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uk writer slams us art writing

Post #249 • April 2, 2004, 11:18 AM • 20 Comments

Norman Lebrecht (via ArtsJournal):

Turn to the arts sections and you will find a divergence so extremeintone and content that you will rub your eyes and wonder whether [the ToryTelegraph and the New York Times]are discussing thesame subject.Every seriousBritish newspaper carries two, three or more pages of arts commentary andcriticism which report, reflect and review a razzle of activity in a style which may be ponderous, or provocative, or purely piss-taking.

No American newspaper dares venture past the first of these p's. The tone in US arts coverageisuniformly respectful, uninquiring,inherently supportive. When the bossof Covent Garden takes an early bath,British papers roll out weeks of investigation, gossip and analysis. Whenthe head of the Met decides (or is obliged) to step down, as Joseph Volpe did some weeks ago, hedoes so in afriendly interview with the New York Times which does not onceinquirewhether Volpe quit because he's pushing 65 or becausehis box-office has gone dead since 9/11.

Why?

Londonis a newspaper town, with five serious dailies, four Sundaysand one evening paper which cover all openings and stirrings. ... Manhattan'sdiversity wassubsumed by consolidation. Onedaily after another was bought out or went under until, in the 1960s, New York,like most US cities, was left with just one paper to report the arts. This monopolyplaces anunhealthy burden on critics. If theirs is to be the only voice to pronounce on a new show or the fate of aninstitution, they are obliged to wear a mantle of responsibility that is antithetical to good journalism. A critic is licensed to get it wrong from time to time. Restrict that license and the reviews growsafe and solemn.An era of incorporation fostered a pontifical tone in American arts criticism.

The local art-criticism situation may not be as bad as I recently claimed; Elisa Turner at the Herald has been coming out weekly again, and Alfredo Triff at the New Times may have finally talked his editors into weekly coverage. Street is still playing with its format but it hasn't discounted an art column each week. But let's face it: me, Omar, Elisa, Alfredo, Carlos, Vivian - we sound like a bunch of high school teachers. Negative comments have become more rare than Condi Rice's smile. And part of the reason is that we have so little opportunity to speak. If we were all coming out in print every day, we'd be slapping some shows around. We'd be making bolder statements because we could retract them if need be soon after. Best of all, we'd be talking to each other on paper.

I have an idea: if I post a discussion board (on a non-Artblog.net-website) for short reviews and comments, limited to the people listed above and a few other smart cookies, would you guys participate?

Comment

1.

Alfredo Triff

April 3, 2004, 12:21 AM

Ok Franklin, this obsession you have with negative comments really puzzles me. Why dont you define what negative means, then, lets ponder why negative is such a necessary option. You are coming up with a claim but you need to clearly establish it. You may need at least for some of us-- to scrutinize the issue of criteria of evaluation. For instance, if one doesnt like a certain brand of Rioja one thought was good one may say Its good, but not as I expected it to be. Is this the same as saying, its not bad, but not as I expected it to be? They arent the same --though they look it-- because not bad may very well mean to me a little less than good. And this is just the beginning. Even then, I may not be (always) interested in offering evaluations of that kind. Even when I describe stuff, I can evaluate.
Is it bad or good the only way to evaluate? In the language there are vague enough words that describe legitimate moods not necessarily equivalent to old good and bad. Thats why I come back to the idea of style (much to your apprehension). How to approach evaluations in the case of a show? A body of work; homogeneous in authorship, heterogeneous in its use of mediums. Perhaps the artists installation is good, but not so much the paintings. Then, should one be particular or general? It may yield different though not conflicting results. Should one weigh artists intentions or not? A work may look bad on purpose (trashy art) is it bad then if the artist intended it? In addition, one cannot use the same tool for different tasks. Minimalism has a different set of presuppositions than, say, figuration. As critic, would you wear the same glasses addressing different styles? Its just complicated and sometimes you treat most of it in such a generalizing manner that is well, not thought through.



2.

Franklin

April 3, 2004, 2:04 AM

I offer a third example: "This Rioja tastes like masking tape!" Actually, I don't think we need to define the criteria for a negative comment here. I linked above to our most recent articles (except for Omar's, which I can't find on Street's accursed website) and I challenge you to find anything that's not a pat on the back. I can only find this: Elisa and Vivian, both writing about two shows in each piece, criticized a limited aspect of the second show. And you know what? For my upcoming piece in Street, I reviewed two shows, and I did the same thing. We're too nice, Alfredo. We're like the Red Cross, and we ought to be like the Marines. I'm not saying that every review has to be an exercise in throat-cutting, but we send a message week after week that everything we see is either great or not so great. We tell ourselves that we're being nuanced and reasonable. Feh! We're being pansies. And our audience can only conclude that our subject isn't important enough to get into an argument over. It's just an amusement for people who happen to be into that sort of thing. Like birdwatching. Dammit, I hardly care about anything else besides art! Let's cut a throat or two!

