Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
When I first began working in the art world, my job required me to write catalog essays, even though I didn’t know how to think through a viewpoint or construct a proper paragraph. I did that for about three years (I was a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, then known as The New Museum) and then stopped writing (which was a relief). But in the couple of years that followed, despite my limitations of skill and thought, I somehow knew deep down that I have ideas and perspectives to communicate—that I am a writer. I don’t enjoy writing (I don’t know many writers who do) but I do gain fulfillment in the result, much of the time.
I started writing about art full-time in the 1980s. Out of the blue I got a call from an old college friend who was an editor at Manhattan, inc, at the time one of the most lively and respected magazines—a business magazine that looked somewhat critically at the business world, a kind of cross between Forbes and Spy.
The entire senior editorial staff and their writers had walked out of the magazine when the publisher insisted that the editor-in-chief run a cover story about one of the magazine’s largest advertisers. Peter knew I was looking for work as a writer, and overnight he became the editor of a section of the magazine called “Corporate Culture”, with no writers left on board.
I don’t enjoy writing
(I don’t know many writers
“Corporate Culture” was the perfect outlet for me to establish myself as an art writer. Up until then, art writing was either critical, often theoretically based criticism, or a kind of general magazine journalism, much of it sycophantic reporting or reviewing of art in the vacuum of art.
My perspective, and what “Corporate Culture” empowered, was a view that art no longer exists in its own world but is, as well, a commodity in a system of commodities. And so I began writing journalistically from a critically informed perspective. There evolved a larger readership for stories about art, which grew along with the market for and popularity of contemporary art. If Manhattan, inc wasn’t in such a desperate need of content at the time, I am sure my first article would have been rejected on submission and that would have been that. But Peter was an amazing editor, and he needed to run a story. He patiently and methodically connected the dots of my random thoughts, evinced a conclusion, and I became a regular contributor to one of the hottest magazines of the time.
After a while, I became a contributing editor of Connoisseur magazine as well, which at the time was the most prestigious glossy magazine on culture. And then The New York Times reached out to me to write feature stories about the market and the larger framework of the art ecosystem.
It is hard to maintain spirit for work that our society doesn’t seem to value
And then I wrote most of the short critical pieces about art exhibitions in the Goings on About Town section of The New Yorker for a number of years. I wrote occasionally for Artforum and Art in America as well, but I was a writer who needed to support myself from my work, and those magazines didn’t pay the rent.
Well, even the glossies paid just $1 to $2 a word, which as a journalist friend told me is what he was paid by Esquire in the 1950s—so the wage scale didn’t seem to keep up with the cost of living for at least five decades, maybe longer. Art magazines, by comparison, paid even worse: $600 for a feature article of about 3,000 words. As the art market grew, and consequently the revenues for art magazine ads shot through the sky, writers’ fees didn’t change at all. (Museum salaries weren’t much better, by the way.)
I was doing quite well for an independent art writer. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was making over $50,000 a year, which was substantial for a freelancer, and enough to pay for my apartment, food, pleasure and a couple of trips a year. Then other, more high-profile magazines, like Vanity Fair, reached out to me to write profiles that would have expanded my purview into a broader world of culture.
And then, at the height of my success, it all stopped. A long, slow recession sunk in, the art market fizzled, and the general press wasn’t much interested in art anymore. In that quiet year, as I was envisioning what would happen when the wheel started spinning, if it started spinning again, I realized that in all likelihood my annual pay would remain pretty much the same for the rest of my life, and it got me terribly depressed. If I was being compensated at the upper end of the spectrum, and most of my friends who were excellent critics were making far less, I realized we were living in a world that didn’t much value what we were doing.
Fortunately, for me, writing opportunities came back, but I had nonetheless concluded that with the less I got, the more I expected to gain, the more I needed the validation of a healthy wage to continue to do what I was doing, to see that what I was doing meant enough to the world that it would pay fair compensation. Also, fortunately for me, art advising landed in my lap one day as if from the sky.
At first I thought I was the luckiest writer in the world, with a built-in fellowship through part-time advisory work, but over time I came to realize that my thoughts and critical beliefs would have stronger and lasting value through my work in helping to form collections—many destined for museums, or forming museums in their own right. All that I had learned as a curator, critic, journalist and communicator in general was channeled into clients, collections, and institutions, and the preparation positioned me well. And it was a lot easier and far more lucrative talking about my passions than writing about them.
