October 29, 2006

COMMENT | Arts policy (in progress)

by Linda Carroli

I'm in a bit of writing, perhaps catching up, mode having been otherwise occupied for a few months. During this time, I have had the strange experience of being engaged in various aspects of policy/strategy development. Subsequently, I am trying to think around an idea of policy as a type of writing about art or culture, as part of the written framing of cultural practices.

Because I enjoy the nth degree of things - the frames within frames within frames - it seems somehow vaguely displacing to be reading a policy (or strategy or whatever governmentalism) that stresses the need for critical writing initiatives. I do, of course, applaud any initiative that will result in a more open, multipled and flexible critical environment, rather than the privileging of some voices or styles or tropes over others but something ... else. My previous post touched ever so slightly on this via Lee Weng Choy's recent essay in Eyeline.

Much to my chagrin, I hear, quite regularly, about the 'crisis in criticism'. This intrigues me as I have not quite been able to get my head around this, wondering what fronts this crisis is unravelling and whether those events are perhaps more of an indication of crisis of things other than criticism. There are many strangely disparate examples that somehow indicate that this environment is almost unreadable: unnavigable. Recently I heard of regional artists' despondency about not having their work reviewed ie perhaps that criticism is not evenly distributed geographically. Then I heard that an artist applying for a grant application would probably have received her grant had her work been critically reviewed ie artists need criticism to be taken seriously or be legimated. There were also the comments in my post about the editorial in a local art zine Machine - comments that I believe have been refuted elsewhere either for their purported roughshod inadequacy, or for my own purported roughshod inadequacy as a critic/media maker. Then there is the situation where, in a funding round decided by a panel of artists as peer assessors, that someone who is not a professional writer or critic received a grant to undertake an art writing project.

Then there's the various scoping studies and strategy documents that have statements in them pointing to a need for 'more critical writing' while simulataneously rendering the writers invisible, as critical writing just happens. Fund publications rather than writers; fund publishing houses rather than writers; fund critical writing initiatives rather than writers; fund school students rather than writers; publish more writing rather than develop the practice of writers; etc. Do we hear the same kind of things about artists or fiction writers? No. In most policy the development of artistic practice is predicated on the development or funding of artists. Somehow, this is absent when addressing critical writing. Does it have something to do with a strange binary of critical/creative or imaginary/real?

As isolated events I am not sure they really tell us anything and that's why I think some kind of mapping exercise might be useful rather than an ad hoc approach to funding this or that publication or publishing those monographs. Are these indicators of a crisis? Or are they indicators of something ... else. I love that word - else. The imposing threat of an 'or else' ... Of an unknown otherness that supposedly shifts the power relations or regimes. An other writing. An other criticism. An other way. Other than what is ...

So to return to the cause of my bafflement, and this is really just a personal musing, I wonder why I so often read in various documents that government will be pursuing various kinds of critical writing initiatives which have absolutely nothing to do with writers. I never get very far in my thinking about this and always catch myself in a tail-chasing exercise. However, it remains unclear as to why - to what end, who will do it, who it's for and what it's meant to do and how, most importantly, writers can and will benefit from these ventures.

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QUOTABLE | Lee Weng Choy in Eyeline

In the latest issue of Eyeline (#61, Spring 2006, p 35) Lee Weng Choy considers the role of criticism paying specific attention to Artspace's Critical Reader for Zones of Contact (the recent Sydney Biennale). He commences his essay by caricaturing his arguement, stating that there two kinds of discourses in relation to biennales: one being focused on 'explaining' the artworks and curatorial concepts and the other being primarily focused on criticising the biennale and which is ultimately dismissive and, indeed, symptomatic of a hopeless situation.

Choy writes: "It may counds that I do not like art critics or, worse, that I am self-loathing (being one myself). Far from it. I have begun my argument, not by summarising but caricaturing it. Why? Perhaps because sometimes you cannot point exactly to the thing itself; rather, the most insightful thing to say is that this not not such-and-such, so as to create a hole in one's perception."

This beginning, in all its self-awareness, reminds me of Edward Said's writings about beginnings in which he argues that there is a rather a substantial gap in the notions of beginning and origin. There is something quite deeply refreshing about this - Choy, in my experience of his writing, does not berate. His is a writing and a criticism that is in process - of thought, of experience, of dialogue, of ... And here I have veered slightly toward Flusser ...

"I have often said that what I want from art criticism is to speak to art, but a good part of speaking is lisentening first: listen more, listen longer; then speak ... It is [a] spirit of companionship that I want from criticism." Companionship requires, as Choy gently reminds us, good conversation and generosity rather than either conflict for the sake of it or an affirmation of one's rightness. "Good conversations are processes of understanding and appreciating differences that aspire for complexity."

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October 23, 2006

AUDIO | ABC Radio: museum texts

Linguist Louise Ravelli on museum texts

In the wake of the controversy that greeted its opening in 2001, the National Museum of Australia was subjected to a review by a panel of historians. Their report, published in 2003, began by acknowledging the 'different conceptions of the role of a national museum within its society. Not only have perceptions changed over the last century, but a consensus has given way to competing and sometimes incompatible views.' In the end, it all comes down to what we the public make of these competing views, which narrative we trust, in all types of museum, all over the world.

Louise Ravelli is senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of New South Wales and the author of Museum Texts. She shows how museum texts construct different versions of the 'truth' or 'reality'.

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