Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Forum Provocateurs : Chelsea Theatre, London



Image: front cover of 'The Politics of Friendship' by Jacques Derrida, Verso 1997

Open Dialogues will be provoking debate on socially engaged practice in collaboration with Chelsea Theatre and New Work Network. The online forum will be hosted on New Work Network's website and your comments posted on the forum will shape the round-table discussion at Cheslea Theatre on the 10th May.


Other provocatuers are Charlie Fox and Sally O'Reilly. We hope you will join us, online or in realtime, to debate value, criticality and antagonism in socially engaged art, as well as its inclusionist agendas and ethics. Look out for my provocation entitled 'Anti-Social Engagement'

Be provoked and add your comments to the online from at http://www.newworknetwork.org.uk

For more details on Chelsea's Sacred Season see http://www.chelseatheatre.org.uk/sacred08.htm


Complimentary Tickets:
NWN members involved in the online forum discussions will be able to apply for a complimentary ticket to some of the performances in SACRED’s programme (see below). If you are taking part in the online discussion and would like to apply for a comp ticket please email to James Tilston with the performance you would like to attend at Chelsea Theatre: james@chelseatheatre.org.uk. Please also CC’ Hannah at info@newworknetwork.org.uk.

Rachel Lois Clapham

Friday, 11 April 2008

Art Writing Salon, Whitechapel Gallery 27 March



Image: cover of Issue 1 The Happy Hypocrite

This blog post is being written on 27th March whilst sat in the Whitechapel Gallery Cafe at the Art Writing Salon; an event being hosted by Marquard Smith (Course Director MA Art & Design History Kingston University) and Maria Fusco, editor of the Happy Hypocrite journal and Director of the Art Writing MFA programme at Goldsmiths College. The salon is about art writing, its role with regards to criticism and contemporary art, and is pertinent to the work of Open Dialogues, so I’m blogging it as a live monologue to run alongside the Whitechapel event for all those who are interested in art writing and/or were not able to get here tonight.

Please note this text is not a faithful transcript of the event. Individuals and facts may have been misquoted and/or misrepresented.
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19.00 Marquard Smith opens the discussion. Maria talks on the difference between arts criticism and art writing, and introduces the three categories within art writing, which are art writing, critical writing and theoretical writing. These differences are slightly flattened, perhaps making them manageable within the non academic context of this salon, but I’ll elaborate here: essentially the difference between art writing and arts criticism is where the writing itself is considered equally or alongside the art under discussion. Art writing is an art practice that adds to or ‘performs’ its subject in text. Art writing is not writing as an adjunct, an aside, or writing on/about/ its subject matter (be it art or not). Moreover, criticality is what counts in art writing, not criticism per se. And, unlike arts criticism, it is not always the art work, object or subject that is at stake in the writing. Quiet. The audience are slightly dazed. Maria then offers out two tantalising questions’ What is being poked in Art Writing, what is its subject matter? ...

A fictional reading

19.20. Maria launches into fiction, reading various texts aloud. She cites Michel Tournier’s novels The Wind Spirit and Gemini, fiction by J.G Ballard and Robert Smithson and reads extracts from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. The Third Policeman is a cyclical tale in which the main character dies and has (paradoxically) been dead throughout the novel. The Third Policeman is self conscious about its form of address- the novel- it makes innovative use of footnotes and overtly references its reader and its own process. Maria equates The Third Policeman’s cyclical death and rebirth to art writing. The novel embodies the same heightened awareness of form, content, authorial voice and reader that art writing does. For Maria, The Third Policeman is also how art writing might (legitimately) have a different relation to fiction or non truth. Putting it crudely, amid our twenty first century subtext of war, terroristic and environmental doom, fiction signals that it is feasible not worry about the future. Maria’s enthusiasm for fiction is infectious but this deliberate and politically ‘non serious’ devil-may-care approach to the end of the world via fiction remains hanging in the air, begging for development..... Where will all this fiction lead us?