And then, at the height of my success, it all stopped
I continue to write some, and am grateful to still have a forum to communicate what I think is worth sharing. I still think of myself principally as a writer and curator, as it seems also do my peers who knew me back then, which further enriches my work and the opportunities I have been fortunate to come my way.
It is hard to maintain spirit for work that our society doesn’t seem to value. I think it is tragic and pitiful how the situation today has deteriorated so much as to be endangered. Magazines have been closing left and right, and even online the opportunities for core critical voices seem to be narrowing. This does not bode well for criticism.
Though I hope it creates a stronger, more vigilant range of viewpoints, beliefs and outrages by those who continue to write because, above all else, they resolutely believe in the practice regardless of how society sees and doesn’t see what they do, and are lucky or resourceful enough to support themselves from their work. The art world needs insightful criticism all the more today—have a look at how much mediocrity slips into the precincts of market success. And I’ll bet that art writers remain on the bottom of the pile of artists, dancers, musicians, poets and novelists eligible for the kinds of grants that buy you the time you need to do your work and live your life.
The inherent tension in the relationship between artists and critics rarely reaches boiling point. In 1877, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler took the unusual step of suing British critic John Ruskin for libel over a particularly damning review while artist Donald Judd, who wrote for Art News and Arts Magazine from 1959 to 1965, quite liked sharpening his pen on fellow artists (he described Picasso’s work in a 1963 Whitney show as “glib and corny” and dismissed Lygia Clark in an insultingly brief—34-word—review).
But incidents like this are rare. So, the degree of heat generated in the coverage of this year’s Whitney Biennial has taken many people both within and outside New York’s hothouse art scene by surprise. The debate is raising questions over the state of art criticism, particularly about who writes it—and what (and who) it is for.
First a recap. The trouble began in May, when a raft of major US newspapers and specialist arts titles published so-so reviews of the biennial (until 22 September). The show is widely regarded as a bellwether of the American art scene, focusing on younger, less-well-known US artists, and is described by the museum as “taking the pulse of the contemporary artistic moment”.
This edition has been curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, and includes 75 artists and collectives. The curators said their themes were “the mining of history as a means to reimagine the present or future; a profound consideration of race, gender, and equity; and explorations of the vulnerability of the body”. Most reviewers noted that the show’s artists were (unusually) 50% female and more than half non-white, and indeed it is the discussions around race, and to a lesser extent gender, that have proved most inflammatory.
A number of reviewers, while acknowledging they enjoyed parts of the exhibition, described it as “safe”, especially in the context of Trump’s America and the internal turmoil at the Whitney itself (board vice-chair, Warren Kanders and his wife Allison Kanders, resigned last month after eight artists withdrew from the biennial amid escalating controversy over Kanders’s ownership of Safariland, a manufacturer of law enforcement and military supplies).
Andrew Russeth, writing for Art News, called the exhibition “polite”, and almost “anodyne”. In The Art Newspaper Linda Yablonksy asked what we want from contemporary art, saying the show offered many answers but “controversy is not one of them, nor is the excitement of what we used to call the radical gesture”. Others, including The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, wrote in a similar vein.
In a sense, art criticism is very healthy indeed. So healthy that it is outstripping readers
Simone Leigh, one of the most established artists in the exhibition (who currently has a show at the Guggenheim in New York, “Loophole of Retreat”, until 22 October), hit back in an Instagram post to her 31,000 followers. She listed a set of cultural references she considered relevant to her practice and summed up by writing that critics who didn’t spot them “lack the knowledge to recognize the radical gestures in my work”. Meanwhile artist Nicholas Galanin described Deborah Solomon’s review for New York’s public radio station WNYC as “lazy” because he felt she was dismissive of the concept of “white supremacy”. “You are creating more white noise,” he wrote.
Shortly after, under the headline, “The Dominance of the White Male Critic”, Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang wrote in The New York Times that “those who have for decades have been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in the media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.” Berry and Yang, who run an initiative to diversify criticism titled Critical Minded, called for “old-school white critics… to step aside and make room for emerging and fully-emerged writers of color”.
Who writes it
Earlier this year, arts journalist Mary Louise Schumacher conducted a survey of more than 300 US art critics and writers for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. The group, who came from “daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, magazines, digital journals and websites”—including The New Yorker, The Nation and The Village Voice—were questioned about the state of the media.
