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On Making Opinions

ART TIMES Nov 2003

I TAKE FOR granted that most people know that the business of critics is to express opinions about whatever it is they apply their critical faculties to — thus, it came as somewhat of a surprise when someone told me recently that I was "opinionated." I mean, isn’t this like telling a trial lawyer that he is "argumentative"? Or an accountant "calculating"? Or a scientist "inquisitive"? This was not someone out of the blue, but someone who is acquainted with me and with my position at this publication — a guest, in fact, to our 20th Year Celebration Party this past August. His remark (or, opinion that I was "opinionated") came after I told him that I rarely visit a certain New York City Museum since, over the past twenty years, though I have reviewed a show or two at that institution, I generally do not find their exhibits either mentally or aesthetically engaging enough — at least not to the extent of my taking the time and energy to write about them. In any event, my guest’s observation that I was "opinionated" has hung in my mind since that day in August and I am left wondering how I might go about my business sans opinions. My old trusty Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary informs me that "opinionated" denotes an "undue adherence to one’s own opinion or to preconceived notions." Well, yes — I do admit to harboring some "preconceived notions" about what I consider worth my time and efforts. And, the first definition I find under "opinion" tells me that it is "a view, a judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter." The "particular matter" in my case, I suppose, is any given exhibit I am invited to view. Further on, Mr. Webster adds that an "opinion implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute." No problem with that either, as far as I’m concerned. Since everyone (I should have guessed) knows that critics are merely venting their opinions — and that surely these opinions are, as Mr. Webster makes clear, "open to dispute" — well, again, I accept that my opinions are disputable. But how am I to take my guest’s judgment that I am "opinionated"? How can this be open to dispute since the very nature of criticism rests on opinion-making? To take the time to point out to me that I am "opinionated," therefore, is merely to acknowledge that (in Popeye’s words) "I yam what I yam." Now, I also agree that not all opinions are equal and that some are better than others. For my part, I tend to trust the opinions of those who are knowledgeable in their respective fields — I ask doctors about medical problems and auto mechanics about car problems, and not vice-versa. Now, my guest might have told me that he does not trust my judgment because he thinks I have limited experience in my field; he might even have bluntly told me that my opinions stink. They are, after all (as Mr. Webster astutely points out), disputable, and I am confident that for every critique or review I compose, someone might write an equally persuasive review that espouses an opposing view. This, after all, is the very stuff of arts publications. But then my guest surely has a right to his opinions — and I still reserve the right to my own — even to the degree of stating them publicly and affixing my name at the end of each opinionated piece I write.

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