Fiction as fact

19. 50. Maria’s penchant for fiction doesn’t merely contain the recipe to combat society’s contemporary malaise. The significance of the genre is rooted in its potential for re-writing facts. Facts can be refuted in fiction, and if not totally refuted, then allowed to pass more freely. Fiction, then, allows a sideways glance, and forces a wedge into facts, into a place where facts, history, events can be begin to be worked with or read as more flirty, fragile and ephemeral. It follows that facts in Art Writing can shift and behave as deviously as they do in fiction. Perhaps others here also have this sinking feeling, are losing their footing, as am I. We are certainly not on solid ground anymore: writing where fact and fiction mingle without recourse or meaning? This is no doubt exciting, full of potential, liminal and –hopefully- entirely possible, but is it accessible, publishable, moreover readable, outside the university context? Words that make manifest this kind of reader; a reader who has a healthy disregard for fact, someone who isn’t taken in by the text, would be ground breaking. Now that would be critical writing.

...... How far can art and writing, as language- as communication- actually be stretched before they become, uncommunicative, unreadable? Does writing still work as language if it is stretched beyond comprehension or readability? What would broken writing look like?

The happy hypocrite

19.57. The front cover of the first issue of The Happy Hypocrite is up on screen, it is entitled ‘Linguistic Hardcore’. The title and theme of the journal represents the fact that the journal is pertinent to issues of critical writing, also that the journal takes methodology of art writing, critical writing, critical theory as its subject matter. The title Happy Hypocrite, originally the title of an 1897 short story by Max Beerbohm, is also a nod at the delicate relationships contemporary critical writing, and its writers, have to negotiate with regards to author, art institutions, writing and artistic subject matter. So, art in the Happy Hypocrite is located firmly on the page. Questions about what this means for the writings’ generosity, criticality or relationship to the artwork or objects under discussion might appear begrudging at this point. I keep quiet.

20. 07. Maria tells an anecdote about her being Northern Irish and asked to review a Northern Irish artists’ work. She questions the value or agency endowed to writers who are seen to be complicit or have special access to their subject matter – whether sexually, racially or culturally. She gives agency in writing the same rough treatment, the same critical overturning, or poke, that she gives to facts. I think about raising the point that I would be happy, perhaps a happy hypocrite, to be paid to review white middle class Northern artists.

Writer torture

20.15 We’re getting practical. Maria reveals useful strategies (in addition to fiction) for taking a unique, sideways glance at your art writing subject. i.e methods on how to ‘poke’ the object of your attention. It is a particular method of looking that enlivens the subject and is employed in many art writing texts with varied and surprising results. Constraints – self imposed or not- can also be useful as creative challenges to set in writing. Constraints and challenges can overcome a block, or create re-investment in the object/subject where something unexpected is forced out onto the page. Tried and tested art writing challenges include limiting word length, limiting time spent on a text, reviewing the most boring show or the most banal art object you can think of. Although painful, these exercises in writer torture often force a writing around the object/subject, instead of being immediately pulled in buy it (and so avoids the writer being susceptible to mere descriptive writing).

Back from the dead

20.30. It’s question time, someone mentions Derrida and with this the notion of the reader arrives into the room. Ironic that the reader- and Derrida- comes onto this scene late, since it was Derrida who articulated that the temporal and physical drag - the distance from me to you which these marks manifest – is how writing marks itself as writing. Were you, reader, waiting for your moment all along, in the corners of the Whitechapel Cafe? I’m anticipating you reading this now. Does the distance between you and I make art writing possible? Is this critical space or separation – be it physical, temporal or in meaning- the very space that art writing exploits?

http://www.whitechapel.org/

The Happy Hypocrite is published by Bookworks. http://www.bookworks.org.uk/asp/forth.asp

For more details on the Art Writing MFA at Goldsmiths College see http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/pg/mfa-art-writing.php


Rachel Lois Clapham

Mary Paterson

1)Mary Paterson;2) Baboon; 3)London;4) Writer and Producer; 5) London;6) MA Film and Visual Cultures, Middlesex University; 7) Physics, B; 8) Studio Manager; 9) ‘A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’, Ian Mortimer;10) ‘Ulysses’, James Joyce; 11) Jewellery Shop Assistant; 12) writerly collaborations, wresting authority from the written word, metamorphosis; 13) none; 14) Co-Director of Open Dialogues; 15) £1000; 16) ‘The Portable Virgin’, Anne Enright; 17) soporific; 18) time travel; 19) mary AT opendialogues DOT com