Schumacher’s findings confirm, among other things, the assertions made by Berry and Yang: non-white critics are under-represented (so too, it should be noted, are Republicans, 85% of the critics described themselves as Democrat voters in the last election).
Sixty per cent of the critics surveyed answered her questions about ethnicity: of these, 167 described themselves as white (80% of the total), four black, five Latino, six Asian and 20 as other or mixed ethnicities. This is only a slight improvement on a survey in 2002 conducted by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, which found that 90% of art critics on general interest newspapers and magazines were white. According to the US Census Bureau, 60% of the US population is white, with Hispanic and Latino communities excluded.
The six most influential art critics, according to the respondents, were all white, mostly men and mostly older. They included one woman, Roberta Smith (The New York Times), Holland Cotter (also NYT), Jerry Saltz (New York magazine), Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker), Ben Davis (artnet News) and Christopher Knight (Los Angeles Times). The titles producing the best art criticism, the respondents said, included The New York Times, Hyperallergic, The New Yorker, Artforum, Art in America and ARTnews, all except one based in New York. European writers would maybe have added a few others: Frieze magazine, Art Review, the Financial Times and—for German speakers—the critics in influential papers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine and Die Welt.
Either way, the US critics’ list was dominated by a tiny group of big-circulation, high-profile legacy titles (the only new digital entrant was Hyperallergic, founded in 2009) despite the plethora of specialist magazines, websites and blogs devoted to arts reviewing. It is why art critic M. Charlene Stevens says in a piece for Hyperallergic that it matters who and why certain critics get “a seat at the table”. She runs an independent site called Arcade Project. “My problem has always been funding,” she wrote. “Venture capital is most often an unattainable goal for a black woman in any industry.”
Who reads it and why?
A decade ago, James Elkins, chair of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, took a different tack, considering art criticism from the point of view of an art historian. “No one knows how many glossy art magazines there are… perhaps 200… in Europe and the US… and 500 or so smaller magazines and journals,” he wrote—this was before the emergence of a raft of new titles and sites, from the highbrow, cross-form White Review to the glossy, youth-oriented Elephant. “In a sense, art criticism is very healthy indeed. So healthy that it is outstripping readers. Yet at the same time art criticism is very nearly dead if health is measured by the number of people who take it seriously. Art criticism is massively produced and massively ignored,” he claimed.
The essay was a provocation intended to kick off a series of round-tables on the state of art criticism. While few took Elkins’s position, the transcripts of the discussions display a degree of angst about the subject: the same emotion that presumably prompted “Superscript”, a series of lectures at the Walker Art Center in 2015. Speakers included critics like Davis and writer/artist James Bridle, who addressed questions including the “role of the professional art critic in this age of democratized media” where, according to the organizers, “self-promotion, curation, and DIY criticism collide online”. But at the Walker, as at Elkins’s round-tables, as a newspaper critic pointed out at the time, discussions or research about readers, who they are and what writing they value, was strangely lacking.
While the function of critic has remained static, the art world has metastasized
“Audience is key to any discussion of art criticism, and got surprisingly little attention,” noted Sheila Farr, a former critic at The Seattle Times. “Who are we writing for? Why should they care? The standard complaint about academic writing is that it seems to be aimed at other academics. Journalists have a more diverse audience and the opportunity to entice those who know a little about the assumptions of those who do. Just because the opportunity is there, it doesn’t mean we always take it.”
Media owners do, of course, survey readers, but for most it is commercially sensitive information. The Nieman survey sheds a little light: the critics said they were writing for a general audience who cared about art, who had a basic grasp of art and art history (85%) and who thought criticism was important. The critics saw themselves as educators (85%) and champions (60%) more than evaluators. And while they mostly thought they were doing a good job in these roles (60%), their confidence was shakier when it came to the “inside” art world.
Only half thought today’s criticism “offers reliable guidance and evaluation for [living] artists, curators and galleries” and almost all of them thought artists paid no attention to what they were saying. When he was a journalist, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler went a step further. He described the critic as “trapped in an inherently reactive and marginalized position… While the function of critic has remained static, the art world has metastasized, growing too big to allow any real overviews… and developing a slew of information channels that bypass critics altogether”.
