Interview with Arthur Whitman

October 15th, 2006

Arthur Whitman is an artist and critic writing for on-line and “real” newspapers. He was offered the opportunity to write professionally because of the high quality of the reviews he published on his blog, The Thinking Eye. I interviewed him recently via email. You can ask him questions here on Art & Perception.

Karl Zipser: What inspired you to start writing a blog?

Arthur Whitman: At least two things inspired me. First of all, my move in September 2005 from Boston to Ithaca. I felt isolated, both from the local artists community and from the larger artworld. To some extent I still do, but The Thinking Eye has helped me considerably on both fronts. The other thing was my interest in writing: for its own sake, as a way of understanding art better, and as a way of establishing a reputation as a writer.

Karl: How did the blog help establish your reputation as a writer?

Arthur: I’ve always been told that I write well, so I wanted to apply that skill somehow. Having studied studio art and art history in school, and being the kind of person who devours exhibits and art books, art writing seemed a natural choice. I lack the kind of “pedigree” that would easily get me a standard academic or journalistic job doing this. So one reason (although hardly the only one) that I started The Thinking Eye is show people what I could do. The Ithaca Times (the “alternative” weekly newspaper where I live”) agreed to let me do reviews for them without seeing a resume, so apparently my strategy works. I’ve only done two pieces for them so far, but hope to be writing for them more regularly in the coming months. Big Red and Shiny, a Boston online magazine has also printed one of my pieces. Another one will be coming in October.

Karl: Are you comfortable with being called an “art critic”?

Arthur: I’m increasingly comfortable being called an art critic, although I don’t consider all (or even most) of what I do on my blog criticism.

Karl: You art criticism writing can sometimes be harsh, no?

Arthur: While I do try to be as open-minded and thoughtful as possible (and I believe I’m pretty good at this), some of the art that I’ve written about just strikes me as wrongheaded on one or more levels. I feel my job as a critic is to be honest about this. People should be encouraged to make value judgments about artwork. Inevitably, other people’s judgments are going to be at least slightly different from my own.

Karl: Has your work as a critic changed you attitude about receiving criticism yourself?

Arthur: As for my own artwork, I’m confident that for all its flaws, what I do is complex and intelligent. So I think I would have a hard time taking a critic seriously if they dismissed it wholesale. Of course, that is probably the case for most artists.

Karl: You have studied many exhibitions. What in your opinion is the biggest mistake that an artist, gallery, or museum can make when installing a contemporary show?

Arthur: It depends on the interests and intentions of those involved: the artist, obviously, but also the curators and the audience. You could say that a failure to negotiate among these interests is the biggest mistake.

Karl: Are we living in a great moment in art history?

Arthur: My guess is that although we’re not in one of the greatest periods–such as the Renaissance or the early twentieth century–we’re hardly in the Dark Ages either. But I think we’ll have to wait a few generations to have really a clear idea about this. Today, everything from neo-classical and realistic painting to the most “far-out” conceptual art is being made and has its fans and partisans. I think the sheer diversity of work being made and discussed in the contemporary scene makes it difficult to get a consensus about the health of the artworld.

Karl: Do you see geographical location of art movements as an important factor in art today, as it was in the past?

Arthur: I think its considerably less important than in the past. With the existence and prevalence of the Internet, cheap high-quality reproductions, art magazines, plane travel, huge museums and so forth, we live in a much smaller world than we did even 50 years ago. That said, I do think that visual art generally has a local character. For example, there are lot of artists that you see commonly in European museums that are very difficult to find here in the United States. There are a lot of artists that you can see in New York City that are unlikely to show up here in Ithaca, which is only a six hour drive away (and vice versa). I think that in an era of globalized popular culture, that this local character is worth preserving.

Karl: Do you think the internet harms the development of local art culture?