Curriculum Vitae
Mary Paterson / mary AT opendialogues DOT com - Writer and Producer

CURATORIAL & PRODUCTION
Co-Director, Open Dialogues (2008 – present)
Curator, The Borough Road Gallery (2011 -present)
Creative Producer, Encounter for NKLAAP (2010 - present)
General Manager, Extant (2008 - 2011)


Open Dialogues Projects
  • QUESTION TIME in association with Wooloo Productions (here) (Copenhagen 09)
  • WRITING LIVE, in association with PERFORMA and with support from Arts Council England (here) (New York 09)
  • CRITICAL COMMUNITIES, in association with New Work Network (London & Yorks 09)
  • SPILL:Overspill, in association with SPILL Festival of Performance (here) (London 09)
  • Open Dialogues: Performance Saga, in association with Performance Saga (here) (Switzerland 08 & 09)
  • Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin, in association with Wooloo Productions (Berlin 08)
Selected Other Productions & Curatorial Projects
  • Encounter, a programme of art in the public realm across North Kent, for NKLAAP (North Kent, 11 - 12)
  • The Question, a collaboration between Extant, The Open University and Battersea Arts Centre, (London 10)
  • Performance Saga, Pedagogy and Performance - a curated conversation at the ICA, part of Live Weekends: Futures and Pasts, curated by Tim Etchells (London 10)
  • Twisted Cognitive & Sublime, Sun and Doves (London 06 & 07)
  • Mise Eire, with Dylan Tighe (London & Dublin 05 - 06)
  • Minutes to Go, SPACE Studios (London 04)
WRITING & EDITING
Co-Director, Open Dialogues (08 - present)
Writing from Live Art (06 - 08)
Editor, Fringe Report (05 - 07)

Selected Talks and Seminars
  • 'A conversation with Sonia Dermience', curated by Very Small Kitchen and Short Term Solutions (here) (London, May 2010)
  • ‘Writing in Parallel’, University of the West of England (see event details here) (Bristol Sept 09)
  • 'Labour Practices: Keynote Paper’, Labour Practices Seminar, Curated by the Live Art Development Agency, Queen Mary University, (read the paper here, more about the project here) (London June 09)
  • ‘Confessions of a Critic’, Limoncello Punctuation Programme (London Oct 08)
  • ‘Critical Encounters: An Open Dialogues Case Study’, Writing Encounters Symposium, York St. John University (York Sept 08)
Selected Recent bibliography
For Open Dialogues writing see project websites

Critical Writing
  • 'A Navigation Through Unbound', Live Art Development Agency, Upcoming 2010 (here)
  • 'Louder than Bombs' AN Magazine, April and May 2010
  • RITE, New Work Network and Open Dialogues, December 2009
  • True Riches: the ICA and Live Art in London AN Magazine, June 2009 (here)
  • Martha Rosler: A Gesture Towards Performance Performance Saga (CH), December 2008
  • ‘Lois Weaver: “What Tammy Needs to Know …” about Socially Engaged Practice’ Dance Theatre Journal, June 2008
  • ‘A Response to Dinner with America’ in Rajni Shah, Culture Wars, 2008 (here)
  • ‘Marcia Farquhar’ Its Not Hard, June 2008
  • ’History in the Making: Performa International Biennial of Performance Art’ Total Theatre, Spring 2008
  • ’Life Exchange’ Real Time Arts (Australia) April 2008 (here)
Interviews
  • Interview with Martha Rosler N.Paradoxa (UK) December 2008
  • Interview with Rebecca May Marston, Aixs (UK) 2008 (here)
Fiction & Undefined
  • ‘Yet’ Oxhouse Digital Alphabet (UK), December 2009 (here)
  • 'Stanley Picker Gallery' for Writing Exhibitions curated by David Berridge, December 2009 (here)
  • Regular contributions to 1001 Nights Cast, by Barbara Campbell (Aus & worldwide), 2007-8 (project website & story archive is here)
  • 'Secret Gallery', Notes from the Underground (UK), November 2007
    Education
    • MA Film and Visual Cultures - Middlesex University, 2008
    • MA Art History - Edinburgh University, 2002

