in Opinion | 01 APR 11
Featured in
Issue 138

Ink Tank

For his final column for frieze, Robert Storr reflects on what it takes to be an art writer

in Opinion | 01 APR 11

Saul Steinberg Untitled 1944 (Originally published in Steinberg, All in Line, 1949)

‘Seppie in nero’ – squid in its own ink – is my favourite Venetian delicacy. Although customarily served with polenta, I prefer it on thick spaghetti since pasta exponentially increases the naturally squirmy quality of the creatures’ tentacles, creating a Medusa-like mound of inchoate, salty matter. In need of an image to illustrate Georges Bataille’s concept of the ‘informe?’ Get thee to La Serenissima – which with all its intrigues is anything but serene – and order up a mess of ‘seppie in nero’, to be devoured with gusto until it covers your mouth and teeth like black Goth lipstick.  

During my stint as the Director of the Venice Biennale (2005–7) I adopted the pen name ‘seppie in nero’ in correspondence with friends, thinking it the perfect synonym for the ‘ink-stained wretch’ I became when I first published a review in the late 1970s. The aptness of the moniker is all the greater given what those of us who write regularly for the art press must sooner or later admit: in the hierarchies of power, critics – like squid – are agile bottom feeders. Predictably many of my academically accredited colleagues will recoil at that statement but it is the cruel, Darwinian truth and neither high-flown rhetoric nor exalted teaching posts can save us from it.

If we have any sense, like Dr. Johnson, we write for money; money up front from editors as distinct from money on the side from art buyers and sellers (‘squid pro quo?’) that only fools seek or accept as no one can hide such corruption indefinitely. And we write in order to exert that most elusive and ephemeral of things: influence. Being part of the dialogue is what drives us; figuring out how to give our ideas weight and our words bounce is the political, intellectual and literary challenge confronting us whenever we set to work.

Increasingly, participation means little more than getting a word in edgewise between the drone of scholastic ‘discoursers’ – trade magazines once open to freelancers are now almost exclusively the preserve of aspiring or anointed professors keen to impress each other while competing in their disdain for the general public – and the chatter of publicists cranking out copy for galleries and museums. Having penned such copy during my time at MoMA, New York, I know what I am talking about, just as I know about being a professor, which is why I try not to take that status too seriously even as in print and on the podium I strive hard to speak to what Virginia Woolf called ‘the common reader’.

Over the course of an accidental 30-year ‘career’ as an art writer during which I have gone from a ‘penny-a-liner’ (and less) to a ‘two-dollars-a-worder’ (and more) I have explored every critical genre except personality profile puffery, among them book reviews, brief coverage of monographic and survey shows, feature articles of the same scope, in-depth interviews, reports and spot commentary on issues and trends, and editorials. The most enjoyable by far has been turning out a regular column, which I’ve done for frieze since 2004.

The column is a strict but lively format. Marrying information to opinion, a sharply defined perspective to abbreviated reasoning, it promises both the reader and the writer the chance to share a complete but concise thought or two on matters they are likely to disagree about. In social terms it offers more to chew on than the conversation-stopping zingers of the art world gadfly and less to choke on than the long-windedness of the autocrat at the dinner table, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes’s title for his own column in The Atlantic Monthly. In that spirit, a particular essay’s topic is at the discretion of the writer but readers must be entertained, engaged or implicated lest they turn the page much as guests turn away when a table-mate to one side annoys or harangues them.

And, like all alert party-goers, columnists must know when to politely suspend their remarks and take their leave. It is time for me to do that now, thanking my occasional companions and my host. And if, of an evening, you spy a man resembling a superannuated Heath Ledger with a greasy-black, Joker-like smile smeared across his face, feel free to hail him by his name, Seppie. You are already his familiar.