Bill McKeown is currently associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis. He is the guest-editor of the 82nd issue of Number: Inc. magazine. Bill received his PhD in the History and Criticism of Art from Florida State University, and his Master of Arts in Art History and Criticism from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His research interests have centered on nineteenth-century European art, with a particular focus on Victorian painting and the art writings of John Ruskin. I recently spoke with Bill over the phone.
So, Bill: I know you, and I think most people know you, as a historian of nineteenth-century art. I was curious how you found yourself as the editor of a contemporary art journal.
Actually, what happened was that Jennifer Sargent ran into my wife Kim at the Metal Museum, where she [Kim] works. It came up in their conversation that Number: Inc was looking for a guest-editor of their upcoming art criticism issue, and that’s how I got involved. Art criticism is actually not that far removed from my background, as there’s always been a big dose of art criticism going back to my days at Stony Brook, where it was the principal focus of their art history program. So whether it’s nineteenth- or twentieth- or twenty-first century art, art criticism has always formed a parallel field for my art historical research.
Do you think that art criticism still has a public role to play? Or has it become too insular, and separated too much from the average citizen for it to really bear on their cultural experience?
I think art criticism exists in this difficult place where if it’s overly theoretical, it definitely runs the risk of becoming overly insular, where it’s just art critics talking to other art critics about theory. But the opposite extreme is art criticism that simply reviews shows as a means of publicity without offering any critical perspective. I think it needs to be somewhere in the middle, where criticism not only encourages the public to get out and look at art, but also offers some kind of theoretical framework by which one can approach and understand art.
I have a follow-up question. I’ve always been struck by what Susan Sontag says about interpretation, in that interpretation is a way by which we control artworks, and strip them of their supernatural power. And that it’s a very human desire to control our environment. Do you think art criticism might be complicit in a removal of the more visceral, or emotional, or immediate responses? Do all of the words eliminate the feelings at some point?
It could do that, if you’re relying on just words for gaining any kind of access to art. Speaking for myself, whenever I go to a museum or a gallery, I like to avoid reading anything if I can help it—whether it’s the artist’s statement or whatever—so that my first go-round is just to look, and hopefully avoid any biases in reading the art in a particular way. But after having that (or trying to have that) ideal, visual, maybe even unmediated encounter, at some point it’s good to have a conversation with other people, to get their perspectives and insights into things I may have completely overlooked—and then go back to the art a second time, having hopefully benefited from further discussion. I don’t think any text should be a substitute for the visual experience, but it’s part of what you do after that experience.