Arthur: I don’t think of the Internet as having a devastating effect on local art, although I’m sure its possible. When I said that I valued local cultures, I didn’t mean that cities or towns or regions should isolate themselves from the rest of the world. On the contrary, I believe that artists and other serious art fans should travel as widely as possible to see art. The Internet is simply another way of spreading information and opinions about art from all over. I have difficulty seeing that as anything other than positive. Living in a small town, one of my own goals as a writer has been to challenge the provincialism and poverty of influence that I believe prevents many local artists from reaching their potential.

Local art cultures (and local cultures in general) are important because they provide an alternative to the world of mass media, mass culture, and mass production. These systems tend to level out the differences between different places. People around the world can (and do) watch the same movies and TV shows, wear the same clothes, even read the same books. With art, the object is usually either one of a kind or exists as a limited number of copies (as with printmaking, art photography and some kinds of sculpture). So, despite efforts to send these objects around the world, art tends to “stick” to specific areas.

Balancing the local quality of art with the “global village” of the Internet is a challenge, but I am optimistic that good things will come of it.

Karl: Thanks for your time, Arthur. Would you take questions from readers?

Arthur: Yes.

. . .

26 Responses to “Interview with Arthur Whitman”

  1. birgit Says:

    A recent comment of jon conkeys on this blog was: ‘Most collectors do not paint. Most gallery owners do not paint. Most museum curators do not paint.’ Here I learn that this lack of involvement in the metier does not extend to art critics.

    (1) Is being an artist and an art critic a normal combination or does it lead to conflicts of interest?
    (2) Do art critics have too much power in the art world today?

  2. arthur Says:

    1) Its quite common to have artist-critics, although perhaps less so than in the past. It would be good if there were more.Yes, it can lead to conflicts of interest, as I’m starting to find out.

    2) I don’t think so.

  3. karl zipser Says:

    Conflicts of interests? Don’t tease Arthur. This sounds interesting. Would you like to explain further?

  4. David Says:

    Arthur, I’m curious why you chose to move from Boston, a medium-sized city, to Ithaca, which is a college town (okay, I guess Boston is a college town too). Are you teaching at one of the schools there, or do you just like waterfalls?

    PS – I grew up about a half-hour south of Ithaca, and used to go up there all the time for a dose of civilization. I saw quite a few good shows at the Johnson Art Museum, but that was years ago. What’s going on there now?

  5. Jon Conkey Says:

    Hello Mr. Whitman,

    I certainly appreciate your passion and dedication to the arts, thank you for taking the time to answer questions.

    Do you feel the current system of “credentials” has hurt, rather than protected, the interests of our society in regards to the education one recieves in art schools today? Furthermore, would you favor a system of honorary degrees for exceptional dedication and talent, is it more a problem of litigation issues than talent?

    For lack of a better example, Andres Segovia had no degree. Is it correct that he should have been shunned from a teaching position at a fine university, because of his lack of “accepted” credentials?

    Sincerely, Jon Conkey

  6. arthur Says:


    I moved to Ithaca for a number of reasons: I was sick of Boston after 5 years, I have family here, it is quiet and pretty here (yes, the waterfalls among other things) and there are some cultural resources as well. New York city is a future goal of mine.

    The Johnson museum has a show of Polaroid photography and three contemporary artists working with pirate imagery. They will soon be building an expansion stretching northwards.

  7. arthur Says:

    Mr Conkey,

    Before answering your question, I should say that I am not a art teacher and have never been one in the past. So I’m just groping around in the dark here.

    It seems to me that an accredited degree granting institution–whether a university or liberal arts college –has some right to demand the relevant credentials of its instructors. This obviously includes degree granting art schools. Teachers need more than just artistic talent or notoriety; they need to be able to work within the system. It should be possible to make exceptions, but I imagine that it would be difficult to know when exactly to do so. It depends on the school.

    I’m all in favor of people working out alternative means of art education, although I think the liberal arts model is a good one.

  8. Rex Crockett Says:

    Dear Arthur,

    I read with great interest your interview with Karl, then looked into your blog and read through the first piece In the The Ithaca Times to get some sense of your style. I can see that you are one who looks closely at art and deeply experiences it. Good.

