You may ask yourself…
Here are some questions and thoughts I had in advance of and in response to a roundtable of arts writers on Eva Lake’s Art Focus show on KBOO. You can listen to the conversation here. Eva had called the group together on the occasion of D.K. Row stepping down as full time art critic for the daily paper, the Oregonian.
And first of all, I’d like to say that writing about arts writing, as talking about arts writing this morning, is by its very nature self-indulgent, (sometimes more so than others). And so I won’t hold it against you if you click on the next tab in your browser. [self-editor's note: I'm actually embarrassed to have written this many words about writing.] But I thought some might find it useful to think about questions like, What do we do when we write about art? What might we inadvertently do? What should we be doing? What is the value of arts writing to its many audiences? And how is the value of arts writing different in Portland than New York?
First up, let me invoke the words of the great Talking Head David Byrne to say that the situation post Row at the O will likely be “same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” Anyone who is surprised by the fact that the daily is no longer willing to pay for a full time art critic hasn’t seen the Monday morning Oregonian which is approximately twelve pages long, an apt metaphor for the fact that daily journalism is bleeding out. (Thanks a lot, internet.) And as I pointed out earlier, Row rarely writes about art exhibitions lately; he mostly writes about the regional arts ecology, big picture stuff about arts institutions, awards, etcetera. Criticism is and has been done mostly by freelancers. So no big diff.
There were only five of us at the table this morning. Eva Lake hosted and has written about art and hosted her radio show talking about art for many years. Barry Johnson worked for decades at the Oregonian (as well as the WW) as critic, cultural journalist, and editor. He blogs at Arts Dispatch. Jeff Jahn is one of the founders of the arts website PORT. He is also a curator. A freelancer, Brian Libby wrote arts criticism for the Oregonian some time back and now writes primarily about architecture on his blog, Portland Architecture and elsewhere.
And at some point Eva said, do you think there’s enough arts criticism in Portland? She thought not.
So I just quickly wanted to give you the off the top of my head list of other writers considering visual art in Portland: Matt Stangel (Mercury), Sue Taylor (Art in America), Victoria Blake (Oregonian), Stephanie Snyder (artforum.com), Richard Speer (WW), John Motley (Fourteen30/Oregonian), Katherine Bovee (Art Papers), Bob Hicks (Oregonian/Art Scatter), plus those who write for PORT and ultra: Amy Bernstein (PORT), Alex Rauch (PORT), Arcy Douglas (PORT), Patrick Collier (PORT/ultra), Victor Maldonado (PORT/ultra), Michelle Weidman (ultra), and Linda Wysong (ultra). Oh, and PNCA and PSU have multiple blogs. Apologies if I missed anyone.
So. What do we do when we write about art? We inform, introduce, invite the reader to consider something we’ve noticed. We notice. We describe so that you can see through our words and photos what we’ve seen. We question. We ask what is this trying to do and how well does it do what it sets out to do? We ask why is it trying to do that, and can the argument be made that it is a worthwhile thing to do? We provide context, engaging history and the contemporary with a kind of conceptual peripheral vision. We engage in a discourse that contributes to the meaning-making around the work by bringing whatever considerations of theory, of philosophy, that the work raises for us. And of course, let’s admit that we also misinterpret, misrepresent, miss the point, graft our own ideas and concerns onto a consideration of the work, etcetera.
One thing we didn’t talk about at all on the radio is the question I often ponder which is who the audiences for arts criticism are and what value they might derive from it. Because who cares what a bunch of critics think of criticism, right? There is a sense in which criticism is surplus value or what I’d consider false surplus value like most of the products traded on the financial market which have little to do with the goods produced. But even as artmaking/exhibiting/viewing/buying would certainly not stop if no one wrote about the art, there are outcomes of criticism, nonetheless, so we might ask, who, besides art critics (snicker), values criticism? What does arts criticism do?
For the artist it can advocate for, respond (if a tree falls in the forest and no one writes about it…), validate or encourage, challenge (in a way that might clarify one’s thinking or stiffen one’s resolve), add to the C.V., provide a clip to include in a grant application, provide exposure (to new curatorial eyes, perhaps). I do doubt that the careers of Portland artists who are exhibiting internationally like MK Guth, Arnold Kemp, Storm Tharp, Aaron Flint Jameson, have been impacted in the least by local criticism. Don’t tell me that Whitney curators read regional arts criticism. But I think that the exposure I mentioned might also help artists of like mind find one another. And finally, I’m very aware, as a consumer of writings on art history, of the fact that an artist who is written about is the one that we, in decades hence, talk about. Pretty obvious. Am I missing anything?
