Art Criticism Today and Hopefully Also Tomorrow

May 28, 2013 · Print This Article

by Chicago Artist Writers

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Chicago Artist Writers hosted a workshop with Lori Waxman at Gallery 400 on March 14, 2013. The following is an attempt to collect some of the many illuminating moments of her two-hour lecture and Q&A session.

“Today I’m going to talk about a lot of forms of art criticism that don’t actually exist — yet.”

Lori Waxman has her feet in two critical worlds. As a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, she takes on the role of a traditional art critic: she has a large audience, keeps her distance from the artist and organizers of the exhibitions she covers, and maintains an objective viewpoint. In contrast, her personal project 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic takes a more experimental approach.  The public is invited to come with their work for a review written by Lori live, in person, with a secondary monitor displaying her writing process as it evolves. The project has been featured numerous times domestically and most recently at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany.

Lori posited that criticism has largely not changed much since its first appearance with Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1765, and the writing that we see in major outlets like the Tribune or Artforum holds the same basic values of that style to this day. This default approach to art criticism doesn’t reflect the drastic changes in art and technology’s influence on the contemporary conversation as much as it could.

She used Documenta as a case in point–-it embodied a sprawling, time-intensive experience for the viewer, and the critical responses to it suffered as their structuring was inadequate to cover the exhibition’s curatorial conceits. Critics who were only able to visit 3-5 days and print 1000 words were ill equipped to critique the event in its totality. “Who goes to NYC for a weekend, and tries to see everything, and if they can’t, it’s New York’s fault?” Lori asked. She used Dieter Roelstraete’s review of the Documenta in Artforum as one example; one of his main critiques was that it had too much going on. Similarly, Roberta Smith’s review in the New York Times was schizophrenic, unable to deal with the scope of the massive three-month undertaking. Lori suggested that despite the stubborn precedent of “objective distance” in traditional criticism, she herself might be the best critic of Documenta, having spent her entire summer there.

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Platforms for alternatives to the traditional model exist in small handfuls but some are promising. Lori noted that online versions of specialty magazines like Artforum fail to leverage the malleability of the web and stick to the values and format of their print counterparts. Websites like hyperallergic, the former artnet.com, and temporaryartreview.com (which covers cities off the major art map) may increase turnaround time and coverage of lesser-known projects, but again resist transforming the dynamic of the critical approach itself.  Triple Canopy is a capable platform, for not only its scholarship but, in the case of David’s Levine’s take on the dissolution of the Rothko estate, its willingness to embrace an insider’s view at the sacrifice of traditional objectivity.  Art Fag City features critical writing but is bolstered most importantly by the active comments sections as a new center of gravity in critical writing.  This very blog (the Bad at Sports blog) also embraces the more diaristic, personality-driven, multi-tangential style of critical reflection over objectively toned assessment.  In the early 2000s, Lori contributed to Fucking Good Art, a feverishly produced zine spearheaded by Pedro Velez and Michael Bulka. Critics would go out to openings, type up reviews as soon as they were sober (or not), and photocopy and distribute the zine for free the next day. The reviews, sometimes nasty and anonymous, were the main way apartment spaces were getting critical feedback.

Lori wondered if models like Facebook and Twitter could be used seriously as venues for criticism instead of flippantly; these platforms have a multi-directionality that could support a more nimble and relevant conversation to artwork being produced.  In addition, their immediacy has the potential to be paradigm shifting–what happens if something is written in front of/within the work? “Gonzo” reviews — long form, unedited stream of consciousness reviews — also have yet to be fully realized in art criticism.

Perhaps criticism that leans towards more relational and embodied writing is called for by today’s art practices.  Lori suggested “embedded criticism” – a term borrowed from journalism, in which journalists are “embedded” with soldiers – as a term for art writing that celebrates, rather than discourages, the subjective experience in order to strike a critical observation. In her piece Practicing Trio A in the Spring 2012 issue of October, Julia Brian Wilson spoke about taking a class with Yvonne Rainer in which she learned how to perform Rainer’s seminal The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I (Trio A) from 1973, and how this direct involvement in the piece changed her mind about it. Hannah Higgins is well known as a scholar and writer about Fluxus in part because of her upbringing in a canonical Fluxus household; her embeddedness creates a unique opportunity for scholarship and complexity.  Later, during the Q&A, an audience member suggested Kathy Acker as an additional example of someone who writes about artwork while having a close relationship to it.

