As a young person, I never envisioned myself as a journalist. I’ve never had a path mapped out for myself. I went to college to study the writing of poetry.
Where and with whom?
I went to Harvard, and Robert Lowell was teaching there. I was in a graduate writing seminar with him. That was a very interesting experience. Again, my life has not moved in any linear direction. I truly feel that my writing is as much shaped by my experience as by any schooling I’ve ever had.
What sort of experience are you thinking of?
My dad was a doctor. Summer jobs, as a kid, I worked in hospitals. I worked in his hospital, and also in a state hospital for what was called the feeble-minded. Because I was a kid, they figured that wouldn’t matter, and they put me in a locked building with adult males who were severely retarded. I was seventeen. That was a very intense experience.
How did it affect you as a writer?
It was this very immediate, nonauthoritative relationship that you were having with other human beings. And it was a very primal one. They’re sick and helpless. You can give something to them. They are relating to you on this very, very basic level: life and death. In a hospital, you talk about things you don’t talk about in other places. You discuss your spiritual life. Their transience. Your transience. Because all the other stuff is irrelevant.
And did you go on to study journalism?
No. I’d studied the art of India and Asia as a graduate student. I was teaching an Indian and Islamic art course at Columbia, and began writing as a freelance critic for Art in America and other publications.
Could you talk about how you came to the Times and your role there?
While I was teaching at Columbia, I got a call from the Times. I did freelance work for them for a few years, and then they asked if I’d be on staff, and so I said, “Yeah.”
And what about your role there?There are actually three full-time art critics at the paper: Michael Kimmelman (who’s based in Berlin), Roberta Smith, and you. Was it your own decision to write so extensively about Asian art?
One of the reasons the Times asked me to work for them was my background in Asian art. I did try to make it clear that I didn’t want to be the Asian art writer exclusively. I did not want to be restricted—it’s all interrelated for me.
Let’s jump ahead to last summer, during which you wrote several stories about China for the Times. The first (on page one, no less) was a piece about the Chinese museum scene. In another, you explored the Buddhist sculptures in Dunhuang, at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Were these pieces prompted by the Olympics?
Yes. They were supposed to provide some cultural background. But my trip to Dunhuang was a logical extension of layers of interest I’ve had for years. I went backward in Buddhism. The first Buddhist art I studied was Japanese—in my thirties, I wandered around rural temples in Japan. After that, I thought it would be interesting to go to India and see where the whole thing got started. Then there was all this stuff in between, and Dunhuang was a crucial piece of that historical puzzle for me.
Your personal and journalistic adventures meshed.
Oh, yeah. Beautifully. And nobody at the paper gave me any direction: go here; go there. I’ve always been self-directed, and the paper has encouraged that.
In your Dunhuang piece, you make it clear that you are not, in fact, a Buddhist yourself.
Well, that was important for me to say. I don’t want people to read what I’m writing as advocacy for a particular faith. I’m coming at this from another place, a human place. I’m hungry for these experiences. Delighted by them. Puzzled by them. The same place that you, the reader, are in. I’ve been lucky to have had this experience, and now I am giving that luck to others.
So the art critic is a kind of caretaker for certain objects or experiences?
I do feel that. Objects represent us. They aren’t just manufactured things. They really are extensions of us, particularly art objects, which have been made with a certain amount of love. It’s also important to remember that a lot of art has been made for terrible reasons. These are objects of power. And they’re persuasive ones. They are beautiful, even though they were meant to advertise power in negative ways.
Perhaps this sense of criticism as a form of caretaking explains why your style often seems so insistently personal.