Eric Gibson is the Arts and Leisure editor for the Wall Street Journal. He spoke on campus two weeks ago in a lecture titled “Strange Bedfellows: The Arts and the Media.” Gibson entered the New York City art scene in 1977, working as an art critic in various capacities for 20 years before joining the WSJ staff in 1998.
Is there a specific art form you enjoy most?
Sculpture is my own personal favorite art form. The nice thing about being in the position I am in now is that I am able to pick and choose what I want to write about. When I worked at The Washington Times, I had to write reviews about virtually every exposition. One day it would be Rembrandt, next Chinese porcelain, Andy Warhol, and Russian photography. I enjoyed reviewing those; it was great training. But now that I have this major responsibility of being the editor, I don’t have as much time to write.
When did you become interested in art?
When I was a child, I went with my mother to an exposition of sculpture by Henry Moore, and he was one of the greatest 21st century sculptors. It blew me away, and I kept asking her to take me back. She took me back four or five times, and that was beginning of everything.
The thing I most like writing about is sculpture; In fact, when I go back to New York, I am currently writing a review on a Gian Lorenzo Bernini exposition.
What is the task that art journalists have today?
It is to describe, explain and evaluate. You want to tell people what is out there. I let them know why it is something they should pay attention to, why it is important. Not just in the history of art, but in society as a whole.
One function of arts journalism that is often overlooked is what I call this persuasive aspect. I don’t mean that you should be hectoring people or grabbing them by the lapels, but that was one of the first things I discovered when I got into newspapers. What I mean by “persuade” is there are a million things you can do with your spare time, why should you go to a museum?
And that is one of the tasks that our press takes for granted today. As a critic, you need to let people know why the arts are important.
What has been one of your favorite expositions?
The exposition was called Rembrandt/not Rembrandt. The attributions of Rembrandt have long been in debate. In other words, they gathered a large collection of art. Over the years it has been assumed that these pieces of art were Rembrandts. However, a lot of the time museums thought they had Rembrandts when in fact they did not. And what the Metropolitan did was said we are gonna put all of the art on display that are Rembrandts, and those that are not. Then it explained what the difference was between each one; it had explanatory texts.
I found it intellectually satisfying because it was hugely popular, it was something for everyone. The public was fascinated by the exposition.
This to me was a great example of a museum doing something which is interesting, serious, and substantial, but also has that popular appeal.
Do you have any advice for students interested in art history?
The best thing you can do is look at as much as you can yourself. Don’t worry about how much you know or don’t know. Don’t worry about reading up about every detail, just look at as much as you can.
I tell my children that when people go to a museum they generally look at the label first, then they look at the sculpture. You have to resist that because if you walk up to a painting and read the label and see that it is a Rembrandt, you will look for all the Rembrandt qualities.
However, if you look at the painting first you will be able to notice details on your own. It will be what you have gotten out of looking at that piece of art.