Lorna Mills and Sally McKay
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Friends concerned at my ignorance just lent me The Crisis of Criticism a book of essays published in 1998. I found art critic Michael Brenson's "Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis in Journalistic Criticism" to be touching and affecting. The essay is available online here through the Warhol Foundation.
Brenson's essay was written in 1994-5, around the time that I first started writing about art in Toronto, and around the time that we started plotting to publish a brash and chatty local art magazine. This quote from Brenson reflects exactly the frustration that some of us were feeling here at the time:
"I am sick of people saying in private what they will not say in public, or saying in private the opposite of what they say in public. Part of what I admire in the writings of a public intellectual like Henry Louis Gates Jr. is that there seems to be no real split between what he will say privately and publicly. The institutionalization of private outrage and public silence -- not just regarding criticism but also with regard to so much that matters to art and culture, including the now all-but-official hostility to art and demonization of the artist in America -- has historical associations that are very disturbing to me. So much public silence in the face of so much private unhappiness throughout the art world is a sign of a crisis of moral imagination that is one of the underlying themes of this presentation."Now, almost ten years later, our sassy little art mag is defunct, the YBA Sensation show has come and gone, and this thing we call post-modernism is no longer a distressing novelty but an entrenched frame of reference. At the same time art-types have adopted the internet, brilliant writers of many ilks are publishing criticism hither and yon, and there is more good art criticism by more different types of people than ever before. Yet there seems to be a generalised eruption of sadness and dismay at the loss of a formal art criticism that passes judgement. My question is Huh? wha?... has that criticism actually been lost? Has it not just been added to? It seems to me that judgement is alive and well, that rigour is alive and well, that discourse and guidance and depth of intellectual investigation is fuller and richer than its ever been, with more avenues of accessibility to a broader range of reader. So why the moaning? Sane intelligent people, (Philip Monk, Lane Relyea, Jennifer McMackon?--is this how you feel, J?--and others) clearly are experiencing some sort of loss. It bothers me -- perhaps because I feel complicit in the late nineties shakedown of authority and expertise in artwriting -- that I don't yet understand "what is on the table" (as Tom Moody recently suggested in the comments to an earlier post). What am I missing? Is there something important slipping away, and I'm just too biased to grasp the loss? Nevertheless, irked as I am, I am also determined that the value of criticism is located in attention rather than authority. Brenson makes a beautiful and inspiring call to journalistic critics to take on the "life and death" issues that can arise from art, and I'll end this post with it cause it cheers me up enormously:
"The one response that is impermissible on the network news is doubt; permission to doubt is one of the great gifts of modernism to 20th-century culture. Critics must be willing from time to time not only to wiggle their toes in issues that threaten them, or for which they have no answer, but to plunge into them and learn to swim there. It is impossible at any time for critics who write regularly to avoid mistakes. Making them and being attacked for them mean little or nothing in themselves. What matters is the way critics deal with these mistakes and attacks. What matters is the quality of curiosity, the quality of attentiveness, the quality of concern, the quality of vision, the quality of the experience of art and language. It is also the quality of debate a critic makes available. If the discussions provoked by a critic are at the expense of that critic, so be it. If I say something that unwittingly brings to the surface esthetic or cultural or racial limitations, and my words enable people to become more aware of those limitations, fine. Probably everyone here has a sense of the kind of critic needed to meet the challenges of this moment. Many approaches are, of course, possible. Many different approaches are needed. I am looking for critics who not only love art -- not just one kind of art, art -- but who also love language, and who are also able to keep learning and growing from their mistakes, and from the dialogues they establish with and among their readers and within themselves."