Editor’s note: This op-ed originally ran on Glasstire on Oct. 26, 2016.
As I travel around and talk to people in the various Texas art scenes, I hear two common refrains about art writing. One is that there is not enough negative criticism here. The other is that Glasstire is too critical.
Which is it?
Let’s get the first matter out of the way. That media outlets across Texas will not and do not feature actual critical writing and reviews about visual art is an ongoing and seemingly entrenched problem to do with the politeness of the culture here, and its fundamentally disrespectful relationship with art. It is true that artists who choose to live and work in Texas are, to a degree, choosing to exist in a positive feedback loop—safe from the kind of competitive markets where the traditions of critical culture writing evolved. Here in most of Texas, artists (or ‘artists’) are, to the larger non-art-centric community, strange and special unicorns who are difficult to take seriously (is ‘art’ a job?) and yet who must get a prize for being ‘interesting.’ Most of the media in Texas that covers visual art at all is aimed at a general-interest audience. There is no way an ad-filled glossy lifestyle magazine would serve this audience by printing a viciously honest review of the latest cynical museum show, or an op-ed that questions the integrity of a popular artist’s latest body of work.
And there isn’t enough of a discriminating art audience in Texas to support multiple niche visual-art publications, so much of the visual art writing in the state happens in general-interest publications, as a way to fill some hazy quota on covering ‘culture.’
And indeed this kind of censored and polite discourse about all things cultural extends to dining, architecture, theater… . Many native and new Texans are so thrilled to experience anything with a whiff of progression (however ill-conceived or badly executed or cynically delivered) that if someone pipes up—especially a paid critic or professional—to explain the new thing’s shortcomings, the general population feels invalidated or even belittled for enjoying the thing being criticized, so this means the critic is being ‘rude,’ or unnecessarily harsh, or even has some kind of malicious agenda. General-interest readers know very little about contemporary art in terms of its recent history or its foundational and shifting dependence on national and international consensus; general-interest readers can’t begin to parse critical discourse about visual art no matter how plain the language used, because they aren’t familiar with art writing’s very context, and instead of being challenged or thrilled by honest dialogue, it leaves them feeling confused and even personally attacked.
This is Texas. This is the south. I’ve often said that Texans are unfailingly polite to everyone they meet, up to the minute you piss them off so much they pull out a shotgun and blow your head off. Real criticism feels terribly impolite to Texans. So the artists who live here who complain about there not being enough real art criticism need to either move somewhere else (you know where)—which, at their own risk would automatically render them tiny fish in the bigger critical pond—or they need to start writing (and putting their name to it).
The second matter: the impression that Glasstire is too critical. I analyzed the last couple of years’ worth of articles in Glasstire, and roughly four out of five are decidedly positive. Often gushingly so. This publication is a longtime, die-hard champion of Texas art and artists, all while taking the matter very seriously. But we also know that the people invested in art—the artists themselves, the academics and curators and collectors and gallerists—can not only handle some truth with their morning coffee, but that the only way to communicate profound respect for art is to be honest about it. This is one reason artists are often the best and harshest critics of art (and why many of our contributing writers are artists)—they take art seriously because they live it. And honesty and constructive communication is the way cultures and communities and movements grow up, however painful the growing pains. Unchecked cheerleading and ‘prizes for everyone’ is one of the reasons art isn’t even better in Texas than it could be. And Glasstire, really, isn’t so much an attempt to whole-hog correct this (‘let’s kick some ass!’) as it is a friend who will tell you when you’ve got some food stuck in your teeth.
There is a profound difference between impulsively (or anonymously) lashing out, versus committing something to writing for an invested audience, and like other long-lived visual arts publications in the world, Glasstire understands this. There is also professional need to recognize that different voices bring new viewpoints to the conversation, and that there are a lot of ways to skin a cat. Good negative or critical writing takes a lot of forms. But if one of the tertiary complaints about Glasstire is that its tone isn’t academic enough, I’d like to point out that the people who’ve leveled that one are some of the worst, jargon-stuffed writers I’ve ever had the displeasure to edit. The academicizing of art writing at the expense of clarity or real opinion has set the conversation back a good decade at least, and Texas doesn’t have time to play catch-up through a tangle of obtuse (and outdated) artspeak. It’s already behind.
