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The following text was originally published in the May/June edition of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet, which also features contributions by Teresa Gillespie, Jonathan Mayhew, Eilis McDonald and Declan Clarke, alongside a report on ‘The Value of Criticism‘ which took place in February at the Glucksman Gallery. Well worth picking up a copy.

In 1976 Jonathan Richman of the American rock band The Modern Lovers sang that “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole”. And indeed he may well have been an asshole, but I guess the implication was that he could back it up somehow. Pretentiousness, by contrast, is at first glance best surmised by empty-talk and vain posturing. Nonetheless, when you Google the words ‘pretentious is…’ the sentence concludes with ‘…a pretentious word’. It’s a revealingly vacuous semantic loop. And though we may well agree that the word implies something ostentatious or affected, all fur coat and no knickers, pretentiousness doesn’t exactly mean those things, either. And so, as distinct from not-quite synonyms like showy or snobbish, what do we really mean when we call something pretentious?

Critic and Frieze editor Dan Fox’s recent book, Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, works to get to the root of this question. This past February I happened to be in Bristol and took the opportunity to hear him one Thursday evening at the Spike Island gallery. And whilst of course conceding that the word might never be fully rehabilitated in positive terms, Fox’s talk nonetheless de-familiarised the term, widening its remit, and effectively redefining it as something both positive and necessary. In the concluding Q&A, Fox stated that he tries to avoid using the word. I left in agreement, and one that seemed cautiously reciprocated by my fellow audience members. Initially, the very thought of attending a talk about pretentiousness seemed somewhat fatuous, inasmuch as our attendance there appeared almost as pretentiousness’ supreme embodiment. However over the course of Fox’s impassioned – and, for what it’s worth – totally unpretentious talk, pretentiousness itself seemed to assume a space of genuine urgency. Defined in Fox’s rather more generous terms, it names a central motor of art. Reaching outside of itself, pretentiousness allows art to intrude in the places and conversations from which it is typically excluded.

The central tenet of Fox’s argument is that pretentiousness – and, more particularly, its eschewal – embodies a particularly blinkered conception of authenticity. In lieu of this assessment, he says, to be pretentious is not necessarily to be inauthentic. Instead, pretentiousness often delimits an effervescent space for creativity, risk-taking, and disruption; marked by “the courage and curiosity to extend yourself”. By this understanding, when the term is used negatively in a throwaway, unthinking manner, it works to undercut any kind of striving outside of oneself, intractably rooting the subject “to the circumstances in which they were born”. For Fox, this denial is thus coexistent alongside a denial of social mobility, and is rooted, first and foremost, in the discourse of class.

Initially, this argument may seem somewhat far-fetched. And yet on further consideration, the charge of pretentiousness carries a definite shade of self-aggrandisement, of ‘getting too big for your boots’. In an Irish context, the word ‘notions’ has become its shorthand; the hipster, itself a similarly empty signifier, is its archetype. Under this logic, the same applies to performance art, pinot noir, barrel-aged stouts, aeropress coffee, French postmodern theory, beards, thrice-cooked chips: notions. Sometimes, of course, such derision is understandable, and yet, as Fox rightly asserts, what unites our denials of something as ‘pretentious’ is the unsophisticated assumption of its bad intentions. What we forget is that most of what is derided as pretentious is made in absolutely good faith, with a lot of love and a courageous disregard for public opinion. Without the risk-taking inherent to pretentiousness our culture industry would surely be a tedious and static one.

As mentioned, a key aspect of this debate revolves around the question of authenticity. This, for me, is the most insidious element in calling someone or something pretentious. For in so doing, a particularly wrong-headed and possibly destructive dichotomy is articulated: namely, that performance or pretension is bad, while authenticity is good. By this understanding, the fact of authenticity’s constitution as similarly constructed is glossed over. However the “salt of the earth” pose, as Fox describes it, is also a pretension.

