It’s a well-known joke in University English Departments that about half of the staff secretly want to be novelists, poets or playwrights. The other half want to be actors.
This joke, like the best of them, contains a grain of truth. The work of the critic is unglamorous compared to their poorer yet more fashionably dressed counterpart–the creative writer. Critics apparently feel bogged down by their duty to the world of reference, to rigour and research rather than to ‘expression’. In our culture the critic is troped as the plodder from Porlock, while the writer is figured as the genius, one who is a bee to the invisible (Rilke), someone who tells us ‘news of reality not to be expressed in other terms’ (Brasch, quoting Charles Morgan). The critic, in other words, is the writer’s poor cousin.
It is fairly standard for critics to take issue with such clearly defined roles. We try our best to behave like writers: we may not be able to write novels, but hey, we can use clever puns in our critical writing. For some, this is hugely empowering, as it enables us to eschew the formalized language of literary criticism and to instead write in a less daunting and less jargon-laden prose, which allows an intelligent general reader to approach our writing. Literary biography is a particularly rewarding field for such ostensibly ‘would-be’ authors: these critics write their book of the author, one that mixes literary criticism with the story of the life. But this is always viewed as a secondary role by the reading public: the critic is imagined hitching their carriage to an unwitting and often unwilling author, writing over top of the author’s life and their books. The popular sensibility is that the writer and their works should just be left there, uninterpreted. However hard we as critics try, Modernist ideologies of genius, the centred self and originality will haunt our attempt to be valued as anything other than a literary vampire, one who makes money out of destroying (read: illuminating) the work of others.
As far as I can tell, art historians seem to have an even more tense relationship with artists than literary critics do with authors. The artists are troped (and trope themselves) as hip avante-garde changemakers, working independently from their fuddy-duddy counterparts. In this binary, the art historian wears her mother’s woollen sweater and trackpants, while the artist wears a hairshirt, a mink coat and a beret; the art historian writes about Victorian window frames with a blanket over her knee, while the artist works at his canvas with a joint in one hand and a penis in the other; the art historian has a tea party with her ancient cat named ‘Monet’, while the artist has a clothes-optional party with a class of impressionable first-years.
Troping the art historian as the redundant poor cousin of art production, as with literary critics, is deeply rooted in our imaginary, arising directly from the Modernist ideology of the artist. The artist is thought to be acting at a distance from culture and economy, instead creating works that are universal, timeless, essential and speak to deep level of the individual subject. Art historians, on the other hand, are not avante-garde. They are implicated in the boring, conservative world of reference rather than the empowering world of the imagination. They turn the heart into a graveyard. For those naive enough to believe this, the art historian destroys the work of art by moving beyond authorial intention, by unpacking it and forcing into it language.
One of the main problems with setting critics in opposition to artists is that it elides the artistic economy that underlies the production and consumption of the work of art. Art is not produced or consumed in a vacuum. Artists rely upon critics to talk about their work. Artists rely upon consumers to buy their work. Critics need artists to make work. Consumers rely upon critics to curate, commentate, historicize and mediate exhibitions and individual works.
Ultimately, the artistic economy does not function as a simple meritocracy: great works of art do not just exist out there in the world, waiting to be uncovered and recognized for their greatness. ‘Great’ artworks are produced: would Tracey Emin or Damien Hurst be ‘great’ artists if it were not for the patronage of Charles Saatchi? Did Saatchi simply purchase the works and not affect the artists’ present and future production, along with the rest of the art world’s appreciation of these works? Simply put, no. Saatchi cannot make a bad purchase–the level of influence he has upon the artistic economy is such that the artists become known and therefore collectable simply because Charles Saatchi bought their work. Ultimately, the artistic economy is a tangled web, involving critics, collectors and artists: none, it seems, could exist without the others.
Yet much art writing in Christchurch unwittingly reproduces the larger stereotype of critics as parasites. The reviews demonstrate a reverence for the sanctity of the artist and the work of art that is uncomfortable; it seems as though the reviewers are unwilling to be written off as an unwelcome, uncool art critic in the world of cool insiders. Perhaps this is function of Christchurch’s incestuous art community: everybody knows everybody, what they’ve done to who and probably where they went to school. But it has given rise to a standard practice for art reviewers in which they desperately avoid actually reviewing art. The review, in other words, is no review at all. One is apparently allowed to discuss where the work is, who the artists are and to whom they are referring, but one certainly may not explicate how the aesthetics of the work gives rise to certain thematics or politics. That is dangerous territory. That is undertaking a personal response and attempting to put the work into language. That is doing an art review.
