Where were you? Brad Miller was there, Jan Batten was there, Dominique Angeloro was there, even Christoper Hanrahan and his mouthy mate were there with a bottle of wine and something to say! Yes, it was the first public “appearance” by The Art Life. We’d been invited to the NSW College of Fine Arts to talk about our ‘thoughts’ on art writing and the mass media… Well, if you couldn’t make it because of the weather or because your hot water system blew up and flooded your house and the shop downstairs and now the landlord wants to sue you for damages, don’t fret, because we present the text of our talk:
This is the voice of The Art Life. We’re going to talk about art writing and the mass media by starting with some descriptions of what we think different media offer. We’ll talk about magazines, newspapers, and books, and we’ll discuss the so-called ‘crisis’ in art writing and then we’ll talk about what the web can offer.
When we talk about the mass media and arts writing we’re naturally talking about print media. Texts in its various forms are the basis by which the information about visual art in Australia gets disseminated and the ways in which text reaches us are valued by readers in different ways.
Books are the preferred option for reading about art and they are the preferred context for artists who want to see words written about them and their art reproduced on nice quality paper. This is preference for books is based on two things; art books have a permanency and a formal beauty but they also have an ineffable weight to them, an authority about their subject that, despite the fact that they are just another mass market commodity, can carry the imprimatur of high culture. We think of books as being meant for considered, thoughtful writing and, although this is demonstrably not the case in many instances, the idea of books as being somehow special persists. A monograph written by a serious academic on an artist’s work is one of the symbols of serious artistic success and galleries and their artists are willing to pay to make these books happen. If you can’t afford a work by your favourite artist, the coffee table book is the next best thing. A Rosalie Gascoigne work may cost over $100,000 but a book on her work costs less than .1 of 1 percent of the real thing. And once you have a lot of art books, they look great all lined up on your bookshelf.
Most glossy art magazines in Australia are published quarterly. As a consequence, art magazines are thought of in a different way to books. With cover prices anywhere between $15 and $20 and with generally high production values for the colour glossies, people keep their magazines in the same way they shelve their books – the magazines become trophies of their interests. The content, the actual articles in the magazines, varies greatly depending on the target audience of the magazine, but people don’t buy art magazines for the writers, they buy them for the artists being covered and the pictures of the artist’s work – if the stories are well written and the artist is interesting, that’s just a bonus.
Newspapers are a different thing. In theory, the news media provides a running commentary on current events, cueing readers into the latest shows, performances and exhibitions in the “what’s on” sections, such as Lenny Ann Low and Dominque Angelero’s columns in the Sydney Morning Herald. This sort of commentary usually appears on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, the newspaper art critics chart the courses of artist’s careers, the changes in their work and reflect on where the art might fit into broader contexts like history, aesthetics and fashion. They can also add their own opinion into the mix and things can get very exciting as this day to day commentary unfolds because, when there’s a really good art critic, you start to feel as though you know what’s going on but there’s also something to barrack for or rail against. Unlike magazines and books, newspapers feel more ephemeral and throwaway, but they carry their own weight because of their reach. Everyone knows the thrill of seeing someone they know in the paper or even being mentioned yourself, and papers have a power to create audiences for galleries that is unrivalled.
As a print medium, the web has the biggest potential audience of them all. Unlike movies and TV, magazines and newspapers, the web is immediate, borderless and democratic and offers a soap box to anyone with something to say and an axe to grind. The web has no real weight and is more ephemeral than newspapers, it doesn’t have authority like a book, web sites don’t normally have the production values of magazines and once the plug is pulled, it ceases to exist. Although there are millions of pages of material on the web, it’s an uncharted frontier of rumour, speculation, wild theories and baseless postulation. As a research tool, it’s rated somewhere below bubble gum wrappers in terms of its credibility, nothing really solid or worthwhile exists on the web next to the gambling, pornography and blogs.
These are the ways we think of these mediums and the way they deliver writing about the visual arts. But our perceptions of what these mediums have to offer are not really backed up by an objective examination. Books have no more authority than comic strips in the hands of bad authors and magazines can be little more than a venue for advertising. The web, on the other hand, can be a place for enlightened comment and well researched information. For every corporate site or meandering blog, there’s the Internet Movie Data Base and Amazon.com, two utterly commercial entities that have unassailable authority when it comes to their writers, content and accessibility. For every ranting nut job blog like Queen Madonna.blogspot.com, or the endless “I have fixed my computer, promise to update soon” blogs, there’s also rarities like Where is Raed? the Salam Pax blog written in Iraq before, during and after the war.
Our perceptions of the mass media are based on an outmoded hierarchy of the printed word – books at the top, magazine and then newspapers, and the web somewhere else – and this hierarchy doesn’t have much to do with what these various media really offer.
Lately, we have been hearing a lot about a ‘crisis’ in art writing. Despite the proliferation of magazines and opportunities for artists work to be seen and for writers to write, there is a feeling in the visual art community that something is wrong and something needs to be done. Some have suggested that what is needed is another magazine. At a recent public forum at the MCA, it was pointed out that there are already more than 30 visual arts magazines in Australia and countless more catalogues and essays writing about artists and their work. So if there is already a lot of opportunity there, where does this sense of crisis come from?
