Writing: Hacking through art

Writing about art for a non-specialist audience is work, not play, and work means you’re not in control.
Written in October 2008
Journalists are not historians—it is not the reporter’s job to do anything other than to nail a story, and preferably be the first person to do so. This may seem like a fairly banal point, but from the perspective of a working journalist it is vital.

A journalist’s work may, at some unknown point in the future, become source material for historians but to approach journalism from this standpoint—that it is somehow ‘the first draft of history’—is not only unbearably pompous, it also ignores the simple, day-to-day reality of life in a newsroom. There are many pressures on a working journalist, editorial, commercial and ideological, and the most significant of these is arguably the simple fact that few journalists are truly independent, no matter how much they flatter themselves that they are. As the legendary American reporter I.F. Stone argued: “Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover […] Should a reporter resist this pressure there are many ways to get rid of him.” (Stone, 2006) Platitudes such as ‘journalism is the first draft of history’ serve to obscure more than illuminate—hardly surprising coming from an industry that worships an organ with the Puritanical slogan ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ slapped all-over its masthead[1].

Still, journalism exists and it is practised by journalists—and, like them, we must deal with the world as it is, not how we would like it to be. So long as journalism continues to resist the ‘professionalisation’ of the trade—something it is doing with greater success in Britain than in Ireland which seems determined to follow the United States down the road of churning-out ever greater numbers of over-educated and over-cautious reporters—then the newspaper art critic will be left to write today’s review, tomorrow’s fish-wrapper, and be all the better for it. Make no mistake: whatever his or her personal, educational or professional background, a newspaper or magazine’s art critic is a journalist and works under the same pressures as the rest of the galley slaves in the newsroom, no matter how high-minded their particular beat.[2]

To some degree the above serves to let academic critics off the hook: why bother referencing ‘popular’ criticism if it is not of historical significance? On the other hand, as lightweight and ephemeral as journalism may be, at least it is engaged with the world in two key ways: firstly, it is about something and secondly, it is actively consumed—and consumed by a disinterested and wide public. Both things that may be harder to argue about academic criticism. As low as the stakes are in today’s brave new media—and low they are—journalists remain circumscribed by their inky old sphere of production and are therefore less free to engage in ‘bollocksology’ than critics, for example, on the payroll of artists, curators or galleries. Nevertheless, one can clearly see trends in journalistic art criticism mirroring changes in both academic circles and wider journalistic practice.

In the academy there is significant evidence pointing toward a retreat from the universal sphere, perhaps even a retreat from education itself. In 2003 Britain’s then-education secretary, Charles Clarke, agued that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was “a bit dodgy.” This from a man who’s stated goal was to enrol a full half of Britain’s school-children in universities. (BBC reporter, 2003) This apparent contradiction poses the question: what do Clarke and the rest of the establishment think education is for? The answer is not an edifying one.

Instead of pursing knowledge for its own sake, today higher education is more often than not framed in terms of ‘relevance’, that is, how it relates to the ‘real world’. (Parkin, 2003) So, what ‘relevance’ actually means is instrumentalisation, something Clarke went a long way toward admitting when he further stated that students “need a relationship with the workplace”. (BBC reporter, 2003)

This is a long way from Einstein’s famous remark: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.” Einstein, not exactly an intellectual lightweight, could see a value in knowledge where the authorities see only information, which may or may not be of commercial value.

This is neither the time nor place to fully examine why such a phenomenon has occurred but one may make a convincing argument noting the redefinition of education—particularly higher education—as a form of training, the commodification and ‘consumerisation’ of education driven by the retreat of the public sphere and, more broadly, the assault on truth driven by discourse from the post-modernists and deconstructionists onwards. I would argue that the latter has facilitated the former two.

Central to all of the above is a collapse of meaning and an attendant loss of nerve in the face of this. Interestingly, in Denys Arcand’s 1986 film, Le Déclin de l’empire américain, a group of cynical, spoilt, soixant-huitard university professors lament that the realisation post-1956 that the Soviet Union was not paradise on earth resulted in the foreclosure of our dreams of human emancipation. In many ways this is a cogent and honest description of the hole at the heart of ‘radical’ post-modernism and deconstruction. This feeling was doubtlessly accelerated by the Prague Spring of 1968 and the eventual toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989—Hungary 1956 and the ‘Secret Speech’ for slow learners.

