Drawn but not Quartered
The crisis in art criticism
“Here we have the usual Roy Arden stuff—garbage, rubbish, scraps—very boring, of course,” Brussels-based curator Dieter Roelstraete harrumphs in front of Canadian art star Roy Arden’s black-and-white photographs. Arden’s body of work is part of a group showing in Antwerp, Belgium, called Intertidal: Vancouver Art & Artists, that Roelstraete has co-curated.
Wait—the curator just called the art in his own exhibition boring? That would be like Stephen Harper calling his cabinet ministers boring! But as Roelstraete sticks his nose up—”garbage, rubbish, scraps”—R.M. Vaughan, a Canadian critic, doesn’t see anything wrong with calling a bore a bore.
Roelstraete continues shepherding Vaughan around Intertidal. They move from Arden, stopping in front of Kelly Wood’s colour photographs. “Yes, more garbage. Very amusing, and apparently stupid,” he tells Vaughan.
Garbage? Boring? More garbage? Stupid? Vaughan agrees, later writing in Canadian Art’s summer 2006 issue, “My prejudices are well known. Most Vancouver photo-based art leaves me underwhelmed….[It is] as achingly boring as it is unattractive.” Vaughan continues: “[Roelstraete] is the most laid-back curator I’ve ever met. I am tempted to remind him (again) that I’m a journalist (well, of sorts), and that I’m taking notes. But why ruin the fun?…I decide to keep quiet.” And Vaughan did keep quiet—until his feature on the Vancouver exhibition abroad, “Antwerp Diary,” was published. The reaction to the article, his “prejudices,” wasn’t just short harrumphs, though. Benches of self-appointed Canadian judges, from artists to curators, howled their disapproval.
Vaughan was even compared to Adolf Hitler in a mass e-mail. And Canadian Art editor Richard Rhodes received enough letters-like-lashes to run a special letters section in the magazine’s subsequent issue.
A year later, Vaughan published “Eye of the Art Critic,” an online rebuttal to the naysayers, on J-Source. “The most rewarding aspect of writing this story was that I finally got to speak my mind about work that had pissed me off for years, and in a major publication….The arts in this country are too cozy and prone to boosterism.” (Much later, Vaughan responded to a request to comment for this article this way: “I will in No Way discuss the “Diary”article. No. Way.”)
“It’s bitchy cocktail talk,” says Meeka Walsh, editor of one of Canada’s larger art magazines, Border Crossings,of the article. “It didn’t advance the position of art at all. It just created a little stir in what’s otherwise a very quiet editorial agenda in the magazine.” In other words, if you are going to write a considered piece of criticism around the Vancouver club, you should probably talk about the roots of photoconceptualism. Vaughan didn’t. He was harsh, yet insubstantial, in his critique. He went too far in some ways and not far enough in others.
But Vaughan isn’t alone. After conducting 40-odd interviews with artists, critics and curators across Canada, I found precious little evidence that our critics understand their primary job. (It’s like a painter not knowing the primary colours.)They’re not cheerleaders. Nor cocktail bitches. Their task is to critique a piece of art by taking it seriously. In so doing, they should define what is good and what is not.
Think of your best friends. They usually love you, right? But as the saying goes, to love without criticism is to be betrayed. Vaughan’s “Diary” was critical, but it was written in a more backstabbing than constructive way. What sticks, though, is Vaughan’s main and most constructive point: the Canadian arts are too cozy, too prone to boosterism. Genuinely critical voices, as Eye Weekly’s arts columnist, David Balzer, puts it, are so few “you can hold them in the palm of your hand.”
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The crux of art criticism is what German critic Boris Groys calls “the phenomenon of negative appreciation”—which means to dissect critically, to give art that honour. Good criticism, then, need not be agreeable, but it is always necessary, as Winston Churchill said, “It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” A healthy art scene needs criticism. Without it, art can fall prey to illness.
It’s not just Canadian criticism that’s unhealthy. “Art criticism is in a worldwide crisis. Its voice has become very weak,” James Elkins cried in his 2003 book, What Happened to Art Criticism? He references a 2002 survey of hundreds of art critics conducted by an arts journalism program at Columbia University. It found making judgements about art was the least popular goal among critics, and that merely describing art was the most popular. So Vaughan’s critique of Vancouver photoconceptualism probably falls into the category of least-common goal. His cyber-comeback to “Diary” included this retort: “If, as my detractors claimed, I was neither intellectually nor academically qualified to discuss the art, then all the positive things I’d written about the art were also wrong.”
How could Vaughan suddenlynot be qualified to discuss Canadian art? Partly because “Diary” didn’t read like the typical Canadian review—it wasn’t promotional. But Vaughan’s article wasn’t negative appreciation; it was a public spanking.
