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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

A note on ‘dangerous’ – (Partial pondering of  the passionate pariah.)

A little more than a year ago I changed my tagline to The ‘Dangerous’ Life of an Art Historian.

For me, it was a very humourous and ironic statement. I often joked in grad school that I would die in a great book avalanche and that was the greatest threat to art historians. Art historians are rarely considered dangerous by anyone. Of course, I shouldn’t make assumptions about my colleagues. To each their own.

It was coincidence that I changed my tagline when I wrote an unexpectedly popular and hated post.

One commenter took my tagline and seemed to think that I thought the Art world was dangerous. – “Hey, and with more collaboration, the art world might not seem quite so dangerous.”

I don’t find the Art world dangerous. It may have a few people that can’t read take criticism, but hardly dangerous. Criticism.

Art criticism, yes, whatever happened to that?  When did it become acceptable to make a website devoted to the critic that wrote about you? When did writers stop critiquing work? When did writers stop questioning the institution? Or rather, when did it stop getting published by magazines in Canada?

A rather delicious hypothesis (sadly, I can’t seem to remember who said it) that the last Canadian Art critic is bound and gagged in a Canadian artist’s basement. All potential art critics are forced to live in fear of the artist and institution. Judging from experience, this statement isn’t too far off.

Currently, art reviews tend to be descriptions or explanations the work. Rarely someone will mention how the work fails, other than an off-handed remark about how it looks like every other work by artist X. Or the reviewer will vaguely mention how the work offended their sensibilities in a single sentence with no elaboration. (e.g. I found the work arrogant and promptly left the room.) When there is biting art criticism  it is often hidden in esoteric language and back-handed compliments.  Which can make it seem, to the reader without a large vocabulary, as though it wasn’t criticism at all.

My question of ‘whatever happened to art criticism’ is an old one and embedded in my own critical quandaries.  I have written art, literature and video game criticism. I’ll admit, I haven’t yet mastered the art of writing, but I do love to rise to the occasion. I adore the challenge of a well-crafted critique of a show.  Well written criticism can resonate.  Criticism can cause profound change.

I wonder that when art world started hating Modernist theory (Clement Greenberg), did we also start hating critique.

Did the art world come to the conclusion that it was not possible to critique a work without prescribing to preconceived notions of taste?

Don’t misunderstand, I firmly believe in decoding artefacts, not simply judging them based on taste. Much of my work is decoding and contextualizing videogames place in art and visual culture. However, I can decode and critique.

Criticism isn’t a bad thing.  It creates discourse.

While discussing criticism my colleague pointed me in the direction of James Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism (2003). It became a beacon of hope for me back in 2003 and then later rekindled when I saw him speak at UWO in 2008.   I thought to myself: Yes, I wasn’t the only person that enjoyed critique or thought it had value! There are others. In 2010 I  started to follow the Toronto Art Critics Alliance.

In my last year of my undergrad I was taking a class mixed with graduate students. We got onto the topic of art criticism and I asked ‘why isn’t there biting criticism?’ I was told by a frowning and disapproving grad student, that Canada didn’t need criticism because it would ruin the Art world. Bad criticism would result in less funding and essentially the Canadian Art World would end. < /exaggerates > No one would make art because the artists would live in fear of the critic. The government would rule that art had no place in Canada because of a single bad review.  Artists would cower in fear over the oppressive nasty critic and the world would become a soulless wasteland. Art critics crush dreams and eat babies. They ruin culture. 

Since then I’ve been told that I was a douche and scum ruined art for believing in critique. Critics only hurt feelings. Critics have nothing to offer the world and are considered by many ‘bottom-feeders’ and a series of expletives deleted.

The ‘art criticism will ruin art’ argument often provides the excuse that Canadian art world is too small for critique.

But the Canadian film, publishing, restaurant, television and gaming industries are not too small for critique?

The quick counter-argument: But those are consumerist industries filled with product reviews.

