Friday, December 7, 2012

Newspaper Criticism

For the past three days I have been in correspondence with a newspaper that approached me about writing and reporting on visual art. What they asked of me was, forty years ago, what they would have asked of someone hired to fulfill the now-defunct role of staff art critic. Like a lot of jobs today, what was once a staff position (with great pay and benefits) "belongs" to that of the freelancer (poor pay, no benefits).

The post below is a slightly revised version of my latest contribution to the correspondence, a correspondence that began with what the newspaper was looking for, followed by my brief exegeis on the importance of "community art".

Dear ___________,

I think I know what you are getting at, but for me capital "A" Art is all art, just as capital "B" Business is all business and capital "C" Criticism has been supplanted by capital "P" Publicity. These capitalizations -- these categories -- are not unrelated.

As I mentioned earlier, within capital "A" art there are subsections, one of which -- the capital "A" to which you refer -- is art that is part of a Modern (western canonical) continuum, what is referred to by those who manage its terms -- critics, art historians, private galleries, collectors, artist-run centres and museums -- as contemporary art. This is art that is made with an awareness of that continuum, a dialogical quest for the "new" that carries with it traces of the old, expanding on its suppositions and/or critiquing them.

The continuum that runs through my neck of the woods begins with painting -- the abstracted landscapes of Emily Carr, followed by Jack Shadbolt. The 1960s gave us intermedial practitioners such as Roy Kiyooka (an artist who quit painting for poetry) and Michael Morris, a co-founder of the performative art-as-life Western Front in 1973.

The late 1960s brought with it an interest in conceptual practices; it's pater familias being Ian Wallace, who begat Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum and Roy Arden -- the so-called Vancouver School. The 1980s saw the emergence of Post-Modern practices, which included a de-centering of the Modernist continuum, one that allowed for multiple, identity-based modernisms. The 1990s saw sculpture give way to installation, which gave us Geoffrey Farmer and Brian Jungen.

One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp put a bicycle wheel on a stool and called it art, his materials "ready-mades." Fifty years ago Andy Warhol, a commercial illustrator by trade, remade Brillo Boxes and displayed them in serial form, forcing us to look at them not as objects but to consider our relationship to them as unilateral consumers.

The contemporary art conversation today includes "relational aesthetics," or what is spoken of now, this minute, as "social practices." The emphasis here is not on objects but on systems and their supports. While these systems include artist-run culture and public funding, they also include private galleries, museums and big business. Whereas art criticism once provided both the chisel and the grout within these systems, today it is has been replaced by publicity and advertising.

This line I have drawn is not a horizontal line but vertical line, not a spatial line between us but a temporal one, a continuum that is real by its consequences.

Ten years ago I supplied your paper with reviews. Two hundred dollars for five hundred words. My peers laughed at me, said I was wasting my time. But I believed that the contemporary art conversation was important, and that your paper was a good platform. I would say the same today, except your platform, like a lot of platforms, has gone from observation deck to backdoor stoop. 

Please don't take this the wrong way, but after three nights sleep I have come to the conclusion that writing for your paper will do me more harm than good. I just can't reconcile myself to a system that is paying me less (for more) than I was receiving ten years ago.

Thank you for thinking of me. Good luck finding that "reporter and critic."

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