While in the Nieman survey the US critics were not asked about their readership profiles, it is fairly safe to assume that, like themselves, it is a largely white, affluent, well-educated demographic. The specialist title ARTnews (which, unlike most arts titles, has its unusually large circulation periodically confirmed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations) states the average household income of its 55,000 subscribers as over $180,000. In the UK, the Financial Times Weekend section (also audited and specifically designed to attract arts and culture readers to an otherwise business paper) says its 300,000 print subscribers are “the world’s elite”, including 28% “sterling millionaires” with 39% periodically buying art.
But as the Whitney Biennial fallout shows, there are much wider and diverse audiences who care about arts and culture. Critical Minded focuses on “racial justice in criticism”—but its founders also protest about “class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability”. They have pointed out the lack of diversity in film criticism and the scarcity of black women writing about the hip-hop scene. Media owners, publishers and editors can only expect the calls for greater equity in representation in their staffing and writing to get louder.
Clickbait has devalued journalism
All this comes as the crisis in journalism—the biggest and most trusted titles aside—is, according to many analysts, only deepening. In January a lengthy article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker painted a gloomy picture (illustrated, aptly, by an image of the Grim Reaper, scythe in hand). Between 1970 and 2016—“the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting”—500 or so dailies had gone out of business. Between January 2017 and April 2018 a third of the US’s largest newspapers and magazines reported layoffs and “in a newer trend, so did about a quarter of digital-native news sites” Lepore wrote, quoting figures from the Pew Research Center. Pew estimates that 5,000 media jobs disappeared in the US between 2014 and 2017. Layoffs so far this year include 200 at Buzzfeed, 250 at Vice and 800 at Verizon (which owns HuffPost among others).
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which conducts research in around 40 countries including the US, found that both traditional “legacy” print brands and new digital entrants had been hit by “structural shifts that have already led to significant falls in advertising revenue”—chiefly new entrants cannibalizing audiences, followed by advertising moving from individual titles and platforms to the social media giants.
Combined with free-to-air, ad-supported publishing, this has led to “journalism [that is] hollowed out” and a lack of “distinctive content”, encouraging “clickbait that has devalued journalism”. Trends to expect, Reuters added, include the introduction of paywalls, new subscription models and the diversification of businesses (for example into training, events, membership schemes and sales platforms). Directing investment back in to good-quality journalism to build trust is key, its latest report added.
Arts news editors may recognize these trends but the correlation with art criticism—except for critics working in mainstream newspapers—is far from exact. Business models for specialist critical magazines are notoriously eccentric. History is filled with labours of love, such as Derrière le Miroire, Third Text and Parkett. “Art magazines don’t tend to make money,” Art Review’s senior editor J J Charlesworth told a group of gallerists at this year’s Talking Galleries symposium for gallerists. “Art Review was always supported [subsidized] through the difficult times by an interested backer, a collector or a group.”
Art magazines don’t tend to make money
Until its acquisition by Thomas Shao in June—who also owns the Chinese Modern Media Group—the deep-pocketed backer was art collector Dennis Hotz. All too often, when titles don’t cover their costs, only the highest-minded publisher can resist the temptation to find cutbacks.
Arguably the most eye-opening statistic in Schumacher’s report on US art criticism was around the issue of pay and job security. She wrote that just 20 people (less than 10% of the total and nearly all of them veteran men) reported making $80,000 or more—the sort of high-profile posts that come with stability and benefits. More than half the writers surveyed said they earned less than $20,000 a year, and most were in insecure, freelance jobs.
In 2005, Spiegler wrote that “even the swankiest art publications such as Artforum, Frieze and Art in America pay only $150 per review”—and in the 14 years since, rates at many arts publications and platforms have barely increased.
In 2005, Spiegler wrote ‘even the swankiest art publications pay only $150 per review’
“This raises serious questions about who has access to our field and who can afford to work for such wages. One of the critical questions facing the profession is how to support the work of cultural writers in a sustainable way,” wrote Schumacher in a detailed article accompanying her survey.
That question is only amplified by the education level that arts writers (like curators)‚ appear to be expected to attain. Almost all the writers surveyed had undergraduate (college) degrees, but more than two-thirds (almost 70%) also had postgraduate qualifications—including more than 30 with PhDs. It’s no surprise that all but the best-off find there are barriers to entry.
Meanwhile, Schumacher’s own situation is indicative of the situation facing many arts journalists. Her post at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was closed earlier this year. “Another art critic made redundant. Most unsurprising news ever. It was my dream job. Loved every damn minute,” she posted on Twitter.