Isn’t an art review in essence a product review? It entices potential viewers to visit the exhibition and possibly buy the art. I know, a bit harsh. We would love to think the art world is above making money, but pragmatically, everyone needs money in our capitalist nation.

The function of a review is to increase an artist’s fame, resulting in more sales and exhibitions.  Art is culture, but art is also a business. Reviews are for publicity not for intellectual debate.  I can understand that. There is value to that type of review. Everyone needs to make a living.  However, it is the business of art that is part why, I think art criticism’s voice has grown weak. We need the sales rather than the discourse.

Art critics don’t help with revenue, corporate sponsorship or government funding.

Even bad press is good press. At least some writer thought you were worthwhile to mention.

Of course this brings up the matter of: ‘well Ms. Dangerous Art Historian, why don’t you write more biting criticism?’

I have; admittedly I should do so more often.

However, I often find that biting reviews come from an exhibition that can get a reaction (intellectual, emotion, etc) out of me. Sadly, that’s rare.  The biggest failing of many art shows is that they have no impact and I forget them. It’s hard to articulate a critique on work that I feel utterly indifferent too. The majority of reviews I’d write would contain words and phrases such as familiar, tired, vacant, bland, huh another project on body image using collage in a non-imaginative manner, I believe I saw this show by another artist ten years ago, overdone, show was badly hung, etc.  I suppose the review writes itself.

Perhaps that is the other part of the disappearance of Art criticism. No writer wants to review a show that they are indifferent to or they didn’t like, since that would only garner it attention.

I will work to critique more art exhibitions.  I will attempt to write the types of reviews I enjoying reading.

As always, open for discussion.

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Limbo
Joshua Barndt
Jan 8th – Feb 6th 2010
XPACE Cultural Centre
Xbase

Joshua Barndt - Limbo - 2010 (Installation shot from Barndt's website)

As I boldly stepped into the basement of XPACE I entered another world or environment created by Joshua Barndt. A new world at the end of the world, the limbo after an Apocalypse. Remnants of old cars buried in mounds soil, revealing convenient tiered spaces for wild gardens. Amongst these remains, Barndt planted wheat grass which grew in perfectly straight lines; seeming synthetic in their stiffness, but organic in actuality.  I witnessed one viewer who was unsure of the nature of the grass then, I gasped,  he pulled some of the grass out of the installation to further examine whether or not it was plastic or organic. Conversely, I asked a gallery attendant, though I did kneel and examined, with my eye, the grass trying to guess whether it was plastic or biological. Despite the viewer’s destruction, I should applaud Barndt for creating such a thoroughly illusionistic installation causing a viewer to have to pull apart the work to be convinced of its organic nature.*

Lights in the installation were strategically placed to provided limited illumination as well as energy for the grass to grow. The wheat grass was freshly planted, since I could still see the soil surrounding the individual blades of grass. I admittedly went and saw Limbo the first day it opened, which has constantly made me think back to exhibition and how it must look now. Did the grass survive? It is more lush? How does it smell now? Has the discarded trash vanished in a sea of green? I am imagining it growing (bad pun) and changing while I am away from it. I am always curious about how it will look from one day to the next and that is why I enjoyed this installation. Limbo is different every time a viewer visits it. Limbo is a rare installation that I wanted and encouraged others to visit more than once.

* As a general courtesy, one should never touch or move a work of art without the expressed permission of the Artist.  Not touching, while difficult, will save you and the Artist the anguish of damaging a work of art. If you are unsure whether it is appropriate to touch the work, ask the gallery attendant first.

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Jan 30 2010: Do due to WordPress regulations I am re-posting this article without ‘the word that must not be named’ (It is not a ‘bad’ word, simply WordPress would rather I not use it. Fair enough)

Due to complaints I shall also remove the offensive analogy which was in reference to VAP .  Despite these edits my argument still stands.

‘The word must not be named’ (Voldemort?) has now been replaced with dubious and highly suspect.

