Who Do You Write For? The Final Part 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. The final installment in our survey features the opinions of Ángela Molina Climent and Sean O’Toole.
What purpose do you think your criticism serves? Do you write with a particular audience in mind?
Ángela Molina Climent
Art Critic, Babelia, El País
To me, criticism is a literary genre, and thus it’s directed at a reader interested in literature as well as aesthetics. But it is also a literary genre associated with risk. It’s for this reason that criticism should remain incorruptible. The critic’s job is to raise objections to the marketplace, to develop his or her own judgements of value, to explain why a work of art is valuable and necessary to society, and to what extent it is a symbol of collective emancipation. This, in particular, has been my objective – and that of other critics – during the years I have worked at El País: to continue defending and empowering the figure of that valiant thinker, the intellectual. But I don’t know if we’ll be able to do this for much longer. I dare to say that critics are suffering a certain obsolescence due to the apathy of the global market. The media (newspapers and specialized magazines) does not create a possible alternative, since it now forms part of that system.
These multifunctional roles of these professionals – what’s been called the ‘balkanization’ of criticism – is a real problem. The traditional divisions between artist and curator, critic and curator, and artist and critic, have begun disappearing. Consequently, the critic undergoes pressure, or he censors himself. The result is that he will choose description over saying what he thinks about a work, an artist or an exhibition.
It’s urgent and inevitable that we should reflect on the symbolic value generated by our judgments, and their importance in the marketplace of knowledge (the university, the museum). El País ought to contribute to this debate: we must be more impetuous, more ambitious, and have a stronger, more theoretical voice. I’m convinced that there are many readers waiting for the resurgence of a valiant and daring criticism.
Ángela Molina Climent is based in Barcelona, Spain. She has a degree in Spanish Philology and a PhD in Theory of Literature, Comparativism and Visual Arts. Since 2001 she has worked as an art critic for the cultural journals of El País, Babelia and Quadern. From 2008 to 2010 she was the editor of the international journal ‘Art & Co’. Her essays have appeared in a wide array of journals and exhibition catalogues. She is the editor of books including ‘Los Lugares de la Crítica’ (The Places of Criticism, 2011), and ‘La máquina de las solteras’ (forthcoming in 2013).
Art critic, contributor to The Sunday Times
Cape Town, South Africa
In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe – editor, literary critic, satirist, brooding intellectual – introduced readers of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine to Peter Proffit, schemer, hustler and model of so much of what I do. After stints in the ‘Eye-Sore trade’ and ‘Assault and Battery business’, Proffit turns his attention to ‘Mud-Dabbling, and continued it for some years’. Sounds about right.
I have regularly written about art for a middle-market Sunday newspaper for a decade now. Most of the paper’s readers, I imagine, engage its content either supine in bed or curved over the breakfast table, definitely at leisure, warding off thoughts of Monday. In all likelihood they are glossing things they already know (Bashar Al-Assad’s refusal, a profit warning from SONY, a radio DJ caught speeding), and others they don’t (more government profligacy, another homophobic murder in Uganda). It is in the juxtaposition of these fragments that what I do – call it art criticism, reporting, Mud-Dabbling – jostles for position.
Writing about art for a newspaper, I believe, is a strategic act: it implicitly argues for the rightness of critical thinking about art, however timidly proposed, in a forum that notionally functions as a sort of commons. This rightness is worth defending. But, and this often seems to go unstated in all the exegetical pronouncements on the death of criticism, writing about art for a newspaper is also, at least in my experience, a kind of tactic. On balance, newspapers appear with greater frequency, attract a larger readership and, consequentially, pay more than magazines. In short, they are better patrons of criticism than magazines. The comparison is possibly unfair: writing about art for a newspaper is different to a magazine. Speed. Newspaper criticism is (or until very recently was) always first. And yet, writing for a newspaper is different to social media thought bubbling: the self-aggrandizing ‘I’ is not an objective source.
Writing about art for a Sunday newspaper with neither a fulltime art critic nor an arts editor, as I do, means that it doesn’t really matter what I think about tactics, strategy or social media. I write at the persuasion of my editor, to a word count. I am also, like Peter Proffit, slave to a prescribed method: ‘Method is the thing, after all.’ In middle-market newspapers, the profile is the method. With its emphasis on character and dialogue, the narrative profile vaunts description over evaluation, conflates opinion with analysis, and deflects John Dewey’s archaic notion of criticism as judgement with irony and bawdy. Critical opinion – a supple, carefully hewn thought – is typically collapsed into a single, well-camouflaged sentence.
Random fact of biology: I’m white. I am, if you will, a racially coded gatekeeper in a culture that is predominantly black. Less ostentatiously stated, I write for readers whose first language is most likely not English: transparency is vital, tactics more important than strategy. In anticipation of a Marlene Dumas retrospective in 2007, I interviewed factory workers, secretaries and security guards. None of them had heard of the painter. ‘I am not very fond of art, I don’t know why, I just don’t like it,’ a 35-year-old fitter and turner told me. ‘To me it seems like a waste of time. You can do more interesting things than sit and paint pictures.’ And yet, confronted by an unambiguous nude, a smile: ‘I tell you what, I could like art like this.’ A misshapen and fallible encounter, but an encounter nonetheless.
Sean O’Toole is a journalist, editor and writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. He has written about art for the Sunday Times, South Africa’s largest weekend newspaper, since 2002. He wrote a weekly photography column for the newspaper from 2004 to 2010. He is also the former editor of Art South Africa magazine, and a regular contributor to frieze.