Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Role of Criticism Today, Panel Discussion at the Provisions Library

by David Waddell

In the spirit of this conversation, I have written this in a blog style. That is, I sat down and wrote it. Most of our works through ARTifice are written as papers rather than letting it all fly, unedited in a stream-of-conscious act.

I attended the panel discussion, the state of criticism in the arts, hosted by Transformer Gallery at the Provisions Library in Dupont Circle.

Ryan Hill from the Hirshhorn mediated the event. The panel consisted of Kriston Capps of Washington City Paper, Glen Dixon from the Washington Post Express, editor of Sculpture Magazine Glenn Harper, Rachel Beckman at the Washington Post and Andy Grundberg of the New York Times.

To summarize this lively conversation, I will quote Glenn Harper concluding the discussion to Ryan Hill, "That wasn't too depressing, was it?" Well, Glenn, I didn't think the conversation was any more depressing than life usually is. The topic for the panel discussion could have been, 'Complaining About Your Job: Part One, Editors and Critics.'

Hands down, the whiniest and most disgruntled critic was Glen Dixon. Glen Dixon described his background as if he did not have a choice to become an art critic. He made it sound like either it was a complete accident or that a gun was pointed at the back of his head. Everytime he spoke, vomit spewed from his mouth. My question to him would be, is there anything that you do not have a problem with? Are you happy with anything? He complained about everything! In fact, I could list his complaints in order of which he spoke:

1. The Post general audience cannot understand art. (See 8)
2. As a writer, you have to follow rules and censors. You can't say things like "Shotgunning a beer" or "infamous massacre" (See 3)
3. The Washington Post has shackles.
4. There is too much information in the world. Overload. (See 5&6)
5. Zines suck.
6. Blogs suck.
7. It sucks to travel everywhere you could possibly want to go and see all of the shows you ever wanted to see. It seems ideal but in reality one cannot absorb all that information. It is like you saw nothing at all. So why waste the time?
8. Readers are tone deaf and illiterate (when asked, why do critics only describe rather than criticize?)

Glen Dixon loves himself but is mad that he is writing blurbs for the Washington Post Express. He has fallen short of his own goals and dreams. To compensate, he took every turn he could to speak. And each time, it was negative. Just because you cannot land your dream job does not mean that you have to insult your audience. I was offended just listening to him and I consider myself in his target audience for 'his ideal writing situation.' I am an educated person. In fact, his current audience which he insists on trashing (Metro commuters riding to Capitol Hill) are probably literate as well. What makes Glen Dixon so special that he is more literate and less tone deaf than the normal person?

Glen Harper, the editor of Sculpture, was much more eloquent and articulate about explaining the situation and role of the critic in today's world. He says that those pitching articles must know the overall scope of the field. Problematic pitches for him are those that do not contribute to the goal of his publication. A large portion of proposed articles are written by people who have never read Sculpture magazine. On the flipside, he explains that successful critics, such as Lucy Lippard, struggle with maintaining their original voice after an editor has chopped up their work for publication.

A discussion point of the evening was: where is the future of print and the future of critique? Harper points out that the 80's were hot for non-profit magazines. Since the collapse, however, only ART Lies exists. Capps adds other critical outlets to the dialogue. Web-based Glasstire and its contributors such as Chris French fill the void for alternative voices . Students and artists who are motivated and interested also voluntarily fill the gap. Austin based Okay Mountain is an example.

Hill suggested that the internet has brought writing to an informal and pedestrian level. Grundberg agrees, stating that blogs are unedited streams of consciousness that fulfill a grassroots function. The Post or Times would never tread in these areas.

Later, Grundberg questions blog authors. Why would anyone want to write if they were not being paid? It is not very economical. I thought this was a strange comment. I wonder if any members of the panel have a love for art or for writing. Maybe the joy and love was taken out of it by having a 9-5 job. Once you get paid to do something, the fun stops. I think that people who maintain a blog have a compassion for whatever they write about. That is the beauty of this type of writing. You do not have deadlines. You do not have to be forced to write about art which you feel indifferent about.

Overall, the panel was very hesitant to promote the blog. Harper maintains that the print version has a certain aura and documentation quality. If an artist is featured on Sculpture magazine's website rather than their printed magazine, the sculptor is usually angry. Material still dominates, adds Hill. Or does it? Dixon polls the panel audience. Who even reads blogs? 80% of the group raises their hands. Dissatisfied he emphasizes, but who reads ART blogs? 75% He is gonna prove his point somehow. But who revisits those same sites? 50% Then an older woman behind me screams "Get with the times!"