3.

Jack

April 3, 2004, 2:54 AM

Franklin, I'm sure you're not advocating "throat cutting" for its own sake, or merely for the sake of greater drama, controversy or effect. Neither am I. The point is not to make a big noise and get people riled up; the point is to tell it as you honestly see it and let the chips fall where they may.

Unfortunately, given the fact that most of the stuff out there is undistinguished at best, no-holds-barred criticism is going to hurt some people's feelings. The more stringent and rigorous the standards, the greater the potential pain. I don't have much problem with that if the artist is a celebrity and raking in the dough, but a local name who's "emerging" is a different story.

It's a tough problem, because namby-pamby pseudocriticism is not much real use to anybody, certainly not to me, but I know that if I were an official critic and pulled no punches, it wouldn't be pretty at all. I'm not sure what the answer is. I'd like to know what artists think on the issue.

4.

Michael Betancourt

April 3, 2004, 3:20 AM

yes.

5.

Michael Betancourt

April 3, 2004, 3:46 AM

second comment; (un)related to first.

Miami does not have a critical culture; far from it. I seem to remember being severely attacked for writing what some believed to be "unfairly" critical reviews of locals at all levels of the "scene" here. Not having the time to constantly deal with the not-thought-through values and bruised egos of locals, I have genuinely lost most interest in the scene as a whole, both as critic and as artist. Much of what I see going on here is somewhat akin to two vagrants arguing about which drain has the most change at the bottom.

What is particularly interesting is the ways that you, too, have participated in this general situation by attacking when someone writes something critical of one of your own--the response is to say things that encourage silence rather than encourage divergent povs.

Now I'm certain some will say that my pov is simply a sign of a weak ego, needing blahblah. Fine, say it. Perhaps it's true, perhaps not, but in a hostile climate sooner or later everyone will take cover and stay there. If you really want to make a difference, consider your own past actions first before telling everyone else that they've come up short.

6.

alesh

April 3, 2004, 4:46 AM

Franklin~

I love the CNN link. And doesn't it look like the out-of focus effect on Bush's face was added in photoshop?

Whatever . . . I sympathize with your point - if five or six writers were writing about art every single day, we would have real "dialogue." And we would have much more negative criticism in print. Those would be good things. If one writes one article a week (or month), one is more likely to find something (s)he likes to discuss, and crap remains unindicted.

But i think the publishers would want to know who's going to read all that stuff! Look: I'm pretty well disposed to read arts journalism: I work for a local arts organization. I'm a practicing artist. Heck, I subscribe to Artforum! And not even I read all of the local arts writing. Who's going to read all this stuff, and how does it compare to the other stuff the publisher could put on that page?

Maybe the problem is me--maybe I just need to read more, and thing about it more intelligently (or try to), and write more letters to the editor and whatnot. But I don't think you can expect that from a substantial portion of the art community, let alone a substantial portion of the public at large. With regard to which, I think the primary purpose of arts writing should be to get more people off their asses and into galleries.

In conclusion I would point out that this blog has featured precious little (proportionally) critical writing on local art shows, positive or negative. Why start another site? Why not just allow Michael, Alfredo, and whoever else you deem fit, to contribute to Artblog. The back and forth between you guys that occasionally pops up here is compelling stuff anyway, and you'd get the discussion you want without killing trees.

7.

