Who Do You Write For, Art Critics? Part 4 of our Survey
In conjunction with frieze’s June/July/August issue, which looks at art’s currency within the wider culture, we asked art critics and editors of cultural publications and media around the world to tell us how they see the role of art criticism in mainstream media today, and how they view the impact of their writing on their audience. In this installment, Jean-Max Colard, Javier Diaz-Guardiola and John McDonald reply.
What purpose do you think your criticism serves? Do you write with a particular audience in mind?
Chief Arts Editor, Les Inrockuptibles
Question: who does one write for? Detail: art criticism? Aphorism: one is always their first reader. Illusion I: the imaginary reader, the ideal reader. Situation: in the age of the eventocracy and cultural coordination, art criticism is not considered, even by artists themselves, as different from a communication tool, a step in the communication process. Illusion II: the ‘freelance’. Denial: my first aim is not the art circle, I don’t write for the professionals of the profession, I don’t consider myself a professional within the art circle. Confession: I may write for myself first. Not in an egoistic way, like you would in a personal diary, but rather as a research worker, with the ambition of a full understanding, of clarifying the artists’ methods, of approaching their language in order to translate it into the words of the city. Illusion III: personal taste. Illusion IV: common taste. Manifesto: I make a claim for a larger experience of art criticism – from the regular interview to the ‘criticism dreams’, from the exhibition review to the academic article, from the polemical chronicle to a curator’s project. Statement: the text can have been written. The text cannot _have been written. _Impression: it seems to me that it is always about working, in return, on works that work ourselves. Economy: it is my means to be an actor and not only a spectator within the art circle. Politics: and to be a citizen distant from the world.
Translated by Emilie Mouque
Born in 1968, based in Paris, Jean-Max Colard is an art critic and independent curator, and chief editor of the arts page of the French magazine, Les Inrockuptibles. He is an alumnus of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, PhD., and associate in modern literature and a lecturer at Université Lille 3, where he teaches contemporary French literature.
Can a bad review influence an artist’s work? I’m afraid not. A recent example is that of Damien Hirst’s recent retrospective at Tate Modern in London. Many of the critical texts issued by the Anglo-Saxon press didn’t hesitate to drag the show through the mud. Some days after these publications came to light, the British economy went into a recession, but I imagine it had little to do with the stagnation mentioned by art critics in their reviews. But no worries, in case you were wondering, Mr. Hirst’s finances didn’t seem the least bit affected.
Can a favorable review influence an artist’s work? Most likely. Let’s take the example of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. I had the pleasure of interviewing him when he was much less famous than he is today (and, for the record, I’m not much older than he is). Since then, he became known even more as the dissident artist who opposed his country’s communist regime. This was followed by his arrest, his disappearance, and the columns of ink in the mass media and trade press. And with that, his porcelain sunflower seeds (the ones people took by the handful at the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern) began to be sold in every international art fair, priced at the level of Mr. Hirst’s diamond skull…
The question that remains is whether criticism can influence an artist’s work. Given the complexity of the art world in recent decades, the critic’s labour in separating the wheat from the chaff – in distinguishing between that which is worthwhile and that which isn’t – is becoming more necessary. However, the art market, like every system of valuation, has ended up turning the critic into a mechanism in its service. The anti-system doesn’t know that it is itself part of the system, and that the system needs it. Given this state of affairs, the critic’s only option is to try to be as honest as possible; to work in the midst of noise and hustle; to bear in mind the indeterminate and hazy-seeming reader over the well-defined gallerist or museum director; to write knowing that art is not an exact science, and hence that its results won’t necessarily conform to the rest of one’s colleagues’ results. It is either that, or shattering the little mirror with a blow.
Translated by Pablo Larios
Javier Díaz-Guardiola (Madrid, 1976) received a degree in journalism, and is an art critic and curator. Currently, he edits the art and architecture section of ABC Cultural, the culture magazine of the Spanish daily ABC, as well as collaborating with other publications.
Art Critic, The Sydney Morning Herald
I’d like to think that my criticism livens up a media landscape that is increasingly devoted to advertorial, recycled press releases and sycophantic profiles. The blogosphere is even worse: full of insulting junk written by dopes hiding behind pseudonyms. I believe you’ve got to be accountable for what you write.
The Sydney Morning Herald has almost always allowed considerable space for a visual arts column, although the quality has varied according to the incumbent. On a previous stint as critic, in the late 1990s, I’d write up to 3,000 words a week. These days it’s a respectable 1,500. I aim to be independently minded, as objective as possible, and always sceptical of the claims made by artists, dealers and curators. If I can advance these same qualities in the readership, I’d be happy enough.
Realistically, the art column will mainly be read by a small, interested audience, so it’s good to find people who say they got interested in art through following these weekly missives. In a daily paper it’s probably more important to be an entertainer rather than an educator, but there’s never any reason to talk down to your audience or assume they know nothing. I try to challenge myself, so as not to seem predictable.
The first person you have to please is yourself, so any decent writer will write the kind of prose they themselves like to read. I imagine my readers in the most general terms: educated, curious, active, perhaps ready to argue with me. Male, female, old, young, any ethnic group or sexual preference: it doesn’t really matter. If you worry too much about an audience you’ll never write anything. Too many would-be critics are terrified by the idea that people won’t like them if they’re too critical, or offend the little cliques that inhabit every art community. The opposite applies: if you try and be nice to everyone, they’ll all end up despising you. I agree with St. Paul, who said that if you must sin, sin with conviction. Or words to that effect. There’s a lot of agonizing about people’s increasing superficiality or diminishing attention spans, but why worry about habitual non-readers? There’ll always be an audience for intelligent, provocative commentary.
I hope my readers have a sense of humour, and are able to read between the lines.
John McDonald is longstanding art critic for The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s leading quality broadsheet. He also writes film criticism for the Australian Financial Review. His work may be found at www.johnmcdonald.net.au