    1) Name; 2)the name your family or partner calls you (nick-name); 3) the city you live in; 4) what you do;5) your home town; 6) MA course you did recently;7) the subject and result of your lowest GCSE grade;8) a job you had in 2008; 9) a book you are reading for pleasure;10) a book you have not read because you tried and found it off-putting or too difficult; 11) your worst job ever; 12) current writerly fascinations;13) Football team your partner supports; 14)what job you are doing now; 15)the most you have been paid for a writing commission; 16) a book you are really looking forward to reading; 17) favourite word; 18) a mild fascination that could develop into an obsession if you had more time;19) email address

    Rachel Lois Clapham









    Rachel Lois Clapham
    rachellois@opendialogues.com

    Curatorial
    Open Dialogues 2008 – current 
    National Media Museum, Projects 2011 - 2012
    In a Word 2010- 2011 (Supported by Arts Council England)
    Tate Britain, Exhibitions 2005 - 2008
    Writing From Live Art 2006-2008 (Supported by Arts Council England)

    Open Dialogues Projects
    NOTA: NOTES Open Dialogues 2012 - current
    Critical Communities with New Work Network Yorkshire/London 2009
    Question Time COP15 with Wooloo Productions Copenhagen 2009
    Open Dialogues: Performance Saga with Performance Saga Lausanne 2009
    Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin with Wooloo Productions Berlin 2008
    Overspill Spill Festival London (Supported by Arts Council England) 2007/2009
    Writing Live Performa Biennial New York (Supported by Arts Council England) 2007/2009

    Selected Performances and Exhibitions
    NOTA Rich Mix London 2012, Villa Romana Florence Italy 2012 and Cross Cultural Live Art Practices London 2014
    Re- 
    PSL Gallery Leeds, Norwich Arts Centre, John Latham Archive London 2010 and QUAD Derby 2012
    SOB BASIC East Street Arts Leeds 2012
    Fourscore Selected Works 1 The Other Room Manchester 2012
    WRITING (the) SPACE Wild Pansy Press Project Space Leeds 2011
    READERS WANTED Pigeon Wing London 2010
    Notes on a Return Laing Gallery Newcastle 2009

    Selected Seminars and Presentations
    Fourscore Selected Works 11 Tertulia Spike Island Bristol 2012
    Performance Saga, Pedagogy and Performance ICA London 2010
    10 Performances +1 Jubilee Theatre Roehampton University 2009
    Writing in Parallel Drama Department, University of Bristol 2009
    Live Critic Photographers Gallery London 2009

    Selected Publications
    '.', Lemonade  everything was so infinite, LemonMelon (UK) 2015
    Inside Performance Dance Theatre Journal (UK) 2009 - 2012
    The Other Room Anthology 4 The Other Room (UK) 2012
    Writing AVANT GARDE PERFORMANCE Soanyway (UK) 2012
    (W)reading Performance Writing: A Guide Live Art Development Agency (UK) 2010
    NOTES: Art Writing Field Station VerySmallKitchen (UK) 2010
    WORK, TRY, HARD
     Kaleid Editions (UK) 2010
    RITE Open Dialogues ed. (UK) 2009
    An Exposition :Online Critical Writing AN Magazine (UK) 2009


    Education
    Goldsmiths College MA Contemporary Art Theory
    Goldsmiths College BA Honours Fine Art and Art History


    A selection of individual work


    The work listed on my CV is made in close proximity to Alex EisenbergMary Paterson, Emma CockerStephen P PerryDavid Berridge (VerySmallKitchen) and Marit Muenzberg (LemonMelon), amongst others.  




    Wednesday, 9 April 2008

    Open Dialogues and Live Connections


    New Work Yorkshire's 'Live Connections' Professional Development Mentoring Scheme aims to support the development of emerging live art/new work practice in Yorkshire. Artists on the Live Connections scheme will be presenting their work as part of the Hull Time Based Arts Festival, Time & Tidal Flow, on 25-27 April 08.