    But I found myself only tantalized by your answer to Karl’s question: What in your opinion is the biggest mistake that an artist, gallery, or museum can make when installing a contemporary show?

    You said: It depends on the interests and intentions of those involved: the artist, obviously, but also the curators and the audience. You could say that a failure to negotiate among these interests is the biggest mistake.

    I realize that this is a large question, but the answer is important to me. Could you be more specific? For instance, when you say “negotiate” I wonder just which exact sense of the word? A failure to assess the situation initially? A failure on the part of the artists to satisfy public expectations? A failure on the part of the curators to do a satisfactory deal with the artists? Some of that? All of that?

    Thank you,


  9. arthur Says:


    I offered the idea of negotiation because I don’t believe that there is a good general answer to Karl’s question. It depends on the type of work, the artist, the museum, the intended audience and so forth. By “negotiate”, all I mean is the balancing of these so that everybody is reasonably happy. I’ll admit my answer was something of a throwaway, but I’m not sure how else to respond. If you or anybody else wants to offer specifics, I’ll be glad to respond.

  10. Rex Crockett Says:

    Dear Arthur,

    Thanks for your answer. My curiousity on the subject of big museum type shows is motivated by the fact that all my personal experience is with small, local shows, but I get out to major metropolitan museums all the time.

    Yet I’m so often disappointed by the big shows. Often, I’m bored out of my mind.with the same old “exploration of conflicts in sexuality” or “the tensions of modern life.” So the message is a yawn. But even those, if pulled off with some dash or flair could work, yet so often the rendering is just plain amatuerish. The welds in what was obviously conceieved as a smooth, steel sculpture would get you fired on a construction job; the markers in a poster type piece have obviously been used in a slow, hesitant way that any designer learns to not do in his first year.

    Taking that sort of error to another field, we expect writers to know grammar, so when they play with grammar, say, to emulate human speech patterns in dialogs, we can see that they’re doing this intententionally, but when I see too much inadvertent error in art installations, I think, “Gee. Do they really think people are that stupid?”

    Now, I know that I see into techniques in a deeper way than most, but as a devout people watcher, I also see that plenty of people, particularly those that go to contemporary art shows, recognize the difference between skillful breaking of rules and unskilled; furthermore, if the message is new, I, like just about any lover of contemporary art, do not expect or demand a really polished technique, so I’m not talking about the slickness of a highly evolved or mature form. A little technical naivete is fine. This is expected when new ideas are in their germinal form. There’s an honesty to that.

    But it really bothers me to see shows fail by being neither new nor even vaguely technically informed. It’s sad. Yet it happens all the time. In small, local shows, it is “sell or die,” so I strongly support the idea of art that’s “not about the money.” I depend on museums and other sponsored exhibits to fill that need, but I wonder, just what IS it about with these loser shows? Are there really so few artists who can do a powerful rendition and say something courageous?

    Oh, this is a big can of worms!



  11. Karl Zipser Says:

    I dont’t mean to be pusy, Arthur, but I’m still hoping to hear about the conflicts-of-interest one might encounter between the role of artist and art-critic.

    On one section of my blog I review Hanneke van Oosterhout’s artwork. I felt it was important to state in the “About this site” page that she is my girlfriend, so that readers could evaluate potential conflicts for themselves. Once I did this, I felt more able to express my views (which are often critical).

    I would be interested to hear more about the experiences you refer to with “Yes, it can lead to conflicts of interest, as I’m starting to find out.”

  12. birgit Says:

    Karl, you mean that you don’t want to be pushy. Searching Google for ‘Pusy’ did provide answers in a interesting context.

  13. David Says:

    My guess is he doesn’t want to be either :)

  14. birgit Says:

    As disclosure, I am Karl’s mom.

    With respect to Arthur, having found an art critic in our midst, we now want him to explain everything!

  15. arthur Says:


    It wasn’t clear that you were asking me–as opposed to Birgit–to elaborate on “conflicts of interest”. Sorry for the confusion.