In Other Insights
Last year saw the closure of long-running Shanghai art magazine Yishushijie (Art World), due to declining revenue and a restructuring of its parent company, led by the state-owned Shanghai Wenyi Publication House. Established in January 1979, the monthly magazine had been the first to publicize many Chinese artists—as well as writers, film-makers and musicians.
Though buoyed by its affiliation with the Power Station of Art, Shanghai’s state-run museum of contemporary art, the magazine’s dominance had faded in the face of an incessant barrage of flashy, flash-in-the-pan websites, many selling advertorial clickbait on the mobile app WeChat.
New models chasing sustainability appear by the month—even Art World is being relaunched as a book series—while some double down on old models. In June, Chinese publisher Modern Media Holdings bought a majority stake in the British magazine ArtReview, which also publishes ArtReview Asia. It is also relaunching its struggling bilingual art title LEAP.
Censorship for commercial reasons is killing the spirit of criticism
Other publications have dialed back their content or moved online. These business struggles coincide with intensifying censorship under Chinese president Xi Jinping, as the People’s Republic marks its 70th year, and as dissent in Hong Kong escalates. It is hard to be an art critic in a climate where criticism of all kinds is risky, and everything is for sale.
Much of the time, though, official censorship is less of a concern than self-censorship, by editors bowing to advertisers or writers to clients. “Most of the time the government doesn’t care about contemporary art, so it doesn’t happen often, unless your subject matter has influence beyond the tiny snow globe of the art world,” says Aimee Lin, the former editor of ArtReview Asia who recently departed the publication to direct Beijing gallery Long March Space. “Censorship for commercial reasons is killing the spirit of criticism because many writers have to live their lives through gallery commissions.”
“In terms of economic output, contemporary art is a tiny industry,” adds Yang Zi, a Beijing-based critic who also is a curator at UCCA, formerly the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. “The government doesn’t regard it as a top priority. However, all publications and gatherings are limited to a certain extent.”
China has few if any full-time, fully independent art critics. As in much of the world, criticism is a side-hustle for curators and academics and, less often, dealers, collectors and journalists. “Many of them have a day job: teaching in school or working as an editor for an art magazine or online journal,” says Lin. “Those who are really freelancing often work as curators. Galleries and artists will pay writers for an essay for a catalogue or, sometimes, even for a press release for an exhibition.”
Art criticism in mainland China has always been a fiscally thankless undertaking, with most publications paying only a few mao per word. “Art media that produce serious critiques in China lack financial support, so they can’t offer decent payment for their contributors,” says Yang.
The problem is not just in China, says Lin: “Throughout the world, many art publishers are trying to survive, so they also become event organizers, or make videos and publish them on social media, or make catalogues and content for artists or biennials. If being commercialized means they can survive, and possibly still partly function as a platform for criticism and more experimental practice, I wouldn’t say that is a sad story.” ArtReview Asia, for example, under Lin’s initiation, organized the curated section “Xiàn Chǎng” of Shanghai’s West Bund Art & Design fair from 2016 to 2018.
Throughout the world, many art publishers are trying to survive
These factors, combined with a preponderance of paid content, whether as “red envelopes” of cash to writers or direct payment to publishers for coverage, further dilute publications’ reputations. “I think art criticism here at this moment is losing its power to engage a bigger audience,” says Yuan Fuca, who co-founded Beijing curatorial studio Salt Projects in 2016. “I can’t really tell if there are really any good outlets for Chinese language art criticism going on.”
Yuan and Lin cite Artforum as well as its online Chinese edition Artforum.com.cn as the leading outlets for criticism of Chinese art. “The decline of print surely has a negative effect on art criticism. In my opinion, the transformation period will for continue for some time,” says Yang. “Any magazine or website will fold if they won’t consider a different approach for balancing commercial and artistic pursuits. On the other hand, some small workshop-style media productions like Dabinlou (or DBL) have consistently published high-quality articles.”
Meanwhile, a younger generation of critics—including Yuan, Yang and Lin—who were mostly born after 1980 into a more modern and wired, if not open, China, are reinventing the wheel. Mostly overseas educated, they skew more diverse, particularly female and LGBTQ, than the male and straight old guard who dominate the main academies like the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the China Academy of Art.
“I believe that for today’s world (and for tomorrow’s as well) we need to invent a really good art-writing platform, not just a new title,” says Lin. “We need to invent a new structure, a new way, a funding system, and not be so lazy that we just stick with the current advertising system and structure.”