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“Who thinks that Canadianart critics should be more critical?” asks critic Nadja Sayej at a panel discussion held by the Toronto Alliance of Art Critics last December. (Besides Sayej, the group includes local critics like Balzer and Leah Sandals, associate editor of Canadian ArtOnline.) The majority of the hands in the room jolt up. Someone from the audience shouts back, “But what does it mean to be more critical?” The panellists scramble for an answer, as shouts multiply like Warhol’s soup cans. The Alliance regroups. “I wouldn’t be a critic if I didn’t believe in constructive criticism. I don’t feel like a destroyer,” says Balzer.
Yet, criticism and the art community aren’t on the friendliest of terms. I asked AA Bronson, co-founder of General Idea—Canada’s foremost contemporary artist group for those who aren’t stuck on the Group of Seven—what he expects of critics. He clarifies via e-mail: “I can’t think of an article that has stayed with me, although some have been not bad. It’s rewarding when critics take one’s work seriously, but that almost never happens.”
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“A good art criticinforms people about good art,” says a fatherly Rhodes, editor of Canadian Art, our largest visual arts magazine. Rhodes and his magare as pleasant as a still-life floral arrangement—think Van Gogh’sSunflowers—and, for the most part, as non-confrontational and inoffensive too.
Jessica Wyman upset the flowerpot with her critique of Canadian Art’swinter 2008 issue on art schooling and education in Fuse, a small culture book. “Canadian Art’scontributors took a…boosterish approach,” she wrote, “reading more like a series of press releases than a serious reflection on the state of training in art practice.” It’s a common refrain: the magazine doesn’t publish criticism, just criticism-by-omission. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
But Rhodes sees Canadian Art as playing a “supportive role,” and dismisses concerns of boosterism or coziness. “The skepticism about liking Canadian art and writing appreciative things about it is a continuation of our long history of colonization. Life is elsewhere. Good art is elsewhere. It’s true, there’s a lot of good art elsewhere,” he says, “but there’s also lots of terrific art right in our midst.”
Balzer draws another picture: black charcoal lines of frustration instead of Rhodes’s moseying pastels. In a 2007 article for the Ontario-based magazine Canadian Notes & Queries, Balzer wrote that Vaughan’s “Diary” “may have been sloppily executed, but its attitude seems to me to be rather un-Canadian.” Indeed, Balzer argued that the article was “more in line with a European, and particularly British, tradition of art criticism—one that…is patently unafraid to give something the flagrant, flamboyant brush-off.” Asked if that means the very concept of the brush-off is un-Canadian, Balzer shakes his charcoal stick. “I think that to some extent [attacking ‘negative’ critics] is Canadian-style bullying. You are bullying people who want to criticize Canadian art by saying…” he intones like a thespian, “How could you possibly criticize culture! Don’t you believe in culture! Why would you detract from our small pond of culture growers with your acerbic voice?”
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Before Balzer and Eye Weekly, Elkins and What Happened to Art Criticism?, Rhodes at Canadian Art, there was the 1980s. The AIDS crisis. Queer theory. Second-wave feminist theory. And General Idea. There wasVanguard, Parachute, Impulse, C Magazine and the tough-love metaphor ofCanadian art as a barroom for idea brawls. “There was something in art and art criticism that seemed deeply at stake. There’s not much sense of that anymore,” says William Wood, University of British Columbia assistant professor and formerVanguard associate editor. “Vanguard and Parachute were not like, say, Canadian Art, which is a personality-profile magazine now. Those contained writing about art, not about artists per se. And that’s a major shift that’s taken place.”
Andy Patton, Toronto artist and Ontario College of Art & Design instructor, remembers that back then, “art was almost a war. You could lose friends over the work that you did. But it meant then that art was a battleground and it mattered.” He continues, “There were a lot of brushfires back then. Now I think what we’ve got is a flat-screen TV with an image of a fire burning on it.”
Dismiss it as a veteran’s affection for an old flame or wave it off as nostalgia for the golden age that never was, but Patton has a point. There’s no war of words these days. Most critics don’t put themselves on the thin red line. Patton’s talking about a time when a critic like Philip Monk heated up the debate in the art scene. Rhodes calls Monk our most important art writer in the past 25 years. “He was aggressive and didn’t provide any easy answers,” Rhodes says. “People wanted to know what he thought.”
Monk now works at the Art Gallery of York University as director and curator. “I’m no longer a critic,” he says. “I’ve moved into other forms of writing about art.” But, according to a 2001 profile of Monk by Gerald Hannon for the now-defunct Lola magazine, Monk’s “famously explosive lecture,” “Axes of Difference,” remains legendary.
On Valentine’s Day, 1984, Monk—like a Canadian Moses parting Lake Ontario—read his article “Axes,” which originally appeared in Vanguard,to a crowd of Toronto art folk. According to Hannon’s profile, Monk clearly defined what he regarded as good art and bad, and in the process set off the explosion that shattered hearts. “And what was all the fuss about?” wrote Hannon. “[To] put it simply, it seemed to come down to this: girl artist good. Boy artist bad….And he did that rare, courageous thing in the arts community: He named names. ” After the lecture, according to Hannon’s piece, Globe and Mail critic John Bentley Mays described the resulting fuss: “In a spectacular move [Monk] lambasted all the people he’d previously supported. The impact was devastating. Andy Patton was devastated.”
