Sunday, 18 January 2015

Are art critics parasites or cultural missionaries?

Curator Zach Pearl to my left and publisher Beth Follett to my right.
This was the discussion at Eastern Edge about Feminism and Art.
One thing I have never been called is a feminist. 

The very first reviews I ever wrote were not about visual arts.  My topic was music, then theatre and eventually visual art.  I switched from Journalism to Philosophy because I wanted an education rather than job training.  The only course I ever dropped in university was art history because it bored me.  And the only subject I ever failed in my entire academic history was grammar because I refused to memorize the rules.  So, you could be legitimately surprised that I turned into a professional writer who specializes in visual art.  In all honesty, it is the whole of culture that fascinates me and I will write about any topic that interests me.  When I am deciding which artists to cover I usually ask myself, "Is their art something I want to spend my time thinking about?  Is this something I want to let inside my head?"

I have often said that there are two conditions under which I am usually happy.  One is when I am learning something and the other is when I am being useful.  Writing enables me to do both and often at the same time.  When I pitch a story about an artist to a magazine it is genuinely because I feel they deserve the attention of a wider audience.  I guess that could make me something of a cultural missionary. 

I included this image, a genuine advertisement, out of pure mischief.

When my interests as a writer inform my choices as curator –not to mention critic, editor, nominator and juror– I can understand why some of my colleagues have teasingly referred to me as a "king-maker" or "puppet master".  More official variations of the same meaning are reflected in titles like "opinion maker" or "historian".  At the end of 2014 I found myself making a mental list of all the things I had been called in print.  My favourite remains my own playful version that has crept into print as "culture vulture".  I recognize that what I do is dependent upon the creative activity of others.  More than once I have heard artists snarl that curators, critics and art dealers are parasitic.  Frankly, I think they are right.  But that doesn't mean those jobs cannot be done with integrity and fairness.  A lack of communication usually underpins a feeling of compromise or victimization.  Rather than being a parasite, my goal is to be more like a midwife who assists or supports the creative role.  So, how do I decide whom to support?

Talent is not enough to dazzle or intrigue me.  Talent is relatively common.  Skill, determination, discipline and hunger for recognition are all important.  I look for "fire in the gut".  I am drawn to artists who have no choice but to create because they tend to be the ones who are in it for the long haul.  My time researching them is well invested.  They will improve and grow into genuinely interesting artists who have something to contribute to culture.  And I believe that to be true whether someone is a musician, actor or printmaker. 

This image comes from Wikipedia and shows San Juan natives.  In my chapter "Craft in a Consuming Society" I talk about how artists are typified as exotic but noble savages.

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