    Open Dialogues will be at the Time and Tidal Flow festival participating in the online forum debate and acting as critical writing mentor for one of the Live Connections artist participants.

    For more details see the Time and Tidal Flow programme & New Work Yorkshire

    Wooloo Productions, Life Exchange, New York, Oct 31-Nov 6, 2007

    This article originally appeared in RealTime 84, April-May 2008 and is reproduced with permission of the publisher, Open City Inc RealTime, www.realtimearts.net.


    In June Wooloo Productions will present NEW LIFE BERLIN, a contemporary art festival dedicated to new modes of moving and existing. For more details see http://www.wooloo.org/festival/ and http://www.wooloo.org/opendialogues/

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    REACH INTO YOUR POCKET AND BRING OUT YOUR WALLET. YOU DON’T RECOGNISE THIS WALLET. REACH INTO YOUR BAG AND BRING OUT YOUR MOBILE PHONE. YOU DON’T RECOGNISE THIS MOBILE PHONE. LOOK AT THE NAME ON THE PIECE OF PAPER YOU’RE HOLDING. YOU DON’T RECOGNISE THIS NAME. IS THIS A NIGHTMARE OF LOSS OR A FANTASY OF FREEDOM? EITHER WAY, IT WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF PARTICIPANTS IN LIFE EXCHANGE, A PROJECT ORCHESTRATED BY BERLIN-BASED ARTISTS WOOLOO PRODUCTIONS.

    Between October 31 and November 6, 2007, 10 people were sent blinking into the streets of New York with just a stranger’s possessions to guide them. Martin Rosengaard and Sixten Kai Nielsen, of Wooloo Productions, interviewed participants who were each willing to swap lives with a stranger and matched them into pairs. The longest exchange took one week; the shortest was 24 hours.

    Surely you’d have to be crazy to trust a stranger with your house keys, your credit card, your job, your relationships? Participants didn’t just swap material possessions but also met each other’s lovers, worked in each other’s jobs and (although not in all cases) lived in each other’s homes.

    For some, this demand for trust might seem like a nightmarish risk, but Rosengaard says it is one of the project’s strengths. Particularly in America, he says, there is a “performance of distrust” carried out by the state, which encourages people to be suspicious of each other’s motives and exploits an inherent conservatism of fear. In contrast, Life Exchange invited a very un-public display of trust and openness.

    In fact, the relationship between two strangers was not the central experience of Life Exchange—after all, they didn’t really meet. One participant, occupying the life of Guilio d’Agostino for a day, found himself flirting with a woman on the subway. Twenty-four hours later he had returned to his identity of Ektoras Binikos, who is gay. Obviously, Life Exchange did not affect Ektoras’ sexuality, but it did encourage him to do something outside his normal experience. Crucially, this change in behaviour was not because Ektoras stole Guilio’s identity, but because for a time he was bereft of his own.

    Participants in Life Exchange knew nothing about their ‘new life’ until the moment they inhabited it; and for each piece of someone else’s persona they acquired they lost the corresponding accoutrement of their own—their own mobile phone, their own best friend, their own routine. The process must have seemed more like a loss than an acquisition. In this light, the man who flirted with a woman on that November morning was not Guilio d’Agostino (who knows if he flirts with women on the subway?) or even a performance of ‘Guilio d’Agostino’ (having never met him, how could Ektoras know how to perform?). Instead, it was an anti-performance of Ektoras Binikos—a man whose codes and imperatives of behaviour had suddenly been stripped away.

    In a city that was playing host, at the same time, to the dead-eyed ‘re-enactments’ of Alan Kaprow’s Happenings [RT 83, p17] , this seemed like a breath of fresh air. Kaprow wrote scores to encourage people to meditate on the experience of living and to blur the definitions of art and life. But, a year after Kaprow’s death, these re-enactments, watched in a packed warehouse in Long Island, were like the hammy cousins of an art historical moment that was never meant to be played to an audience. In contrast, Life Exchange seemed to promise a very real experience—the “sensory becoming” that Deleuze and Guattari describe as the true effect of a work of art.