Thinking about contemporary politics, it’s clear that this dichotomy is often mined to the hilt. Politicians strive to appear authentic, ‘one of the people,’ and this is often carried out through anti-intellectualism, coupled with a kind of easily digestible, soundbite politics. Increasingly, this idea of authenticity feeds into popularism – whether this is of the left, or the right. The problem here is that such authenticity is shallow and presupposes a barely weaned and passive public. Furthermore, this so-called authentic politics is often too good to be true: we can sense this, for example, in the unfathomable rise of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate, in the US. Also, after attending a rural Sinn Fein hustings in the run up to the March general election, I can attest to their appeal as one similarly founded on authenticity and – primarily – and idealised notion of “Eire,” complete with Irish dancing and embarrassingly ham-fisted elegies to 1916. However such anti-intellectualism, as Fox put it, is just another breed of snobbishness. Its simplicity is determined by similarly reductive, and far more worrisome, processes of exclusion. In place of easy solutions, then, complex political issues demand correspondingly complex, and even pretentious, thinking.

As Fox says, being pretentious is rarely harmful. However the aforementioned anti-intellectualism that causes us to view it in negative terms is often harmful. Such a mode of understanding defines problems as heroic fairy-tales, endorsing a black and white view of the world and inhibiting any kind of constructive complication. To not risk pretension, then, is in fact to deny us the possibility of living differently, or better. A prioritisation of authenticity over pretension, as Fox put it, means that we are ineluctably bound to the circumstances and class in which we are born; in such a way, society reproduces itself without any upset.

In light of waning governmental support for the arts, this is a particularly worrying prospect. Writing about pop music in the New Statesman recently, Stuart Maconie argued that the art is becoming the domain of the wealthy, “a rich fellow’s diversion, a pleasant recreation for those who can afford it, rather than the cultural imperative it should be”.[i] In such a way, art can be seen to reproduce the yawning inequality that defines the contemporary moment, while simultaneously limiting the broad range perspectives that art should provide. Within such a context, it seems of course jarring, even counterproductive, to endorse pretentiousness as a viable point of resistance. And yet to be pretentious means to reach outside of yourself, to yearn and to become someone – or some class – that you’re not. Pretension and art are a matter of social mobility, and of breaking into closed worlds.

Perhaps Fox’s take-home message was this: if everyone were afraid of pretentiousness, probably no one would be an artist. There would be little vitality or outlandishness, and no surprises. No one would make contemporary art, no one would read theory – or maybe even literature – and certainly no one would listen to obscure drone music. Most likely we would all drink instant coffee and scoff at the idea of salads. In short, the world would be a much shittier place. At the start of his talk, Fox rattled off a long list of activities that might be termed pretentious, which included beekeeping, running and birdwatching. Anything, in short, might feasibly be called pretentious; slipping into this categorisation, somehow, by dint of the zeal or pleasure that sustains them. This doesn’t seem like a helpful way of seeing the world. What is needed, Fox argues, is a greater precision of language. Calling something pretentious doesn’t really mean anything, but instead smacks of a lazy and demeaning view of art, almost bringing it to heel. Of course it is justifiable to not like something, but – at least for this pretentious writer – damning it in such reductive terms just isn’t enough.

 

[i]   Stuart Maconie, ‘The privileged are taking over the arts – without the grit, pop culture is doomed’, The New Statesman, 4 February 2015

 

EVA 2016: Still (The) Barbarians

First off, I’m always delighted to travel to Limerick, but doubly so when EVA is on. This notwithstanding, it is a bloody long journey from my home, Wexford, so I had high hopes that I’d be able to make a good job of seeing it all while I was there. This proved to be illusory. EVA 2016 is even more film-heavy than previous iterations. Combined with the frigid cold of the Milk Factory venue – so as to keep the milk cold, apparently – my chances of seeing everything were not looking good. So another trip will have to take place, which I don’t at all mind, but surely there’s a better way of presenting film works so as to allow them to be seen in their entirety? Most if not all of the works here invite prolonged engagement, but I estimated that it would take about three days to do so. And a blanket: which, to be fair, I should have remembered from only just withstanding the cold watching Elizabeth Price’s stand-out 2014 contribution.

I say all of the above so as to say that this is only a partial response. In truth all biennale responses are, but I had to leave the milk factory after three hours as my hands were turning blue. I did not make it to two of the smaller venues, either, the Hunt Museum or John’s castle. So this is a 60% impression, at best. But what I did see was some very good work.

