Summer Reading

Summer Reading – In Conversation: Peter Schjeldahl

Today from our friends at the Brooklyn Rail, we bring you Jarrett Earnest’s conversation with famed art critic Peter Schjeldahl. This interview is perfect for our Summer Reading series because it digs deep into what it means to contemplate and respond to contemporary art; Schjeldahl says, “Looking at art is like, ‘Here are the answers. What were the questions?’” This article was originally published on July 13, 2015.

Phong Bui. Portrait of Peter Schjeldahl, n.d.; Pencil on paper.

Phong Bui. Portrait of Peter Schjeldahl, n.d.; pencil on paper.

In the pantheon of art writers, Peter Schjeldahl holds a special place near the top as one of our greatest living critics. He entered the New York scene in the ’60s, a poet and college dropout escaping a Lutheran upbringing in Minnesota. Over the decades, his language has remained surprisingly fresh and unfailingly precise—the kind of effortless grace born of relentless practice, like a ballet dancer’s landing. Art critic for the New Yorker since 1998, he is alive to the nuanced movements of his own feelings, which he charts over the course of each review. This summer he met with the Rail’s Jarrett Earnest to discuss the interconnections between seeing, feeling, and writing.

Rail: From your writing it seems like the domain of art is for understanding our sensations of being in the shared world.

Schjeldahl: The arts are a great little laboratory, of absolutely free play of ideas and emotions which normal social space can’t cope with: You can play war and nobody dies, and play love and nobody has their heart broken. It’s also an education in physiology: the mechanisms and functioning and limits of consciousness.

Rail: When did that interest start?

Schjeldahl: In the ’60s, the drugs had a role. I dropped acid maybe five times. The first time was kind of great, the second was iffy, the other times were nightmares. That wasn’t a good enough excuse not to do it, because if you had a bad trip that was a character flaw—you had failed the drug. But it gave me a lot of information. It’s hard to describe, of course. It’s as if every bit of the mind is active and being seen, but by nobody—phenomena without a witness. Which may freak a person seriously out.

Read the full article here.