“Art is Alive”: Guest Speaker Holland Cotter’s Exchanges with Art

Kelly Gallagher ’22

Chief Features Editor

College of the Holy Cross welcomed Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic for “The New York Times,” to campus on Nov. 14, when he delivered an extraordinary talk in Rehm Library. A Pulitzer Prize winner known for bringing contemporary Asian art to Western audiences, Cotter opted to forgo a scholarly lecture in favor of sharing his personal story of how he became interested in art. He vividly conveyed how his deep and sincere passion for art has directed the narrative of his life, which he has spent doing what he loves and appreciating a wide variety of meaningful experiences.

Cotter’s interest in art is rooted in his passion for literature, which was sparked during his childhood by his mother, who read Emily Dickinson’s poetry at the dinner table. Cotter has always revered Dickinson’s religious and spiritual poetry (though he acknowledged she herself would likely shy away from such labels). Her images made him feel as though his head were “explod[ing],” a reaction which would later define his experience viewing images in art.

Cotter also recounted his earliest engagements with visual art. He grew up in Boston, and once he turned nine, his parents began dropping him off at the MFA every Saturday while they ran errands. Cotter said that the museum was less attended in those days, lending it the quiet atmosphere of a library. He wandered all around the museum, getting to know not only the security guards by name, but the collections by heart. He was especially fascinated by the Asian collection, which featured the Japanese gallery with its walk-in version of a Buddhist temple. These “self-curated museum tours” were extremely influential in his development as an art lover, Cotter said, explaining how he grew used to seeing art of different cultures next to each other. Cotter added that as a consequence, “No art is foreign to [him], no art is unapproachable.” 

Cotter went to Harvard University as an English literature major, where his life was changed when he took an anthropology course. The course was called “Primitive African Art,” which Cotter acknowledged as a very problematic name, but it was the first exposure he received to African art. Cotter originally chose the course because it sounded like the least unpleasant way to satisfy his science requirement, but once he started viewing pieces in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, he was struck by the sense that he was “in the presence of things that were alive.” Cotter made sense of his experience with the observation that “art [doesn’t] exist, it happen[s].” 

After college, Cotter spent several years working in an emergency room, where he became well-acquainted with the subject of mortality, before moving to New York City during the 1970s. It was a gritty, painful period for the city, but not without its moments of triumph. Cotter found himself fascinated by the graffiti and hip hop culture of New York, which he described as “art created out of desolation.” He wrote about art for several years in New York until he felt he’d hit a wall. Then came his breakthrough. 

After visiting a Japanese Buddhist art exhibition, Cotter was spellbound. Despite not having any knowledge of the language, he bought the next plane ticket to Japan, where he spent a month exploring temples and shrines in monasteries. His limited means of communication reinforced his journey as one of “looking,” and he saw that people treated art like living people. Visitors to temples left food and written notes, loving and engaging with the statues. When Cotter returned back to the States, he knew he wanted to write about Japanese art. However, he didn’t know how to do this, so he returned to school. 

During grad school, Cotter basically moved into museums and libraries. He said he felt as though he had “taken vows” to devote himself to doing what he loved best. His interest in Asia increased through his studies, and eventually he came to love Islamic art. He began writing about art again, submitting pieces to magazines on contemporary African American art and Buddhist art. He was delighted to be writing about what he loved, but Cotter said that he struggled to figure out how to write about art—something he still grapples with today. Ultimately, he tries to “write about past art as though it’s in the present, and present art as though it’s a bit in the past.”

After getting an MA in American Modernism from the City University of New York, he went on to earn a Master of Philosophy from Columbia University. “The New York Times” contacted him while he was studying and teaching at Columbia, and despite his already packed schedule, Cotter eagerly took the proffered role of freelance writer.

Writing for “The New York Times” allowed Cotter to get in the action while the American art world was trying to globalize during the 1990s. American galleries and museums were gaining a global awareness. Cotter acknowledged that some museums approached multiculturalism in a problematic manner, but he was excited that everyone was coming to the table and telling their stories. 

One of the exhibitions he covered for the “Times” was “A Saint in the City,” which presented images from contemporary Senegal celebrating Sheikh Amadou Bamba, a Sufi saint. Cotter praised the exhibition not only for presenting a view of Africa and Islam most Americans have not been exposed to before, but for being an interactive exhibition, where people were able to touch the art. 

Cotter lamented the fact that museums today don’t accommodate “live art,” and may not “believe in belief.” He also noted that museum statistics suggest that visiting crowds are growing less diverse and expressed the hope that they do something about this soon. Cotter’s perspective on art encouraged the audience to consider the art viewing experience as an “exchange of energy between [pieces of art] and the world,” and to consider not just how they view art, but how images “look at you.” 

Cotter concluded his talk by sharing that though he does not personally collect art (because they would require dusting and insurance), he does collect a variety of meaningful objects from all over the world. His crowded shelf of treasures is something of an altar, because he “always believe[s] the objects on it are precious, and so they are.” 

The audience filling Rehm gave Cotter an enthusiastic round of applause. Many members stayed for the Q&A section with Cotter, eager to discuss how museums don’t always tell the true stories of how some of their displayed art pieces came to be, art in the American curriculum, and political versus traditional art. 

Cotter’s lecture served as the pinnacle of a series of lectures relating to the Cantor Art Gallery’s current exhibition, “Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal.” Cotter was full of praise for the gallery, which he had toured prior to his talk, and told his audience, “They don’t do these shows any more…We don’t get this information you’re getting here in New York.” The exhibition will be on display until Dec. 14.

Photo courtesy of discovercentralma.org

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