Please not the tone of this article is not for the faint of heart. A more eloquent version is available here.

Dubious! I am calling you out Vantage Art Projects and Angela Grossmann curator of the Gatekeepers project. You both smell of a highly suspect art project, and you should be ashamed. Akimbo should also be ashamed for posting this dubious project.
I shall produce evidence of this dubious project

Evidence #1: The Submission Fee

Gatekeeper is a call for art for a ‘Exhibition-in-Print’, which means the submitting Artists will be essentially part of a book. Being published sound marvellous, yes more people will see your work, but wait let’s think this through. First of all the submission fee is $45. Ouch. Actually, if you look at Vantage’s website, yes it is ugly and amateur for a business, it says $40 (which is the late fee), but if you try to pay on PayPal, it’s $45. Also, if you look at the other books that Vantage has produced, they are $45, not including shipping. Books being the same price as the submission fee, that reminds me of something…

Remember those highly suspect poetry books, the ones where a poet would submit their poetry with around $45 to be considered to be in the book. A prestigious blind jury would select the best poets and Volia! Several months later said poet would receive a book

In summary: The variable quotation of the submission fee and the similarity to a dubious poetry project is scandalous.

Evidence # 2: Lack of Typical or Relevant Submission Information

This is a list of all the Information I could not find on Vantage Art Projects website.

1.What size should the submitted Image be?

2.What Image file format is the text using?

3.Does Vantage Art Projects require a CV?

4.Will my CV/Contact information be printed in the book?

5.Is an Artist Statement required?

6.What is Vantage Point’s Contact Information?

7.Will the Artist receive Royalties from the sale of the book?

8. Is the Artist selling their work to Vantage Art Projects?

9.What is the estimated size of print? (an edition of 25? 100?)

10.What is the estimated amount of editions?

11.What is the estimated price of book after publication? ($45 is a good guess)

12.Will the Artist keep the Image rights of their work?

13.Does the Artist have the right to re-voke their work from Vantage Art Projects?

14.Will Vantage Art Projects have the right to the Artist’s Work?

15.How will Artist work be used?

16.Does the submission fee include a copy of the text?

17.Will there be any marketing for the book? (Actually, they want you to self promote the book)

18.Will the artist’s name appear in the book?

And so on…

Please note that to gain access to the submission form you must first pay the $45 submission fee.

In Summary: When all relevant and typical submission information is not provided on a website, it makes the business in question smell a little fishy.

Evidence #3 The Website

The awful looking Vantage Art Projects website. Would you seriously believe someone with a website that looks like was designed back in 1998? It’s 2010, learn some more code other than basic html.

In Summary: A Cheap shot, yes, but it is a very poorly made website.

This spells a project of a highly suspect nature, let’s say it together, Dubious!

Now, let us critique the curatorial statement for the call for submissions.

Main point – Exclusion

Quoting the curatorial statement found on Akimbo “Negotiating the ever-shifting maze of the art world industry is a Sisyphean task. Its rewards are well known: credibility, status, fame, wealth and (often fleeting) historical significance. The costs of failure are legion: shame, huge art school debts, derision and quite often, low or no income. Many artists have become critical and disinterested in the dominant pathways to ‘success’ and the increasing power of institutions, art schools Biennials, art fairs and market driven blockbusters. In this time of shape shifting economy the view from ‘outside the gates’ may be the more interesting one.”

So after you tell me about the shame of an Artist’s student loan, failure, and their inability to make money, you further insult Artists by asking them for $45 to be part of a dubious book project? Also, you are now excluding Artists by expecting them to pay $45 just to be considered for this exhibition in print?! What really pisses me off is that Vantage Art Projects and Angela Grossmann (the curator) are taking advantage of the very people they are promising to help. You are taking from the very social margins in which you create work about.