The collapse of the left’s belief in itself and, more importantly, not only in the putative agents of radical change (the working class) but also in the very desirability of change itself, is the key issue at hand. On the right, meanwhile, so much energy was expended ‘proving’ that change was negative—surely the conservative’s very raison d’être—went a long way toward undermining the popular capitalism that was posited as the alternative to socialism.

(It is perhaps uncontroversial to argue that people who work in the arts and media tend to be of a liberal or even left-wing persuasion. As documentary filmmaker Martin Durkan noted: “Exposing that a journalist has a Marxist background is like exposing that he wears trousers.” (O’Neill, 2007) However, exactly what one might mean by either of those terms is increasingly difficult to pin down.)

Nevertheless, the emergence of deconstructivist and post-modernist discourses and their subsequent colonisation of large sections of the arts and humanities had the effect of copper-fastening this ‘pessimism of the intellect(uals)’. The effect of this on academic art criticism seems to be to lower the stakes to such a point that neither the art nor the criticism matters.

In the journalistic sphere the collapse of meaning is even more striking, if harder to divine in the first instance. In previous eras, newspapers (and the wider news media) served a specific function: to inform in order to allow the subject to act. This was played-out not only in the opinion pages (the division of newspapers into news and opinion is largely a twentieth century device) but also in the ideology that underscores any given newspaper’s reporting of events—or lack thereof. (The above is not to say, however, that any given news outlet is necessarily open in its allegiances. Note, for example, that amid the Guardian’s orgy of self-congratulation at publishing it’s 50,000th edition in 2007, commentator Murray Macdonald pointed out that the newspaper had been on the wrong side of the barricades during every almost significant political battle during its existence, from universal suffrage, through the Irish question, to Britain’s wars of adventure overseas.) (Macdonald, 2007)

Today, the space for serious discussion of ideas is shrinking just as the newspapers themselves expand blancmange-like to consume more and more of our kitchen tables.

Nonetheless, whatever its deficiencies, up until the 1980s, arguably until the David Hillman redesign of the Guardian in 1988—though Hillman himself, a graphic designer, is not to blame—the daily newspaper was principally a vehicle for understanding the world in Enlightenment terms. Today’s daily newspaper is increasingly magazine-like in both its objectives and its form. (Walsh, 2007)

Andrew Calcutt, professor of journalism at the University of East London, posits that this breakdown in meaning for journalism has actually resulted in some of journalism’s most high-profile failures in recent years:

Indeed it is likely that the sustained outbreak of media professionals ‘chancing it’ – from Jason [sic] Blair on the New York Times to RDF, the BBC and ‘Crowngate’ (when British viewers would have gained the erroneous impression that the Queen had rowed with photographer Annie Leibowitz), is not simply a problem of personal integrity in the moral sense, but is better understood as a problem of disintegration in the absence of organising principles such as objectivity. In other words, the source of what appears as a moral problem is that media and the people working in them do not currently have an integrated account of what they are for, hence they tend to lack ‘integrity’ (in the sense of coherence) in what they do.  (Calcutt, 2008)

(The antecedents for this shift are the work of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, the ‘New Journalism’ of the 1960s but, again, this is not the time of place to elucidate further.)

It is no surprise, for example, that the Morning Star, the daily newspaper linked to the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), contains a regular opera column. Dreadful ‘tankies’ these superannuated Stalinists may be, but they take both culture and ideas seriously.[3] How could they not? Their objective is to change the world and in this they differ from today’s liberal-left best exemplified by the Guardian-reading, sustainability-obsessed bean-eater that has colonised the contemporary left.

Unlike our archetypal (and imaginary, I concede) dedicated Guardian-reader, at least the potentially doctrinaire can usually be relied upon to have read a book or two and though their heads are perhaps well characterised as being composed of wire-wool, the life of a political radical and outsider forces an engagement with ideas that the woolly-headed liberal really only pays lip service to. Traditionally the vehicle for that great debate has been the essentially public forum of the newspaper.

Art, and visual art in particular, may be peripheral to this (mythical) discussion about the future of society—indeed, I am in no way arguing for expressly didactic art and feel that those who wish to send messages are likely to be better served by SMS services, e-mail, or old-fashioned notes stuck the fridge than they would be by picking-up a paintbrush—it is inevitable that culture forms a significant part of the ‘battle of ideas’, so to speak.

Post-modernity in its ultimate rejection of meaning serves a useful function as an ideology that supports not only the failure of capitalism to truly universalise as Marx predicted (1996) but also the absolute inability of capitalism’s contemporary critics to articulate any alternative vision for humanity.

