Arty as Experience

By Jan Baetens


John Updike

Always Looking. Essays on Art

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

This is not a new book and many readers may find it pathetically old-fashioned. Yet this collection of writings on art with a capital A by an author often discarded as typically WASP is doing what so much modern art criticism seems no longer “capable and willing” of doing, as we are asked by the air hostess when boarding the plane and being offered an exit seat: to make critical judgments, taking into account one’s personal, subjective, individual point of view, but always in a kind and gentle way, written in an elegant and jargon free language, and addressing the reader as a partner in a polite and cheerful conversation.

Updike is never on the lookout for the new or the surprising. The selection of the art shows he discusses may even seem horribly conformist and conservative, unpleasantly biased toward the Western canon, and dramatically reluctant to revise canonical values and classifications. With some slight American exceptions, Updike’s taste –even in the hypothesis that he is doing nothing else than accepting well-paid commissions– almost naturally brings him to the masterpieces of Western painting (things become suddenly American when sculpture is involved, and this sculpture is always bigger than life as in the case of Oldenburg and Serra). And his writing is that of the mild and smiling guide, who hints at what is to be seen and discusses what others –mostly the authors of the catalogue, which is as important a part of a big budget exhibit as the works themselves– have to say on it. It reads marvelously, a real feel good experience for those who do not want to read romance novels.


Yet Updike is also a very sharp and ruthless judge, who is not afraid of saying things nobody else would say. As an outsider –after all, he did not have to make his living as an art critic– he is not only repeating what the artistic community so noisily repeats, he also dares to show the emperor’s new clothes. His remarks on Serra are exemplary in this regard. While underscoring the strength of some of his sculptures but quoting some sophisticated babble of the specialists, Updike concludes “All this steel devoted to scrambling our habitual perceptions? Wouldn’t the funhouse or Ferris wheel at the country fair do just as well?” (p. 192).

This remark ties in with the preface of the book, in which Updike, who first wanted to become a cartoonist, shows the modest, if not “silly” books that made him an artist: the Mickey Mouse “Big Little Books” of the 1940s serious readers would no longer allow their children to read. That a high-brow and apparently conservative writer such as Updike opens a book like this with praise of what is anything but “the best of the best” is a kind of manifesto –no fists raised of course, since this is Updike, but a lesson on the lasting effects of a real artistic experience (to quote John Dewey, that forgotten founding father of cultural studies).