Articles

What Is the Labor of Art Writing? (Part 2)

by William Powhida on November 2, 2012

An audience member asks a question at OWS Arts & Labor’s round-table discussion on art writing. (all images via OWS Arts & Labor’s Facebook page)

Editor’s note: Read part 1, a recap of the the OWS Arts & Labor round-table discussion with art writers. Part 2 is our writer’s response to issues raised during the conversation.

At one point, Arts & Labor member Blithe Riley, who was in the audience at the round table, made a comment about “freaking out a little.” This highlighted the disconnect between the political and social aspirations of Arts & Labor and the general role of art critics for me.

Having learned the practice of art criticism at the Brooklyn Rail and published a few reviews with Walter Robinson at Artnet, I recognized many of the themes that came up at the event. At the Rail, writers had complete autonomy to pursue whatever shows interested them but were not paid for their writing. While I found great personal satisfaction, as Ben Davis observed, in this freedom to write about art, it was also unsustainable. It was no wonder that so many of the writers also held full- and part-time teaching positions. But as Schor noted, it was an opportunity to write about ideas, not a market (or for a market that pays). My experience with Artnet was very different: Robinson demanded greater description and prices in the reviews and seemed less concerned with ideas. My final review for him was killed, and I was paid $100 for not publishing a piece on artist Eve Sussman after suggesting that her older audio works with feedback loops had some bearing on how she framed the photographs from her Whitney Biennial piece “89 Seconds at Alcazar.”

Between not getting paid, a growing art practice that folded criticism into the work (which, surprisingly, began to pay well), and the market pressures at Artnet, I decided to abandon the practice. On a trip to a show we were both in at Arcadia University, Mira Schor told me that she stopped writing reviews because she didn’t want to engage in “that kind of career building,” which is another essential function of art criticism that went undiscussed at the panel. Art criticism, however diminished, still plays an important role in developing artist’s careers, as Christian Viveros-Faune suggested when he said he writes about “important shows.” Having been covered by Viveros-Faune, Ken Johnson, Paddy Johnson, Walter Robinson, Ben Davis, and Jerry Saltz (who sat behind me at Housing Works), I understand the ways in which criticism can validate (even if the feedback is negative) an artist’s career and confer the perception of being “important.” As an artist, you can be picked by the public, critics, dealers, curators, collectors, and/or institutions. It is in the confluence of these picks that something like consensus emerges around the value of your artwork.

One of the issues that Arts & Labor raises is how economic value is created in the art market and for whom. While critics like Clement Greenberg are remembered as having immense influence as both gate keepers and king makers, the panelists didn’t really  discuss their role in creating value within the market. Robinson briefly entered this territory with his criticism of Sarah Thornton’s sociological approach, but left it simply at “more needs to be done.” There is a sense that collectors’ decisions, expressed as capital judgments through buying art, as opposed to critical judgements and analysis expressed through writing, have had a much greater impact on creating artistic value. Economic and broader cultural value often become intertwined around high-priced works that are strongly resistant to negative critical judgements, as Schor’s comment about Richard Phillips suggested. (I’d also mention Dan Colen’s universally panned debut solo show at Gagosian. It sold very well.)

All of this comes back to Riley’s urgent plea, “How can we politicize all of this a little more?” It’s the central question facing artists and critics, one that Steve Lambert and Steve Duncombe’s open letter also asks. In the face of still-growing income inequality and the powerful influence of collectors’ capital judgments, which can directly influence what institutions choose to exhibit to the public (Maurizo Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum was supported by his patron David Ganek; Dakis Jounnou’s private collection was displayed at the New Museum), critics still function much like artists: they must develop a unique voice and niche to establish an identity. Critics tend to build their identity around groups of artists or a particular style or attitude that they believe in, as Davis remarked.

As for what drives critics — their own aesthetic, social, and political values under the umbrellla of whatever publication they write for. It’s the same with the majority of commercial artists who develop immediately recognizable brands. The market has far fewer successful collectives, which directly challenge authorship and the establishment of economic value. While they do exist in the broader art world, as evidenced by the groups that presented at the recent Creative Time Summit on inequality, working collectively is not generally rewarded through record-breaking sales. Davis said that context is always political, and Viveros-Faune noted that importance is linked to “bigger galleries and institutions.” The common link is the power of money and the domination of the market by a few very wealthy individuals based on their own individual aesthetic, social, and political tastes. As Riley remarked, “working collectively is a political position,” certainly in relation to the dominance of individual taste and judgment.

Mira Schor speaking at the event, with Ben Davis on the left and Kareem Estefan on the right

Within the individualist model, very few people are able to make even a modest living, as the critics all seemed to agree that “the pay sucks.” Yet because of the personal satisfaction that critics derive from the practice of writing, they continue, like artists, to work, without much hope of making a lot of money. Schwendener’s comment that she is “writing for the future” is perhaps another myth held by critics and artists to counter the prevailing market forces. This is where Riley’s plea about politicization begins to break down: collective action remains what Davis called “a nebulous idea” because the material reality is that we are cultured towards individual self-expression and self-interest. The seemingly obvious solution, of working collectively for mutual interest, would require a massive cultural shift, as Jeff Chang noted at the Creative Time Summit. A belief in the truly collective, plural “we” — rather than the coercive “we” that writers and speakers (including myself) use when we think we’re right — is not deeply or widely held.