In Other Insights
Today, like at no time in human history, people live to vent their opinions. The wokest movie, the blingiest artwork, the most venal politician, the cutest Pikachu meme—all occupy equal billing. Together they amplify a cacophony of voices (among them 2.8 billion Facebook and 321 million Twitter users and counting) that, according to tech cheerleaders, are supposed to render culture less elitist. But what if everyone is busy shouting and nobody is really listening?
“When you give people too much information, they instantly resort to pattern recognition.” That’s communications theorist Marshall McLuhan in 1968 predicting how the information glut would hurtle humanity back to an ancient tribalism. In failing to absorb every data point—as he explained decades before the adoption of the internet—people turn to discredited stereotypes. In such situations, common ground disappears faster than you can say “lock her up”. What proliferates, instead, are familiar know-nothing plagues: filter bubbles, confirmation bias, fake news and the aggrieved certainty of the militantly righteous.
Common ground disappears faster than you can say ‘lock her up’
As we know, the information age has coincided with the age of Trump. For every 280 characters the President of the United States pecks out with his tiny fingers, the media flies into conniptions. Along with the world’s ascendant populist politics, technology, or at least its use, has also undergone a rightward swerve. If the early years of the worldwide web produced revolutions such as the Arab Spring, today’s information advances have begotten legions of disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories—among them, Birtherism, Pizzagate, QAnon and, more recently, the American government’s racist scapegoating of undocumented immigrants.
Yet, the greatest threat to critical thinking in this new media ecology comes not from the instability generated by the digital revolution, but from the gradual yielding of experts to the tsunami of outrages perpetrated against basic human rights and rational thought. In a context defined by the so-called death of expertise, to borrow the title of one book lamenting the era’s escape from science, many liberal intellectuals have dug in, in imitation of Breitbart News executives. The result is a confusion of categories and priorities that threatens to render criticism moot.
One direct byproduct of this silo mentality is an environment in which cultural commentators, art critics among them, can’t see past the tops of their professional parapets (or “in” groups). Fixated on the bogus virtue of progressive bromides (“good politics makes good art”), the fallacies of false equivalences (“good politics are a matter of identity”), and a gut fear of hot-button topics (the volatilities of identity politics), they frequently fail to speak out about fundamental assaults on freedom of expression—especially when these take place outside of the West.
Over the past several years hundreds of artists around the world have been harassed, imprisoned, beaten, tortured or worse simply for making art. According to Freemuse, an independent advocacy group that monitors worldwide violations of artistic freedom, that number is on the rise thanks to a global uptick in government censorship. On average, the group estimates, one artist a week was prosecuted in 2017, the first time the organization published its yearly report, The State of Artistic Freedom. Altogether, Freemuse found some 48 artists were sentenced in 2017 to over 188 years of prison time. Among their violations: posting Facebook videos, publishing independent blogs, enacting art performances, and waving an LGBT+ rainbow flag.
Some 48 artists were sentenced in 2017 to over 188 years of prison time
The most notable cases documented by Freemuse and The Voice Project, a group that maintains a global database of artists imprisoned for the “crime” of free speech, featured governments that officially support the arts targeting artists directly. In 2015, Chinese performance artist Chen Yunfei was arrested for visiting the grave of a student killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989; he was later sentenced to four years in prison. In 2016, the artist and journalist Zehra Doğan was imprisoned by the Turkish government for posting a painting of a Kurdish town on social media (she was released in February after spending three years in jail but not before Banksy memorialized her plight in a 2018 New York City mural).
In April, artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was arrested by Cuban officials for staging a performance during the 2019 Havana Biennial. He and artists Tania Bruguera, Amaury Pacheco, Michel Matos, the art historian Yannelis Núñez Leyva and the poet and art writer Katherine Bisquet, had voiced their opposition to the government’s Decree 349, a draconian measure intended to outlaw independent artists that PEN America has called “an intolerable affront to free expression”. Since that time, all have been subject to government intimidation, threats, arrest and the possibility of expulsion from the island.
Closer to home, a similar script is playing out with visitors and immigrants to the US. In a move designed to bar government opponents from entering the country—among them, outspoken artists—the State Department recently outlined new visa requirements that obligate nearly all applicants to submit their social media profiles, email addresses and phone numbers from the past five years. The move has set off a worldwide round of self-censorship and lifestyle revisionism as artists and others scrub their social media accounts of everyday expressions of art, appreciation and opinion.