I took a random recent sample from Eyecontact: Andrew Paul-Wood’s review of the group show, Mercury Rising. It ticks all the boxes for non-reviews. First, it begins with a two paragraph peregrination, discussing the earthquake and how long it takes to walk from the city centre to the new Jonathan Smart Gallery. Second, after having spent the first quarter not talking about the show at all, the review then gives an overall position on the show, one which the author never explicates or justifies:
Mercury Rising is a fairly unexceptional group show, but I think we can make excuses given the circumstances.
Having cleared the throat thus, the review gets into the slightly more meaty job of talking about the art.
Well, sort of.
Wood discusses the poor hanging of Miranda Parkes’ work. He discusses the crispness of Heather Straka’s lines. However, when he verges on actually attending to anything beyond the level of aesthetics, he employs large, empty phrases that avoid specificity:
Fiona’s Greek Athlete is at first surprising, the antithesis of her meticulous cataloguing of Maori taonga, but while the staring bronze suggests the stuffy realm of classical Academism, it slips naturally into the continuum of museum artefacts within a broader bi and multicultural matrix.
The work ‘suggests…classical Academism’, and relates to museum artefacts. But what does this actually mean? What does it say about the effect that the Enlightenment project–with its obsessive collection the artefacts of indigenes–has had upon Maori culture? To simply say that a work ‘refers to’ or ‘suggests’ is insufficient–we want to know how it illuminates this issue and in what terms.
Artificially stabilized artistic associations which are not developed in any meaningful way–what I call ‘empty referrers’–populate the review. These referrers give the review an aura of erudition without actually saying much at all: they are prolixity disguised as profundity. The clearest example is in the non-discussion of Jude Rae’s work. Wood begins his reading cautiously, describing her works in the show as a ‘mix of traditional painterly values and postmodern sensibilities’. The works’ titles, he tells us next, are influenced by ‘Abstract Expressionism’. It takes until the last sentence for him to really wind into his work, though, as he hides behind large, unjustified generalizations in a final coup de grâce:
It is a little as if Jean-Siméon Chardin, filtered through French Impressionism, had developed the obsessive interest in banal objects of Giorgio Morandi – boxes and bottles rendered luminous.
The names and ‘ism’s’ here are mind-spinning. Within less than 80 words, he has managed to tell us that Rae’s works are a mix of postmodern and traditional, are influenced by Abstract Expressionism and French Impressionism, are based upon Jean-Siméon Chardin and are as obsessive as Morandi’s. Where is the work itself? What has the work got to say?
Perhaps this lampooning is a little unfair, though. My issue with this type of reviewing is not necessarily with the applicability of each ism and artist to an artist’s work, but with their lack of explication. How does each huge generalization apply to the work? What does each ism mean, and why is it relevant to what the artist is doing? Why invoke all these names at all? What does the reference add to our understanding of the work?
The cynic in me wonders whether the point here is not to illuminate the work but to display the reviewer’s faux-scholarship and in so doing get away from attending to what the work specifically has to say.
Critics in Christchurch need to up their game. Until we are able to give learned reviews that explicate a work of art’s aesthetics and politics we will not be respected by artists. Inevitably, giving such reviews will entail making critical comments about artists who are often our friends or associates. As critics, though, we must hold out hope that learned scholarship and serious criticism will ultimately be better for the art world than the type of non-reviewing we get at the moment. We should hope that it leads to artwork that itself is more considered, aware of how it is being read and of where it stands in a larger conversation.
What we need, in the end, is to completely rethink the way we are approaching exhibitions and works of art. We come as critics, not as teachers. We are not here to give a grade or to show off how clever we are. We must write with less ego, taking on the task of illuminating the works, of providing an exploration of how a work’s aesthetics connects to that which is not directly material. Ultimately, we must remember that we are not in competition with artists–we complement them.
The question ‘so what’ is an important one. Don’t just ask it about the artwork. Ask it about the review too.