Sunday, May 8, 2011

Report from Austin part 2: A Buncha Art Critics, Sittin' Around Talkin'

The reason I was invited up to Austin for the Hybrid Arts Summit was to represent bloggers in one of a series of critical roundtables. There were three in all. The first one featured Wendy Vogel, Core Fellow and editor of ..might be good, and Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin, arts critic and reporter for the Austin-American Statesman. They spoke a great deal about the mechanics of their respective gigs--circulation, who reads their work, how assignments work, the business of the publications, etc. I was astonished to learn that ...might be good had 8000 subscribers. Subscribing is free, admittedly, but the subject matter of the web magazine is fairly narrow--mostly contemporary art in Texas or somehow related to Texas. Of those 8000 subscribers, only 16% of them are from Texas. One can only speculate who the non-Texan readers are and why they subscribe. Perhaps it says something about the uncentered nature of the art world that interested parties feel they have to subscribe to a critical web magazine from Texas.

This is a subject that I find interesting--who reads criticism (and art news) and why? To me, this is one of the defining issues for a publication. It should be a key part of one's publishing mission--to fulfill the needs of those readers. Van Ryzin described the mission of the Statesman as to provide information to its readers. And no doubt its readers depend on it for information. But readers keep coming back to it because they are interested in what it has to say. Providing information is a part of, but not the entirety of, retaining reader interest. (This is why good writing--writing with real style--counts. If it was all about information, writing-qua-writing would be irrelevant.)

I was curious about whether Vogel and Van Ryzin felt a need to sell their publications. Van Ryzin spoke about a wall separating the editorial from the advertising departments, and said she never thought about "selling" the paper. She said that the editors told them that "Good news sells papers." (By this, I took her meaning to be high-quality news.) It's a nice, idealistic point of view, and true to an extent, no doubt. But if that's the whole of your editorial ideology, I think you're abdicating your responsibility to keep your readers interested. There is something beyond "high quality news" that brings people in. I'm not accusing Van Ryzin of being boring, but she did express repeatedly that the Statesman was about providing information to readers. As a mission, I find that kind of barren and puritanical. I just read an interview with Harold Bloom in which he said:
I don’t see any point to literary criticism or literary editing unless it’s as personal as poetry, or some varieties of the novel, the story or drama. Literary criticism is either part of literature or shouldn’t exist. I teach, think, read and write personally. What else could I be? What are we all here for? Objectivity is a farce. It’s a myth. It’s shallow. Deep subjectivity is not easy—it’s very difficult—it’s what you try to educate people into. ("The Anatomy of Influence," Boston Review, 4/28/2011)
Substitute "art" for "literary," and you have my feeling about art criticism and art writing in general. It's not merely information we're providing. Indeed, a good critic has style, and you feel you know her when you've read a number of her pieces. A good critic is not, therefore, a slave to Strunk & White, the A.P. Stylebook, or the MLA Handbook. Nor does a good critic stand aloof, with Olympian disinterest--instead, she is passionately involved in the work under question.

But that still leaves aside the question of audience. While Samuel Johnson's famous line "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money" is proven true every time I put up a new post (for which I get paid nothing), I nonetheless think hard about my readership. I have the least possible reason to pander and am beholden to no one. And yet, my thoughts return again and again to the readers. I do this--write this blog--for me but also for them. My ego wants to keep them involved. That is the strongest motivating force I have, and that's why I write. But I also recognize in myself a desire to nurture the art world. Wendy Vogel addressed that:
If [...might be good] writing about a show gets more people in the door...I think that that's a success. If somebody writing about a show at ...might be good helps the artists sell more, whether I like the work or not, I that's a success because I think one thing criticism should do is help stimulate an entire art world and art economy.
I sort of agree with this, but not totally. Sometimes, to paraphrase William F. Buckley, our job as critics is to stand athwart some artist's career and yell "Stop!" Vogel's idea of criticism (and, if I may expand it, art writing generally) stimulating the art economy can lead to a dangerous practice: cheerleading. This came up a bit in the first talk. (I commented that only writing good reviews was like being a sportswriter and only reporting when the home team won.) But it was a far bigger issue in the second panel, which featured photographer Barry Stone, Chris Cowden of Women and Their Work gallery, and Charissa Terranova.