One frequent visitor to the US the policy will certainly affect is the artist Ai Weiwei. A figure who has long used social media to amplify his art, he expertly diagnosed the government’s new action as authoritarian where most US arts and culture outlets stayed silent. In a statement he gave The Art Newspaper, Ai outlined the dangers inherent in the current administration adopting the policies of openly autocratic countries: “The US State Department’s task is to prevent people that may harm the US from entering. However, they cannot extend their power to areas related to private thought and free speech. That is exactly what George Orwell warned of in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
According to Orwell, there are times when art needs to become political because anything else entails mental dishonesty. Arts writing and art criticism should aspire to that same honesty. This is why it’s imperative that assaults on artists’ most basic right—their ability to speak, to be heard and to make their art without fear of retaliation—be given precedence by cultural commentators above today’s media turmoil. All crises are global today, but they are not all equal.
In Other Insights
This article is an evolving statement first commissioned by the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network in 2017.
First, there is the matter of revision. What does it mean for the critic to share drafts publicly? The following is indeed that: it is a statement to which I will return—a draft that sharpens as I do. Because critics are those who think in public, we should be invested in the transparency of revisions.
So, I begin again with Barbara Smith’s essay, Toward a Black Feminist Criticism first published in the autumn 1977 issue of the lengthily titled Conditions: a magazine of women’s writing with an emphasis on writing by lesbians. Smith’s writing has become a central point of reference as I’ve worked to get to the root of my impulses as a critic (which is a process of daily refinement).
For whom do I write? Why do I write?
In her writing Smith was working towards an impossibility, she says, that aimed to render visible through criticism the literature of black lesbian writers. How does one move against silence? In which ways has the apparatus of literary criticism failed to serve the literature of black women, especially black lesbians? Smith proposes a methodology that takes seriously the entanglement of race, class and the politics of sexuality.
“Long before I tried to write this,” Smith notes, “I felt I was attempting to do something unprecedented, something dangerous…”
As a black woman writer who has inherited the unfurling intellectual scaffolding of a body of black feminist theory that includes the likes of Smith, the sense of danger is still present for me. Before we get to the how, we need to ask the question: do you attend to the work of black women? As Smith noted, the feminist calls made by white women in the 1970s failed to include their black peers.
I felt I was attempting to do something unprecedented, something dangerous
I have not always known that I wanted to be a critic, but I have long shaped my worldview around—been shaped, myself—by the simple fact that I am a black woman who loves other black women. I want this to show up in my writing. As June Jordan writes in her essay Where is the Love?: “I am talking about love, a steady-state deep caring and respect for every other human being, a love that can only derive from a secure and positive self-love.” (Jordan, another seminal black writer who teaches me how to get free.)
I write to place care around the practices of black women artists. Their work. Their archives. Their fullness. Criticism is a way of showing up. It is a way of placing intellectual frameworks around the gestures and processes of artists. It is a way of preventing gaps and exclusions. It feels urgent now for me to engage in a critical practice that moves against silences, undertaking assessments of visual, performance and literary culture in ways that center and prioritize the complexities of black womanhood.
I have marveled at how easily a position such as mine has been dismissed by more establishment voices as if they have not been writing in and for their own interest for all of time. There is for me, a power, in asserting that criticism can excavate, illuminate, be in dialogue with canons of cultural production beyond whiteness or maleness or heteronormativity. For so long, objectivity has been a standard of measure that has resulted in exclusion.
I am thinking of the black women artists I know who are eager for a critical apparatus that takes them seriously and knows how see beyond the surface. A criticism that—like a river, as Jordan offers—carries forth the record of their grace. Writing that does not simply placate. Writing that dares. Writing that seeks accountability. Where does such writing live, and how is it sustained in a moment of extreme economic precarity for those who call themselves as critics?
Certainly, I have come to understand the role of my own publication, ARTS.BLACK, as a necessary container for this ethos. Now in its fifth year of operations, my co-editor Taylor Aldridge and I have dedicated ourselves to publishing black critics online because we envision a contemporary cultural ecology that takes seriously lineages of black textual production.
Still, I reckon with the ongoing financial precariousness of my position. I cobble together a livelihood comprised of grant stipends and low-paying assignments in the absence of full-time work—and even that is a great fortune in this economic climate. This too must be said aloud. Yet, this is a choice I have made, for now, because I believe that a black feminist criticism offers the possibility for the type of critical relationship that dares me to slow down and make space for intimacy. And this is a choice that has allowed me to find a necessary community to imagine myself as my most full self.
