OWS Arts & Labor’s panel discussion with New York art writers at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (all images via OWS Arts & Labor’s Facebook page)

Last Thursday night at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, Occupy Wall Street affinity group Arts & Labor organized a panel of New York art writers to discuss the labor of art criticism. Village Voice and New York Times critic Martha Schwendener opened the round table with the question, “What is the labor of writing?” Schwendener and Arts and Labor proposed a discussion about the working conditions of art criticism in an effort to dispel some prevailing myths, which she framed as power, authority, and allure. She then started things off with an open question to the panel about how they became art critics.

Ben Davis, executive editor at Blouin Artinfo, disagreed that what had attracted him to art criticism were merely myths. He first noted that another panelist, Walter Robinson, had advised him early on not to become an art critic. Davis conceded that he wished someone had told him the economic facts about the career earlier but disagreed with Schwendener that the allure of criticism is a myth. He quickly pointed out that the top ten highest paying jobs in America tend to be “soul-killing” professions like “salesman.” He argued, “as difficult as it [criticism] is, it’s something that you believe in.”

Village Voice critic Christian Viveros-Faune noted that while he backed into writing, he supported Davis’s assertion: “Salesman, yeah shitty. Like being an art dealer.” He added that being a critic offered him the chance to be “as close to being an artist as possible without the necessary skill.” Viveros-Faune then brought two items into the discussion: Steve Lambert and Steve Duncombe’s open letter to critics writing about political art, which he felt was “the most condescending thing ever,” and Sarah Thornton’s recent public resignation from writing about the art market.

Artist and writer Mira Schor stated flatly, “I don’t think I’m a critic. I had something to say that no one else was saying.” Schor said she entered art writing for political reasons and noted that she was “writing to ideas, not to a market place” — she chooses her own agenda and forum. She also discussed the different speeds of writing, contrasting the two years it took her to finish an introduction for A Decade of Negative Thinking versus quickly writing blog posts, like her recent entries on the Creative Time Summit. She suggested that topicality and timeliness were factors in her own production as a writer.

Ken Johnson, from the New York Times, admitted that the idea of making a living as a critic didn’t seem feasible, but when writing criticism in Albany, he said, “People noticed I had talent. They didn’t say that about my art.” He also described the process of earning your income primarily from criticism as a way of becoming stuck with the profession. Walter Robinson, formerly the editor of Artnet magazine, affirmed this idea of ending up stuck and said that while people may believe in freewill, it’s all an illusion.

Art Fag City creator Paddy Johnson said that she had tried other jobs in the arts, but all of them taught her to “make it sound like you know more than you do.” She explained that being a critic requires “learning in public”: as a writer, the most important thing is being able to express an opinion and work out why you hold that opinion. Kareem Estefan, from Creative Time Reports, actually started in another field, music criticism, but was trained in a critical studies program. Estafan described his process as “looking first for the enclosure, and then finding the openings.” For him “art writing became a space of possibility,” unlike other forms of journalism. He was also the first to point out that the days of senior positions and full-time employment as a critic were over and that “it seems like freelance positions are the only possibility,” likening the condition to being an adjunct professor.

Walter Robinson speaking on the art writing panel, with Martha Schwendener on the left and Paddy Johnson on the right

Robinson offered that he “kinda liked being an art critic.” The magazine’s transition to digital media “made him a star,” but “then they shut down the magazine.” Robinson brought the conversation back around to Sara Thornton’s resignation, calling her “great, lively, smart, and incisive” but saying he disagreed with her decision. He argued that if the art market is like theater, reporting on it is like writing about the stars and so serves a function. He criticized Thornton for not getting into a deeper analysis of the socio-economic conditions of the market. Robinson opened up the conversation a bit by lamenting that fact that he felt art critics had not adequately taken a political position during election season.

This turned the discussion to electoral politics, with Ken Johnson responding that taking an overt political position is problematic. He argued that he wouldn’t be able to convince anyone in the room to change their previously held views and that he wasn’t interested in hearing the opinions of the other critics in the room. He did point out, later, that he holds a strong political position against the war on drugs, but said readers need to decode it in his reviews.