Art writing authored from a fictional perspective or persona is another area ripe for exploration. Lynn Tillman has written fiction at the artist’s request (perhaps skewing its definition as “criticism,” but an example of a new form of art writing nonetheless). Her short story “Madame Realism Lies Here” from 2002 is composed from the perspective of a woman who dreams she has turned into a Jeff Koons sculpture, experiencing life in a weird and grotesque way that mimics Koons’ work. Tillman’s series TV Tales about Barbara Kruger from 1976 also is another example. As well, we can look to novelists: Gertrude Stein wrote in a “cubist” style, coming out of a deep experience with cubist painting. This kind of art writing acts as an analog to the work itself. Stein’s unique, unexpected way of using language sidesteps “International Art English” altogether: it doesn’t even require a dictionary. One can hold up a piece of hers in front of a painting and see how they work together. The Family Fang, a novel by Kevin Wilson, consists of a fictional narrative about a family of performance artists. Philadelphia artist Jayson Musson’s satirical comedy as Hennessy Youngman occasionally offers thoughtful and to the point responses to art, although Lori noted that Youngman can be surprisingly conservative – here she reminded us that a new form doesn’t necessarily mean a radical idea, as form and content are extricable. But an outside-the-art-world persona like Musson’s can make it easier to call the emperor naked. Another example brought up by the audience was artist Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, who produced a collection of erotic fiction about James Franco.

Lori stressed that to write about museums and commercial galleries is to write about art that has already been filtered and processed, versus writing about experimental spaces showing lesser-known artists who have yet to be critically acknowledged. When writing about the latter spaces, one should remember that criticism of ephemeral or emerging practices may be the only record that exists, and so one must be intentional as his or her writing will eventually become historical fact. “Some dogged art historian in 20 years will rely on these reviews, and they will quote [them]; and if you got it wrong and weird, they’re going to think that’s what happened.” For this reason, she also suggested inventing a way to respond to a work instead of writing something explicitly negative.

Television shows such as Work of Art and School of Saatchi, whether we like them or not, are emergent examples of new forms of art criticism.  While only persisting for four episodes, BBC’s School of Saatchi featured six artists, asked them to make interesting commissions, and gave them a decent amount of time and money to do so. The show rendered the actual process of making contemporary art transparent, “and was surprisingly accessible and intelligent.” After the work is completed, a good fifteen minutes of each hour-long show is devoted to serious discussion of the artwork that is then communicated to the artists. The judges’ remarks are often off the cuff and funny, speaking with authority but sometimes contradicting one another. Their multiple voices created a critical environment similar to a class critique. Bravo’s Work of Art, in contrast, equated art with other subjects like cooking or getting married. Artists were given $100 and 24 hours to make a series of asinine projects. Notable, however, was the involvement of Jerry Saltz, the most recognizable critic in the U.S.  Most of the criticism on the show was demeaning, puerile, dumb and one-liner; criticism was consistently of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Yet, Lori said, Work of Art nevertheless represents one of the ways that art is being thought about today by the general public—and perhaps even some parts of the art world; this show is part of the public’s access to the art world, and it is sadly misrepresentative.

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Some of Lori’s more experimental ideas—stolen, she willingly admitted, from her students at SAIC—included gif criticism (what can a gif do that words can’t?) or criticism using image combinations (like on tumblr). During the Q&A, the audience pitched in: we suggested hyperlink criticism – a review composed entirely of links, in line with the ways we read, think and click; another participant proposed a review composed over Skype, where one person views the exhibition at home, one in the museum, highlighting the differences; or a (live/recorded) performance positioned as a review. Does criticism need to be site specific to the work – like the precedent of dances that directly respond to artwork?

If criticism can be art and vice versa, how can one be sure these forms don’t stray too close to art and too far from criticism? Where is that line placed and is it important? Lori pointed out that studio experience might be valuable for a critic, “and who thinks criticism is so objective anyway?” 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic attempts to take some of the agency that the art critic normally assumes away, and to see what happens when it’s given to the artist him or herself. The agency Lori gives up is the ability to choose who and what she writes about. But if this critical agency we assume is important is taken away from the critic, can something of substance still materialize? What happens if criticism is available for the asking? Is it still interesting, critical?