(Not at all)Fresh off the bus, I went to the nearby Limerick Gallery of Art, which is one of the two exhibition hubs. I’m always struck by the strangeness of this gallery, which doesn’t seem to lead the viewer anywhere. This was perhaps exacerbated by curator Koyo Kouoh’s decision to leave the artworks unmarked, save for an exhibition map on flimsy newsprint that inevitably disintegrated as the day went on. It is a controversial decision, but I don’t think the work suffered as a result. That being said, though, I can’t determine if they gained anything from it either. As is well-known, Kouoh’s EVA, titled Still (the) Barbarians, is broadly informed by post-colonial discourse, a discourse that fits well with the recent boon of 1916 commemoration. It’s a theme that she seems to have backtracked on somewhat, though, admitting that for whatever reason Ireland doesn’t really see itself in these terms. The danger is that the exhibition would have slipped into mawkishness or a certain curatorial pushing of the overlaying theme. Thankfully, from what I saw, this is an exhibition that does not do this: subtlety has its place here, alongside more overtly political statements.

EVA16_Tiffany Chung_An archeology project for future remembrance_Photo Miriam O’Connor_Courtesy the artist, Galerie Quynh and EVA International_07
Tiffany Chung, An Archaeology Project for Future Remembrance (2011- present). Four-channel video installation (42min 12sec). Installation view at EVA International. Photo: Miriam O’ Connor. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Quynh and EVA International

 

In the first venue, I was instantly drawn to Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung’s installation an archaeology project for future remembrance (2013). Spread across the entire room, it comprised a pair of beautiful architectural drawings, which then led onto a series of texts, and a four-channel video installation. In the centre of the space there is a large slab of what looked like marble, freshly excavated and showing its considerable age. The work stems from Chung’s research of an area in Ho Chi Minh City called Thu Thiem, currently undergoing massive development. Previously one of the city’s most densely populated areas, it is now razed, bringing into relief questions of how a place comes to define itself in the future, and how the past is configured in this relationship. Invariably, Western interests encroach upon the site: one of the two drawings is a painterly depiction of an American Aid plan for the area, from 1972; the other is another Western plan from even further back, from 1795. Sovereignty, it seems, is a precarious notion within modernisation, but the work resists such narrow interpretation: instead, it is a thoughtful meditation on the limitations of memory, and what is held onto for future use.

EVA16_Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor_Le monde et la dette_Photo Miriam O’Connor_Courtesy the artist and EVA International_01
Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, Le Monde et la dette (2016). Textile, 300x500cm. Installation view at EVA International. Photo: Miriam O’ Connor. Courtesy the artists, D+T Project and EVA International.

 

 

EVA16_Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor_Le monde et les choses_Photo Miriam O’Connor_Courtesy the artist and EVA International_01
Le monde et les choses (2014). Textile, 300x150cm. Installation view at EVA International. Photo: Miriam O’ Connor. Courtesy the artists, D+T Project and EVA International. 

 

 

Elsewhere on the ground floor of the Limerick Gallery, I was impressed by the work of Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, who showed two large textile pieces, Les Mondes et les choses (2014) and Le Monde et la dette (2016). Two maps of the world done in appliqué, here the world is differentiated on the level of things i.e. what the countries produce, and on their respective levels of debt. In the two works, the world is configured on the level of productivity, and the nation state per se is reduced to monetary value, what it can do and what it can produce. The world here is a financial system, its borders only permeable to the free-circulation of capital. Bodies, however, are limited such free movement.

EVA16_Charles Lim Yi Yong_Stealing the Trapeze_Photo Miriam O'Connor_Courtesy the artist, Future Perfect and EVA International_01
Charles Lim Yi Yong, Stealing the trapeze (2016). HD Video. Installation view at EVA International. Photo: Miriam O’ Connor. Courtesy the artist, Future Perfect and EVA International.

 

Charles Lim Yi Yong’s video Stealing the trapeze works this angle in a similar manner. A former Olympic sailor, here the video is split into two channels. On the left, there is a group of men sailing a rudimentary catamaran, leaning back in unison to direct it against the wind and all the while dumping fresh loads of seawater out of the boat’s belly. To the right, the picture could not be more different, with an elegant white catamaran sailing languidly through the South Asian sea, peopled by only two sailors. A catamaran-type vessel has its roots, however, not in Europe but in South Asia: some variation on its form has been used since 5AD. What is interesting in the work here is the colonisation of something like the catamaran, which has been converted wholly into a Western construct, inseparable from wealth and leisure. These were probably my standouts from the Limerick Gallery, but there were a lot of other strong works, including ones by Willem de Rooiji, Philip Aguirre y Otegi and Pio Abad. I think also this was where the curatorial theme was most focused, with its remit becoming much more open in the other venues I visited.