We thought about that idea for quite awhile and the feeling we had was not that there weren’t enough magazines, but there wasn’t enough diversity in the writing. Launching another magazine would not solve the problem – diversity in publishing is a good thing if diversity of opinion is what is delivered, but art writing in Australia is not that diverse. As far as the quarterlies go, the magazines share many of the same writers and the monthly and irregular journals feature unknowns alongside guest appearances by well known writers.
To give you an example, in Melbourne recently a new journal called Un Magazine was launched that is both a magazine and a downloadable PDF. Featured in the magazine is a story on Melbourne artist Guy Benfield written by arts writer Ashley Crawford. Crawford has also written for Australian Art Collector, Art & Australia, Art & Text and he was the former editor of Tension, a visual culture magazine in the 90s, and he was the editor of its successor World Art and he is currently an editor with Thames and Hudson overseeing books being published on Ricky Swallow and Adam Cullen. In addition to that, he’s working on funding a relaunch of Tension. Crawford’s is a good example of the kind of career-arts writers who populate the magazines. You can pick up ten years worth of assorted glossy art magazines and find names that should be familiar to everyone who reads them now – Juliana Engberg, Felicity Fenner, Natalie King, Susan McCulloch, Christopher Chapman, Ted Colless, Rex Butler, Bridget Crone, Patricia McDonald, Carmel Dwyer and so on and so on. Aside from the glossies, in the slightly more vigorous small magazine world of Art Monthly, Real Time and Broadsheet, the names Blair French, Stuart Koop, David Bromfield, Peter Hill and Peter Timms should ring a few bells. There are scores more writers who come and go, and the writers for the quarterlies also write for the smaller magazines, topping up their meager earnings from Art Collector and Art & Australia with cigarette money from Metro Screen . The writers who write on Australian art tend to be the same names across nearly all the magazines.
Magazines articles are often essays written by curators, academics and researchers. These types of articles are a combination of biography and an interpretation of the artists work with reference to the writer’s area of speciality such as post modernism, religious studies, cultural studies or art history. The other dominant kind of magazine article is the life style article that skims over the more complex issues of artists work and concentrates on personalities, anecdotes and a little light interpretation. Because of the publishing schedules of art magazines, they aren’t the places where art world news will break first. Even the lower budget broadsheet publications like Metro Screen, Real Time and Broadsheet are much cheaper to produce, they are typically run along the lines of journals so even now, they are only just catching up to things that happened in June and mid July, such as the publication of Peter Timms book, the Biennale of Sydney and the Sydney Film Festival. While there is a value in retrospective reviews, after-the-fact art writing does not drive people to exhibitions to see the work first hand – it’s simply too late.
So if there’s a crisis in Australian art writing, its a lack of diversity – andlooking back over art publishing in Australia in the last 20 to 30 years, there has been an increase in the number of titles but few changes in the way magazines are produced, written and read.
We mentioned newspapers before and their ability to create a running commentary on exhibitions, artists and issues in the art world. We also mentioned that newspapers did these things in theory because although that was the case in the past, it is not the case now. We know that for newspapers generally, there is little money in art world advertising, and aside from the prestige attached to sponsoring art events like the Biennale or the Festival of Sydney, there seems to be little will to create a forum for accessible art criticism in the newspapers. If you compare the situation in Sydney at the moment to the way it was 10 or 15 years ago, you see that whereas the Sydney Morning Herald would once devote an entire broadsheet page of some 2,500+ words to its art critics like Bruce James or John McDonald, Peter Hill and Anne Loxley get barely a look in to say their piece today. We can agree that the real crisis is not in the magazines – they are what they have always been – but it is in the mainstream press. For artists to be able to engage with audiences, to get people along to shows and to create that much abused term ‘debate’ – there needs to be a lively commentary on events as they happen.
And that’s where The Art Life comes in.
We speak for all of us – the disenfranchised true believers, those of us who are also cynics and gossips, wracked with guilt and misgivings and prone to melancholy, but who are also driven by a belief in all the clichés of art, that it is transformative, important, dangerous and possibly beautiful. We are for, not against, we are pro, not anti, but we are also driven to tell the truth. We risk offending people but we approach everything in good faith – and that’s really all you can demand.
What we’d like to see in art writing in Australia is more diversity of opinion and more risks being taken. We like writing that is personal and has its own voice, one that is willing to be stupid, to get it wrong, to crack some jokes, but also to be serious when it needs to. We know that art publishing in Australia is a small world and the reliance on advertisers for survival means that you can’t say a lot of things about art and the artists because the advertisers, the galleries, would pull their ads. It’s the economic reality of the art world. But the web offers up an opportunity for everyone to get involved and have their say if they want to.
When we started The Art Life we assumed that the web would have plenty of sites like ours but, as far as we can tell, there is only one site similar to us that’s in the UK. There are two art blogs in Australia but both of those are quite different to us and are updated infrequently. Although the opportunity is there for arts writers and artists to use the web and blogs in the same way we do, hardly anyone has. Perhaps it’s a fear of being bad, but there is no lost honor in saying what you really think even if you can’t find the right words to say it – people tend to zero in on what your argument is, not how you say it.