Executive Editor's Letter: "Critical" Mass
Here, in Toronto, the art critics are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Feeling underappreciated and underpaid, people who write about art seem to be at the bottom of the food chain, with far fewer opportunities to share their views than film, music, book and, dammit, even restaurant critics. The seemingly sorry state of art criticism in Canada is a hot topic at the moment; what brought this on?
Well, we can actually trace it back to one woman. Last November, Andrea Carson, a knowledgeable and respected writer and blogger, posted an article on her site, View on Canadian Art. In it, she wondered whether she (and art writers in general) needed to be more ‘critical’. She also shared her less-than-favourable reaction to an exhibition that was then on view. The shit storm that erupted was something to behold. (I’ve read Carson’s site since its inception, and this was the first time I’ve seen her warn people that their posts would be removed if they didn’t stay civil.) Some people attacked Carson for what they thought was a half-baked, ill-informed response to the show; the exhibition’s curators wrote a lengthy response, as well. In Carson’s defence, it doesn’t seem like her post was meant to be a fulsome review of the exhibition. Instead, her comments were to illustrate a bigger idea.
Fortunately, after the dust settled, people started to focus on the actual point that Carson was trying to make — what does the word ‘critical’ mean when it comes to writing about art? The brou-ha-ha did not go unnoticed by a young woman named Nadja Sayej, who, as the host of ArtStars TV, documents the Toronto art scene in an often humorous, take-no-prisoners sort of way. Last November, Sayej organized and hosted a Panel discussion on the topic of art criticism. Despite the absolutely miserable, rainy night, the event was packed, and several of Toronto’s ‘heavy hitter’ art critics, including John Bentley Mays and Dan Adler, were in attendance. The five-person Panel included the Toronto Star’s Murray Whyte; Leah Sandals, who writes for the National Post and edits the Canadian Art Foundation’s website; and Toronto Life magazine’s David Balzer, who remained eloquent even when telling the chatty Sayej to be quiet so he could finish sharing his thoughts. (Strangely enough, Carson, who started this ball rolling, wasn’t asked to be on the Panel.) Each spoke about how they got into art criticism and described the challenges art writers face, but the audience seemed to crave a deeper discussion. Several times, people tried to engage in conversations about the meaning of the word ‘critical’. To some, ‘critical’ meant ‘fair and balanced’; that critics should praise an exhibition’s strong points, but must also feel at liberty to discuss any shortcomings they perceive. To others, ‘critical’ meant being more selective in the art that got coverage.
These seem to be fairly straightforward definitions; so, what is preventing us from achieving the level of criticality that we seem to want? Some blamed skittish publishers who were concerned that ad sales would drop should they run negative reviews. Others felt that the lack of column inches dedicated to the visual arts in newspapers and magazines (Canada has no monthly print publication dedicated to art) makes writers focus their energies on praising what they like instead of panning what they don’t. Others wanted to take the conversation in a slightly different direction by talking about what constitutes ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ criticism, description versus analysis, and the difference between ‘dumbing down’ art criticism and writing about art in an informative, yet accessible, way.
Unfortunately, the trail of responses on Carson’s blog and the evening hosting by Sayej didn’t resolve anything, but they have provided plenty of food for thought. Already, other evenings to discuss the nature and role of art criticism have been planned. (Carson, for example, is hosting her own art critics’ evening at the Drake Hotel on February 25, which, coincidentally, is also the opening night of the Whitney Biennial.) As an arts writer and nascent magazine editor, myself, this is an important discussion that I look forward to following in the coming months. And, as Magenta Magazine continues to evolve, I hope that it will become a fair and balanced record of the art that is enthralling — and, occasionally, annoying — us today.
P.S., Speaking of underpaid, as I wrote in my first editor’s letter, Magenta Magazine has been, so far, a labour of love for myself and the contributors. By ‘labour of love’, I mean that no one is being paid yet; however, we hope that some of you may be willing to help us change that. With this second, solid issue under our belts, the team at Magenta is going to be reviewing the visitor data and developing some advertising rates in the coming months. The money generated from advertising sales will go towards content development and paying the writers, who have already been extremely generous with their talents. If you are interested in supporting Magenta and its writers by purchasing advertising space in our Spring 2010 issue, which is scheduled for release in early May, please drop us a line at email@example.com and we will certainly be in touch with you.