Harper references 18th century salons and Boudelaire's Triumph of Art for Public. He states that criticism is about the public. Blogs are pretty much for the public. What a great way to hold a forum for the public...if only someone would listen.

The last hot topic was in the Q&A session. What do you have to say about critics being more descriptive than critical? All agreed that, in fact, they were critical in their describing. I found their answers to be frustrating and beside the point.

Grundberg: How is describing not critical?
Beckman: We are not critical out of fear that we will run into the artist at the grocery store. (Later, she was questioned about that answer, in which she answers, 'well, actually, I am not a critic. I put myself in a hypothetical situation).
Dixon: Readers are tone deaf and illiterate.

It is amazing how writers could not answer this question without blaming the audience or the artist. My final question was, where is the actual artist in all of this? The critic was central to the conversation. However, the artist and art was at the furthest periphery.

Out of all of this, I have a list of sources to look at:
Bad at Sports Podcast
ArtsJournal.com
James Elkins
Peter Plagens

Also, I would advise checking out the Provisions Library at 1611 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC
It is a great source which our city has. I just learned about it and will take advantage of its existence.

- "Just spell my name right." Warhol

-"Be passionate, partisan, and political" Baudelaire

-The most money being spent in art right now is contemporary art, artists that are alive and currently making work.

107 comments:

The Right Reverend James W. Bailey said...

This is great coverage of this event. I wish I had been there. Can you flesh this out and comment on the comments of the other panelists? Also, was the panel, to your knowledge, video taped? If so, I hope someone will post it on their blog or Youtube.com

Lenny said...

Terrific coverage! I applaud the reporting... any chance that you can expand and add more comments?

Also, how about approaching Provisions to see if they do a follow-up, which you may want to lead, to flesh these issues out from the audience's perspective?

Ellen said...

I was at the panel, and I completely agree. I asked the first question of the Q&A, the spirit of which was "why the craps are you guys all arguing amongst yourselves, and what are you doing to change the public reception of art criticism so people will actually read what you write?" they didn't seem to get it.

David W said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Waddell said...

Thank you so much for your comments. I know it was video taped. The library probably has this footage. I thought that the gallery/library was great and recommend visiting it sometime. I have more notes from the lecture which contains different topics that I left out but I can surely compose another piece.

Off the top of my head, I found it to be peculiar that there was only one woman on the panel. I also found it interesting that the New York Times writer was distinguished and completely fulfilled my idea of who a Times/Post writer would be. He fit a certain mold in my head.

He said that DC has a difficult time attracting media outlets in this town. I agree. I was very naive moving to this city thinking, wow this is the nation's capital. How can there not be art? how can there not be attention? how much of a stretch is it to visit New York? We are a bus trip away.

I thought, DC must have something to offer that Texas cannot. And it turns out that this panel was very complimentary of the artist's push in Austin and Houston. The artists are in DIY mode. I applaud that.

Another comment made was the two sides of the art world. Kriston Capps said he saw two lectures in one week. The first artist (?) saw the 'art world' as a tent that is only so big. While Roberta Smith wants to enhance and expand the art world. It is an interesting topic. (But one that they actually ignored though bypassing the whole discussion of art) How much room is in the art world? Going to Chelsea you feel like your head is going to explode. If you are not on 23rd, 24th or 25th st you might not get seen. If you are not on the first floor, you might not get seen. If you are too close to the waterfront, you might not get seen. It is the whole thing about not being able to absorb.

Before writing a review, Some critics looked at everything the artist did and said while others go in cold before reviewing.

Lenny said...

The more I think about this, the more it seems that a follow-up by Transformer and Provisions should take place...

Glenn Dixon said...

It's going to take some time to unravel all the incomprehension and bad reporting in Waddell's original post. Note that Washington City Paper has posted my correction to the blog entry by Mark Athitakis that excerpted this item:

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/
blogs/citydesk/index.php/2007/03/15/
wither-the-art-critic/#comment-3140

[remove line feeds to get address to work]

David Waddell said...

