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What is critical writing?
Chris Brown, Reviews Editor for a-n Magazine, talks to a selection of writers about the practice and pitfalls of taking up the pen.
As with many contributors to a-n, I'm not only a writer but also a practitioner. From this vantage I'm compelled to consider the bounds of one's responsibility in these guises: as a writer, should I seek approval of the artist(s) featured in my writings; as a practitioner should I expect editorial control over any text published in response to my work? There is a deceptively complex relationship between the artist's intentions in her work, the curator's interpretation of that work, and the writer's response to that presentation.
Writers' approaches to this relationship vary enormously, from careful negotiation to absolute autonomy. And, as writer and lecturer Emma Cocker points out, the context influences this relationship too: "Is the writing intended as criticism, as a form of critique or qualitative judgement; or an interpretation or contextual construct? Is it dialogic or responsive; academic or theoretical; performative or propositional; experimental or speculative, playful or simply a form of reportage that documents or describes a piece of work?"
Whose critical writing is it anyway?
The answer is simple - it's the writer's or is it? Excepting plagiarism, there is an array of individuals who might also stake a claim in critical/discursive material: the Artist, the Subject (the artwork), the Curator, the Commissioner(s), the Reader even. One might propose a code of conduct by which the writer can decide to what extent she involves these parties. Writer and lecturer John Slyce endeavours to consider a reader first and foremost while writing, most often an imaginary ideal reader .
The relationship between Writer and Subject isn't as straightforwardly passive or mute as one might expect; there is an element of dialogue here too. Neil Mulholland talks about "allowing the artwork to suggest the terms of encounter." And Jorg Heiser argues: "To some extent the job of the critic is to examine the difference between a work's inherent claims, or the claims made by the artist and the actual effect."1 It must be emphasised that this dialogue cannot take place via a press release or documentation; it must be in the presence of the artwork itself.
And what about between Writer and Artist? Slyce considers it essential to create a dialogue not only with the work but also the artist's practice, although he admits, "This is often both helped and sometimes hindered by speaking directly with the artist." Cocker's writing is often informed by conversations or interviews with artists. She states, "This kind of dialogue between artists and writers is not a way of simply clarifying the intentions of the artist that are then articulated by the writer, but is rather a space where meanings are proposed, negotiated and contested." Others disagree, claiming that such dialogue is counter-productive. Theorist and art historian Amelia Jones: "I find it impossible, once I get to know someone, to have any sense of clarity about her or his work historically speaking. I can write about her or his work in revealing ways, but ones that are (perhaps usefully, perhaps not) laden with personal feelings and conflicts involving the artist as a friend."2 Mulholland similarly finds dialogue obstructive within his writing process, since it leads to "fudge, compromise and culture by committee". Furthermore he proposes that there's no linear order to production, consumption and distribution (e.g. Artist to Curator to Audience/Writer), and prefers to visualise these relations described in a Venn diagram.
Both Mulholland's and Cocker's approaches are less concerned with an archaic system of role-assignation and authorial critique of practice in favour of an autonomous methodology. Mulholland: "I don't think that writing is representational (or that art is for that matter). I'm not interested in being mimetic - in writing being a 'response'. The writing has a creative life of its own, it can and does exist without the work in place." Cocker's interest lies in developing and examining critical contexts to frame an artist's practice, as opposed to passing a critical judgment of the work itself or "trying to rigidly locate its meaning or deny the work its inherent instability". So, rather than being the artist's mouthpiece or sounding board, critical writing may be seen more as a stand-alone practice that runs in tandem with art.
While most writers observe what Rachel Lois Clapham identifies as "critical responsibility to both the object/subject and reader whilst practising the freedom of authorial interpretation and expression," we must also acknowledge the potential for this autonomy to eclipse the subject. Artist and facilitator of the LAUK 'Writing for Live Art' initiative Joshua Sofaer warns against writers hijacking the artwork to illustrate an argument, which he identifies as "parasitism and a discourteous act".
"We need more amateurs"
In contrast to this egocentricity, several novice writers value their opinions less than those of seasoned critics. Why? Perhaps this is partly a result of the teaching methods of the cultural/theoretical element of fine art degrees. Students are required to form their opinions by proxy by framing them in an argument informed by the propositions of established cultural theoreticians, creating a hierarchy of opinion. John Slyce suggests, "All opinions are generally equal. Some are more interesting than others and there is no professional hierarchy to this necessarily." Conversely, Mulholland attests this hierarchy: "[Novice writers] don't have the empirical basis to make judgements about what they are looking at, as they haven't seen much. They maybe don't always look intently." He adds, "Seasoned critics aren't necessarily going to be any better; they may be lazy or poorly informed just as much as novices can be."
Cocker warns against another issue: "The novice writer should be wary not to (even unintentionally) parody the mannerisms of a more experienced writer. There is a desire to adopt an overly academic persona that is not the voice of the writer and sits at odds with their level of knowledge or experience." Artist and writer John Beagles supports this: "The idea of professional, specialist critics whom we should respect by virtue of their specialist, expert position is wholly abhorrent to me. It terrifies me when students say things like, 'But Adrian Searle said it was good'." Quite.
Clapham advises, "As long as you toe the line of academic responsibility toward your subject whilst maintaining your rightful distance, than you have nothing to fear in terms of your writing being critically 'valid'. You just need to evidence your opinions, however briefly."
The politics of negative criticism
Maintaining this "rightful distance", or autonomy, can be advantageous in such a highly networked and interdependent environment such as the artist-led arena, especially when negative criticism is due. Considering writers' allegiances, writer and lecturer Dr Ken Neil recalls the adage, "A good critic should have no friends and no enemies."
Avoidance of negative criticism to keep the peace or offer blithe support shouldn't be considered; any editorial policy that condones it is being irresponsible and censorial. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to broach. Sofaer observes, "Emerging writers commonly feel as if they're not established enough to write a negatively critical piece. The responsibility is upon the writer to sufficiently inform herself." Writers tackle this in different ways. Slyce believes, "The best negative criticism is silence. There is no 'bad' criticism other than no criticism. "Peter Suchin puts the responsibility on the artwork: "If the artist's work is strong it should be able to withstand criticism; if it can't, maybe the artist needs to rethink his/her practice. Further, you might annoy a few people by being critical but then you also generate support for your position."
When writing negative criticism, to confirm that her opinion is valid Clapham considers: "Would I feel confident and happy about this writing if I met the person whose work it is?" This prevents unduly rash or personal jibes. Beagles doesn't think being critical should be framed as being negative, and even dislikes the idea of people agreeing with him. For him, "The best marker of a good piece of art or exhibition was that it provoked debate, questions."
Emma Cocker concludes: "Writing as a practice is not neutral, nor is it ever entirely factual, but often operates as a complicated collision or social exchange between the art; the artist; the gallery, the writer and commissioning agency."
1 Binary Fluffing, Frieze issue 100, p221
2 Presence in Absentia: experiencing performance as documentation Art Journal 56, 4 (1997) pp11-18
All other quotes are extracts from correspondence between the contributors and Chris Brown.
First published: a-n.co.uk September 2007
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