The Conversationalists: Local Art Writers and a Serious Art Dialogue

[I should begin by saying that I don’t somehow hold myself exempt to the following diatribe.  I write for two reasons: for the love of art and to pay my bills.  Each bears its own writing, the two rarely intersecting.  This post is borne out of a frustration with what time and money will allow me to write as much as the state of local art writing generally.]

ye olde bad reviewI’ve written and deleted this article twice – this is my third crack at it.  Alternating between sounding like a sanctimonious scrooge and a feeble sycophant, I can’t seem to hit a rational middle ground.  I’m going to try to be as plain as possible: Underestimating the potential purpose of local art writing has rendered it generally impotent.

The bulk of Bay area art writing seems to be little more than event listings, rewritten press releases, and Instagram dumps.  This type of writing is informative, yes, but for the most part superficial.  It is like continually being introduced to someone but never moving on to a conversation.  We’ll consider a few important reasons local art writing needs to move beyond this superficial function.

The Art Deserves It

This purely informational type of art writing is well-intentioned – it strives to attract the largest possible audience for art exhibited locally.  However, it misses the mark for what art needs.  A large(r) audience is good – it raises awareness and generally increases sales.  We’re not talking about movies or scarves, though – sales and attendance are incidental benefits, and focusing on these is missing the point.

Arguably, the “point” of art is to stimulate thought and encourage meaningful conversation.  With that “point” in mind, art writing should not work to blanketly promote art as much as it works to promote conversation about art.  Art writing should help the reader unfold a work of art – not just point them to where it is or what it looked like.

To this end, my plea to myself and other art writers:

  • Don’t be afraid of having and expressing an opinion.  If you can thoroughly defend it, state it confidently.
  • It’s your job to stimulate conversation about art and the politics of art making.  This may include questioning your own and other’s opinions that you already agree with for the sake of adding depth to the dialogue.
  • Good art deserves to be discussed.  Its better to intensely investigate a single good piece of art than quickly glance over several exhibits.

 

For Better or Worse it Sways the Scene

It’s pleasant to think of art as roguishly independent from outside influence, unswayed by overarching trends.  It’s pleasant, but naive.  Even the most romantic survey of art must admit that art as a whole attempts to live up to the standards that collectors, gallerists, and critics hold it to.

Local art writing that emphasizes attracting attendance (rather than critical discussion) implicitly holds art and their galleries to those standards.  That is, if writers promote and praise popular exhibits, galleries will strive to produce popular exhibits.  This type of standard esteems novelty over concept and reaction over reflection.  Conversely, if local art writers/bloggers deeply engage art, artists and gallerists will follow suit producing exhibits that encourage that deep engagement.

I realize that art writers are only a small portion of the players in an art scene – they couldn’t possibly will a new local culture of art exhibiting into existence.  Still, local art writers are charged with culturally enriching the community with their work, not working as unpaid promoters.

Now, I’m afraid I’ve wandered into the ‘sanctimonious scrooge’ end of the critic pool.  What I’m attempting to get at is this: Our art scene (just as every art scene) could stand to engage its art on a deeper level, and our artists deserve us to give their work a deeper more thorough consideration.  Art writers have a responsibility to jump-start this conversation and maintain its potency.  Let’s get to work!

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