Critical Failure: Visual Arts, The Wheeler Centre, Thursday 9 September

Critical Failure at The Wheeler Centre

The Critical Failure nights that occurred over four nights last week were an excellent idea – a night each dedicated to a panel discussion of, variously, criticism of Film, Books, Theatre and Art. I would’ve gone to all of them if I wasn’t out-of-town from Monday – Wednesday, luckily I was able to make it to the Thursday session, which was about Visual Arts.

Patrick McCaughy, Phip Murray, Naomi Cass (as opposed to Nadia Tass – as the moderator accidentally called her at the end of the event) and some guy from SMH, who is apparently their pre-eminent art reviewer.

It was an excellent panel in many ways. The breadth and depth of their collective experience and knowledge is something you can’t deny, and on one level, just enjoyable to be witness to. However, is it too much to expect that a discussion of visual art in this country might start in medias res?

The big topic, as seems to be in any discussion of anything these days, was the internet effect: on their financial knees, newspapers have given up on editorial authority, and now instead of interpreting contemporary art they have tasked themselves with playing to what they consider to be their audience. Ie. No-one cares about art, or understands it, so they don’t either. Art pages are now lifestyle pages etc.

There was much wringing of hands on the panel about how column inches have shrunk, and “lovely long-form” critiques have given way to capsule reviews. Phip pointed out that from her perspective, there is plenty of long-form, considered, critical writing about art going on, probably more than ever, however it happens within communities of artists and audiences on the internet and through independent publications, none of which anyone else on the panel (or presumably listening to the ABC broadcast) reads. The phenomenon of “friends reviewing friends”, and how  detrimental it is or isn’t fed from this. Phip defended this as just being a facet of being part of the same community, natural and unavoidable.

This moved the discussion to the idea that artists and writers these days don’t really do it for the money. This is a cute idea, that makes us sound a hell of a lot more noble than we really are.

There was also talk of how devastating it is to put all that effort into showing work and have it pass completely unnoticed. That artists want their work to be seen, and that it is reprehensible that it is not being covered by mainstream press.

All of this made me feel tremendously tired. There’s a lot I wanted to put my hand up to say during the Q&A, but I generally feel so completely disenfranchised by this type of situation, I go numb and dumb. I walk away fuming, but don’t feel like there is any point in trying to contribute, because these forums seem so mired in a discussion that should’ve been happening 10 years ago, when they were relevant, instead of now, when everyone but the people they put on panels have moved on already.

So, in the truly cowardly style so integral to blogging, I will say it here:

They needed a writer on that panel who was actively engaged with the internet – someone who actually writes for an online arts journal who could break through the politeness of the discussion and stand up for themselves without feeling like they needed to justify their own existence. Someone to make the other panelists feel really fucking out of it and remiss for not knowing what Phip was talking about.

No-one making interesting art now really gives a shit what the mainstream papers have to say about it. They are so far behind the 8 ball, it’s not even funny. Unless you are theatre, dance or involve the use of mobile phones, you don’t exist.

At the same time, as Naomi Cass pointed out,  reviews , prizes and grants   build cultural capital, so these brief and passing mentions in the dead tree media are still important, because you can’t get prizes and grants without them.

You might try to “not think about money” as Phip suggested we do now, but cultural capital can’t put food on a table. The one thing you can do with it is mount another project.

We can pat each other on the back and sing Kumbaya all we want, but if we are not taken seriously by mainstream press, given proper criticism and placed into a context with the rest of art,  artists will just keep dropping out as it becomes harder and harder to mount projects- to keep doing something that not only do you not get paid for, but NO ONE ELSE GIVES A SHIT ABOUT.

Yes, there is loads of stuff going on- writing, art, criticism, in the so-called underground. But who sees it? Who reads it? Who writes it? People like us. Artists writing about their friends is unavoidable because no-one else will fucking write about us, and so we have something to put in our funding apps.

But we still need to be engaged by the outside world- it can’t just be a conversation amongst ourselves, even if that has helped us survive an incredibly indifferent, if not hostile environment. We need to be tested and opened to a public discourse.

And I’m not even talking about gen-pop here. That’s virtually unconscionable, I know.  I’m only talking about opening up to a general art audience – you know, those people who pay money to go see MIFF and Writers Festival sessions in droves? The ones who buy theatre and opera subscriptions,  and pay $70 to see contemporary dance?  It’s not like we live in Kalgoorlie. This is an arty town.

And yet!

How many times I have been attacked by otherwise “cultured” people about the meaninglessness of modern art, the boringness of video, the incoherence of an installation? This shit needs to be explained, yo, and yesterday. Like, it should have been being discussed in public for the last 10 years, instead of ignored, and further disconnected from a potential mainstream art audience, who by now should not be shocked by it really.

Apart from anything, is it not too much to ask that the same artists who not only make the work, but now also  have to be their own PR agent,  graphic designer, producer and merchandiser,  might rely on someone else to do the criticism?

Perhaps more than any of my whinges above, the problem is that there is this burgeoning online world, which is the world, as far as I’m concerned. But it has not yet overtaken dead tree media in terms of harnessing the attention of a broad cross-section of the community. Dead tree media is too vulnerable to push anything but a very bland editorial agenda, and the internet is too dispersed and diffuse to have an impact on the larger community.

Then again, maybe no-one’s doing anything wrong, and we just have to be patient and wait and see what happens? Are we being alarmist about the state of criticism and art because we are experiencing a time of change? Or will this have ongoing impacts that are impossible to reverse? Is it a cop-out to not try to influence the course of culture, or is it delusional to think you can do anything except respond?

Overall, I’m glad these issues were raised, and one 90 minute panel is never going to solve all the problems of the world. They were genuinely great panelists, and it is fantastic to see  Phip Murray included this conversation.

The follow-up event is encouraging, too: In fact, this really looks like the one not to miss, because it might be a more progressed conversation. However, as it is (not totally without irony) invite only, will have to keep an eye out for a podcast…


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