Besides that: nowadays when I read an overly dense, high-minded and philosophically fogged-up essay about an artist or show, my instinct is that the writer either has no feel for art and is therefore writing around it, or is too cowardly to write directly about it. Or is just a shitty writer.
Negative reviews, we know, have resonance. They’re the ones people remember. So I won’t pretend that we at Glasstire don’t understand or predict the impact of running a negative review of a big or popular show. We eat and sleep and breathe art every day. We’re not coming to conclusions in a vacuum, and we don’t punch down. What I will reiterate, however, is that for every negative or constructive review or essay we run, there are four or five reviews or essays that applaud or support the latest efforts of an artist or show or scene. People tend to agree with these views, or quietly note them for future reference and move on. But we wouldn’t be in the business of expanding the conversation about art in Texas if we didn’t believe in the virtue of this mission. And we get up and get after it day after day because we like the art we see in this state, and we like to imagine where it might lead.
I invite you to Cherryhurst House to see our exhibition and write a review of, “In Search of The Frightening and Beautiful” by Heather L. Johnson. Look at the work, talk to the artist, and consider the exhibition with no fear your honest opinion of the artist’s work, and whether it is worth people’s time to see the exhibition or not, will offend anyone or alienate friends. Interested? Barbara Levine, Curator, Cherryhurst House, [email protected]
I’m fortunate enough to have had my art written about. Three of those times ‘negative’ things were said (2 by GT). It was upsetting for maybe a day, but it gave me something to think about – the best criticism an artist can get. I got to rethink the work and decided in both cases I agreed with my decisions.
A great feeling.
It is more unsettling to get a gushing review because it ignores all those little things I know are wrong. Are they even looking? Is anyone? They aren’t if it’s a regurgitated press release. Is my art that boring? Fuck.
Harsher criticism with the right tone requires more thought, more effort, more work. It is narcissistic to ask you to think about us and our work that much. But y’all do over and over and over again. Every god damn day for 15 years. It’s nuts!
Okay, that’s my gush.
Iva, the worst is to be uninteresting enough for a review, period. I’m early, nary out of the gates, but I covet the day I will get a negative GT review. Kind of. 😀
But, in all seriousness, artists/readers should relax, read, reflect, get pissed off, evaluate, and move on. Rinse, repeat.
Bill Davenport said my art was pathetic. It was awesome! 🙂 <3
Awesome, and coming from Bill, probably a compliment.
Ralph Rugoff wrote an interesting essay on the pathetic in art. The word is a descriptor of a certain kind of work, not a wholesale dismissal.
What can I say? I love it.
You won’t get any argument from me, of all people, that there’s too much politeness around the visual arts in Texas. But I think the idea that “media outlets across Texas will not and do not feature actual critical writing and reviews about visual art” oversimplifies things and misses how much writers set the tone at their respective publications.
When I was at the Houston Chronicle, they featured quite a bit of “actual critical writing and reviews about visual art,” and the same was true at Arts+Culture Texas, where I published some of my hardest-hitting slams on some of the city’s biggest institutions. You may not see the Dallas Morning News running much actual critical writing about visual arts, but they sure have about architecture. Editors are often a lot more deferential to cultural writers in setting the agenda than is generally understood, though it obviously varies from one workplace culture to another.
But it’s also true that to a large degree, editors don’t even have to say anything to get writers, who are very much participants in the culture of politeness, to tone down or shy away from criticism. The obvious social pressures are insidious and real, of course, but some of the tendency towards happy reviews is benign and even appropriate: you’d often rather give the ink to art you like than to art you don’t, especially in general-audience publications, where a reader is more like to value a negative movie review than a negative art review simply because s/he is more likely to have heard of the movie than of the exhibition. “This thing I never heard of and therefore wasn’t planning on seeing at a gallery I didn’t know existed is terrible? Good to know.”
That’s why artists should understand that, especially in places with a huge amount of cultural production but no real culture of criticism, a negative review, even if they think it’s bogus, elevates them by saying their work is significant enough to bother “misunderstanding” and badmouthing. As I once told a pair of performance artists who complained about my “unfair” advance criticism–which brought them a wave of free publicity that absolutely helped attendance–there are hundreds of artists in Houston who would love to be treated so “unfairly.” Hell, I would love to have gotten more unfair reviews when I showed at Art League!