Lucas R. Blanco

April 3, 2004, 10:38 AM

Franklin is right, Miami art critics pussy foot around a lot. The real reason London has such a critical visually literate populace is because Modernism never really went away there like it did in the States. Lucian Freuds and Frank Auerbachs sheer aesthetic quality assured arts survival on the Isle of Great Britain. America (Miami included) wasnt so fortunate.
Another way to put this would be to suggest that, after Greenberg got skewered in the late 70s, the proponents of Modernism in New York took a whipping from a bunch of Pop Art, Guerrilla girl, ape suit-wearing fema-nazis and lost the gumption to fight back. There are others like myself who resist this invasive lowbrow art by making our own art better. The problem is that there are simply too few serious artists in Miami, compared to the throngs of two bit, trend junky type, lame ass mediocre ones. As any economist will tell you, if the demand for quality is too high the pickens get mighty slim. Miami has no demand for quality; therefore the quantity goes through the roof.
Mr. Triffts problem is altogether different. Not only cant he separate the seed form the chaff, his columns inspire unadulterated boredom from his readers. No wonder readers such as Alesh dont make time for the little arts coverage there is in Miami. I appreciate the arts coverage but Triffs reviews are lifeless. I have a question for Mr. Trift: Why on earth would you consider the monstrosity of a show put forth at MAC to be a collection of some of Miamis finest as you claimed a few weeks back in New Times? Why not call it like it is? When just about everyone I spoke with could walk though the entire exhibit unmoved and bored silly. Just a few Galleries sustain most of the artists in that show. The owners of those gallerys and curators needed a non-profit space so as to make their artists look more respectable. Its so obvious that it is a front. Here is their formula: Find deep pockets (Cisneros Fontanals) Find Italian Architect. Say lofty things on your web site like we invited nine internationally recognized curators from blah blah blah (who coincidentally chose our blah blah blah. And Walla you instantly fabricated a web of phony authority to back piss poor art. The jury is still out on whether or not MAC really can live up to its lofty goals. But if 10 Floridians in any indication as to where that one is headed, save yourselves the time and money and boycott that one. That the art scene in Miami fell for that one still boggles the mind.
Poor Alesh, whose timid eye can surely recognize a shoddy Photoshop job when he sees one, but thinks he has to read art forum and a bunch of other art verbiage to keep up with whats hip. Note to Alesh and Trift you dont have to try to like something you dont, your eye will tell you if its any good. But if you try and you still dont trust your eye, it might be better to leave the art criticism for those who do.
Franklin, let the throat cutting begin.

8.

A Triff

April 3, 2004, 5:54 PM

Lucas, thanks. I take your opinion seriously and will try to hone my blade. In any event Franklin is out there and luckily more forums will open to your satisfaction. Writers like he have the burden of proof to prove what they preach. Its an ongoing discussion and I don claim to have the whole truth which is why I ask questions. I get all sorts of comments (many different from yours as well) but yours count. Though if its so painful to read me, you can always take a break.

9.

Cinque

April 3, 2004, 5:57 PM

As I've said here a number of times, we in Austin face similar problems. Little arts coverage and then everything that is written has that "gee-whiz, isn't that nifty?" tone of voice. We don't need more "negative" cristicism, we need more critical criticism. And that's how I read the above article. That means investigating art beyond the "I liked it/didn't like it" paradigm. It means saying something about how a show or a piece of art fits into the culture. It means questioning how things are done, the validity of things. Which will sometimes lead to decrying a piece of art's irrelevance, vapidness or crtical stance.

And if an artist gets a bad review, they should respond--vigorously. And the critic should respond back, vigorously defending or clarifying her position. That's called dialogue. Why are so many people afraid of that?

A vigorous critical environment does not necessarily lead to everyone taking cover. Part of my job as a news aggregator is to read dozens of European and African newspapers every day, and I assure you those folks have no problem telling it like it is. That's part of the reason why London, Lagos, Johannesburg, parts of Germany and even Kampala, Uganda all have thriving art scenes full of risk-taking artmakers.

As an artist myself, I want to be treated with respect. True, I don't want someone to say, "that sucks," and then walk away. But neither do I want them to say, "great job!" and stick a gold star on my painting, feeling like they've done some great service for the arts. They haven't; they've reduced art to the level and importance of a 2nd grade finger painting class.

10.

Franklin

April 3, 2004, 6:02 PM

Jack: You're right, it's a problem. The pressure to tone down may be self-imposed, but it's real. I'm probably the meanest SOB of a critic down here and even I've toned down for my print work. And you're right about the quantity of blood that would hit the floor if we applied top-level standards to our little scene down here. I think I have a partial solution that I can fold into Go See Art when I relaunch it in May.

Michael: Guilty as charged. One of the reasons I stepped down from the editorship of the Miami Art Exchange website was that my personality was taking it over and real exchange was getting discouraged. When I started The Sunburn, which became Artblog.net, I made it clear that this was just me ranting - it was my opinion, and I was going to be plain about it. That generated more of an exchange than the Exchange ever did, but I admit that I'm a tough cookie and was even tougher when I first got this thing going. On the plus side, people who write in tend to know what they're talking about. On the minus side, people who have a more gentle approach, who would like to explore a topic rather than get in the ring over it, tend to stay out of the fray. At this point, Artblog.net is what it is; I don't think I can make it a neutral, safe forum and I don't want to. But there's a need for a forum for the gentle approach.