In America, “we” opens a symbolic line of text in the preamble of the Constitution that is at odds with both the radical individuality of reactionary groups like Randian Objectivists and the celebration of singular artistic genius. This belief in the importance of individuality is linked directly to notions of freedom; to take away the former is to take away the latter. Schor echoed this proposition in her immediate, visceral reaction to the question of unionization. After the discussion, she backed away from her statement, but it nevertheless pointed to our particular Western narrative of the free market versus Soviet-era Communism. America is thirty years removed from the Cold War, but the lasting legacy seems to be the primacy of personal autonomy, held up as one of the concerns of both the critics and the audience at the panel — freedom to choose what to write about, as opposed to corporate directives or an institutionalized editorial voice. Schwendener voiced displeasure with October’s use of language just as Viveros-Faune expressed dissatisfaction with the market orientation of The Art Newspaper.

While Riley, and by extension, Arts & Labor, call for collective action, they must realize at this point that something greater than rational thought about mutual interest is undermining their efforts. Things haven’t changed overnight since Occupy Wall Street identified what Slavoj Zizek called “irrational self-interest” as having created massive income inequality. Zizek also said that “knowing is not enough,” and that while we may “rationally know something without experience,” we still act in ways that can be harmful to our own interests. I share Riley’s exasperation — her question echoes long after the discussion — but so does Zizek’s call for a “rational egoism,” in which self-interest aligns with mutual interest, somewhere between the irrational egoism of late capitalism and the power of anonymous collective.

I think there is an irrational fear that working collectively strips away personal autonomy, identity, and freedom of self-expression. American society resists anonymity and collective action, which then become two of the most radical positions to take in opposition to our dominant cultural value of individual identity, perhaps best exemplified by the phenomenon of celebrity. Kim Kardashian’s public life and the hacker collective Anonymous exist in opposition to each other. The irrational ego and egolessness are the poles of social formation, while both present opposition to the formation of a rational ego.

The imposition of a disaster like hurricane Sandy disrupts this binary, and for a short period of time, “we” stops being a nebulous idea; we work together to repair the status quo. Perhaps the economic collapse of 2008 was too big or abstract to cause society to reform itself, but it remains a disaster. Riley’s exasperation seems to stem from the question of why we cannot recognize it as such and radically re-orient ourselves in order to correcting the economic and social policies that precipitated it (and continue relatively unabated). Robinson’s remark that the art market is “theater” contains some truth, as it plays out the the dominant narrative, however fictional, of personal autonomy leading to massive wealth and success with the attendant high-stakes drama. The same spectacles play out in other fields of culture, too.

It’s also ironic that Robinson noted how Artnet made him feel like a “star” but didn’t comment on the fact that the market forced the closure of his magazine (it didn’t make financial sense to new ownership). This was a powerful, material disruption in Robinson’s life, but remains unremarkable in a discussion about art writing and labor? I imagined that Robinson’s newfound freedom would elicit some reflection on the market-oriented nature of art criticism, but he only offered nostalgia. His omission is  revealing — he clearly, like Davis, had other motivations besides getting paid. For Robinson it was stardom; for Davis, doing something worthwhile; for Paddy Johnson, greater understanding; for Schor, giving voice to feminist concerns; for Ken Johnson, doing something he was good at; for Estefan, asking the unasked; for Viveros-Faune, affirming important art; and for Schwendener, writing for the future.

These are only some of the many possible motivations, and the plurality of difference is the material reality of art criticism that runs counter to Riley and Arts & Labor’s desire for collective action. A rational, economic imperative is simply not enough to change deeply held cultural beliefs of personal autonomy. Instead of being denied or viewed as an obstacle to social reform, these individual motivations need to be accounted for and carefully considered to discover where they overlap. “We” have a nebulous idea of total horizontality that exists within a sharply peaked material reality of income inequality. There needs to be some leveling, but a process that doesn’t disavow difference, gradation, and distinction. This isn’t an abstract observation; it stems directly from the formation of the round table itself: members of Arts & Labor collectively sitting to the side of the panel, asking questions of recognized art critics talking about their individual experiences. There was a palpable divide between the desires of the group and the desires of the individuals. One discussion only began to make this apparent.

Being something of in between artist-critic and involved at times with Arts & Labor afforded me some perspective on the different positions. It also reflects my own unease with being only one thing, either an artist, critic, or activist. To wit, almost everyone on the panel has or has had more than one role: Davis is also an activist, Schwendener was a practicing musician, Robinson a painter, Ken Johnson began as an artist, Schor is an artist, Paddy Johnson runs her own organization, Viveros-Faune was an art dealer and remains a curator. I want something that is at odds with the formation of both groups at the panel and the formation of the discussion itself: to freely express my opinions and get paid, to have an identity within a collective, to work individually and collectively to challenge the values of the wealthy elite to whom our entire society is subordinated. I want to learn how to work cooperatively while not losing my voice and identity. These are contradictory and paradoxical impulses, but ones that need to be negotiated to prevent extremes of flatlands and peaks that can’t be smoothed out into a middle ground of hills and slopes. This seems to me to be the hardest thing to do.

If you are asking yourself, “What does this have to do with the labor of criticism?” — Davis reminds us that “context is always political, and you have to write about the context.”

“Art Writing as Craft, Labor, and Art” took place at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (126 Crosby Street, Soho, Manhattan) on Thursday, October 25, at 7 pm.

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  • http://twitter.com/bethwhitney Beth Whitney

    This is a very thoughtful and considered response to the panel. Thanks!

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