Thank you for visiting ARTifice, Glenn. Do not worry about my faulty reporting. As you have stated already, blogs are full of crap and have no role or power in our world. I never claimed to be a professional reporter. And clearly I am not, I simply took notes during a lecture. And condensed them all down to conclude that you are negative and bitter. I do not really think you can deny quotes. You can argue that I am a terrible writer and it is up to people to decide whether everything you said was whiny, negative and full of complaints. I do not believe that you had anything positive to say about the role of criticism today and that is sad. Why should I be nice to your performance in a panel discussion when the very topic being discussed is about writing (honest, through personal accounts) perceptions and evaluations in order for improvement. It is like when you see a video of yourself, or a recording, and you cringe. Looking at how other people percieve you. We all have those days. Often, I think why don't I shut up. I have nothing positive to say today. Why can't I stop complaining. That is how I felt about your role in that discussion. I am sure you think I am a moron, as I caught you rolling your eyes at many people when they spoke. I wanted to laugh out loud when you rolled your eyes when the woman from the Post spoke everytime. I seriously want to know who your ideal audience is and how you do not alienate them?

David Waddell said...

A question for Glenn Dixon: Who is your ideal audience and how do you avoid alienating them? (I asked this in my last comment, but I think this is important)

Anonymous said...

Glenn Dixon has been a negative writer since his days with the City Paper.

Do a little archive search on you'll discover that this negaholic used to pen a column titled "Beneath Contempt" to discuss art shows in DC.

He needs to get a life. Maybe that's why he was fired from AOL's Digital City and from the Washington Post.

Glenn Dixon said...

Jesus. ARTifice is the Bellagio of online crap fountains. Every time you think it’s done, there’s a new show.

Yes, I wrote Beneath Contempt for WCP in 1997. Look it up in City Paper's free archives. In retrospect, I'm not fully formed as a stylist (there are Christgavian and Fussellian footprints all over the thing), but I see no opinions I'd retract. Not bad considering it's been a decade. While I can't help being pleased that a newspaper column that appeared exactly ten times should be recalled so fondly at such a remove, it must be noted that, except on the occasion of the inaugural piece, which set out the reasons I found BC necessary, it always appeared as a sidebar to a longer review of an art show I deemed worthy of serious attention. BC itself grew to include brief mentions of shows that weren't altogether miserable.

No, I did not get fired from either Digital City, for which I never wrote, or from the Washington Post.

A brief recap of career transitions:

I got fired from the arts editorship of Washington City Paper, leaving in March '98. Less than six months later, a couple of WCP section editors asked me to start writing for the paper again, so I did.

I wrote for washington.sidewalk.com from November '97 to March '99, first weekly and then, starting in November '98, every other week, as the publication foundered. Eventually freelancing was brought inside. Did my work with sidewalk dry up? Yes. Was I fired? No.

I quit writing for WCP in May '04 (though I did come out of retirement to win the April Fools’ Day pick contest the following year: Adult Baby Jesus was marrying couples in the park). I called my editors from a Hardee's parking lot somewhere along I-95 in Virginia and said I'd had enough.

By this time, I'd already begun semi-regular freelancing for the Post, but I didn't start splitting the Galleries column with Jessica Dawson, who had recommended me to her editors, until August '04. By November '04, I'd decided the gig wasn’t going anywhere. (Last summer, I came out of retirement--this time upon the request of Tim Page--to do a one-off write-up of Leonard Nimoy narrating The Planets.)

You don't have to take my word for any of this. Ask my editors, in order of appearance, David Carr, Caroline Schweiter, Brad McKee, Nicole Arthur, and Leonard Roberge. Editorial inconsistency was the hallmark of the Post during my brief tenure as a freelancer there, so check with Jessica Dawson and Blake Gopnik, both of whom I called a couple of days before I quit. They’d been helpful getting me in, and I felt I owed them advance notice.

If you're a journalist, all of these people will be relatively easy to track down. If you're a blogger or, worse, a blog comment poster, you'll likely find the task beyond you.

And no, it isn't much fun arguing with people who insist on making all your points for you. There's simply no challenge to it.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha!
I just checked out the "Beneath Contempt columns at the WCP and Dixon is really a negative type dude. Why waste words and space to write bad karma stuff, man?

Brian Barr said...

I find it rather odd that Dixon continually attempts to belittle blogging and bloggers, yet is repeatedly compelled to defend himself through that forum. If they are so terribly insignificant why lend creedence to them by engaging the dialogue? 1.) He is incredibly vain, or 2.) He realizes the potential in art criticism becoming more of a democratic dialogue that relies less on Dixon-types to mediate judgement for us.

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