Thursday, October 16, 2008

Critic etiquette

Mark Tambella, Maduros, 2008, oil on linen, 28" x 32", part of his exhibition at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, November 6-30.

When Roberto invited me over for dinner the other night, he mentioned that our friend, Mark, had hung his paintings in the studio in anticipation of a visit from his dealer—and that he’d asked Roberto to pass on the message that I was simply coming to dinner, and not expected to say anything about the work. I'd not been concerned, but appreciated Mark’s remarkable sensitivity to any possible discomfort. (That said, I liked the paintings, and found myself naturally drawn to spend time with them).

People often ask me if being a critic is socially difficult, if it leads to awkwardness with other artists, but it’s not nearly as complicated as they imagine. Most artists and dealers are normal and pleasant. It tends to be the unaccustomed gallery goers (such as the artist’s parents), who ask the dreaded question, “So what do you think?”—unaware of how complicated it would be for me—work, actually—to give a candid answer.

Only once has someone asked me outright to review a show, and especially because this is an experienced artist and someone I considered an old friend, I was astonished—not the least because I hadn’t even seen the work, nor any of his work for some time. Did he really believe that’s how review subjects are chosen, on the basis of friendship? (Or maybe they are, and I’m the one who’s naïve. Regardless, it’s not my m.o.) And what about that friendship? Was it really one after all? Further, even if it was something I was inclined to write about, by asking he created a conflict of interest that made it impossible.

Then there’s the oft-expressed belief that review choices are driven by advertising, yet this is something I’ve never observed in my years of working for Art in America, ARTnews, and Artforum. While editors will suggest specific shows they’d like to see covered—usually because they think they’re interesting, or provide a certain diversity—I’ve never felt any pressure to write, or write positively, about any artist or gallery. In fact the opposite—I’ve had ideas turned down because the gallery had recently gotten a string of reviews and the magazine didn’t want to be seen as favoring it. Once I was paid $25 (by a publication I no longer write for) to go to an advertiser’s gallery and sign my name in the book—an action I didn't feel at all compromised by—but that’s the extent of it. Sorry, I have no juicy tales to tell.

Writing about art is a labor of love—there’s no chance of buying a McMansion with the proceeds—I do it because it’s my way of expanding my understanding of art, a process that feeds my own work in the studio. Therefore, my only question when deciding what or what not to write about is: how much can I learn from analyzing this work?

So, then, how does an artist get the critic’s attention? —this is one of the inevitable questions graduate students ask when I lecture, whether or not my subject touches on the business of art. I tell them it’s no different from the way an actor becomes noted by a drama critic: by doing a great job. There's a lot of art out there, a lot of art. To get anyone's attention whatever it is has to be pretty special. In the end everything comes down to the work, which will speak for itself.


gonzales said...

I definitely agree. If the art is good enough it will eventually receive the attention it deserves...I think. I believe what's most important is making the art itself. All the other stuff will come after.

Pretty Lady said...

That Mark Tambella painting reminds me of Wayne Thiebaud's early work, which I love, love, love.

I once held a show in my gallery where the curator, who was also a very successful artist, invited a prominent critic to the show and spent an hour following her around, explaining forcefully why the work in the show was brilliant. (In my private opinion, it was beyond lame, unfortunately and embarrassingly for me and my gallery.) She also lobbied hard (and successfully) for this critic to write the catalog essay for her next show, and neglected to introduce me at all, let alone allowing me to get a word in edgewise. Had I been physically permitted to speak (without being as blatantly rude as the curator), I can guarantee that I would have been more courteous, perhaps actually asking questions and listening to what this critic had to say, instead of force-feeding her my perspective.

I was profoundly shocked and disturbed, and wondered if this is really the sort of behavior that leads to career success in the art world? Are people so blind to crass, overt self-promotion, and do polite people always get stomped on?

I cut this artist, curator and former friend out of my life as soon as the show concluded, but the whole experience left me rather scarred, and uncertain as to whether this 'art world' scene had any merit left to it at all.

Anonymous said...

Oh, come on.

I'm not being cynical when I say that dealers know critics who know artists who know critics who know curators who know dealers, etc. Add the assigning editors into the mix--perhaps with the noodging of the publisher, who is selling the ads and wants to keep the big-ticket advertisers happy--and one ends up with a lot of reasons for critics to write about particular artists, and not just because the work is good.

Carol, I'm not calling your ethics into question. You say these issues don't sway you, and I believe you. But it's a big, impure art world out there, where many hands are washing one another--constantly and endlessly.

David said...

Come on. The world runs on friendships, the purity of which will depend on the individuals. To have a friend who knows a friend who can invite a critic to dinner would be major for some of us. If I were that artist, though, I'd just try to make the dinner part a success. That's my technique anyway.

Carol Diehl said...

I understand that this is the perception--that assigning editors are in cahoots with the advertising dept--but I'm simply saying that, after having worked in various capacities for every major art magazine, I haven't found it to be so. This is not to say, however, that the art world is free of corruption and manipulation--as the last wholly unregulated industry, this is hardly the case.

CAP said...

I'm impressed by your remarks Carol, because you've certainly been around long enough to have seen the manipulation or lack of, at some point.

My impression is that the hustlers are out there, but the occasions where they might succeed are really quite few.

Ed Winkleman admits to working the Gay Mafia (all 6 of them) - but knows perfectly well that this in turn excludes him from other clubs - and there are just so many little cliques or clubs, it's very hard to manipulate the 'whole system' - unless you're right at the top of it (say a Gagosian or Saatchi) and then you don't really need to, anyway!

'Good' work can get ignored (look at Vermeer or Van Gogh in their lifetimes) but these tend to be the exceptions.

I think you have to have faith in standards, and if you don't, faith in 'friendship' or alliances won't really get you very far anyway.

Anonymous said...

Not to be rude, but Art in America does have a buddy system to some degree. All of the major art magazines do. I've known enough contributing editors to know this to be true. While you may not have experienced anything wrongful others have. At the same time it is their magazine so they can publish what they want.

CAP said...

I don't deny there are buddy systems at work - everywhere!

And friends do favors - no question.

But this is not to deny than even friends have standards - need standards - and that meeting standards is still the best way of meeting/making friends or favors.

Look at the way Rauschenburg brazenly 'networked' Ileana Castelli, (as she was then) upon being ignored by Leo in favor of Jasper back in the late 50s. That was definitely all about 'positioning' - and there are plenty of examples of art world 'politics' right through history, back as far as at least The Renaissance. But the thing is, you've got to have the goods to play with - you've got to meet standards, before you even get a place at the table.

Critics, collectors and curators are doing exactly the same thing. They don't 'make' artists without having an eye on what that's going to 'make' for them - not necessarily financially, but socially or politically - how that positions them and their buddies.

Carol Diehl said...

I may not be alone in this. I’m drawn to people as friends because they're good at what they do. Competence for me is a turn-on, and I like being around people who inspire me. I once told a therapist that I’d have difficulty having a deep friendship with anyone I felt was a bad artist. He thought this was narrow until I asked him if he could be friends with someone he considered a bad therapist