“I only hope that this essay is one way of breaking our silence and our isolation,” Smith goes on to write in Toward a Black Feminist Criticism, “of helping us to know each other”. I am a black woman critic maturing alongside black women artists. They are my peers and colleagues and sounding boards. Our exchanges, formal and informal, constitute a necessary, generative meeting point in which we might challenge, provoke and support one another. We are women coming from the peripheries and we are seeing each other, and we are holding on to one another and we are holding one another accountable.
Criticism is not static. There is much left to learn
I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe criticism should make space for the rigor that can arise when we orient ourselves horizontally. That is, when we reject an assumption of the critic’s position as primacy. What does criticism look like when we reject the myth that it can only manifest itself in certain ways?
I want to propose that intimacy in criticism serves both a political and aesthetic purpose as it moves us closer to planes of formal experimentation (as in, how does your criticism show up on the page) while allowing for a sustained close reading of a body of work as it unfolds over time. In other words, it is an investment. There is always room for this in my imagining about the future of the tasks of criticism.
Criticism is not static. There is much left to learn. This can never be an ending; only an ongoing revision.
In Other Insights
The art critic is a beleaguered species. As the print journalism industry shrinks and mainstream newspapers cut back on their editorial staff, the specialist critic has become increasingly expendable.
In an age glutted with images and in which anyone can bang out a blog, art is frequently interchangeable with celebrity and the leisure industry. Everyone, it seems, has a point of view about what is good and what is not. Meanwhile, there is the ominously widespread view, certainly throughout the mainstream media, that the price tag of a work of art is its best indicator of quality.
In an age in which anyone can bang out a blog, art is frequently interchangeable with celebrity
The relentless expansion of the art market has brought other problems for critics, who increasingly supplement their dwindling incomes by curating shows and writing essays for commercial galleries. Critical perspectives can easily be clouded by financial considerations.
It all seems a long way from Paul Valéry’s 1932 description of art criticism as a form of literature that “condenses or amplifies, emphasizes or arranges, or attempts to bring into harmony all the ideas that come to the mind when it is confronted by artistic phenomena”. The domain of art criticism, he writes, “extends from metaphysics to invective”.
Such nuanced interpretation seems as rare these days as a healthy shot of invective. There is such an abundance of work on offer that for a critic simply to write about an artist or an exhibition is in itself viewed as a form of endorsement, regardless of what conclusions are drawn. In this time of spin, all coverage is deemed to be good (and with so many press trips subsidized by the artist or the organization under review, much often is). In our event-driven world, criticism may now be more reactive than proactive—and, arguably, the curator has stolen the march on showcasing new artists.
So what, then, is the role of art criticism? Given all of the above, I would argue that it is more necessary and important than ever. Amidst the hullabaloo of divergent voices, and the ever-more tangled mesh of conflicted interests, a critical voice which is independent, informed, enquiring—and, above all, individual—is desperately needed. Because, without it, the only measure of importance is money, making value a rather wonky, one-legged chair.
There is a strong and certain need for art criticism. Art for art’s sake is not enough: art should be tested against reality, shaken up and situated within a wider discourse. We need critical voices to deflect the siren cry of fashion, something Valéry was already sharply aware of when he declared fashion to be “a ridiculous thing in the arts… a sort of collective or contagious originality always to be suspected of money motives”. Indeed.
Good criticism sniffs out the derivative, interrogates orthodoxies and opens up new perspectives. Like the art it examines, it is an agent for change. It is fresh, unexpected and free from jadedness and jargon. A critic has to be a good writer in possession of a good eye. You may not agree with their taste, but you must have faith in their judgment concerning intrinsic quality and take pleasure in being taken on their journey.
It is from the womb of art that criticism was born
Under threat, art critics have become more nimble. There is a realization that the future of criticism lies in being more extensively disseminated, and there is a determination amongst writers that their words reach wider audiences. This is happening through the range of online platforms now on offer beyond conventional analogue outlets.
Websites, podcasts and various forms of social media all mean that infinitely greater numbers can not only access art criticism but that it is also possible to converse and engage with the critics themselves. Ivory towers can be toppled—and without any loss of intellectual integrity.
It is essential for the future health of art that this open and transparent exchange continues to gather momentum for, as Baudelaire put it, “it is from the womb of art that criticism was born”.
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