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher coined the dictum ‘There is no alternative’ (Tina) [to the market economy]. Though a conservative (and indeed Conservative) such as Thatcher makes for an unlikely bedfellow with Jacques Derrida or, indeed, a typical ‘sandals and candles’ Guardian-reader (or GROLIES in medical slang) all three stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their fear of any attempt to transform our common circumstances. Or, to put it another way, it is commonplace today to believe that the path started by the Enlightenment leads directly to the gates of Aushwitz or the Gulag.

Although post-modernism and its associated discourses are clearly products of the left, their key insight was to respond to the disaggregation of working class subjectivity by rejecting the central tenets of socialism. Although this fact is shied-away from by much of the left today, it is not unknown for leftist commentators to wonder exactly what happened to the movement they were part of. As Alan Sokal put it when explaining his satirical attack on post-modernism, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’: “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.” (Aronowitz, 1997)

It may seem counter-intuitive to argue, as I am, that we live in an era of media proliferation that ideas are in fact in retreat.

Today’s information-saturated world might cynically be summed-up as ‘more everything, especially the crap.’ More charitably, one might say that a higher volume of information does not necessarily mean higher standards. Indeed, few would argue that it does, but it does not necessarily follow that more means worse. The point is that there has been a levelling of expectation and this comes from the top as much as it does from the bottom: the sheer volume of media thrust in front of the reader today has a tendency to reduce the significance of the information contained in it and the media elite, the publishing and dotcom giants, are complicit in pushing more and more material before the readers just as those readers’ expectations of themselves and the information they need to possess in order to act have been reduced.

As journalist Brendan O’Neill notes: “People tend to have short attention spans [these days]; they’re constantly being tempted away to do silly things, like watch pets having accidents on YouTube or read [British Conservative politician] Iain Dale’s weblog.” (Walsh, 2008)

This very proliferation of media, both ‘official’ (the press, journals, catalogues etc.) and amateur (user-generated, YouTube, blogs, Facebook etc.) serves to not only lessen the time available to the consumer of media but also to further undermine the value of the content of media itself.

Both trends, in ‘serious’ criticism and in journalism, appear to be rooted—unsurprisingly—in the wider societal changes we have witnessed over the past few decades: the retreat from production, a decline in subjectivity, the privatisation of the political and social spheres and an increasing wariness of truth and meaning and a decline in belief in universal values.

Interestingly, within art itself one can see quasi-political trends that are well worth analysing. Does this make such an argument art critcism?

Times (of London) columnist and former editor of Living Marxism, Mick Hume, argued at the height of the ‘Cool Britannia’/’Creative Britain’ narrative eagerly promoted by the British establishment through the likes of the British Council, the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA), the Tate and even the stodgy old Royal Academy, that British art reflected a diminished view of humanity:

Where once culture could reflect the view of man as the active, self-assured, nature-conquering agent of history, now it can only show humanity as the passive, self-obsessed, fearful victim of forces beyond its control. Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci dissected dead bodies with the precision of a surgeon in order to further our understanding of the human condition, and drew the perfect and beautiful ‘Universal Man’ (the one in a circle and square) as a result. Now artists hack up human and animal corpses like amateur butchers, to create monstrosities intended to depict—and even to revel in—the ugly, degraded state of our existence. (Hume, 1998, 1)

Taking Hume’s polemic at face value, one might posit that the (temporary, as it turned out) appropriation of the Young British Artists (YBAs) by New Labour was wholly appropriate not only in practical political terms (functioning as propaganda for Britain’s creativity) but also because the YBA’s degraded view of  humanity and its works was only a more radical—and crudely argued—version of New Labour’s Hobbesian distrust of human nature that later articulated itself in anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), attempts to hold suspects in policy custody without charge for absurd amounts of time and other therapeutic-authoritarian measures.

Though this is a perfectly valid critique of the YBA phenomenon it should be noted that such an analysis is better understood as sociology of culture rather than pure culture studies or art criticism. That is, the criticism serves some instrumental value and in it art takes on the role of an avatar for broader phenomena or functions as a locus for critique.

Interestingly, since Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, generally referred to in the press as ‘the Bricks’, the Tate has functioned as a lightning rod for attacks on the ‘irrelevance’, ‘stupidity’, ‘vapidity’, ‘offensiveness’ and ‘decadence’ contemporary art. This intensified during the 1993, 1995 and 1997 Turner Prizes when Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin respectively were nominees (and in Whiteread and Hirst’s cases, winners).

