No Gate to Keep: Art Writing’s Continual Crisis
St. Louis, like almost every other city in 2013, does not have a full-time paid art critic. This fact is so common that it has become meaningless; it is an assumed truth that says nothing about the city any longer. We may lament it, but petitioning failing publishers for more cultural investment distracts us from the reality: the industry isn’t coming back. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves in a time where so much art criticism is provisional, under- or unpaid, how can we best cultivate new critical voices and new platforms within our community? How do we promote agency to export art writing, or at least sustain a critical dialogue locally?
On August 10th, 2013, Temporary Art Review (in partnership with The Luminary Center for the Arts and Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts) assembled a diverse group of art critics in St. Louis to discuss the state of art criticism locally and the wavering place of the critic more broadly. The discussion was prompted by curator and critic Jessica Baran’s recent article in the Riverfront Times lambasting the trend of area institutions importing critics from the coasts, a practice which later backfired in a dismally written and embarrassing summary in Artforum’s Scene and Herd column. The majority of the roundtable guests worked for paid media outlets – daily newspapers, weekly entertainment papers, monthly magazines, etc – and the audience, unsurprisingly, consisted primarily of artists. We started by taking stock. What platforms exist (mostly traditional media). Whether they are sufficient (they aren’t). What is missing (too many things to list). Beyond that starting point, we hoped to explore the idea of agency: What could be done to support art criticism locally and, by extension, in similar regions across the country?
For me, the most striking thing that emerged was the perspective that not only are our institutions and traditional media outlets crumbling, but that there continues to be a startling lack of start-ups – not just the bloggers, part-timers and casual critics that fill in the gaps that media outlets have always missed, but emerging models of writing and publishing more broadly. Publishing has become increasingly decentralized, with blogs, social media, Tumblr, Medium and more extending the definitions of online discourse, but the expansions of the platforms have not led to a parallel expansion of critical writing. So why are so few critics in any form taking to these hybrid models? Even compiling a list of writers to invite, we noticed the absence of these voices and the subsequent void shadowed the conversation. We intentionally set up the space of the roundtable to be an inclusive conversation in order to encourage attendees to weigh in and consider their own role as writers, yet the distance persisted. The critic was the other; the paid reporter, the discarder of press releases, the full-time elephant at the table. The artist was the networker, the passive recipient of the review. The rest of us were, well, silent.
The range of responses recorded at the roundtable clearly marked only one thing: that something is wrong with the landscape. We could each agree that criticism is in continual crisis. The crisis of audience and readership; the crisis in advertising and gazes, time and attention; the crisis of platform and pay. We are all talking about art, but not to each other, not to a public. Thoughtful dialogue rarely occurs in documented form – especially in smaller cities like St. Louis – but few take this as a call to action. Roundtables too often hang there, circling around a point without ever transcending it. The possibilities of platforms should lead to an expansion of agency. New critical voices should be emerging as we understand that there are no gatekeepers and no gate to keep. Yet, this persistent should continues to haunt the field.
Chicago Artist Writers, themselves an interesting model, recently posed a thoughtful analysis of art writing today on Bad at Sports, quoting critic Lori Waxman that “technology has changed and art has changed, and that should be radically impacting the kind of art criticism that we write, how it gets published, how it gets received and who we write it for, and how it gets commented on.” I agree with this sentiment and am interested in why the changes in technology and art have not radically impacted the kind of art criticism we write on a broad scale. When the participants in the roundtable were prodded for models that are working, we reached a dead end. Platforms like Triple Canopy and e-flux were acknowledged as sustainable, unique models of web publishing in some form. Others, myself included, questioned their ability to be replicated and expanded, as well as their place as outlets for critical writing – in particular their relevance to activities outside of art centers and projects not immediately engaging major institutions. Interesting regional examples do exist, such as Art Practical, East of Borneo, Burnaway, Glasstire and more. Locally, the St. Louis Beacon (which has also published several responses to the roundtable) is an online newspaper that is continuing to experiment with its model, most recently by moving towards a partnership with the local NPR member station to create a public media consortium. Notably, each of these is some variation of a nonprofit model, able to exist based on donations, partnerships, and fundraising apart from their day-to-day activities. Yet none of these do much to push forward the how and who of arts writing – the forms of traditional publishing continue to dominate the conversation despite the changes in platform and economic subsistence.
Art writing, as Jessica Baran recently wrote on this site, is an act of translation. I would add that art writing can be an act of transcription. Criticism is a conversation, a mediation between the artwork and audience. These conversations are happening all the time as we process what we have seen, place it in context of what is happening in the broader art world, critique the gallery’s ebbs and flows and defend our judgements when others disagree. Yet rarely is the vitality of criticism I find in the bar conversations after an opening reflected in a public form. Facebook comments are a source of insight as often as an afternoon cycling through art blogs. At openings, I overhear stronger position-taking than I ever read in print. When we lament the lack of criticism, what I think we are saying is that the conversations around art are not entering the public. They are not returning back to the artist and gallery as a thoughtful response that can shape their work; they are not validating the work happening; and they are not providing external proof that something is happening. If nothing is documented, we all are allowed to believe that nothing important is there.
If this is in fact the issue, then there are ways to address it. I read the work of long-standing, long-form critics because I am interested in the contours of their thought and the language that upholds it. It is a valuable role and one we need to find ways to support. Yet I think we are hung up on the idea of the critic to the detriment of critical reflection. Full time critics and endowments for writers are of course valuable, but so is embracing curator-critics, artist-writers, and professor-documentarians continue responding to the diverse manifestations of the visual art community in any form. Sometimes what is needed is a public discussion, no matter the credentials of the critic.