EVA16_Michael Joo_This beautiful stripped wreckage (which we interrogate)_Photo Miriam O’Connor_courtesy the Artist, Blain|Southern and EVA International_05
Michael Joo, This beautiful striped wreckage (which we interrogate) (2016). Three-part installation, video projection, sculpture. Installation view at EVA International. Photo: Miriam O’ Connor. Courtesy the artist, Blain/Southern, and EVA International.

After this, I made off for the Sailor’s home, following a somewhat bleak route down Henry Street and then walking up and down O’ Curry Road until I spotted its small entrance. The city centre of Limerick, as I pointed out two years ago writing about EVA 2014, continues to elude development. After 2008 any such plans were shelved. I am reminded here that gentrification is almost always good: artistic spaces getting shut down only being possible if those spaces exist in the first place. Anyway, at the Sailor’s home, Canadian artist Michael Joo is the sole occupant, and he makes great use of what could be a very overwhelming space, enlivening it with subtlety with materials dredged from the port and fittings that had been removed for repair. Completed in 1865, the home was built as accommodation for some of the 1,500 sailors that passed through the port each year. Its secondary function was more a moral one, so as to protect them from the nefarious vices of the city. Joo’s This beautiful striped wreckage (which we interrogate) (2016) inhabits the ground floor of the building, alongside a video work showing a (presumably plundered) Buddha from the British museum, which can be discerned from half-way up the first floor stairs. Without the latter, the work is for me somewhat lacking: beautiful, certainly, but somewhat indistinct from the faded grandeur of the home itself. The video brings it back to objects, trade, and Limerick’s undeniable link to cultural imperialism. Reawakening the building, he also invigorates its dark past.

After leaving the Sailor’s home I moved over to the biennale’s second hub, Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory just to the north of the Shannon. There are a lot of artists here, spread out over a warren of spaces, ranging from office-cube to cavernous. As I said, I didn’t get to see all the work: it just wasn’t possible in three hours. I probably started in a weird place, with Jonathan Cummins’ three-screen installation (When I Leave These Landings, 2004-2009; Go Home, 2010-2013; Out the Road, 2012-2016). I could not hear the second film at all due to noise overlap, but I liked what I saw from the other two, which were interviews with an IRA political prisoner in Portlaoise, and his family, who had long suffered for his commitment to the cause. Belief is immaterial, but I liked the contrast that Cummins presented, between belief and its effects. I think there would have been a real value in seeing them in their entirety, but the three films ran over six hours combined. This was a similar frustration with another work I would have liked to have lingered for, Public Studio’s frenetic video installation Road Movie (2015), but will return to on my next visit.

EVA16_Ulrike Ottinger_The Conquest of the Happy Islands A Colonial Opera_Photo Miriam O'Connor_Courtesy the Artist and EVA International_06
Ulrike Ottinger, The Conquest of the Happy Islands – A Colonial Opera (1984). Film, 35min, colour. Installation view. Photo: Miriam O’ Connor. Courtesy the artist and EVA International.

One work that I did stay for, quite possibly because it was really warm and had nice seats, was Ulrike Ottinger’s The Conquest of the Happy Islands – A Colonial Opera, which was made in 1984. It is wonderfully over-the-top, putting me in the mind of Herzog’s Fizcaraldo, and presenting a dubious opera that recounts the triumphant conquest of the Canary, or “Happy”, Islands. It is not a straight depiction, however, but is instead always estranged to a degree. A frame surrounds the opera’s proceedings, which never lets it slip into verisimilitude. There’s an audience there, too, that observes rather incongruously from a rocky perch. So, we are watchers of watchers, implicated by association. It’s a rich and dense work that really gets at the insanity of colonialism, the pomposity and entitlement that enables one country to arrive and demand subservience. But its also a meditation on performativity, inasmuch as the opera as cultural artefact always produces something in the world: this can be totally coexistent with the parameters of cultural imperialism.