The curatorial statement sounds like it’s someone’s realization that just got out of Art school and has now become aware of the sheer amount of debt they are in and potential that they may never be a recognized Artist. It is not a very creative theme indeed, since it is the topic of a reality shows. Is this what the art world has come to? Also another notable example the ‘Untitled Art Project’ out of New York, the American Idol of the art world, stealing ideas from reality shows and taking advantage of Artists in a terrible economic climate.

About the curator – ‘Angela Grossmann has devoted much of her career to examining themes of displacement and social margins.’

Angela Grossman, do you take advantage of everyone in social margins? Or is it just artists? Aren’t you a respected curator? This is the best premise for a ’show’ you can think of, a copy of ‘Till Debt do us Part’ artist/ student debt episode? To create a ’show’ about exclusion, fill in a few buzz words relating to our economic climate and then ask for $45, knowing very well that we are in the worst economic recession which parallels the great depression? This is horrible. People are out of work, their EI has dried up, and you take advantage of them with Vantage Art Projects? Grossmann, you are person that has apparently has devoted their career to the ‘social margins’, and you participating in this project of a dubious nature? Is that not a contradiction of moral interests?

Conclusion:

Quoting the curatorial statement again – “In this time of shape shifting economy the view from ‘outside the gates’ may be the more interesting one.”

Apparently, the ‘interesting’ view is the one that takes advantage of Artists.

I am sickened that is volume II. This is not the first time that Vantage Art Projects has done this. How dare Vantage Art Projects take advantage of people desperate to show their work.  How dare you charge a submission fee without explanation, submission requirements or publishing Artist Rights.

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I’ve been putting off writing a review of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. The novel profoundly bothers me as a  reader and a reviewer. I love novels that are patchworks of various narratives, which is what I believed Her Fearful Symmetry to be. Sadly, it is in literary purgatory. The grey area of I didn’t hate it, but I cannot say it was great, but it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t particularity fascinating either. Her Fearful Symmetry is highly problematic, with occasional meditative moments and tidbits of greatness.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a patchwork of stories taking place in and around Highgate cemetery in London England. The majority of the novel focuses on a set of mirror twins, Julia and Valentina, who inherit their estranged Aunt’s apartment over looking the cemetery. Before the twins can sell the apartment, they must live in it for one year and their parents may not set foot in it.  The apartment is haunted by the ghost of their deceased Aunt, Elspeth, who is an identical twin to the younger twins’ mother, Edie. If you’ve read any books about twins or ghosts you’ll quickly figure out where that narrative strand is going, yes it really is that predictable in a twisted Parent Trap way.

As for the twins, Julia is set on being with her sister at all costs, believing that Valentina cannot live without Julia , since Valentina is shy and sickly. Valentina slowly expresses her wish to live her own life away from Julia. Both are caught in the typical twin metaphor of being thought of as one soul in two bodies. This conflict of interest between the sisters could have taken quite a dark turn or developed into something interesting, but it simply does not.

SPOILER WARNING (Skip to ‘End of Spoilers’ if you care too)

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Instead, Valentina, who shows no symptoms of suicidal tendencies, starts to dwell on killing herself as a way to separate herself from her sister. Valentina believes that her death and resurrection via her spectral Aunt is the only way to be free of the burden of the societal expected shared existence of being a twin. (Somehow, Valentina did not think that  talking to her sister or that moving away was an option.)

The other problem is that few of the characters seem realistic and many of their decisions are forced, easy solutions for a ending that tries too hard to be poetic.  For example, I had a hard time buying that Elspeth’s devoted lover of 13 years, Robert, would only take one year to mourn her and then move on to dating one of her nieces. Many of the characters are completely vacant and lacking in any kind of self reflection or critical thinking. (hmm could my apparition of Aunt be angry that I am dating her boyfriend? No, sadly that thought never crosses Valentina’s mind.)

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END OF SPOILERS

The potential break up of the twins sounds beautiful, but it is bogged down in a multitude superfluous ideas and quick resolutions and non-resolutions that are pulled out of a hat. It is these strings of unresolved ideas and jumping conclusions that in part make the novel problematic. As though it needed to be edited down to focus on a well elaborated narrative strand or two, instead of swimming in a sea of abandoned notions.