Another participant asked Lori about What Happened to Art Criticism, the 2003 panel discussion and book in which Jim Elkins and others complained that the majority of art criticism being written today is “descriptive.” Lori responded that she believes there’s no such thing as a truly factual description” of something. She pointed out that one can’t recreate a painting backwards from a description, no matter how detailed or “straightforward” it is. A good piece of description, she noted, can do “almost anything.” One can’t have criticism without description; and in shorter lengths, these combinations can be powerful — look at the New Yorker’s 100 word reviews of exhibitions in the Goings On section.

An audience member asked if art history helps or hurts art criticism. “If you love October, you should stay in art history and not try to be an art critic,” Lori responded. Most critics come from art, not art history, and there’s “plenty to make of that, in terms of experience and commitment.” She relayed the under-discussed fact that most of the notable art critics working today do not have art history degrees. Peter Schjeldahl started out as a poet; Saltz was a painter and truck driver; Robert Storr and Matthew Collings trained as painters.

How about artists criticizing their own artwork as an interesting new form of art criticism? Lori responded with an anecdote from her husband, the artist Michael Rakowitz, who had recently been part of a discussion in which the moderator complained afterward that the panel’s artists hadn’t talked more about their work’s problems. Her husband countered that he didn’t know of a professional artist who would do that, that it’s not their job: let the critics take issue, and the artists deal with the problems in their own way. One takeaway for us is that the space for self-criticism in between the artist statement and the art review is ripe for experimentation.

We left thinking about the burgeoning potency of crowd-sourced criticism.  Mimicking the current form of value-production bolstered by the Internet, where value is dispersed into tallies, “aggregate,” rhizomatic or crowd-sourced criticism may be starting to replace the good old New York Times review. One audience member wondered if all types of feedback to an artwork could be located in a single place, including documentation, short and long reviews, responses on Twitter, Facebook, etc.? Although Google might seem good for this on its own, it isn’t organized: someone should take advantage of this opportunity for a new start-up.

We found this sentiment the driving force of Lori’s presentation–an implicit and collective call to action:

“Technology has changed and art has changed, and that should be radically impacting the kind of art criticism that we write, how it gets published, how it gets received and who we write it for, and how it gets commented on.”

Chicago Artist Writers is a platform that asks young studio artists and art workers to write traditional and experimental criticism that serves under-represented arts programming in Chicago. CAW was founded by Jason Lazarus and Sofia Leiby in 2012. This is our first guest post on Bad at Sports. www.chicagoartistwriters.com

Click here to download an mp3 of Lori’s lecture.

 




Hot Topic Alert: Art Theory by Artists

October 22, 2009 · Print This Article

There’s a great discussion going on right now at Edward Winkleman’s blog inspired by Winkleman’s post Thinking While Making Things, which was in turn inspired by an interview with Robert Storr conducted by The Art Newspaper, and an article written for Proximity by artist and frequent BaS contributor Mark Staff Brandl titled Artists Write: Thinking While Making Things. The discussion on Winkleman’s blog revolves around the ways that artists can/should/have engage(d) theory in their work and writing, the different forms that “theory” may take when it comes to artistic practice, and further on from there. Go check it out and add your voice to the discussion.

And on a side note, I have a small request of my own for current or former MFA students and/or art history graduate students, along with their professors and teachers:  I’m trying to break down what often seem to be monolithic notions of what “Theory” constitutes nowadays by looking at it from more a text-specific level.  I’m especially interested in what strains of “Theory” are being taught to younger artists who are engaged with / emerging from art programs TODAY (rather than, you know, 20 years ago, which was arguably when deconstructionist/ post-structuralist / psychoanalytic / postmodern / cultural studies-driven,  capital T Theory was in its heyday and held greatest sway). Are there any new Theories out there that I should be aware of (she said, tongue planted firmly in cheek)? What are you proverbial kids reading today? It can’t be the same shit I was reading twenty years ago…can it? Let me know what your profs are assigning or recommending (links to full-on syllabi are welcome!), and which authors and theoretical texts you’re talking about with your friends and colleagues. I want to try and map out, in painfully literal fashion,  just what it is we’re talking about when we talk about Theory.

Thanks. Now, go check out the discussion over at Mr. Winkleman’s house (and please make sure to restrict any comments here to the specific topic I put forth above…I don’t think it’s cool to siphon off discussion from another blogger’s post).