A ‘Treacherous’ Art Scene?

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The Louvre, Paris
Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin: Saying Grace, 1740

You pause for a moment in the fifth-floor lobby. There through the plate glass the Hudson River glitters, framed by converted warehouses, the traffic on the West Side Highway, and, on the far shore, New Jersey in hazy silhouette. Transported, your mind floats free of the business that brought you here. Which gallery did you just step out of? What claim was made on your eyes, and by whom? All is canceled by the bright water. But ping! here’s the elevator you summoned: just time to pocket away the sheet of blather vouchsafed by the snooty graduate behind the desk, before heading out onto the scruffy Chelsea sidewalk to enter some other doorway a few numbers along, ascend to some other postindustrial show-space, go through it all over again.

You—the art critic, that is—might need to remind yourself that properly speaking, it wasn’t mere business that brought you here. It was an obsession, it was romance, something tantamount to faith. At one time, art tugged at your heart, a range of creations that seemed as radiant and self-sufficient as today’s river through the window, yet effected by fellow human beings. For the sake of such magic, you strayed into this marginal, marabout career. And art hasn’t exactly deserted you. Human creativity proves inexhaustibly various: there is forever the prospect of fresh revelations. But to chase after them, you prowl a hunting ground that somehow becomes more alien the longer you remain within. The flashy new art museums, the international art fairs, and above all Chelsea, the district where New York’s major contemporary galleries cluster, seem to hide and deceive: the art world they comprise is a screen behind which art slips away. Too long an immersion in their affectless blather and aggressive cool is bruising to the soul. You want to reach for air. You want to rage and rail.

After some thirty years of art criticism, Jed Perl confesses to repeated Hudson River moments, one page into Magicians and Charlatans, his latest collection of essays. Those glimpses of the outdoor world “trump anything on the gallery walls.” Give in to such impulses, and you might end up quitting this line of writing altogether, as Dave Hickey, an equally characterful fellow critic, announced he was doing last year. Yet Perl remains at his post. (His pieces have long been a fixture of The New Republic.) There is a trust to keep, and it is best upheld here in Manhattan, the island umbilically linked to the European traditions he reveres. When duty calls, Perl may venture out to Art Basel in Miami or return to California, the scene of his teenage years, but his perspective has long been committedly metropolitan. His buttonholing commentaries—by turns sardonic and lyrical, pernickety and disarmingly intimate—keep mainland America and its concerns at a remove, the far side of the window and the water. New York, uniquely dense in …

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