    But while Binikos found the experience of Life Exchange liberating, the project encouraged self-reflection in a very controlled way. The precedent for Wooloo Productions’ 2007 Life Exchange is Nancy Weber’s Life Swap (1974, written up in a book published by Dial Press in the same year), in which Weber changed lives with another woman. Her swap was precipitated by months of discussion, note-taking and written instructions between the women, but it ended badly with each accusing the other of dishonesty and misrepresentation. Life Exchange, however, removed the possibility of any such accusations, because it took responsibility for the project away from the people taking part.

    It was Wooloo Productions (rather than any of the people whose lives were exchanged) who provided legal documents and disclaimers; Wooloo Productions who carried out interviews and made matches; and Wooloo Productions who conducted a Life Exchange Ritual at the beginning of each swap. This meant that ‘exchangers’ were free to concentrate on their personal experiences. And, unlike the earlier project, they could never accuse each other of sabotage, because they didn’t own the processes that governed their behaviour. These processes were owned and issued, instead, by Wooloo Productions.

    In other words, Wooloo Productions institutionalised Weber’s model. If Weber’s Life Swap was carried out like two women bartering in a market, then Wooloo’s exchange was more like people ticking ‘yes’ to the terms and conditions on a website. This overt mediation concentrated the experience on each participating individual, but it also rendered them strangely passive in the process. Even when exchanges ended badly—as did one between Jane Harris and ‘Joanna’, cut short after just a few hours—the participants did not blame each other but the institution that had led them there. “Just be forewarned”, says Harris about Wooloo Productions, “they don’t seem to know what they’re doing” (www.artnet.com).

    It is this relationship of trust between individual and institution that lies at the centre of Life Exchange. Harris’ disappointment with the project reveals her desire to trust the institution—if ‘they’ don’t know what they’re doing, then who does?

    In fact, during Life Exchange Wooloo Productions acted just like the big cultural institutions that govern our lives—what Althusser calls institutional state apparatuses. This similarity even extends to the “performance of distrust” Wooloo’s Rosengaard identified in US federal policy. Like the government’s performance, Life Exchange relied on an entity whose power is hinted at but never explained; participants were even blindfolded during the Life Exchange Ritual that began each swap to reinforce this sense of mysterious power. And, like government performance, Life Exchange demanded casual complicity from its public.

    Was Jane Harris right to have doubts about Wooloo Productions? The institutional fa├žade that the organisation erected was flimsy at best. The Life Exchange Ritual, for example, which featured candles and New Age music, was an empty, generic scene such as might appear, Rosengaard says, if you googled the world ‘ritual.’ And unlike US government policy, Life Exchange did not exploit conservatism. Instead, it centred on unpredictability, stripping individuals of their symbols and then leaving them to their own devices.

    Life Exchange created a dream of freedom and a nightmare of loss at the same time. It gave its participants liberty from identity, agency and expectations. But in return it enacted a loss of identity, freedom and agency. Creating a mask that borrowed from the familiar processes of big cultural institutions, Wooloo Productions suggested that liberty can only come from the comforting arms of an institution. The question, then, is which institution do you choose? And which liberty?

    Mary Paterson

    Tuesday, 1 April 2008

    Arts Criticism in Crisis?


    Image: Tom Moody


    This is a provocative article, comissioned by Polis, from journalist Lara Farrar on the state of contemporary arts criticism today, Farrar interviewed many 'critics', some UK broadsheet critics, others critical writers, such as myself, and the diversity of opinion between the two different methodologies certainly comes through in this text. I post it here - with the authors permission - as a starting point for Open Dialogues' exploration of what critical writing is, as opposed to arts criticism, and what the role of the critical writer may be in relation to today's contemporary art, its art institutions and readers. The text highlights a clear (somewhat over simplified) binary position within contemporary arts criticism, its value, accessibility and the agency of those who write it. But it is a useful polar position with which to explore what is at stake in contemporary critical writing.