Julia’s relationship with upstairs resident, Martin, is easily a favourite part. Martin is the most well developed and provocative character in the novel, though sadly not the main character. He is an intellectual and crossword creator suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which makes him a prisoner to his apartment. Martin’s long time wife, Marijke, finally decides to leave him since she wants to be free of the demands of of his OCD rituals. She dares him to venture to follow her Amsterdam. Julia becomes fascinated with Martin and his routines. She sets out to help fix and investigate him. It through Martin that we learn more about Julia and her particular quirks that develop her into a separate and unique being from Valentina. As I said this is a patchwork of stories, Martin’s story is the best one and by far the most enjoyable. This side story of Martin, Julia and Marijke’s interaction and affection is gloriously romantic and unusual.  Martin’s story is almost enough to make me forgive the other mistakes, but sadly it is only a small section of the book. It is these moments of clarity and development in the novel that make me love it, but the rest of the novel, as I have said, lacks cohesion, which is disappointing.

There is a part of the book where Niffenegger describes Robert’s Ph.D thesis as though it had expanded and lost all perspective. That sentiment is a metaphor what happened to Her Fearful Symmetry. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger spends a lot of time setting up great ideas, and then quickly forgets them as she proposes them. Her Fearful Symmetry truly embodies this scatterbrained-ness which only miffed me in The Time Traveler’s Wife, but now deeply irritates me. I am frustrated with Her Fearful Symmetry, because I can see an awesome story about Martin, his wife and Julia, but it is clouded by dregs of former ideas and a vacant fascination with identical twins.

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Tamora Pierce
Bloodhound
Book 2: The Legend of Beka Cooper
There are very few authors I regularly read and devotedly followed. I have consistently read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Universe series for the last 15 years. Every time one of her books is released it is an event for me. Family and friends know that once I start reading a delightfully crafted Tamora Pierce book I no longer exist in this world. I leave the tedium of this world to become a silent observer in Pierce’s. However, this time I was a little disappointed with the journey.
Bloodhound is the second novel in the Legend Of Beka Cooper series. Since it is set 250 years prior to the other Tortall novels. Readers of Pierce’s novels will appreciate meeting famous characters’ ancestors, as well as finding out how women will become socially lower than men, since in this time they are equals. Beka Cooper, a member of the Provost’s Dogs  (basically a cop),  is a strong and cunning  protagonist. In Bloodhound  Cooper is lost, she cannot find a partner that as good or as interested in stopping crime as her.  She excels above most of the other Dogs and therefore often finds herself growing frustrated with her struggle to change the world, while being bounced back and forth from her old bosses to her new reluctant partners.
Once again we are thrust in the streets of poverty stricken and working class Corus. Pierce gets down to the nitty gritty details of the filth that plagues the population and then transports the reader into the exotic Port Cayann. Cooper finds herself thrust into unfamiliar territory and begins to collect evidence, in a very ‘CSI: Tortall’ style. However, this time our intrepid Cooper is not hunting a child killer, but stopping counterfeiting.
At times Bloodhound reads like a struggle to convince both the reader and the author that counterfeiting is interesting.  The constant repetitive conversations on how counterfeiting is bad, seem to fill an extra 50 or so pages. I felt a need to tell Pierce, don’t worry, you have taken me on many journeys I trust your decisions. Though, admittedly reading about economic devastation is fitting for the time.
The Beka Cooper series has not been a favourite. I appreciate Pierce’s attempt to try a new style, the entire series is written as journal entries, however at times it can be a bit limiting and annoying. One of the joys of reading is getting an idea of what the other characters are thinking, or at least being a silent observer that sees more than the main character.  It’s frustrating to have an to an intense emotion or sexual moment come to pass and the character refuses to divulge the juicy details, citing their inability to express such moments in words. Yes, Beka Cooper is a reserved medieval policewoman of sorts, probably her grasp of writing romantic literature is weak and admittedly out of character for her to dwell on such things.  Despite that, it is frustrating. However, for remaining in character the entire novel I must praise Pierce for sticking with her journal entry style.
Despite my criticisms, Bloodhound is still essentially a good read. It is well written, the story is vivid, there is an awesome sewer chase scene and many of the new characters are interesting, however, you do get the feeling you may never read about them again.  Also, it’s enjoyable to read about Cooper when she is a complete fish out of water, but still manages to remain her strong, industrious, relentless lawful self.  There is adventure, mystery, riots, police work and romance. Just don’t expect any juicy details, Cooper doesn’t kiss and tell.
Bloodhound cover
Bloodhound
Book 2 of Beka Cooper – A Tortall Legend
Tamora Pierce
Random House 2009