    The nature of the conflict is pretty simple. As a critic, part of your job is to make value judgements about artwork, artists, curators, and exhibition spaces. As an artist, part of your job is to work with the same kinds of people, places and things. In a small town in particular, its likely that there will be some overlap between the two if you decide to do both. If your review was particularly positive or negative, chances are good that someone will end up feeling uncomfortable. You might be reluctant to express strong opinions in the first place.

    Nancy Geyer, who writes for the same newspaper I do, wrote a response to your duplicate post on my own blog. Her comments are personal rather than abstract, since she’s been around longer than I. I have a reply to her comment as well. Check them out.

  16. arthur Says:


    This is a bigger can of worms than I would care to thoroughly untangle here. I have a few ideas though.

    My sense is that there are plenty of artists with both something to say and at least the minimal technical skills needed to say it with some grace. I think the problem is finding them among the rest (like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack).

    One problem with big museum shows might be the way money comes into play. Unlike galleries, museums are not required to make a profit by selling art. This gives museums many advantages over galleries, enabling them for example to put on larger shows or more ambitious (possibly non-commercial) shows.

    However, it seems that in many cases, the pressure of surving on the (relatively) open market keeps galleries more honest. If they consistently show bad work, they stand a good chance of going out of buisiness. Of course, I’ve seen a lot of lousy work in galleries too, so its hard to say.

    One more problem that comes to mind is the tendency for contemporary artists to stretch themselves to far, working in styles or media in which they have little or no training. Both art schools and the market have a role here, but the pressure of putting together work for a large museum show can be exacerbating.

    Best to you,


  17. David Says:

    I have a friend here in L.A. that is both a writer for major art publications and a very good artist. The problem he runs into is that, even though he knows all the gallerists in town, they are more interested in having him review their shows than in exhibiting his work.

    We artists, it seems, are a dime a dozen, but a review is a valuable prize.

  18. arthur Says:

    Well yes, because there are a lot of artists in any town or city and only a few (if any) critics. Even a large city is going to have only a few newspapers. Only a few well known magazines regularly run reviews of work in different cities. A review can seem like a prize because its rarity, even if its actual value (commercial or otherwise) is questionable.

  19. arthur Says:

    Of course, the dynamic is much more favorable to galleries in a small city like Ithaca, NY–there being a much smaller number of artists and spaces. I would venture to say that it is too favorable. A much bigger problem in my case is the near impossibility of finding a gallery to show my work that I haven’t also written about (sometimes harshly).

  20. David Says:

    There’s always Elmira :)

  21. arthur Says:

    Sorry, too big for me to handle.

  22. David Says:

    How about the Art in Embassies program? The Rongovian is nearby…

  23. arthur Says:

    Could you explain what that is?

  24. David Says:

    Oh, sorry Arthur. An obscure local joke.

    The Rongovian Embassy is a bar and music venue up in Trumansburg that I discovered years ago, driving along the lake one night in a snowstorm. I seem to remember it’s about 20 miles north of Ithaca. Pretty cool place. I did a Google search, and apparently they’re still in business.

    PS – Do you know if my friend Bill Benson is still around. I’ve been out of touch. He’s a good painter, and a bass player too!

  25. arthur Says:


    Yes, I do know William Benson. I took a figure drawing course with him at the CSMA over a decade ago (when I was still in high school). He was tough and opinionated, which was scary at the time, but probably good in retrospect.

    I’ve seen him around intermittently in the last year or so (since my return). He gave a talk for the Constance Saltonstall Foundation (which gives grants to New York State artists), which I unfortunately missed.

    Do you know if he is related to the well-known American Impressionist painter Frank Benson? Frank did a portrait of my great-great-grandfather (on my father’s side). I keep meaning to ask Bill.


    Those of you still following this thing might be interested in the comments on my own blog under the heading “everything you wanted to know…”.

  26. David Says:

    Arthur, I don’t know if Bill is related to Frank Benson, but I do know that he played bass in an Ithaca band w/ Huey Lewis (before he got famous – Huey, that is).

    If you see Bill tell him I said hi.