 Lakes Were River #1, a publication of the photographer's collective Lakes Were Rivers

This was a very different group. Except for Terranova, none of them were critics per se. Stone runs a semi-informal crit group--photographers critiquing other photographer's work. (He is also the founder of the photographers' collective Lakes Were Rivers. I don't know what relationship Lakes Were Rivers has with the crit group, though.) Cowden publishes handsome trifold catalogs for her exhibits and hires freelance art writers to write essays for them. Only Terranova, a professor at U.T. Dallas, is also an art writer. Her position as a critic is ideal--as a professor, she doesn't need to hustle writing jobs and can afford to burn bridges if necessary. Indeed, she stopped writing for a daily paper when they edited her work too heavily (she said the straw that broke the camel's back was when they asked her to remove the word "trope," because it might be too jargony or difficult for their readers). But she said she never writes bad reviews. Her reason? She just doesn't like doing it.

catalog for Hana Hillerova: Super Space from Women & Their Work, with an essay by Charrissa Terranova

I mentioned this (in disbelief) to a friend of mine, and she came back not exactly agreeing with Terranova, but saying that for many people, writing negative reviews or harsh criticism within a local community could be politically difficult. That got my back up a bit, so here's my response:
There are lots of reasons for "cheerleading":
1) A critic might feel he or she is representing art in the face of a hostile or at best indifferent public, therefore would want to give art--especially contemporary art, which is often hard for the uninitiated-but-curious public to understand--as much of a boost as possible
2) Desire not to burn bridges. Critics (especially local critics) live in work among the persons and institutions they write about. These critics will need to continue their relationships with artists/institutions into the future for the purpose of their work. So if instead of a bad review, a critic writes no review, important relationships are preserved without any sacrifice of integrity on the part of the critic.
3) Desire not write about art one doesn't like. Writing a bad review or a highly critical editorial or think-piece might not be much fun. I know a lot of writers who just don't like to do it. Why do something you hate doing?
4) Desire not to hurt people's feelings. I don't like hurting people's feelings, and excluding bullies and sadists, I think most people don't like it. Not writing bad reviews, negative editorials, etc., is one way not to hurt people's feelings.

All of these are legit. I personally have wrestled with each one. But I think cheerleading lowers the quality of publications (whether that publication is a newspaper, a magazine, a web-magazine or a blog). Readers like a certain amount of drama. In art writing, drama comes in the form of good reviews followed by bad reviews, as well as by scandals, fiery manifestos, gossipy punditry, bitter denunciations, unabashed love letters, snarky put-downs, heartfelt celebrations, etc. In short, the full range of human response. There's a reason people like sports pages. Wide World of Sports famous cliche line--"The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat"--is well-remembered because it's so true.  The problem with the cheerleading mode is that you end up with a bland publication that has one flavor, one tone, which is celebratory. You only get the "thrill of victory," and that gets boring after a while for readers. So for me, I think cheerleading is a grave disservice to readers, who want to be entertained by what they are reading (even if they are reading something dry and difficult like October).

My other problem is for the critic, never writing a bad review means--possibly--that one's critical facilities will atrophy (not to mention one's writing abilities). One ends up like the gym rat who only exercises his upper-body muscles. He might have great abs and delts and whatnot, but they rest on two chicken-leg pillars. I think it's important for critics to exercise all of their critical and writerly facilities.
I would add a third problem with a "no negative criticism" policy, which is in a way weaker than the other two. Artists (and curators and gallerists) need to be held to account. Their friends are all going to tell them they're great--they need someone to say "You suck!" if they suck. And they need to be discouraged from doing the things that suck.

But what about reason two--desire not to burn bridges? For me, if someone criticizes what I do, an shrug it off as well as I can. But I'm not an artist or curator who depends on a certain amount of good will for my professional survival. I have rarely gotten really negative feedback, but it occasionally happens. And I would expect critics who are more aggressive than me get it even more--either to their faces or behind their backs. Maybe you have to be a gruff character like Donald Judd to write bad review after bad review and remain a force in the art world. Locally, Michael Bise seems to be a fearlessly honest critic, despite his connection with the local scene as an artist. I think the benefits for a regional art scene of having fearlessly honest critics outweighs the negatives for the critics. At least I hope so. If not, then there need to be more critics who, like me, have nothing to lose.