    ..........................................................................
    Arts criticism in crisis? a Polis special report and event. Tonight (Monday 3rd) Sir John Tusa is in conversation with Rosie Millard in a special Polis event at the London College of Communication. Email polis@lse.ac.uk to reserve a seat. “Few subjects agitate artists and promoters more than the critics writing in the print media. Overwhelmingly, most of those who work in the arts feel misunderstood and usually badly treated by the media - print and electronic.” — Sir John Tusa, from his book, Engaged with the Arts. To celebrate this event Polis has commissioned this special report from journalist Lara Farrar on the state of thinking about Arts Journalism


    The story behind the success of Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” is one that Dr. Ronan McDonald, a senior lecturer in Modern English Literature at the University of Reading, knows well. It goes something like this: When the play premiered in London in 1955, it was greeted with hostility and contempt, said McDonald. Theatergoers left in the middle of performances, and daily newspaper reviewers wrote scathing critiques.But eventually public opinion began to shift in a more positive direction, mainly because Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, two of Britain’s most influential drama critics of the time, started writing favorable reviews of the play in Sunday newspapers, spurring audiences to give it a second chance. “People said, ‘Hey, maybe we should look at this again,’” said McDonald. “People started to pay attention to it.” Over fifty years later, “Waiting for Godot” is widely considered the most important theatrical work of the 20th century. But this is not the main reason why McDonald tells this story.


    Instead he tells it as a sort of nostalgic lament for the end of what could be considered the golden age of arts criticism — a time when critics, like Tynan and Hobson, commanded respect and authority over their readers, introduced audiences to new artists and art forms and educated the public about style, culture and class. “I think we have lost something,” said McDonald, who authored the book, “The Death of the Critic.” “There are still loads of reviewers and loads of venues for review but that kind of critic who penetrated the public conversation and whose work really mattered doesn’t exist anymore.”


    All opinions are equal

    McDonald is not the only one who feels this way. Over the past several years there has been a subtle, but increasingly prevalent, debate centering on the changing state of arts criticism, arts journalism and the role of the art critic: in the electronic age of blogs, user generated reviews, public interactivity and citizen journalism, it seems all opinions are equal, and everyone is entitled to have one. “Everyone having a view where no one is being prized more than another means that everyone has their tastes confirmed,” said McDonald. “Culture becomes more homogenous, more uniform, more banal and completely into the hands of a voracious entertainment industry, which can produce more and more formulaic products.” McDonald traces the so-called decline of the traditional art critic back to the late sixties. “The anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical spirit of that era did away with the patrician idea of the critic as expert,” he said. But others see it as a more recent, or at least more apparent, development. “Art critics are entirely insignificant,” said David Lee (cq), art critic and editor of the visual arts newsletter, The Jackdaw (cq). “There is no art critic today who has any influence at all on whether an artist becomes famous.”


    Blame the Tate

    Lee places the blame for the degeneration of arts criticism, at least in the British media, largely on the Tate Gallery and its “repackaging” of the Turner Prize in the early nineties. The Tate started the Turner Prize in 1984. The annual award, named after the English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, is presented to an individual considered to have made the greatest contribution to British art every year.In 1991, the Tate realized it needed to find a way to generate more publicity for the prize, which was being widely ignored by a disinterested public, said Lee. “They wished to get people talking about contemporary art,” he said. “Until that time, no one [cared].”The outcome of the Turner’s makeover was a shift in the way British newspapers covered the arts, said Lee. Coverage moved from the arts section to the news section, which also meant the nature of the arts story changed — articles now had to be entertaining, if not sensationalistic, preferably controversial and, most of all, newsworthy, he said. Arts journalism began to emulate celebrity journalism. The spotlight shifted from the painting to the painter. “It all adds up to celebrity,” said Lee. “It is almost as if the art is insignificant.” What is not insignificant, though, is the subsequent explosion of public interest in art. “To a greater degree more people are aware of what is going on now than they ever have been,” said Lee.


    In 2007, for example, over five million people visited the Tate Modern, making the gallery, which opened in 2000, London’s most visited tourist attraction last year, while contemporary artists, like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, have practically become household names. But an interested public does not necessarily mean an informed public, said Lee, who, like McDonald, points his finger at critics who “are prepared to play the celebrity game” and are not concerned about introducing their readers to new artists or educating them about art. “They [art critics] all write about the same shows, and they always go to the same places,” said Lee. “It is a very narrow coterie of taste which is being promoted all the time.” Yet critics cannot be held totally responsible for the state of their profession, said Brian Sewell, a British art historian and art critic for The Evening Standard since 1984.