Other highlights here for me were: the sculptures of Dorothy Hunter (Unassigned Monuments 1 through 6, 2013); Sarah Pierce’s fascinating four-channel installation The Question Would be the Answer to the Question, Are You Happy? (2011-present); Amanda Rice’s video installation The Site Where a Future Never Took Place (2015), and Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s terrific animated videos Finding Fanon 1 and 2 (2015). I really could go on and on, and hopefully I will get a chance to extend this response after a subsequent visit.

In the evening we went to see Liam Gillick’s contribution to the biennale, And then…, which is an event that happens every Thursday for the duration of the exhibition. For it, people are asked to get up and retell a movie’s plot, any movie. When I was there, a woman was outlining the plot of nineties sci-fi Tremors, a film I’ve not yet had the pleasure of seeing. A few of the review’s I’ve read of this year’s EVA have honed in on this contribution, and a very underwhelming Carsten Holler piece, as evidence of pandering to two very well-known artists, the quality of their respective contributions notwithstanding. I can understand this argument, but at the same time I’ve been assured that the Gillick work was great in the exhibition’s first few weeks. If I’m honest, it seemed a little flat when I attended, the experience of listening to people relay film plots not unlike listening to someone recount their dreams. Offsite works like this have the possibility to be really valuable in retaining interest in the exhibition, and perhaps this would have been more achievable with an artist that was able to remain in situ. That being said, none of this stopped me having a great night.

Overall, or indeed not at all, my impressions of EVA were positive. Kouoh does an admirable job in putting forward a coherent theme that avoids didacticism. Post-colonialism, memory, meaning, and trauma are big themes, and ones that we are bound to remain aware of, even after all this 1916 hoopla has died down. For the year that’s in it I guess, but also for research for something, I am currently reading Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2015), which gives an account of the revolutionary generation that birthed 1916, and finally, independence. Interestingly, one of the reasons he accounts for 1916’s symbolic bloodshed was not just Ireland’s colonial status. Instead, 1916 happened because of a harshly-felt difference between that generation, and the one that preceded them; between their perception of the world, and how their parents viewed and lived it. They wanted to live differently to their parents, in effect, with colonialism playing of course an important role in that. One argument could say that this generation could be seen analogously, but whether or not any change happens is still up for grabs. Indeed as recent Irish political developments have made painfully apparent, the role of art within the state is nowhere near assured. So my recommendation is simple: visit EVA. Translate petitioning to activity, and go see it. After this centenary year, and following years of cuts, it remains to be seen how much need (i.e. funding) there will be for art. Visiting EVA helps to allay any such doubt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Useless

At The Value of Criticism seminar in Cork (see below), I railed against use-value, hinging my somewhat sketchy argument on the inherent ambiguity of art criticism. Inasmuch as its value is relative to art, I tried to say, its value is fluid, and, in response to this situation, I said, it’s less a case of solving the crisis in art criticism, than embracing it. To wit: crisis stalks art criticism like a shadow; get on with it.

(And here comes the but)

But nonetheless, crisis per se has become naturalised. The banking crash of 2008 was a crisis, to be sure, but one of finance, of what David Harvey terms ‘paper entrepreneurialism’. Criticism of this fact did not lead to any realignment in the financial industries, but rather shifted the weight disproportionately to those most far removed from any breed of causal link. This leads me to think did a separation needs to happen, between what is meant by a crisis in art criticism – which might be seen as in integral part to it – and the crises that precipitate a particular winnowing with regard to the efficacy of criticism more generally. Within a wider socio-political context, the potency of criticism has been eliminated. Things happen, and these things seem to happen with or without our consent. A sense of powerlessness prevails on a general level – what Mark Fisher (2009) has described as capitalist realism – that ensures battles remain local and small-scale: ‘folk’ politics (Srnicek & Williams, 2015). Change is pitched at a local, rather than international level, and this effectuates an inability to solve issues much more pressing than potholes. This does not mean that such politics is useless, but rather that such gains appear like scraps from the table, valuable but somewhat tokenistic.