The final panel was the one I was on. I think the idea was to give new media people a say. We had Duncan MacKenzie from Bad at Sports and Richard Serrano from Art This Week. (I should also mention that Salvador Castillo moderated all of these panels.) I was the odd man out--these guys were producing respectively podcasts and videos. I was the only one who wrote stuff. (This is not totally fair--Bad At Sports, which is a veritable empire, has a blog portion.) Mackenzie had a very specific notion of his intended audience--other artists, working in their studios. Bad at Sports was something they could listen to while they worked. That makes perfect sense and explains away one obvious weakness of any art podcast--the lack of images. In this respect, both Pan and Art This Week are superior to Bad at Sports--we can show in addition to telling. But one problem I personally have with video is that it demands you pay attention to it right now. Writing you can always walk away from and return to later. But this is a minor objection--a good short video interview or walk-through can be really entertaining and enlightening. Art This Week is a fairly young endeavor, but one could see it growing into real importance in Texas. Serrano also expressed an interest into expanding into art-education videos, which strikes me as a great way to make a little money doing something you love.

But the thing about both these enterprises is that they are not criticism. And maybe that's the future. We think of writing about art (or video or interviews or whatever) as being criticism; that the phrases "art criticism" and "art writing" are synonyms. I think this old way of thinking is collapsing. As Nancy Princenthal wrote:
On one hand, there is no self-evident reason to make the linkages between art and theory that have been argued over the past twenty years, productive and often fascinating though they have been. Semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxist economic theory, structural anthropology--these are all fascinating fields, but they have no more compelling claims as explanatory systems for art criticism than do theology, mathematics, or the physics of color (to name a few heuristic precedents). ["Art Criticism, Bound to Fail," Art In America, 2006]
But I would go even further. I don't think art criticism is inherently the best way to talk about art. Or rather, I don't think it should be privileged over other kinds of writing about art. I think, for example, writing about the economics of auctions by Noah Horowitz or Don Thompson will tell us as much about the art of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons as any criticism will. Art writing (and video, etc.) needs to embrace all approaches.

I think the Hybrid Arts Summit barely scratched the surface. I would like to see more events or get-togethers like this. I don't know if the art world cares too much about this stuff--I personally feel pretty irrelevant to the goings on in the local art scene. But for me, thinking about these issues, and discussing them with colleagues,  is useful.



  1. This is fantastic!
    Thank you very much for participating and for the great recap!

    btw: Lakes Were Rivers IS the crit group.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful piece, Robert. I enjoyed reading it and agree that more transparency and conversation about criticism is needed.

    However, I want to clarify my position about ...might be good's editorial policy, as I think the jump from my quote to cheerleading may leave some of your readers confused. While I do think that criticism can have an important contribution in building a dialogue and stimulating an economy, I disagree strongly that the purview of the magazine is simple cheerleading. We frequently publish mixed, critical and negative reviews. I have written some myself. Your honest discussion about the difficulty of writing (and/or publishing) negative reviews resonated with me.

    To elaborate on my editorial philosophy, the material that is included in the publication should speak to a broader audience and should not include potshots, or bashing for the sake of bashing. While we do have a responsibility to our homebase in Austin and our home state of Texas, we also have a responsibility to that larger audience, and we want to present what Texas has to offer with that audience in mind. Because of limited resources, we cannot include reviews of every show in town. I mentioned in a later panel that that model of "covering the field" was as much an outdated fallacy as objective criticism.

    I enjoyed your discussion of DEEP subjectivity, and this is what we strive for: not a simple evaluation in terms of a dismissal or the critic's stamp of approval, but a response, analysis or a series of questions that bubble forth from an engagement with serious work.

    This may sound like fancy footwork, but I come from the position that there is no outside when it comes to art, critically or otherwise. The task of the producer (critics, curators, editors and artists included) is to stake a position within it. This includes writing about what you love, being honest about what you don't, and being discerning about where you choose to invest your efforts.

    -Wendy Vogel, Editor, ...might be good

  3. I have no doubt my writing is vague and confusing enough to leave an impression that ...might be good is guilty of cheerleading. I apologize for that. As anyone who reads ...might be good knows, it frequently publishes mixed or negative reviews, which is one reason I consider it to be a must-read publication, a vital voice for Texas art. I don't get the feeling that ...might be good pulls its punches at all (although I likewise have never felt they were excessively nasty or snarky, which is the flipside of cheerleading).

    I think the confusion comes from where I used something Wendy said as indicative of the incentive to cheerlead. If an editor wanted to help the art community, that editor might mistakenly take the path of cheerleading. The thing is, I think Vogel and ...might be good help the art community in a deeper, better way--by offering honest criticism; praise where praise is due, censure if called for, and real analysis. That's how writers and editors best serve the art community--and their ownreaders.