For the dealer, well, this one I really wonder about. Has any work of art in any Portland gallery ever sold because of a review? Because it was written about in Artforum online? Does a review ever provide alternate ways in to talk to a collector about an artists work? I understand that if we were in New York, the “buzz” around an artist or a gallery via lots of critical attention would raise its cachet among collectors. But, and correct me if I’m wrong, it strikes me that in Portland, art is sold because of the personal relationships forged by dealers with collectors and secondarily because of personal relationships forged by artists with collectors.
For the collector, she might be introduced to an artist with whom she was unfamiliar. She might learn more about that artist’s program, be intrigued by it. But beyond that, see “dealer” above.
For the institution, is all publicity good publicity? Which is to say, does PAM just sing, in the words of Beyonce, “Say my name, say my name?” And I think the answer to that is probably yes. If the O puts PAM on the cover of the A&E, that’s what matters. It serves to remind the reader that something’s happening at the Museum. I doubt that curatorial cares one way or the other. And again, a review might provide supporting documentation for a grant application.
For the curator, well, I imagine that the curators share some of the values of artists, in particular welcoming discourse around the exhibitions they curate. Does a review benefit the curator’s career? I doubt curators in the academic and arts institutions are evaluated or given opportunities based on reviews of their shows in national publications, let alone local ones. How about independent curators? If a show receives a lot of notice, particularly of the national variety (has that ever happened for an independently curated show here?) I can see that gathering the resources for a future exhibition might be made somewhat easier. But I think it’s more likely that knowing that the exhibition is eliciting a response might also encourage the independent curator to ride again.
For the historian, the writing of the record is invaluable to get a sense of a time and place. I’ve read reams of reviews from the 70s and 80s in the WW by Paul Sutinen and Barry Johnson that have been so illuminating. And I’ve often thought about how the artists we continue to talk about are artists that have been written about by critics. Someone noticed.
And for the general public, as Barry Johnson has said after John Dewey, the job of the critic is to explain and explain some more. I tend to think of it as issuing an invitation to someone who might not have considered a particular artist or gallery, or may not have visited PAM recently, to do so, and to think about it. What’s more, writing about art can direct notice, yes, but it can also launch conversations about issues larger than the object and larger than art.
What happens when an exhibition is written about? I am using my imagination here, but I imagine it fosters conversation, incredulous artists calling B.S. on misguided interpretations or attention paid to undeserving work, congratulations to the well-reviewed. I also imagine that sharing links to online reviews might introduce new viewers (and perhaps new curators) to the artist.
On the website for an upcoming conference called Judgment and Contemporary Arts Criticism, there is this:
For many, the end of the twentieth century saw the mitigation of the importance of critical valuation established within high modernist discourses. Instead, many critics argued for a more open dialogue between texts and objects, pursuing modes of critique that allowed for the exploration of ambiguity and interpretation, thus detaching art writing from questions of quality.
And honestly a move toward “the exploration of ambiguity and interpretation” is really the kind of discourse around a work of art that I want to read. And I’ll say that for sure that there is a strain of arts writing that can be tethered to the actual art very tenuously as it floats into the theoretical ether…this is that “open dialogue between texts and objects”…but that just doesn’t happen in Portland much. Which is to say we don’t really deploy the kind of intellectual firepower that would require us to wring our hands about that particular problem at the moment.
The word judgment came up in the conversation on the radio more than once. Eva had earlier linked to the 2004 article Arts Criticism in Crisis which reviews a book by James Elkins in which, among other things he decries the lack of judgment on the part of the contemporary critic.
Why would artists be hungry for “judgment?” Are our MFA programs cranking out so many artists that one begs for the herd to be thinned by an opinionated critic?
Why would dealers desire “judgment?” To validate their own judgments? To bolster a sales pitch? To assist in placing their artists’ work in museums? Would a positive review (judgment) in the O facilitate that at all? A review on artforum.com? I wonder.
Do you like a work/value a work less if a critic derides it as art school stuff?
Perhaps critics value judgment as a way of establishing their own self-worth. (Clement, can you hear me? Clement?) But it’s not a monovoice world anymore, is it. From curators and dealers to twitter afficionados, information is shared, judgments are made, some artists win, some fade, history is written.
And I really do think we have to distinguish between what would happen to an artist’s career if her work was positively reviewed with a long piece in Artforum vs. on a blog in Portland, Oregon.
I think the greatest “judgment” one can pronounce is in the decision to write or not to write about something, to pay it attention. As Barry Johnson pointed out on the radio, Simone Weil said, “Culture is the formation of attention.” And I think our time is well spent pointing to and therefore contributing to the formation of attention around work we think matters, work that is surprising, compelling, smart, beautiful, important.
A final note. One thing that Row’s departure means is that now no one is getting paid much if anything to write about art. We might ask if that is sustainable. We might also ask why one would continue to do it then? And I can answer for myself that writing is a way of thinking. That writing is a way of working through to understanding. And that writing about work is a continuation of the conversation that begins when the artist hangs her work on the wall in invitation of response. It’s a conversation I want to have with you.