also supports his biting opinions by lassoing in a tech friend. He calls upon engineer Alvy Ray Smith (one of the pioneers of computer graphics and co-founder of Pixar who holds two science and technology Academy Awards) to belittle the science behind Multiverse. Apparently, from a computing standpoint, Multiverse is “old hat.” With apologies to Steve Martin, I say, "Well excuuuuuuuse me!” Not all of us have a two-time science and technology Academy Award winning friend to help us judge art. And, since when do we need to judge a piece of visual art on its underlying science? Should a photographer be criticized for shooting on 35mm film and printing in a silver gelatin bath instead of using the latest high powered digital camera and remastering software? No! Judge an artist's work on its visual merit. Period. In fact, maybe we should award extra points to the artist who uses less technologically advanced techniques and still creates engaging and provocative pieces.
Finally, Blake writes with an undercurrent that seems to belittle the collective judgment of the Gallery's curators. Is Blake more capable of determining what is appropriate for the National Gallery's audience? Does he think we live in a vacuum and should only show historically important art that elevates us? Exactly where does Blake rank himself in the pantheon of art judgment?
Blake misses the single most important issue: Multiverse is a temporary installation (scheduled to be shown through November 2009) designed to fill a space that otherwise goes unused and unnoticed. Villareal was given an awkward space to work with. It is a long, narrow, low-ceilinged underground hallway - complete with a moving walkway. It is as pedestrian as an elevator lobby or restroom entrance. Would Blake's precious Titians be found hanging outside an elevator? A restroom entrance? Doubtful. Villareal has turned this people moving tunnel into an opportunity to experience something visually stimulating. I have passed through that tunnel dozens of times and I seriously can't think of what was in it before Multiverse. But I can tell you I'll remember that tunnel now, just like I bet a lot of other people will remember it too.
I am always happy to read Blake Gopnik's reviews even when I disagree with his opinions. At the least I am given a different perspective. However, this time Blake has given us a poorly thought out critique. His reasoning and rationale are wrong, and in the process he has soiled Villareal's Multiverse unfairly. Hopefully, in the future, Blake will strengthen the basis of his arguments before his columns go to print.