By the way, my impact on the climate of the print world has been negligible. I've written a grand total of five pieces for New Times and Street thus far, although I'm now in a position to do something harder-hitting in Street. More articles are on the way.

Alesh: Michael's got his own column and, well, let's just say that it's clear to other writers that this is the Franklin Show and I don't think that anyone is going to want to get involved over here aside from the occasional comment. That's why I suggested a new site. But really what I'd like to see is more people doing what me, Michael, and Onajide are doing. Some kind of balance would form as a product of the exchange of unbalanced viewpoints. (And I wouldn't have to put up yet another website.) I wonder why none of those twentysomethings whose shins I'm always kicking are blogging. I did pledge to review more shows, and I plan to make good on that.

Didn't Condi's mom ever tell her that her face would freeze that way if she kept making those expressions?

Lucas: Don't go all Rush Limbaugh on me, man. I actually support some of the goals of certain postmodernists to make the art world a more egalitarian place, and the feminist critique has been an important part of that.

Let me suggest also that Alfredo genuinely liked the MAC show, for his own reasons, and that he was calling it as he saw it. I agree with you, though, that the mutual backscratching that goes on between the for-profit and the non-profit entities down here is a crime, and that no critic has risked the kind of diplomatic meltdown that he or she would suffer by writing a report about it that named names. That's a shame. I'll let Alfredo defend himself further if he feels inclined to do so.

It's funny that Artforum came up - I was just with an artist friend as she was buying her copy of Artforum, and I said, "You shouldn't read this. It's bad for you." But I was kidding. Looking around at what's going on is a good thing, as long as you remember that the magazines are mostly a record of what artists are having lunch with the writers, what galleries have the big advertising budgets these days, and not much more.

I agree with you on the supply/demand issue and the phony authority issue. We're just going to have to find our own audiences for our work, won't we?

11.

Jack

April 3, 2004, 7:24 PM

I essentially agree with Lucas on the "10 Floridians" show at MAC, and the kid-gloves treatment it got in the local press is a perfect example of what's wrong with art criticism around here. There was plenty to criticize about that show, from various angles, and nobody touched it. I see that as further evidence that the local "scene" is indeed little. The word incestuous also comes to mind.

And by the way, Lucas, who are you and where have you been hiding? I checked out your site and was rather intrigued by what I saw, though I'd want to see it in the flesh. It's fine to be anti-establishment, but you still have to get the work out to those who may appreciate it.

12.

Michael Betancourt

April 4, 2004, 2:15 AM

Consider this:

A critic is licensed to get it wrong from time to time. Restrict that license and the reviews grow safe and solemn.

If the claim is that the critics in Miami seem to "get it wrong" all the time, then either (a) we need new critics, or (b) the majority of people reading in Miami are wrong. If the claim is they're not critical, writing as someone who started out doing critical writing of exactly the type that's being demanded by some commentors, Miami doesn't want that kind of criticism. Period.

Case in point: (Franklin may remember this one.) A critic comments, for example, that a prominent gallery should not have a show where a large portrait of the gallerist is central consititutes a conflict of interest and then discussing what it means that this is Ok here should not result in charges that the review was "derailed." The conflict of interest overshadows the show, ending aesthetic considerations even before they can start.

I would respectfully submit that in Miami there is no critical license whatsoever; instead what we have here is a PR-view of "reviews." Fine, but the problem is systemic.

Thus I write a column (IMHO) about theory stuff that interests me and may interest others, more as a way of pointing out things that i think matter. I save the academic, fully documented work for publication in academic journals (like this one) where there is a specialized audience willing and able to engage rather than declare my work to be "heavy and obscure" or somesuch. It is these responses that always make me wonder why I bother with writing "popular" things for Miamiland sicne it takes away time from other projects. I'm just stubborn I guess.

13.

Lucas R. Blanco

April 4, 2004, 7:10 AM

Ill be brief and to the point this time. Thanks everyone for responding. My goal as an artist isnt to bite the hand that feeds us criticism. As I mentioned, I do appreciate the art reviews/critiques that circulate in the weeklies and on sites such as this. A. Triff tirelessly supports the arts in Miami, and that pleases me and he obviously did like the MAC show. I look forward to reading his next reviews with his honed blade, and if it happens to cut up my work one day, Id be honored. I hear ten, fifteen years of bad reviews can do wonders for an artist.
Franklin: I do tend to get a bit militant/reactive with my comments at times and will aim to be more level headed on this site. I would argue that the feminist critique did attempt to make the art world more egalitarian but failed. Ive watched some of the best female artists be shut out of an art market that for the most part, wants female artists to make feminist art. As soon as a woman chooses to make art that doesnt fit these narrow egalitarian goals, she is cast aside. It is BS.
Jack: Ill show in Miami.