Schwendener noted, in reference to Lambert and Duncombe’s open letter, that she had spoken with Lambert about the use of the second person and the problematic nature of speaking for all critics. She returned to her own initial question about her initiation into art criticism and described it as a process of learning that she was better at explaining art than practicing art history. Mainstream art criticism, she said, offered a different audience than her experience with the discourse in the journal October, which she felt limited her ability to communicate.

“Political criticism is great,” Davis said, but “you have to write about context, and context is always political.” Schor mentioned the model of the public intellectual, adding that she was writing poltically about large galleries getting larger and mirroring the broader problem of income inequality. She had one of the quotes of the night when she said that market reporting discusess “X, Y, and Z asshole,” citing the Richard Phillips show at Gagosian Gallery on 25th Street, one of his eleven galleries around the globe.

Estefan observed that he looks to artists who are “asking questions that aren’t already out there.” He also talked briefly about his experience at NPR, where the staff’s interests had to dovetail with the buzz around a given subject, and suggested that writing about activism might relegate it to the insular world of aesthetic concerns and therefore be harmful to the efficacy of political art.

Viveros-Faune returned to the “pay sucks” aspect of criticism before observing that the conversation seemed to be circling around the notion of the critic as public intellectual, which allows for “taking a subject and talking as much as we can through that lens” of the artist or artwork. He also made the point that “when theory falls apart” as the dominant mode of discourse, “it gives people like us a chance to talk.” He concluded by saying that people read critics not for their judgements but for their insights into art.

Coming back to politics, Ken Johnson noted that he had just reviewed a show about black artists from the ’60s and ’70s that focused on solidarity and identity. He compared the call for solidarity from that era to OWS’s current calls, but found it a paradoxical position for critics who desire autonomy from the group. He then opined that if you’re in the solidarity movement, it limits what you can say.

This seemed a bit at odds with the fact that Schwendener has been an active memember of Arts and Labor and Occupy Museums, but Johnson seemed unaware of that. Paddy Johnson expressed frustration with the lack of efficacy her solidarity with the Sotheby’s art handlers had in creating a positive outcome for the striking workers. Ultimately, her reporting and petition didn’t improve the long-term outlook for unionized labor at the auction house. The contract that the art handlers signed protects their existing jobs, but will phase out all union positions with no new union hires.

Schwender tried to bring the panel back around to the economic conditions that critics face by asking, “What’s our upside?” Schor responded by saying that while writing from an unsupported position may allow freedom, she also publishes with the Huffington Post, which isn’t paid. She wondered about the exploitative nature of what might be called an “economy of enthusiasm.” (I’m borrowing that term from artist Nic Rad, who brought it up when discussing the ArtsTech meet-ups.) Davis countered that working as an art critic allows you to control the conditions of your work to some degree. (It reminded me of a point he made in conversation once that artistic labor might be distinguished by its degree of alienation for the artist.)

Ben Davis speaking on the panel, with Ken Johnson on the left and Mira Schor and Kareem Estefan on the right

The first question from the audience returned to the craft of criticism: a professor compared it to sex, saying, “Everyone does it, but no one knows exactly how you do it.” Schwendener responded, “Write and write and write,” which reminded me of Jerry Saltz’s advice to artists that “you can’t think your way through an art problem; as John Cage said, ‘Work comes from work.’” Schwendener went on to describe writing as a practice, pointing out that French writer and critic Diderot practiced art criticism because it was an uncensored form in which to speak politically. Her closing advice for young critics was to “grind it out.”

The second audience query related to the avant-garde myth of the “singular genius,” with the questioner wondering if the “sad state” of art criticism could be attributed to the lack of “collective art working.” Viveros-Faune dismissed this notion, saying, “The real reason for the impoverishment of criticism is the disconnect from readership, and from culture in general.” The audience member turned the question back to him by asking, “Who is your audience?” Viveros-Faune replied, “Anyone smart enough to be interested in art.” There was some discussion of audience and readership, with Paddy Johnson remarking that “art nerds have a lot of choices these days” on the Internet due to the quality of niche blogging, which might explain the drop-off in criticism for, and readership by, large general audiences.