As for the question of how can you be both too critical and not critical enough, here’s how: the ratio of positive to negative reviews may be too out of sync with “reality” — aren’t a LOT more than 20 percent of shows not very good? — but too many of the negative reviews themselves may come across as snarky but not substantive, ill-informed, lazy, or byproducts of the writer simply not being comfortable with the material or having an ax to grind. Out of deference to our smothering culture of politeness, I won’t cite examples here, but you’re welcome to email me if you’d like some.
From an editorial standpoint, Glasstire and A+C have both used what I consider at least a partial remedy: taking advantage of your statewide reach to sometimes have writers review exhibitions in other cities. I think your takedown of the Mark Flood show was a perfect example – the kind of thing you couldn’t have found anyone willing to write in Houston. (Well, one, but he’s not welcome at Glasstire.)
I’d like to respond about my perspective on art criticism as an artist and a writer for Glasstire as well as many other publications over the past 15 years. I have written for highly academic/theoretical publications such as Afterimage and can sling the artspeak as well as anyone. However, writing for an elite audience wasn’t satisfying. As an artist, I do want to champion artists and not write for the 1%. If I was working as a writer full-time, I would aim to have an equal balance of negative and positive reviews. However, since I write on average 1 article per month and sometimes less, I choose art/artists whose work I care about. It has to interest/excite/provoke me on a level where I feel there is enough substance to unpack the ideas in the work. If an exhibit doesn’t interest me or the work is poorly crafted/poorly developed, then I will pass it over. I have so little time to dedicate to writing, that I don’t want to waste the time and energy writing about work that I don’t care about.
I propose that it’s critically important to consider what an art review functions as in the first place. Is it a means of identifying good versus not good art exhibitions so the reader can decide if the show is worth the trip? Or is the review a well informed persons viewpoint based on experience with reasons and rational that allows the reader, to learn more about the art, the artist process as well as the artists motivation behind the body of work. In most cases there is not enough meat in the soup to serve as the satiable of critical meals. In most cases the review is simply a restatement of the curatorial invitation with a few adjectives thrown in for flavor. No new insights or revelations. No one reads critical art reviews, except in the major markets, because many of the reviewers (Not you Cristina) are under educated or exposed to the wealth of what makes up the art world. But I’m also always tickled when I hear we all should be creating things somewhere else because we would really get a good dose of reality then. It really doesn’t matter where you live or do your work because those who create and those who critique are always in this constant state of “Do we really measure up?”self flagellation. And the fragile hang on every word of a critique to either validate or crush their dreams of grandeur. If we are making art in what the REAL art world considers a sub market then we would also equate what is being written about the art is also sub market and that if any of it was really worth making or commenting on we would all be living in a teeny tiny apartment in Queens just hoping that we might make it someday by creating real work in a real art mecca and reading real reviews in real art publications by real art reviewers. What the fuck does it really matter? There will always be those who look at others as inadequate and that love to expound on just how inadequate they are even if their opinions are shallow and their experience limited. But in the most screwed up and , dare I call it subjective business, one person will love the work and another will hate it. Are we to simply believe the person who is the coolest kid in the current writers club? It’s a start but not the definitive end. Good or bad criticism is essential for what we do but not the only catalyst or celebration for outstanding work. I suggest that you start with the review and then go see works of art for yourself and then compare what you see on the broadest scale imaginable, educate yourself on what is powerful and moving work for you and believe it is good by what moves you by it’s very presence. If the art doesn’t make you look at it and then be transformed by it then I don’t give a shit who said it’s the greatest work of art they have ever witnessed. It’s simply their opinion. And after all if it is expressed in Texas -well you know- we are all subpar anyway so let’s go get drunk and make some art or shoot some guns.
While I recognize that the commentary above was inspired by perceptions about Texas artists needing more negative criticism and Glasstire not being negative enough, I’m puzzled by the overall emphasis in the piece and comments on “positive” and “negative” criticism, and art that’s either “good” or “bad.” Really, are these our only options? Strikes me as pretty reductive. And that’s the last thing I want when it comes to art, to understanding what’s going on in it and why it might spark some particular feeling or thought in me. I’ve never walked through a gallery or museum turning my thumb up or down at each work on display or each exhibition, or judging the technical facility or maturity or an artist, and I don’t find criticism that operates from those sensibilities all that interesting and certainly not valuable. To me, that’s like sports commentators handicapping a team’s chances of winning a game or analyzing their performance after a loss. It makes art seem like something with measurable standards by which we can determine universally accepted outcomes. “This work is great and should be seen by everyone.” “This art is shitty and should be avoided by everyone.” It also feels more like criticism produced for the art world in the way so much sports commentary is aimed at sports fans, basing current worth on recent performance, successes and failures, rankings against others in the field, locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally, and other insider info that the fan is versed in and excited by.
