Critical bonds

I’ll admit, there is a lot I hate about the Irish artworld. I hate the fact that most of the people in it are broke, and are not at all rewarded for the work that they do; I hate the sheer quantity of art, and the knowledge that I can never see it all. I hate that Irish artists are not afforded basic studios, while their talent is mined to the hilt, paraded before the world. I hate JobBridge and I hate the artworld’s reliance on unpaid internships, and the inequality this perpetuates. There is also a distinct circle of hell reserved for those that always remember to forget my name at social occasions – after meeting them at least three times previously – but that’s altogether a different story.

In short, the most hateful things about the Irish art scene are not Instagram or dinner parties or even the occasional fakery that invariably happens in a small scene such as Dublin, or Cork, or Ireland as a whole: the most hateful things are economic issues, which threaten the viability of the artworld, and even the creation of art itself. The artworld (or, people) that subsists in Ireland comprises those that have weighed up the pros and innumerable cons of living here, and decided to stay, to make it work somehow.

I was sad to hear that James Merrigan has decided to conclude +Billion Journal, because I think debate is good. Different voices are needed, and though I disagree with him on most things, I think we’d both agree on that.

And so to that end, I want to very briefly address some of his last posts, the main one being ‘Matinee: An Image of Art Criticism,’ which he published at the beginning of this year. In it, Merrigan takes issue with what he calls the, ‘lick-arse economy of our art scene, an economy we invest so much time validating on social media while despising in secret’. Following on from this, he claims: ‘Those of you who disagree with this sentiment are safely tucked away in your context – sweet dreams!’. How anyone can dispense with their context, remains to be seen.

Now, I completely understand and appreciate Merrigan’s stance as provocateur: for criticism to be critical, he surmises, the critic must adopt a heroic warrior pose, unbeholden to the quotidian bonds of normal life. Ascetic, this critic renounces dinner parties, exhibition openings, and social media. Radical estrangement is his – and I fear it is always ‘his’ true home.

For Merrigan, ‘our critical voices are tempered and hampered by the contexts that shape and sustain us, and the invitations we accept in our eagerness to be part of something bigger than ourselves’. But that last bit: in our eagerness to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Isn’t that really the key? How can the critical voice be anathema to this? And how can positioning oneself outside of this impulse, be the way to go? Because where Merrigan sees ‘little art-writing cliques’ (‘7 Year Itch,’ February 2017), I see groups of likeminded people: people who, actually liking each other, inevitably work together. I see people testing each other and themselves, trying out new things, learning, often failing. Eschewing idealisation, I see communities; because really, that’s all there is. Even Greenberg had mates.

And so I agree – art criticism has changed. It is less outwardly critical, opening up to become more literary, more descriptive, more subjective, more playful, less dogmatic, and so forth. There are good and bad aspects to this, but one thing is certain: art criticism has changed. Now, even fiction is less fictional; and non-fiction, more proximate to real life. In short, everything is less distinct than was previously circumscribed. The boundaries separating the one from the other have become altogether blurry. The art criticism Merrigan yearns for has likely never taken place; it is a false remembrance of more simple times. It’s easy, it’s seductive, but it’s a mirage.

In the search for a more stable way of life, it is always tempting to leave this maddening bubble of art. As we navigate its ups and downs, it’s natural that we would form bonds both productive and intimate, sometimes even both. So I think criticism is, in this scenario, best left up to the person who writes it. Good criticism is not swayed by intimacy, but neither is it is immune to a desire for it.

In any case, I genuinely wish Merrigan the best of luck in his future endeavours. Disagreement is vital, and Billion forged a vibrant space for writing on Irish art, when such spaces are still far too rare.

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