The Primal Seeing
In a warm and very personal talk last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for the New York Times Holland Cotter spoke about his journey as a “committed generalist” and “lifelong student of art.” He spoke in the RISD Auditorium on Wednesday, October 8, delivering the 38th Annual Gail Silver Memorial Lecture honoring the life and legacy of the late RISD Museum docent and board member. In his introduction, Museum Director John W. Smith noted that he was particularly pleased to host the esteemed journalist, who has cited the college art museum as “a model for educational risk-taking.”
Cotter’s devotion to art began at the age of 10, when he would regularly spend Saturdays on his own in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. His unguided exploration of the entire collection – which he refers to as “the primal seeing” – helped him to develop an early sense that all cultures hold equal value. He would later come to see the MFA – with its lack of African, Native American or contemporary art at the time – as an “encyclopedic museum with missing volumes.”
Another Boston institution that shaped Cotter’s vision is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where he learned the power of placement in telling a story. Gardener is purported to have carefully chosen a spot for every object in the space and to have stipulated in her will that nothing ever be added, moved or removed.
But Cotter points to poetry and literature for truly laying the groundwork for his interest in the visual arts, recalling the “startlingly visual imagery” that filled his head when his mother read Emily Dickinson at the dinner table. And like Henry David Thoreau – another early literary hero – he has devoted his life to “collecting experiences” rather than things.
As a teenager Cotter moved beyond the white world of his childhood, reveling in the words of African-American author James Baldwin and studying “primitive art” (as it was then known) as an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1960s. “I was inoculated against normality by Baldwin and Dickinson,” he quips. He also describes a mind-altering cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus the summer of the Mississippi Freedom Rides that introduced him to the music of South African singer Miriam Makeba and the extraordinary street theater of the time.
As a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, Cotter performed alternative service in an emergency room for three years after college – an experience he describes as his “education in mortality.” He then moved to New York City and began working as a freelance art critic before heading to Japan, Kashmir and India, where he was drawn to holy places and fell hard for spiritual and religious art. Speaking directly to the students in the audience, he encouraged them to travel and get a real feel for the world while they’re still young and flexible.
After studying art history at the graduate level at Hunter College, Cotter earned a Master of Philosophy degree in early Indian Buddhist art from Columbia University. When he began writing for The New York Times in 1991 the NYC art market was in the process of redefining itself and “multiculturalism” was in full swing. Right from the start, he was adamant about covering all kinds of art for the Times and refused to be pigeonholed as “the East Asian Art Expert.”
As a writer, Cotter treats every new assignment as an opportunity to learn and to share his learning with the wider world. “Language is the medium for translating experience,” he says, “and that is the primary function of the critic.”
At 67 Cotter is delighted to find that his personal definition of art is growing broader with time, rather than becoming more narrowly defined. “The artist’s voice stands apart from the larger culture,” he notes. “There are too many lawyers, stockbrokers and politicians in the world, but there are never enough artists and poets to tell us who we are as a species.”
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