What does this have to do with art criticism? The problem for me is that art is intimately aligned with the status quo. This has always been the case. But if I subscribe to this view, then it follows that we dispense with the notion that art is any kind of closed-loop, or sacrosanct space differentiated by a kind of ineffable good-ness. As Andrea Fraser (2012) has written, indeed art – and in particular, art discourse – can be seen as functioning as a distinctly homogenising agent: its homogeneity being one of capital. Following on from this, we can see that one role of art discourse, in particular, is to undo the making-homogenous of art, which transforms all value into capital. A crisis in art criticism, then, is made visible inasmuch as it reiterates the homogenising quality that art variously resists and performs.

This is a bit ranty, I know. But it’s also underlined by a definite anxiety regarding the efficacy of critical art, and criticism, more generally. Because if art-as-finance looks awful, its polar opposite – art-as-protest – seems equally impotent. Somewhere in the middle is the art that I love, that I write about and spend time with, but works because it doesn’t seem to do anything, that seems to have taken the fifth. It works because it doesn’t, or gives the sense of non-participation. But forceful estrangement seems a weird way to gauge value, now.

Perhaps it’s because as I grow older I feel the world more. This sounds oxymoronic, but hear me out. When I was younger, art was a kind of distinct space, a free-space. Let’s call this ignorance. Of course I knew art participated within wider systems, even unequal ones, but nonetheless it seemed a better system than most. I felt protected in a sense of art’s radical apartness, that the way we measured value, there, was different from elsewhere. A part of me still thinks all of these things. And yet as I grow older, it seems wrong-headed to make any distinction between the world of art and The World. And The World is a pretty shit place. Perhaps the ‘inherent’ criticality of art won’t cut it anymore.

Going back to Cork, I was struck by a comment made by Gemma Tipton with regard to her art criticism: namely, that alluding to art in her property journalism could make more people interested in art. It’s an interesting thought. And yet, though I completely understand the rationale behind Tipton’s property journalism – art criticism is terribly waged, if at all – I think her view is an overly optimistic one. People read the property pages if they want to buy a house, or, as is more common, to salivate voyeuristically over salubrious D4 piles, all in the knowledge that some shithole in Crumlin is in fact forever beyond reach. In this way, I think such a strategy only further imbricates art within a system that is both vastly out of reach and destructive, rendering it almost guilty by association. Furthermore, there is a natural obligation to vastly simplify artistic references, as evinced in the following pithy remark, which featured in a recent interior-design article:

It’s not the first time an artist has claimed a colour: in 1960, Yves Klein registered the formula for his deeply pigmented ultramarine as International Klein Blue (IKB). Like most artists, all he wanted was the glory.

Do ‘most’ artists want the glory? Or is this just the particular narrative that Tipton feels her readers can participate in? Rather than prompting her readers to actually like and engage with art, such a comment seems to actively ensure that they don’t, reinforcing generalisations about art and artists. Certainly, I think most artists I know would like their life’s work presented in rather more flattering terms. I think Tipton’s strategy is well meaning, of course. Trying to get people to like art is worthwhile. But the reality is that she writes about property so as to live. It’s not something she’s particularly passionate about – she’s passionate about art – and that’s ok. She doesn’t need to justify it by bringing art into it, in so doing running the very real risk of pandering to a particular editorially-conceived idea of art.

But the above strategy is at the same time demonstrative of a wider wish for art to do something, anything, and to extend itself outside of complacency. Art criticism, as I said at the start, is somewhat useless: its importance is relative to art. This relativity, I think, produces a deep complicity and, if not resolved, a crippling anxiety: namely, that I participate without really wanting to; that I participate, unwittingly, even as I criticise.

(File under ‘millennial woes’)

The Value of Criticism

Below is my contribution to ‘The Value of Criticism,’ an event that took place at the Glucksman in Cork and featured some really insightful contributions from a lot of people working in or around art criticism in Ireland. The topic of our (Brian Fay, Declan Long & I) panel was ‘Who is Criticism For?’ and as you can see, I responded to this pretty tangentially. Hopefully I can write something about the day as a whole soon.