At this point, someone asked a question about the role of unions for critics, to which Schor emphatically responded that she would never join a union, partly due to concerns about some kind of Soviet-style control. This answer elicited audible disagreement from Arts and Labor members, who shouted “Why?!” The moment seemed to represent one of the divides between the organizers of and the participants on the panel. Schor asked what writers would be unionizing for, since there is a lack of money in the industry.

Estefan said he was surprised by Schor’s reaction and speculated about some of the ways in which unions might support critics. Schwendener agreed with him, and some of the critics noted that they are already part of professional associations. Ken Johnson added that he loves critics because “they are bubbling over with ideas,” though not necessarily solutions.

Arts and Labor member Blithe Riley asked the third question, which was more of a frame for possible discussion than a real query. She wondered, “How can we actually talk about acting collectively?” in part because she learned through OWS that “acting collectively is a political position.” She close her statement by wondering, “How can we politicize all of this a little more?”

Schor responded that critical communities and solidarity seem temporary. She argued that solidarity groups could be considered a success when they accomplish one thing or produce even one publication due to the degree of difficulty in sustaining a group. Ken Johnson brought up the notion that exhibitions built around solidarity of a particular identity, such as blackness, have made him more careful and less willing to critique “the moral righteousness of the art.” He argued that solidarity movements and activism seemed “designed to resist criticism.” His points elicited a strong reaction from an audience member who argued that feminism and Occupy need real critique, and that the movements should be strong enough to accept criticism.

The fourth question from the audience brought the conversation back to autonomy: “Can you pick and choose your own subjects? Can you set your own agenda?” Viveros-Faune said that at the Village Voice, he can set his own agenda, but chooses to write about what he thinks are important shows at “museums and the bigger galleries” for his general readership; by contrast, things are very different at The Art Newspaper. Davis noted that “the more commercial the publication, the less control you have.” He then made a statement that elicited another strong reaction: he dislikes the term “art workers,” he said, calling it a meaningless pseudo-category and a false umbrella. He argued that reform in the arts needs to “start from material reality, not some nebulous idea.” He also said that the average museum audience is “80 percent white with 5 percent less black attendance” over the last five years. The panel itself was almost entirely white, with five men and three women. The audience was not so different along race and gender lines.

Ken Johnson remarked that “solidarity is deadly,” in regards to criticism. Occupy Museums member Maureen O’Connor challenged Johnson’s position as a protective shell, saying, “I’ve never known you to pussy-foot around a show.” Ken responded by saying, “I’m careful,” to which someone suggested vocally, “You should be careful, be made more aware.” Someone else suggested that the question of criticism is “how to bring the margins into broader culture.”

The round table ended with a broad, open-ended question from a female audience member that started with, “This is kind of abstract in its grandness …” There was no time for a response from the panelists.

“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.

William Powhida is a G-E-N-I-U-S and habitual critic of the art world. Powhida lives in Bushwick, has a studio in Williamsburg, and exhibits in Chelsea. His home online is here.

One reply on “What Is the Labor of Art Writing? (Part 1)”

  1. Art criticism reaches its spiritual, political, and creative pinnacle during indeed those most rare and crucial of eras when a superlatively gifted visual artist has become so utterly invested in constructing things of timeless artistic value that his or her responses and temperament towards the field of art in general have to by necessity coalesce and thus materialize first in lines of poetry and then by profound cosmic forces will expand into the more precisely arbitrating literary form of structured–as opposed to amorphous and iridescent–art criticism.

    The old and tired question unfortunately still lingers as to whether a person can be a magnanimous yet truly incisive and therefore affective art critic if they sadly lack the abilities to make great art themselves? Absolutely not is obviously the answer since the educated public direly needs to know what exactly empowers one to be seated at the esteemed social position from which you can judge the merits of others’ work.

    Of course it is only natural that any great artist will invariably strive to achieve the laurels of a great writer being so perfecting and industrious as they always seem to be.

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