How polite should art criticism be?
In October 2003 Japanese publisher Tetsuya Ozaki launched a new bilingual art magazine. ART iT‘s slogan promised something intriguingly un-Japanese: ‘genuinely rude art journalism’. Rude magazine journalism isn’t just un-Japanese because the Japanese are unfailingly polite, but because the Japanese magazine market has long been controlled – to an extent that we’re only now beginning to see in the West – by advertisers, PR and management companies. Most Japanese magazines are, effectively, catalogues; most Japanese editorial is advertorial.
Readers expecting articles calling Yoshitomo Nara ‘horribly twee’ or labeling Takashi Murakami a ‘sell-out’ were disappointed, though; ART iT, though good, hasn’t proved rude. It has supplied pretty much the same respectful artist profiles and tactful, vague, nuanced reviews – interspersed with gallery ads – found in many other art magazines.
So what’s the value of negativity in art journalism? What might criticism be without negativity, and what could ‘the big yes’ possibly mean without ‘the big no’ as its flip-side? Are we seeing ‘a crisis in critical negativity’? Are we ‘post-rude’, and, if so, is it healthy?
One could criticize the design of a car that may blow up on rear impact, but there’s no objective way to criticize the work of an artist. No lives were saved by Laura Cumming’s recent Observer review of the Serpentine’s Richard Prince retrospective (‘the more one sees of his Joke paintings the more foolish one feels’). Perhaps the only losers here were the collectors who own one of Prince’s painted jokes (though, as economist Don Thompson notes in his recent book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, broadsheet reviews seem to have zero effect on the market).
While daily newspapers adopt an overtly negative tone more often than specialist art publications, sometimes this is nothing more than a pandering to the conservatism and incomprehension of their readers – and no matter how repetitious Prince might be, he can’t compete with the tedium of the Evening Standard‘s Brian Sewell repeatedly savaging Nick Serota. But at other times negative judgments are principled and entertaining – a sign that the writer really cares about art. The direct, relatively disinterested, unapologetically judgmental approach of the daily press is perhaps something art magazines could learn from.
Something art magazines could valuably avoid is the general tendency of the press to become more PR-led. Nick Davies, researching his book Flat Earth News, asked researchers at Cardiff University’s school of journalism to analyze more than 2000 news items in British newspapers, from The Times to the Daily Mail. They found that 60% of stories were taken directly from agencies and PR companies, and another 20% were wire and PR copy with a little original content added. Reporting this research in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester calculated that Britain has 47,800 PR people feeding stories to just 45,000 journalists. Figures for the art press aren’t known, but I’ve been getting so many gallery PR mails recently that I’ve had to make a special spam folder for them.
I’ve also noticed more screening going on: the press officer for one stable of artists demanded to know in advance exactly what I was going to write about one of his artists, with the implication that access to others would be conditional on my being on-message. He then proceeded to ask for a substantial fee for the right to reproduce a photo of the artist’s work. The kinds of restrictions and prohibitions once restricted to relations with advertisers, in other words, are now being extended into other areas. Where money and power relationships are cardinal, the text becomes the plastic and pliable element, the first thing that gives.
Nevertheless, power creates the conditions of its own undermining. Endless hype has the effect of making us long for some kind of critical knight errant to tilt at the PR mills. We long for Don Quixotes to puncture Panglossian claims that all’s for the best in the best of all possible art worlds. If it’s to be more than superficial bitching, though, negative criticism has to come from an authoritative figure, a trusted gatekeeper, but the hierarchies once imposed by Greenbergian colossuses have long since disappeared. Now, instead, we have a horizontal, postmodern plethora of personal opinions, all as good as each other, but some backed up – crucially – by money and power. Our model for media consumption is websites: if you don’t like one, don’t tick it off, click off to another.
Why, in that kind of world, would you bother to criticize an art show? Well, you might want to offset hype – curatorial as well as promotional hype. In Cumming’s Serpentine review she took a righteous swipe at ‘questioning, debating, subverting, raising issues and all those other art clichés unfortunately bequeathed by 1970s theorists’. You might want to show that art magazines really are part of ‘the fourth estate’, an independent media entity capable of counterbalancing power rather than kowtowing tamely to it. You might even be helping the artists themselves – control freaks with overweening egos, they don’t pay their assistants or their gallerists to tell them what they’re doing wrong.
It might be that impassioned writing reflecting a heartfelt personal stance is simply more interesting to read than tortoise-like caution and the langue de bois, the wooden tongue of officialdom. Or perhaps you just want to prove that Western art magazines are still in sufficiently rude health to be – where called for – genuinely rude.
Five years on, ART iT has dropped the ‘genuinely rude’ slogan from its masthead. The Japanese magazine now describes itself as ‘innovative, ambitious [...] a builder of networks’. Don’t knock it.