The subject of today’s conference, ‘the value of criticism’ is, to my mind, a more positive rephrasing of the so-called ‘crisis’ of criticism, which gained currency – particularly in the wake of the roundtable published in October in 2002. In 2008 at UCC a similar event to this one took place – even featuring some of the same participants – and culminating in a book (edited by James Elkins and Michael Newman) called The State of Art Criticism. Last year, I contributed to another panel discussion, ‘What do you expect from art criticism?’ (organised by Paper Visual Art Journal) alongside some more of the participants here today. I also vaguely remember a similar event taking place at the Lab – with more familiar faces – in 2011.

In short, there seems to be a constant, maybe even paranoid, need to rehearse the value and stakes of art criticism. Increasingly, though, such a need is moving towards outlining the practical expectations of it, rather than revolving around the theme of crisis. I’m thinking in particular of something like Gilda Williams’ 2014 book How to Write about Contemporary Art. However, if we’re still trying to articulate its specific value, it could be argued that the theme of crisis has not been fully dealt with. Perhaps it is a healthy self-criticality, but on the other hand, has there ever been a conference on the value of painting, for example?

I’m going to park this for today, as it’s the topic of my PhD research and I don’t want to go there. Today, the question is: who is art criticism for? The temptation here is to talk about audience, which I don’t want to think about – it is already well tread. For me, the imperative to think about your audience is a tiresome one: it’s probably much more beneficial to think about the art (or your editor). The audience generally follows from these considerations.

This ‘who’ is of course related to the ‘why’ of art criticism, and seems to frame the debate so as to name a particular group of people that art criticism is for. At the same time, it seems to work to divide art criticism’s reach down the middle – into those it is for, and those it is not. The question, then, is centred on the use-of criticism, assuming that art criticism only becomes useful in its orientation towards an audience, which is a typical enough assumption, I guess. Received wisdom says that something becomes valuable only through its reception. As something without an audience, then, art criticism is somewhat pointless. My question, though, is: is art criticism actually useless by virtue of it being for no one, if it never gets read?

The short answer is no. Thinking and writing about art are always valuable. This does not mean that the art criticism in question is good, per se, but simply that it is valuable to think and write about art. Hinging its importance to an audience means to deny that fact. It also means to suggest value where often there is none.

Most of what we do these days is treated as useful only by virtue of its use-value. Numbers matter: targets: “reaching” people. We can sense this in the art criticism of Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, for example, who surely composes his reviews to be as inflammatory as possible. When Jones writes texts with names like ‘Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries’ or (a personal favourite) ‘The artist who lays eggs with her vagina – or why performance art is silly’ (2014) – he – and the Guardian – seem to pre-empt its audience negatively – gleefully anticipating its incredulity. It is art criticism as click-bait. Jones could have readers than his colleague Adrian Searle – he is there to perform the role of provocateur – but does this make Jones the better critic? Probably not.

Let’s take another extreme example: the American book reviewer Harriet Klausner (pictured below), who wrote a staggering 31,014 unpaid reviews for Amazon before her death in 2015. Back in 2006 a journalist from Time magazine described Klausner as:

…part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don’t care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see. They’re increasingly likely to pay attention to amateur online reviewers, bloggers and Amazon critics like Klausner. Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can’t match. They’re not fancy. They don’t have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do [i].

Now, by rights, Klausner should have been the most influential book critic in the world, shaping popular taste to hitherto unknown heights. But she wasn’t. Instead, and in contrast with the view of the above journalist, people still look to the professionals, people who work to define ideas about art – and indeed are paid to do so.

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And so, whilst it is important that as many people as possible read art criticism – I for one think its is a valuable thing to do – its value should not be dependent on people reading it. Of course, the same applies to art: gauging something’s value by merit of attendance figures and press coverage is painfully reductive. It is a much more diffuse affair.

The critic and curator Morgan Quaintance, writing recently for e-flux, described a creeping conservatism that he perceived in architectural collective Assemble’s Turner Prize win, in late 2015[ii]. Their win, he says, represents a keen desire for art to do something; to produce some kind of tangible, public good. In so doing, it negates the fundamental radicality of art as something that is basically useless. Such a view can be seen slipping into the discourse of art criticism, too, as it grows increasingly professionalised. It needs to do something. More and more art critics become curators. But the inherent radicality of art criticism is its basic uselessness – the fact that no one, not really, reads it. It is a relatively free space.

