By Naomi Riddle
27 April, 2018
Whenever I give my editorial spiel about Running Dog to those involved in the arts community, the subsequent conversation tends to centre on the question of the ‘negative review’. Although these conversations are specific, each with their own terms of reference, the direction they take can be divided into two categories: those advocating that there is an absence of truly critical contemporary arts writing, and those admitting to an underlying anxiety, a hesitancy about the necessity and consequences of publishing critical commentary. I should add that these two strands of thinking often come up in the same discussion, the first inevitably leading to the second.
The reasons behind these anxieties are multiple and they are not without merit, nor easy to overcome. Firstly there is the reality that—given the size of the arts community in Sydney (where Running Dog is based)—if you spend enough time in galleries or at art openings, you will invariably come to recognise and know many of the artists being exhibited. And whether you would like to or not, you will get to know personal histories, you will hear gossip, you will discern networks and hierarchies and the ways they overlap. But even if you choose not to engage with any of this and maintain your distance, there is the issue of the conflation of the artist and their work. (This is even more heightened through social media, and the way in which artist’s biographies, as arguably they should, increasingly form part of the work itself.)
Taken together, even the slightest form of criticism can very easily be seen as a personal attack, despite the counter argument that framing a work in relation to an artist’s identity should not automatically absolve that work of critique.
This means that a writer (and editor) does not only have to decide whether their concerns are valid in the first place, but also weigh these up against the very real possibility of damaging current or future relationships. It should be noted that this is even more of a legitimate concern for those who are not just writers but also artists and curators embedded within the community, of which there are many.
Then there is also the necessary recognition of the history and canon of critical arts writing, which has mostly been conducted by a select few individuals (mostly privileged, white, and male). Such critique has historically worked to reinforce the position of cultural gate-keepers—-powerful arbitrators of taste seeking to maintain the markers of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. I think it should also be acknowledged that many of these curmudgeonly critics are still reinforcing such positions, often with substantial salaries. As a consequence, any writer choosing to undertake a critical review runs the risk of reinforcing this history, or having it dismissed outright as an attempt to gain notoriety through controversy.
What is the ethical position to take here? And is this knot even worth untangling when we know that ‘positive’ reviews are far more likely to be read than ‘negative’ ones, when we also know that many writers would much rather spend their time considering work that they are moved by.
But works put into public spaces (whether artist run or commercial or institutional) deserve to be questioned, with the decisions made by artists, and, perhaps even more importantly, those made by curators, gallerists, programmers and boards held to account. This doesn’t mean that any reader must entirely agree with the position being taken by a critic, or that such a reviewer could ever claim to be providing the sole perspective on an artist’s work.
I want to make it clear that I’m not arguing for a massive influx of inflammatory criticism, but I would like to think that any writer could feel free enough to work through and articulate questions and concerns, and to be able to do so openly, fairly and honestly. Because what is the alternative, if critical commentary is allowed to disappear entirely? It means that positions that reinforce or maintain the status quo continue unchecked, and ideas about what art can be and who it is for become cushioned and fixed. It means that the charge most often levelled at ‘the art world’ by those outside of it—that it is a bubble and an echo chamber—must be allowed to stand. But most importantly, it means acknowledging that whilst we may be comfortable with the rigid surveillance of ideological positions, we are not so happy with considered and respectful modes of critique.