Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Criticism In Search of Its Critics

A new online publication announces its mandate – “A return to art criticism” – and the writer, who writes art criticism, wonders what this means. Word spreads that the publisher, who also writes art criticism, is coming to town to solicit writers and to moderate a panel on art criticism (though the main reason for the publisher’s visit, according to a local dealer, is to sell advertising). All this before the publication has issued a single word of art criticism.

Another dealer -- an emerging dealer -- is helping to organize the publisher’s panel and mentions to the writer that the writer’s name came up as a potential participant. But the writer has heard nothing from the publisher, and a week later has still heard nothing. What does the publisher mean by “a return to art criticism”? the writer asks the dealer, and the dealer attempts a definition of art criticism that only Liberace could appreciate. So we are to return to that? asks the writer. Apparently! beams the dealer, without irony.

Two weeks later the publisher’s name pops up in the writer’s in-box. The publisher’s email begins with an apology for not contacting the writer sooner, but it is in the construction of this apology that the writer wonders what of the dealer’s conversations with the writer had the dealer conveyed to the publisher. That the publisher’s apology hinges on a missed prompt in past communication between the publisher and the dealer has the writer wondering once more – this time whether the publisher is blaming the dealer for using an indirect form of communication, or whether the deployment of an indirect form of communication by the publisher has allowed the publisher to avoid taking responsibility for the delay in contacting the writer. Maybe both, thinks the writer, before reading the email a second time.

The publisher has praise for the writer, and the writer’s impact on the region is noted. The publisher offers to discuss the panel further with the writer by phone, but no number is given. Nor does the publisher explain what kind of art criticism we, as readers and writers, are to “return to.” Near the end of the email it is clear to the writer that this is not an invitation to appear on a panel, but to re-consider appearing, as the writer, in a email to the dealer hours before, said no to any panel without hearing from the moderator about what it is that the moderator – in this case the publisher -- is talking about when talking about a “return to” anything, let alone art criticism.

In a return email to the publisher, the writer is philosophical and, without lecturing, relates how in art, as in life, it is not what happens that motivates the writer, but how it happens. In this instance, how the writer’s interest in the panel could only be sustained through first hearing a few words from the publisher about the kind of art criticism the publisher wants to “return to.” But when this was not offered, the writer’s interest waned. The writer concludes the email with a promise to attend the panel presentation as an audience member. In response, the publisher once again states that a desire for direct communication with the writer was not made clear, and suggests that this misunderstanding be forgotten, to which the writer agrees, adding that the fault in this communication ultimately lies with a writer who is wrong to expect that someone launching a publication on art criticism would want to contact others in the field before making it public in the form of a panel.

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