    A vicious news cycle

    “There is a way in which institutions control a critic,” said Sewell, noting the demands of increasingly faster news cycles combined with galleries that fail to provide critics with adequate information about exhibitions, permitting the press to view new shows only a couple of days before they open.“The result is that criticism itself is uninformed because it hasn’t had time to think,” he said. “This is the way in which it is now controlled.” Sewell also points to what he sees as a regrettable, but increasingly popular, trend towards the celebrity-as-critic, where celebrities are courted to become reviewers, their opinions valued simply because they are famous. “There seems to be on both radio and television generally a view that if you want to introduce people who know nothing about a subject to a new subject in the arts, then the best person to introduce it is to use someone who also knows nothing about it,” said Sewell. “You get people presented as having the authority of critics who know absolutely nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, about the subject.”


    Art soup


    Sewell said a similar pattern of naivete is emerging from the work of younger art critics. “The history of art is just soup in which Rembrandt and Renoir are sort of swimming together at the same time” he said. “They have no sense of art history.” The debate about the relationship between the arts and journalism does not only center around visual art and the British media’s coverage of it. It also extends largely into the intangible world of the Internet, with its blogospheres, user-generated reviews and immediacy of publication, which some say has all but rendered obsolete the once authoritative voice of the critic.


    The Web wins


    A recent study by the California-based online ticket seller Goldstar Events found, for example, that over 60 percent of respondents said they would be “very likely” to seek out a website with user-reviews compared to just 25 percent who said they would turn to a newspaper or magazine. Almost half of those surveyed also said a negative review by a major columnist would have little or no effect on whether or not they attended a live performance. “It [blogging] is enabling a greater critique of a greater range of work,” said Gillian Nicol, an editor for The Artist Information Company’s website, a-n.co.uk. The website features a section called Interface, an online platform that allows users to post their own art reviews. Aside from diversifying the selection of new art introduced to the public, Nicol said a-n’s blog also gives aspiring writers a chance to showcase their work by subverting the hierarchical structure of the mainstream media. “I think it opens up the potential for people to rise to the surface and for people to become visible and to gain a kind of name and reputation,” said Nicol, who often recruits contributors from the blog to write for a-n Magazine, the website’s corresponding publication. “The mainstream kind of system is very closed [to new writers].” Rachel Lois Clapham is an example of a writer who has found success in the blogosphere. Several years ago, the curator and critic began posting reviews of contemporary art shows on her MySpace.com page, gradually developing a base of readers who followed her work. Eventually galleries began to invite Clapham to review exhibitions. She now writes for a number of print publications and websites, including Writing From Live Art, a Live Art UK and Arts Council-sponsored webpage http://www.writingfromliveart.co.uk aimed at cultivating new writing talent.


    Digital liberation


    “It [blogging] is very democratic,” said Clapham. “You don’t have to be rich, and you don’t have to study contemporary art theory, and you don’t have to be an art historian to publish your own work. It is a liberating thing.” But Clapham is very cognizant of the fact that traditional critics, like David Lee and Brian Sewell, disdain blogging and see the Internet as a force that is also devaluing arts criticism. “I can only think that those people are threatened,” she said. “What it means with someone like Brian Sewell is your job is not so safe. Ten years down the line it could be someone on MySpace that you read, not someone in the broadsheets.” ...“I would say that blogging and everybody having their own opinion has literally brought something to the fore that has always been there,” Clapham added. “Everybody does have an opinion. It is just in the past, certain people’s opinion mattered more than others, and that is an ideology I would question.”

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    Written by Polis reporter Lara Farrar (farrar.lara@gmail.com. POLIS is a joint initiative from LSE and the London College of Communication aimed at working journalists, people in public life and students in the UK and around the world. POLIS is the place where journalists and the wider world can examine and discuss the media and its impact on society. This post was taken from Polis Director, Charlie Beckett's blog http://www.charliebeckett.org/?p=463.