14.

kerry

April 4, 2004, 8:35 AM

I am inclined to believe that the reason there is a lack of strong, solid art criticism, art writing that is passionate with strong opinions, writing that puts itself on the line, not just reviews, is because at root, the culture in Miami is weak and the coverage of the arts reflects this atmosphere. There are simply not enough people that give a shit to make any difference. Movies and music are the most accessible of the arts. The small, independent, most challenging and "interesting" films either don't make it here or arrive here last. And when I open the "Weekend" section of the Herald and see Howard Cohen writing about Chicago, Earth,Wind and Fire, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Kenny G, Van Halen and Sammy Hagar, I am of course disappointed, but must realize where I am: Miami!
How can one expect to have much coverage (or hope) for one of the least accessible of the arts? The "wacky", "silly", visual arts, doing its best to get noticed?

15.

Franklin

April 4, 2004, 7:46 PM

Testing comments. Okay, go ahead, Jack.

16.

alesh

April 4, 2004, 7:57 PM

I'm not going to go into a big rant about this, but i get really tired of the Miami-bashing that goes on all the time. (Then again, I suppose the same thing happens everywhere. Remember the one about critics in 1958 writing that jazz was dead, that none of its current practitioners were worth a damn.)

Miami is a young city with strong South American influences. Its art scene reflects that. I for one thing it's as good, or better, then should be expected. I'm sure NYC has a better art scene, as probably do a few other cities in the US (actually I'd be curious where others would put the count). But any scene, at any time, in any place, and in any field, is always going to be dominated by crap. To you guys who think Miami is so hopeless, why on earth do you stay here?

Franklin~ I'm aware of Michael's column. I read it occasionally. The reason I find a single blog where all the various "voices" in Miami criticism could get together more appealing is that, for me at least, it makes for more compelling reading. I find this blog to be at its best when these long exchanges result from your posts (and i think maybe you agree, and there hasn't been a new post in a couple of days to keep this conversation going). Whether it's here, or on a separate site is a minor issue. Life is short - i am NOT going go read five separate blogs about art in miami; i think actually very few people would, regardless of the quality of writing.

17.

Jack

April 5, 2004, 2:11 AM

Yes, Kerry. Despite the self-congratulation, hype and boosterism emanating from the local art establishment and its adjuncts, all exacerbated by what I call the Basel Fallacy, the local art scene (let alone the more general local culture) is weak. It may well be better than it was 15-20 years ago, which is something, but it has a long way to go. Acknowledging that is the first step toward improving the situation.

The local media, whose bottom line is well known, don't perceive much need (if any) to improve their arts coverage, and aren't likely to go out of their way to satisfy you or me. The art establishment is probably quite content with the status quo, because nobody's challenging obvious conflict-of-interests issues alluded to above, slack and slick museum practices, quality vs. quantity of galleries, overrated "stars" and neglect of artists who are better or at least as good, high-and-mighty "major" collectors bursting with delusional self-importance, and so forth.

The practical thing is to say the hell with it, ignore the pervasive BS, and fend for one's self. Unfortunately, the BS perverts the system, which adversely affects or degrades one's experience of it. In other words, it not only fails to help, it does harm; it messes with something you and I take seriously and seriously care about. I don't mean that those trafficking in BS don't care about art--the question is, for what reason/s and to what end/s?

18.

Mihcael Betancourt

April 5, 2004, 3:07 AM

I invite everyone concerned to "put your money where your mouth is."

www.cinegraphic.net/miami/ -- Art In Miami a review blog devoted to local critciism.

I will write things there; anyone else who wants to, just say so, and you can--without restraint by me.

Just e-mail and I'll make it so.

Michael

19.

Onajide

April 5, 2004, 4:06 AM

I haven't added anything to this discussion but, Miamiartexchange.com is, of course, open to posting hard-hitting critical reviews. I think we have a few online venues where we can get a word or two out. Since I have taken over the site without the weak organization that was formerly behind it, I have invited a number to people to write something when they see me in person and complain about the quality or lack or writing. I would have hoped they were really sincere in their personal desires. Maybe, it's fear. Anyway, Michael's new blog offers us even more.

20.

John Link

April 21, 2004, 4:50 AM

Something is desperately wrong when Great Britain is held up as a stronghold of great art.

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