Dave Beech, writing in a recent issue of Art Monthly[iii], describes art criticism in very familiar terms to mine. He says that the art that he is interested in, typically conceptual, tends to require further reading before he can write about it. Essentially, that reading helps him to understand the art better; that there is in fact little to be gained from looking at this kind of art for an extended period of time. For this kind of art, its sense is to be felt through reading, and then writing, about it. This view repurposes art criticism as an almost selfish activity, working to subjectively unearth this or that work of art. As an activity, it becomes almost completely self-sufficient, taking cues from the artwork in extending it. And indeed, this is something that I’ve found more and more recently. More and more, it is when I get home that I begin to understand the work better. I can’t perform in the gallery. Thinking that question again – who is art criticism for – it seems mostly to be me. I accepted that not many people read my writing a few years back.

In fact I want to conclude with the hypothesis that art criticism might be for no one and, at the same time, everyone. This is of course a difficult position to uphold – that something can be useful by virtue of it being useless. And yet everyone in this room wants to be here, and wants to talk about art criticism – as something that still performs in the world. Art criticism doesn’t have to have a quantifiable use to matter. It doesn’t have to bend to a managerial logic of numbers – of “outreach” – but can in fact seek out new ways of defining value. Or not!

 

[i] L. Grossman, 2006, ‘Harriet Klausner’. Time, December 16th 2006, available at http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570726,00.html

[ii] ‘Teleology and the Turner Prize or: Utility, the New Conservatism’. E-flux conversations, 2nd December 2015, available at http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/teleology-and-the-turner-prize-or-utility-the-new-conservatism/2936

[iii] ‘On Critique’. Art Monthly no. 393 (February 2016)

BLOCKT

Block T is of course only the latest victim in the Dublin art scene. Last year, Broadstone Studios were unceremoniously evicted from their Harcourt Terrace location, leaving a good number of Ireland’s best known artists without studios. Which is crazy in itself. The building is apparently still empty (of course). The Joinery closed in 2014. Market Studios also.

Of course, the recession created a situation where it was a bit cheaper – but, let’s be honest, not that cheap – to get things open, and to innovate. However, it was nonetheless people that did this, mostly self-funded, with little or no help from a (neutered) arts council or Dublin city council. Artists pay for their studios. OK, a ‘vacant-space’ scheme was initiated, but this is vastly oversubscribed, and leaves artistic groups completely conditional on an economic upturn. If and when that happens – and artistic groups help to make that happen – these groups are sent on their way. (Thanks for doing our job for us, lads.) 

Also, is it the role of art to fit into the gaps made vacant by commerce? I know it’s practical, and that art organisations are of course enthusiastic about it  – it’s something, after all – but shouldn’t art have more than a conditional space? And shouldn’t there be provisions made for this?

Of course, the other side is that art is a gentrifier. Let’s look at Smithfield/Stoneybatter, where Block T is, and where the Joinery was. When I first moved to Dublin in 2004, it was – to put it mildly – somewhat run-down. But it had character and cheap rents, and most of NCAD lived there. All the parties were in dingy terraces off Manor Street. It was a place where people were able to live and to make art, even – somehow – in the heights of the boom. Artists and artist-run spaces make places, like Smithfield, more desirable to live in. They create value. But regardless, once that role has been performed there must be some kind of system of state support there that allows them to stay put. Having created value, mostly on their own backs, it seems wrong-headed to push them out and make them suffer on the back of their success.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’m wondering at this stage what Dublin has going for it. I moved out of there two years ago, but it appears to me as though it’s becoming increasingly like London – but without the culture – or the wages! – that makes its ridiculous prices more tolerable. More to the point, no governmental body seems to care about this.

This is a worrying state of affairs. If the art we want to see is only that which is found in (a) public galleries, or (b) commercial galleries, then the messy middle and provisional bits of art get lost along the way. The preparatory performances, conversations, the accidental. The things that often count as much as the finished product. Also, and on a much more obvious level, where the hell are artists going to make art? Their bedrooms?

Anyway, I really hope Block T can find a new home. Here’s a great article by Nathan Hugh O’ Donnell on these issues, which says a lot more than I have, and in a much clearer and more rational way: http://www.wearedublin.ie/dublins-disappearing-art-spaces/.