Twenty-six years later, Patton explains: “‘Axes’ was an article where Philip slams me and several other people. And though I was not pleased with it at the time, and I still don’t think he was right, the fact is, that kind of thing is so rare now that it would be like seeing a unicorn on Queen Street.”
Ironically, Patton was also the recent subject of the most cutting—not backstabbing, though—critique I was able to find for this article: Globe critic Gary Michael Dault’s review of Patton’s fall 2009 show at Toronto gallery Birch Libralato.
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“What do you think about the negative review?” I ask Dault. He was writing criticism before Monk, before we put a man on the moon.
“It’s never worth being negative just to say…” Dault slap-slaps his hands together, “There, that’ll fix the bugger.” A black scarf is subtly looped over his black turtleneck and suit jacket. His words are not subtle, though—imagine bird shit or a Jackson Pollock paint drip, thick and white, running down a black shirt.
“Listen, I don’t want to waste hours writing about something I don’t care about. Unless…” Dault nods, his hands around a saucer now, “in Andy Patton’s case.” Dault called Patton’s fall show as he saw it: “These four pretentious paintings remain bathetically inexplicable.” The review stood out in the Globe, and would have inCanadian Art, too, like those white drips.
Dault didn’t want to “fix” Patton. He didn’t want to betray him or the art. He loves art; they both do. Yet Dault wrote criticism that wasn’t cozy. “Andy is a very smart guy and normally a good artist and I think his show needed a corrective.”
But is Dault always a good friend to art? “I’ve been criticized for being too affirmative, but that’s because I have deep enthusiasm when I find something I really enjoy, and I try to convey that enjoyment. So what I do instead of being negative in print is, I just won’t write about it.”
Dault says criticism-by-omission isn’t due to a failure of nerve or lack of generosity; it’s because there’s limited space. “The editor of a magazine makes the same kind of decisions I do. Why is he going to waste pages of his precious art magazine, when there aren’t very many, on stuff that isn’t very good?”
Christopher Brayshaw—who’s written for papers likeVancouver’s Georgia Straight and for magazines likeCanadian Art—calls this the “precious-space excuse.” Brayshaw speculates that a reason for a limited number of reviews in Canadian Art was due to issue sizes. The magazine, he says, “had to cover a national scene and condense a massive quantity of information into a finite word count, which was fine.” (Rhodes says that Canadian Art now runs more reviews on its website.)
But if criticism-by-omission is used to conserve “precious pages,” what ends up happening other times is worse: the soft-boiled stuff gets published instead. Brayshaw recalls being told to cut and condense his pieces, then later seeing Vanity Fair-style photo spreads, like “Toronto Now,” commissioned.
“Toronto Now,” which appeared in the winter 2007 issue of Canadian Art, featured group portraits of the city’s influential artists and art luminaries. It ran from pages 58 to 73. “With text spaces shrinking on one hand, things like that are the most useless use of 15 magazine pages I can think of,” he says. “It was involved with marketing and lifestyle, disconnected from the idea of art. It was embarrassing.”
Brayshaw has lost faith in most Canadian art publications. He always thought the job of the critic, as American art writer Dave Hickey suggests, was to complicate love with judgement. Art matters to Brayshaw. But he’s not sure a lot of art criticism does anymore. “I guess I feel about Canadian art magazines kind of like that girl I used to date in high school. I’m glad that she is still around and that life is working out okay for her, but I don’t really have any interest in rehashing old times.”
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So Vaughan didn’tget it quite right with his “Diary.” And Dault gets it sometimes. What’s an art critic to do then? And, more importantly, where does this leave their readers and subjects?
After about an hour of audience picket signs and pitchforks at the Alliance panel about the critic’s iron-fist deficiency, Sayej finally asks, “What could we do to do our jobs better?” Again, shouts multiply: “Be more critical!”
But good Canadian art criticism does exist. Consider: In an April 2009 review for the Globe, former editor ofCanadian Art, Sarah Milroy, asked, “Are we past the age of an aboriginal art show?” Milroy argued that the AGO show Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World offers a “cautionary tale: This is what happens when museum curators focus on ethnicity over aesthetic discernment.” Her article resulted in a symposium held by the AGO. Gerald McMaster, Remix’s co-curator, said at the event that “the article really set off a chain reaction of ideas and thoughts. Some angry, some critical. But the aboriginal art and curatorial communities began talking a lot.”
On her blog, Digital Media Tree, Sally McKay, Toronto art writer and former co-editor of Lola, echoes Milroy’s stance at the symposium: “As a critic, her job is to make aesthetic value judgements. Were she to shy away from that role, she would not be giving the work the respect it deserves.”
So, another cautionary tale: Canadian art critics need not betray the art they love with handholding or spankings. Instead, they need to do art the honour of taking it seriously—and critiquing it honestly. Best friends don’t love to criticize; they criticize out of love. Canada’s critics could be a true best friend. Canadian art could use one
Michelle Kuran was the Visuals Editor for the Summer 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.