Reviewed by: Diana Poulsen

There are very few authors I regularly read and devotedly follow. I have consistently read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Universe series for the last 15 years. Every time a Pierce novel is released, it is an event for me. Family and friends know that once I start reading a delightfully crafted Tamora Pierce book I no longer exist in this world. I leave the tedium of this world to become a silent observer in Pierce’s. However, this time I was a little disappointed with the journey.

Bloodhound is the second novel in the  Beka Cooper series and it is set 250 years prior to the other Tortall novels. Readers of Pierce’s novels will appreciate meeting famous characters’ ancestors, as well as learning  how women in the future will become socially lower than men, since in this time they are equals. Beka Cooper is a member of the Provost’s Guard or Dogs  (basically a cop) and  is a strong and cunning  protagonist. In Bloodhound, Cooper is lost; she cannot find a partner that is as good or as interested in stopping crime as her.  She excels above most of the other Dogs and therefore often finds herself growing frustrated with her struggle to change the world, while being bounced back and forth from her old bosses to her new reluctant partners.

Once again we are thrust into the streets of poverty stricken and working class Corus. Pierce gets down to the nitty gritty details of the filth that plagues the population and then transports the reader into the exotic Port Caynn. Cooper finds herself thrust into unfamiliar territory and begins to collect evidence, in a very ‘CSI: Tortall’ style. However, this time our intrepid Cooper is not hunting a child killer, but stopping counterfeiting.

At times Bloodhound reads like a struggle to convince both the reader and the author that counterfeiting is interesting.  The constant repetitive conversations on how counterfeiting is bad, seem to fill an extra 50 or so pages. I felt a need to tell Pierce, don’t worry, you have taken me on many journeys I trust your decisions. Though, admittedly reading about economic devastation is fitting for our current real world situation.

The entire series is written as journal entries, I appreciate Pierce’s attempt to try a new style,  however at times it can be a bit limiting and annoying. One of the joys of reading is getting an idea of what the other characters are thinking, or at least being a silent observer that sees more than the main character.  It’s frustrating to have an intense emotional or sexual moment come to pass and to have the character refuse to divulge the juicy details, citing their inability to express such moments in words. Yes, Beka Cooper is a reserved medieval policewoman of sorts,  probably her grasp of writing romantic literature is weak.  And it is admittedly out of character for her to dwell on such things, since Cooper really only writes about information pertinent to case she is trying to unravel. Despite the aforementioned, it is still frustrating to miss out on the details.  However, for remaining in character the entire novel I must praise Pierce for sticking with her journal entry style.

Despite my criticisms, Bloodhound is still essentially a good read. Pierce is a master of dialogue and building solid character relationships. The story is vivid, there is an awesome sewer chase scene and many of the new characters are interesting, however, you do get the feeling you may never read about them again.  Also, it’s enjoyable to read about Cooper when she is a complete fish out of water, but still manages to remain her strong, industrious, relentless lawful self.  There is adventure, mystery, riots, police work and romance. Just don’t expect any juicy details, Cooper doesn’t kiss and tell.

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