November 03, 2005

REPORT | Art Criticism, ARC Biennial

by Linda Carroli

It was a pleasure this weekend to attend Brisbane's inaugural ARC Biennial organised by Queensland Artworkers. Nested among the three days of forums was a discussion about art criticism, sponsored by The Courier-Mail. Chaired by Michelle Helmrich and featuring words by Rex Butler, Ted Colless, Rosemary Sorensen and Tim Morrell, the panel spoke about the breadth of their critical approaches across scholarship, specialist media and the daily press. As each panellist attested, there are many different kinds of art writing. Art writing often seems to evoke unanswerable questions such as those posed by Helmrich when she asked, "What is art writing? What kind of art writing and media do we need? Are we being well served?".

As a theorist, Ted Colless, settling his comments on the promotion of Playstation in the 1990s and orders of cultural production, spoke of our present state as a culture of post-production, one in which we trade in flows of information about the future with much emphasis on empty lifestyle aesthetics. There is trade in not just speculation but speculation about speculation, while fabricating businesses on nothing all. For Colless, the challenge for critics is to go beyond into some kind of 'hyper-' existence - beyond their relationship to the earth, beyond the economics of desire, beyond meaning and value.

The relationship between artists and critics as well as art and criticism was Tim Morrell's focus. "Art criticism is not designed for the benefit of artists but for selling publications," he said. However, in talking around ideas of criticism, Morrell said that other kinds of art writing, such as catalogue essays, are quite a different proposition to criticism. The difference lies, primarily, in whose interests are being served. Catalogue essays are ordinarily commissioned by artists or galleries, often as part of didactic information, even marketing, of the artwork/artists. Interests in this form of writing are heavily vested. By contrast, criticism has a requirement of detachment and an obligation to readers. "Criticism can't collude with artists," said Morrell. "Yet, art criticism makes a difference to artists' lives ... Artists are an easy target." The nature, perhaps responsibility, of criticism is to constantly question and inquire, to be useful. However, there's also hope for art writing to aspire to be like art.

As the only journalist and editor on the panel, Rosemary Sorensen talked about the newspaper as the context for art writing and reporting. She also seemed to say that the future of the arts section of the paper is a tenuous arrangement. Partly, that's attributable to the business model of newspapers, based largely on advertising revenue, but also because there was not a great deal of tolerance within the newspaper environment for diverse styles of thinking and writing. Sorensen, of course, has been criticised for her derogatory commentaries about critical writing, such comments, she acknowledged, were "cheap".

Of all the writers on this panel, Sorensen was perhaps located most remotely from or external to the visual arts - the others are all embedded in the culture of the artworld as curators, critics, historians, academia and the like. A freelance arts journalist may have another perspective. She is embedded in a newspaper and its culture, not the artworld. So her comments seemed to resonate in rather a fractious way because, really, what Sorensen was talking about was not the way in which art is written about through its relationship to itself and its related disciplines or sites but of art writing's relationship to readers, a newspaper and the world writ large.

Sorensen also said that there needs to be a revitalisation of thinking and some attention paid to the kind of writing these new modes and intents might produce. Newspapers are, indeed, frustrating entities but also caught in the technological fray of rapid reinvention. For Sorensen, it could be a perfect time to adopt new styles of writing to somehow support and encourage those changes. The example she cites, after the book Barons to Bloggers, is in blogging of which there is a multitude of styles and contexts. This book, arising from the Alfred Deakin Lectures in Melbourne, addresses the issue of media power in an era of distributed and accessible media, particularly online.

In talking about a gap between academic writing and journalism, she also pointed to fallout from the uptake of French theory that resulted in intellectuals being absent from the pages of our newspapers. Sorensen isn't the first person to make such statements - apparently, the fallout from French theory (postmodernism, deconstruction, etc) has spread itself thin across the cultural terrain - but, if nothing else, it's really quite heartening to know that the Arts Editor of our metro daily is thinking about these intensities and issues. Another way of thinking about this theory is that, while perplexing and difficult, it is also intended to provide tools for critically thinking about and destablishing our political, media and cultural lives. Quite poetically, Sorensen also said that critical writing can, perhaps should, talk about everything. And the quandary journalists, like Sorensen, find themselves in is how to defend this difficult writing and how to shift media analysis, particularly in an environment where she, quite probably like many others, fight to keep those newspaper spaces open.

Finally, Rex Butler reveals one of the trade secrets of art writers when he says, "critics talk about themselves under the pretext of talking about others". For Butler art writing needs to create something that did not exist prior whether a new mystery, a problem or a secret. Because art writing arises from a dialogue with artwork/s, he says, the writing must be compelling and create a mystery equal to the work.

While many forums at ARC raised the pressing question of value of the arts, one of the issues that arises here is about the appropriate spaces and media in which to draw expertise in the arts into dialogue with audiences. The media seem to have love-hate relationships with experts, on the one hand demonising or ridiculing them and then on the other exhorting them. Expertise in the arts is often not taken seriously except in the burgeoning independent arts media. It sometimes seems that expert or informed arts opinion is too fluid and uncertain - perhaps irrational - to warrant serious attention. Art, it is repeatedly said, is a matter of personal taste and preference. However, while experts might provide much needed advocacy and commentary, in Australia our arts reporting and coverage is on the decline. Our arts, now, are under all manner of threat and disruption. We not only need our cultural experts - whether academic or critics or journalists - but we also need them to be heard and taken seriously.