Saturday, December 5, 2009

Panel Notes: "Bring It"

Though a few other folks have already posted about it--like respected local critic John Bentley Mays and (on Facebook, sorry I've been alerted this link is hard to get to) well-known curator/critic Earl Miller--and I'm promised that wonderfully incriminating video footage will soon be available via Artstars*, I just wanted to post a few notes related to "Bring It: Toronto Alliance of Art Critics says Make Face Mofos!", an event that happened on Wednesday, December 2 in Toronto.

"Bring It," co-organized by sassy social video queen Nadja Sayej and artist/curator Xenia Benivolski, took place at Double Double Land, a residence-cum-event space. The turnout was pretty great -- I'm guessing it fluctuated between 75 and 90, which was basically capacity-plus. While this unfortunately resulted in a bit of a swelter in the room, it definitely spoke to people's interest in the premise, which was to get up close and personal (hissing-cat sound effects included) with a six Toronto critics of various ilk: Toronto Star art reporter Murray Whyte, Eye Weekly arts editor and critic David Balzer, former C Magazine and Mix Magazine editor Rosemary Heather, Goldsmiths grad/curator/critic Charlene Lau, artist/artUS correspondent Otino Corsano, and myself. Nadja Sayej hosted in Sally Jessy Raphael style.

Overall, I really enjoyed the evening; key facts were explicated to the crowd by both the panellists and the audience (which contained several critics). Such gems, which many non-critics might not be aware of, include the fact that Modern Painters pays $50 per review, that "even Artforum" is afraid of losing advertisers due to negative reviews, that it can take 12 months-plus to get paid by C Magazine, and more. I think, as many of us on the panel did, that it's important to get this kind of economic information out there. Though no fee excuses lazy criticism, the fact is that the way criticism is paid for (or not) is one of the things that deeply influences the tenor of Canadian criticism--ie. if you're not being paid to well to write something, or if your critical real estate is limited to 500 words every four months, well, you'd tend to write about art you love rather than art you don't.

At several points during the evening, the issue of "should reviewers be more critical?" came up. While this was responded to in several directions, it was also pointed out that this particular phrasing is unhelpful, as "critical" is not a word many seem to be in agreement upon. Some take it as "negative", others take it as "descriptive and probing in an indepth way," others take in it yet other ways.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would posit the tensions thusly: That what Canadian criticism needs is to be more truthful.

And when I say truthful, I mean a few different things:

One is that reviewers and critics need to be honest about their reactions to works and exhibitions. This is a rule that should be (naturally!) widely in practice, but it can often fall by the wayside, particularly, I'm told, with inexperienced writers who feel the purpose of a review is to best convey what the artist wants to say. And while this may be the partial function of a profile or an interview (and to a lesser extent of a review), I feel the key role of the critic, at least in journalistic criticism, is to provide readers with their honest, thoughtful reaction to a given artwork or exhibition. That's it. I don't always achieve it myself, but it is always something to aim for.

Another thing I mean by Canadian criticism needing to be more truthful is this: our publications, when viewed widely, need to reflect the truth that some art is enjoyed, and some art is not. When we have publications that solely work on a laudatory basis, the sweeping landscape of Canadian artistic production is falsified--its dark or more difficult or more disappointing parts erased. When we don't provide readers with those experiences of disappointment--which are common to most art viewers--I would posit we forgo an opportunity to mirror that truth, and to articulate it in a way that is helpful--helpful to the reader, who, again, is the person I try to make my first consideration in published writing, and maybe even helpful to the art. (Again, I'll admit I don't always accomplish this, even where I have the most power to do so, my own blog. But again, it should be something to aim for, rather than to ignore.)

Of course, both of these realms of truth are influenced by pressures from institutions, artists, dealers, curators, and other critical voices--particularly if any of these happen to be advertisers.

So that's my two cents on what seems to be an ongoing conversation.

Overall, though it bit off more than it could chew, and there wasn't as much conflict as perhaps hoped for, I found the evening invigorating. Also, there is a TON of stuff that happened that I did not touch upon in this post. (I also heard people hung out for a couple hours afterwards chatting and such, something I completely missed.) I have a bit of a post-event-sorry-I-talked-so-much feeling, because there were a lot of voices to be heard, but I look forward to hearing more voices in future events. It's exciting to think this kind of conversation could be an ongoing one, and that this is just the beginning.

Again, if there are any additions (and there should be!) corrections, comments or questions, please feel free to add on in the comments.

Image of Bring It host Nadja Sayej by Barbara Gilbert


sally said...

Thanks again, Leah!

I like your suggestion of "truthful" as alternative to "critical."

Gabby said...

I like the idea of "truthful", too. Particularly to the author's own personal or even physical response to the work. I feel a huge sigh of relief whenever a critic actually mentions some part of their body, outside of their brain, interacting with the exhibition/artwork, or gives some sense of how the experience made them feel (not just what it made them think, though that is also interesting).

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Sally and Gabby,

Thanks for your comments...

I never thought about the physiological-style reaction, Gabby, but that's an interesting angle.

I guess what also comes out of this for me is that what's also important or helpful is to have a lot of people writing their truthful reactions... I think one reason we might hold off from an honest reaction sometimes is that we feel we have to represent a broad range of viewpoints with just one review, maybe? But the more people we have writing honest criticism, the more diversity of opinion there will be, and hopefully a truer composite picture of the artwork provided.

So all this may involve a blue-sky fantasy of art-review quantity, as well as thoughts about quality!

Earl Miller said...

Hi Leah -

Truthful is a nice term. I felt that the term "critical" in some discussion during the evening and on A. Carson's blog, connoted debunking art a critic does not like in a rather venomous way. A rant is not beneficial (although Art Fag added humour to it and that worked). With truth though comes communication, and I become increasingly frustrated at how difficult it is to read art periodicals (here is where the best newspaper critics are doing things better, I believe). Much writing in these periodicals is unreadable. Why, for one example, must critics describe everything an artist makes in the passive voice (the painting was rendered, the video was presented). Boring. Boring. Boring. If a second manifestation of this panel comes out, I would like to here more about writer's craft as a way to get the truth across.

Earl said...

oops....hear not here (I better get that right if I am criticizing writers' craft).

Leah Sandals said...

You're right on the passive voice front, Earl. There are many ways to improve art writing, and one way is certainly to make the writing more active.

Now I'm worried that I may have used some passive constructions in that previous sentence! But yes, totally agreed.

Part of the issue could be that the passive voice is preferred heavily in academic writing -- and that this then transfers over to writing in a lot of magazines. I think an emotional collary to that could be that none of us really want to sound "stupid" about art, and that using academic writing styles is a means to this end -- even if it is deathly to most receiving readers.

What do you think?

Earl said...

I agree with your last comment that people want to sound intelligent. Passive voice, superfluous language such as tautologies,and inaccurate use of undergrad semiotics often hide a general insecurity. BTW, your use of humour in writing was a breath of fresh air that has influenced my writing.

As for Gabby's point on the physiological, John Mays and Robin Peck put the critic's body to great use in their writing.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

could it be said that another characteristic of "Canadian criticism" is that "we" are at our most critical (nuanced, reactionary, descriptive, loving, correct, and wrong) when it is actually private (ie: addressed between individuals, or behind closed doors)?

joegee1 said...

as an artist, how would one ask for critical writing or review - rather than languishing in obscurity. i decided to take full page ads in art periodicals. 2009 was "bordercrossings" magazine...up next:"sculpture magazine" april 2010- jun10 - 1 full page per issue concurrent. it allows an artist to participate at that level provided the work is strong..