Now, for the audience that Christina Rees refers to above, the people who “take art seriously because they live it,” this may be the singular most important kind of criticism there is, but with all due respect, I’d argue that it isn’t the only kind of criticism that exists or should exist. For better or worse, my career has ended up being one involving criticism. I’ve written about all of the visual and performing arts over the past 30 years and worked as an editor for more than 20, all of it for the same general-interest publication, a free weekly in Austin. It’s given me the opportunity to work with many different writers and many different kinds of writers and to give a lot of thought to the nature and practice of criticism. I’ve encouraged the writers I work with to concentrate on their personal response to work as a means for exploring meaning, for developing insight, for relating what they see and experience to their individual histories and to the larger world. It doesn’t mean that evaluation can’t enter in or that work won’t ever be placed in the context of an artist’s life or career – I’m all for context – but I believe that this approach opens the door to talk about larger concerns that may have little or nothing to do with prevailing trends in the art world or the relationship of this work to other material produced by the same artist or the artist’s peers. Glasstire may have more of a responsibility to address its criticism to the art world than The Austin Chronicle does, but since the commentary pulls general-interest publications into this discussion, I felt compelled to provide the perspective of one.
As a final observation on the application of critical evaluations and the prevailing use of “positive” and “negative,” “good” and “bad,” in the critical mindset. It’s nothing new, of course, that critics often take on the role of judges and arbiters of taste. They wouldn’t have the reputation of being nasty, mean-spirited, and jealous of artists if they hadn’t been handing down harsh and dismissive aesthetic verdicts for centuries. But I don’t think the simplistic devices for grading movies, TV, and pop music has helped matters; all those thumbs, stars, and letter grades that have been adopted by so many media outlets since the Seventies just encourage the attitude that a work of art either succeeds or doesn’t, that it rocks or it sucks. That said, even in this environment, we give ourselves some wiggle room for disagreement, the “guilty pleasures” that allow us to acknowledge a work’s flaws and still say it has a place in our hearts. In the end, it’s about the effect that the work has on us as individuals, how it touches us sometimes despite logic or our better judgment. Would that everyone – including those people who live art so seriously that they want more negative criticism in Glasstire – left a little more room for that attitude in professional criticism, too.
I think your point that there is a lot of gray area in art is well made — obviously art isn’t always “good” or “bad;” sometimes it’s transcendent and oftentimes it’s just OK. When I work with young writers I always encourage them to choose art they feel strongly about, one way or the other, and to say so, and to say why. What happens a lot with arts writing is the critic doesn’t really feel strongly about a show, but they write about it — or are assigned to write about it — and they end up with a descriptive piece that teases out the one or two slim moments of interest in an otherwise ho-hum show.
“Reviews” that simply describe shows (even purposefully from some half-baked egalitarian notion of “let the reader decide”) do a disservice to the reader and abdicate the responsibility of the critic. I also think — or rather, I know from experience — that most people aren’t interested in reading such reviews. (NB I’m not calling out yours or any of our other alt-weeklies, which I think have traditionally done a better job than most at covering art.)
Despite the entire world changing since October of 2016, this is still a valid commentary on the state of art criticism. Glasstire criticism is direct and pointed in highlighting strengths and weaknesses of art, artists and institutions. As mentioned in Christina’s summary, it avoids the frequent and deadly trap of academic excess as well as the even more annoying trait of the critic’s narcissistic focus on him or herself.
Good criticism will stimulate interest regardless of whether it seems positive or negative.
Last week, Tyler Green nailed SFMOMA on the Magritte installation. We went to the show out of curiosity and totally agreed…..but we went because of the criticism.
Poorly written negative and positive criticism flourish, but not at Glasstire.
I think there’s a tendency to over estimate the impact criticism has had upon artists and the trajectory of art making throughout history. Lazy, uninformed writing does not equal a “negative review.” It’s just bad writing, and an artist may feel compelled to point this out, but ultimately, the value of the work, and who it will inform and inspire in the future, is determined by the artists.