We may never again have a publishing industry that pays full-time critics or an advertising model that makes blogs sustainable, so why are we not trying harder to make sure our work is documented, discussed, distributed, contended-with publicly? Why are more of our conversations not recorded in some form and returned to the public? In times of crisis, sometimes it is sufficient to state the issue, then experiment with whatever is within your control. Perhaps in this experimentation, we will stumble on new forms of criticism; perhaps the form becomes a model. Repairing the crumbling models isn’t sufficient to address the contours of the contemporary, so this moment of experimentation is an opportunity to reshape criticism into something that addresses the breadth of art as it is – decentered, multiple, malleable. As a writer and editor, I’m not interested in being a critic or cultivating critics, exactly. I’m interested in what potentialities we as a broader community of art writers and artist writers are able to make possible in this new landscape. Even this has its limits, but I don’t believe that we’ve gone far enough to know what the limits are yet. As we experiment more fully in the ruins of the industry, speculation may be our most honest form and our only way forward.
Image: Jenny Holzer, Survival Series, 1983
So how do you interpret the absence of comments on a great critical writing (your article) about the wasteland of critical writing? Is that ironic, sad, confirming of your points, all the above?
Here’s my perspective. I don’t know if it has merit but I’m giving myself permission since you invited it. “Sometimes what is needed is a public discussion, no matter the credentials of the critic.”
Once upon a time I used to care about art writing. I cared because I was making art and trying to engage other people’s art, and art writing was an important point-of-entry into other people’s work. I used to subscribe to Art in America. But I read it only because I wanted to be in the know. Most of the articles employed some sort of hermeneutic that was unknown to me. That is a disheartening experience for someone who was passionate about the art world and thought themselves of adequate intelligence. That should be enough to connect with and be illuminated by art writing, but it wasn’t.
So after some years I concluded there was either some defect in me, or some fundamental defect in the art world and/or art writing. Since I cared more about making and looking art it than I cared about reading art criticism and gallery reviews, I abandoned the exercise of reading art writing and stuck to just activity of creating and looking at work. I felt a little more validated once I saw signs that other people felt the same way. Reading Dave Hickey’s “Air Guitar” and “Invisible Dragon” was the push over the cliff that made my apathy for reading art writing complete.
I don’t care about art writing enough to try and do it myself. But I do care about it enough that I would read something that I though had merit, sit with it, engage it. I’ll give it my eyeballs and mental energy, perhaps even my dollars if it comes in book form. Not to blow sunshine up your skirt, but this site has been a breath of fresh air. The only reason I read and engage on here is because the writing is critical and though-provoking, but still accessible.
And that is probably my biggest gripe with art writing, and the number one quality that I think it requires. It should be accessible to folks of moderate intelligence and interest. Even better if you can reach folks totally outside the sphere of art. Who has the time, desire, or wherewithal to spend minutes of their precious life reading something that is impenetrably self-important, obfuscating, or demanding some extreme level of initiation into the art world bubble? I realize that sounds cynical. But I am a byproduct of this failed system. A motivated and caring reader is a precious thing for anyone writing. You have to be trying really hard or living with cosmically different value systems to disenfranchise those types of people.
To your first point, what was interesting is that I received a lot of private messages and emails regarding the article, as well as saw several meaningful, contested discussions on Facebook. In some ways, this reinforces some of the points about conversations about art not returning to the public. Discussion is happening, it is just taking place in a decentered way that is productive for those having the discussion, perhaps, but less so for the rest of the field (audience/artist/critic/etc). I think one of the reasons is that one can take chances in a conversation or a Facebook comment because one doesn’t feel that it is permanent – that last piece is not necessarily true, but is still how people think about it. It is casual – you say something knowing that it can be wrong and your grammar doesn’t matter, deflating the risk and minimizing the value.
To you primary point – much art writing does have the effect of sending out signifiers that inscribe it into some specific form of discourse (I just used two such terms both accidentally and on purpose). Writers who wish to be included in that specific form of discourse tend to write towards that audience, no matter how small the audience is, because it includes those perceived to have ‘power’ within the art world such as editors, curators, other critics, etc. If they use certain forms of language and respond to those forms in others, it becomes a kind of cycle of capitulation in order to participate. Otherwise, one can assume to be left out of that conversation. Others, like many involved in this site, are interested in a different kind of conversation, which hopefully opens up new forms of dialogue, but assumes a different audience as well.
The idea of a populist or popular form of art writing is compelling, but complicated. If the art world itself is obfuscating and has a limited audience, who is the audience of populist writing about it? A subset of the art world who are ‘byproducts of the failed system’? (Which, as an aside, would be most of the art world.) To overcome that status, the writing would itself have to be a line of inquiry that corresponds to issues much broader than the art world, that embeds both art and writing within a cultural dialogue with many points of entrance. That is something to aspire to, but is secondary for me as a writer at this stage. I am primarily interested in a condensed conversation about the system, for those who it has failed and for those that it will fail in the future. Obviously, this is not a populist concept, so can’t expect a broad audience. A motivated and caring reader, willing to work through and challenge what is being discussed, is the point for me because it is a reader who is both the subject and the actor able to transform it into something else.