The 2008 Turner Prize is now upon us so it is illuminating to look briefly at journalists’ responses to the event.

The British liberal daily, the Independent, a newspaper whose readership vies with that of the Guardian for being the most open-minded, cultured and tolerant in the land, noted recently that the Prize “never ceases to raise furious debate on what constitutes art and what should be dismissed as nonsense, yesterday proved it was not about to change the habit of a lifetime.” (Akbar, 2008). So far, so what? Articles making this uncontroversial claim about the controversial nature of contemporary art are the (former) broadsheet’s stock-in-trade response to any newsworthy occurrences in the rarefied realm of art—as is a reference to the ant-Turner Prize antics of the Stuckists and the Independent does not disappoint on this at least. However, at no point in the article is there an attempt to examine the work in any way other than simply describing it. In other words, it is reduced to the level of a hastily written breaking news story: all reportage, no analysis.

The American current affairs magazine, Newsweek, meanwhile was apparently bemused by those wacky British artists and their colourful antics:

Deuchar, the Tate Britain director, begs to differ. “Turner was highly experimental, especially in his last decade,” he says. “They thought Turner had gone mad. He was ridiculed by the critics. New art is always controversial.” And, sometimes, it is also ridiculous. (Nordland, 2008) [Emphasis mine]

This statement that art is sometimes ridiculous is the author’s parting shot and it is surprisingly empty. Those who despise the faddishness or vapidity of contemporary art will feel it vindicates their position while those who enjoy contemporary art will not be offended by it, instead arguing that much art is self-evidently ridiculous and that this is, in fact, the point. One is tempted to conclude that the author simply suffered a failure of nerve and was afraid to make a decisive judgement.

On the facing page to Newsweek’s piece on the Turner Prize, however, is a piece of criticism that is worth comparing. Under the headline ‘Designed to chill’ we find an review of an industrial and graphic design exhibition that examines design through the prism of the Cold War. (Bronwell, 2008) This article engages with the subject matter, in the form of both the actual design and the exhibition itself, much more seriously than its fine art equivalent opposite. Why should this be so? I suggest that there are two key reasons.

Firstly, it is essential to note that the design article is to some degree instrumental insofar as it uses design to talk about something else, in this case history and geopolitics. More importantly, however, design remains more firmly rooted in our culture than fine art, presumably due to its ongoing connection to production and the material world.

This is not to argue that art should be dismissed, Socialist Realist style, if it does not reflect our immediate circumstances. Rather, it is simply worth noting that the connection to real life makes the act of writing—and indeed reading—easier.

If art is increasingly isolated from experience and so are the institutions that support and frame art, and indeed, decide what is and what is not art, then the critic is left with only two options: join the party or stand outside throwing rocks in.

Moving away from the deficiencies of the press, from an individual’s point of view, the very act of criticism can be daunting. I shall give a personal example: in 2006 I was working as a design columnist for a London-based graphic design title. Out of the blue I was asked to write a piece of art criticism for a Dublin-based current affairs monthly. I agreed without thinking. Why wouldn’t I? The majority of my Ireland-bound writing at the time was less than glamorous, focussed increasingly on various technical aspects of architecture, construction and planning.

As the deadline loomed, however, I began to get nervous. I had been asked to write a review of a book of Polaroid photographs taken by the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky is a giant—his legacy is unassailable. Who on earth was I to even comment on his image-making abilities?

Ultimately, the appropriate response to this is simply: “Tough. Suck it up!” If it’s your job, then you do it. However, it would be uncharitable, to say the least, to ignore the pressure on a critic to be, if not kind then at least to not damn. This pressure is, one can safely assume, suitably magnified when the subject is either of major (art) historical significance or simply when running into them is a real possibility. ‘Kicking against the pricks’, as the Acts of the Apostles instructs us to do, can be a tall order when then pricks in question are themselves alive and likely to kick back.

Going back to I.F. Stone’s remark that, “[R]eporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover […] Should a reporter resist this pressure there are many ways to get rid of him.” Surely this is as true of the academic art historian and/or theorist and indeed the artist? After all, only the bravest—or foolhardiest—turkeys vote for Christmas. Today, now that all that was intermediate has melted into confusion, perhaps we should rally them with a new slogan: “Critics of the world fight back; you have nothing to lose but your jobs.”

Posted By: Jason Walsh (