QUESTION: Can criticism, invention, discovery, play, be practiced when an art publication becomes self aware?

Being self aware is synonymous with establishment. Being self aware is to act cautiously. Being self aware is a fear of impropriety. Being self aware means the rule book has been drawn up. Being self aware is a belief in one’s reputation and the fear of losing that reputation. Being self aware is being overly aware of people around you and being antagonist to the competition.

The panel discussion between editors of funded and unfunded Irish art publications at the COMMISSIONS+ symposium – co-organised by Caroline Cowley of the Fingal Arts Office and freelance writer on art, culture and policy, Valerie Connor – uncovered the editorial ideologies behind the printed page. Publications were represented by co- editors Iain Griffin and Suzanne Walsh (Critical Bastards), Aoife Flynn (Occupy Paper), Adrian Duncan (Paper Visual), Michaële Cutaya (Fugitive Papers), and moderated by Daniel Jewesbury. Although this session’s purpose was to discuss the commissioning processes of art publications, what came across more forcibly, and somewhat inevitably, was the personal objectives of each publication and the editors’ perspectives on art writing etiquette.

As is the case with such sessions on all things to do with art writing/criticism and its production, there is never enough time to reflect and respond in the moment of these live events. The drive home afterward does a good job of bringing to the surface the questions you wished you had asked, but time and opportunity was not your friend on the day.

Adrian Duncan’s matter of fact presentation had a welcome show of pointed teeth. He spoke about compulsion and urges in the act of writing an art review, which was a joy to hear. However, this was contradicted by the very fact that Paper Visual’s editorial process is to allow art reviews to marinate over time in the back-and-forth between editor and writer. He excused this time-delay as an “opportunity” to make a text better. Of course, finessing a text with a feather duster over a longer period of time is all well and good – commissioned essays for artist catalogues can be a year in the making – but I think an ‘opportunity’ is missed if art publications have a one-track mindset with regard to the delivery and timing of their reviews. One of the main criticisms of Circa Magazine was that its art reviews came six months or more after the art event. In fact, Circa was always an archive, except when one of its online reviews coincided with the exhibition being reviewed – a rare occurrence.

Take for instance Visual Artists Newsletter, which produces reports rather than critical reviews. It seems art publications in this country are already booked into the Archive before they go to print.

I really don’t think there is enough off-the-cuff criticism in this country. Even if it ends up being disposable, timely criticism can spark ideas for further development down the road to the archive. If compulsion and urgency are necessary ingredients of good criticism and writing, which I agree that they are, then the feather duster approach is not the only way to go.

There is a sense that advocates of the less journalistic approach to art criticism believe that art writing is an art form in and of itself. Adrian Duncan said just that during the panel discussion. New York critic, artist, and gallerist John Kelsey writes: “When discourse is elaborated as art, or in the place of art, the writer performs the redundancy of the artist he also is, or was.” [1]

Text artists such as Frances Stark and Jennifer Bornstein make art, but art writers? There is no shame in being subservient to the art object: without it writers wouldn’t be able to see beyond themselves.

Critical Bastards, for which two of the panelists have written for, Adrian Duncan and Michaële Cutaya, had a less fully formed editorial agenda. Honestly, all publications post-Circa are finding themselves. However, co-editor Iain Griffin talked about the future potential of the publication rather than what was ideological set in stone, such as audio art reviews and other less tested and proven methods of producing art commentary. Griffin’s fresh perspective revealed the advantages of being less self aware, where play and failure are contemplated and even accepted as part of the process. Although Critcal Bastards’ printed publication doesn’t have the perfectly justified columns of an Enclave Review, print and paper quality of a Fugitive Papers, or string-binding and floating images of Paper Visual, their gap-toothed design has character and room to move. Most importantly, they are offering an alternative space for new critical voices to practice their craft.

Should play and potential be disregarded for the establishment of an editorial ideology or pretty publication? The idiom ‘by the book’ has a lot to answer for when it comes to the desire for art publications to become the printed matter of the Archive before they even go to print. I am all for posterity, but not at the expense of LIVE commentary on art, when compulsion and urgency finds its truest form.


[1]    John Kelsey, Rich Texts: Selected Writings for Art, Sternberg Press, 2010, p. 91.


Becoming Self Aware

Panel Discussion with editors from Irish art publications

The COMMISSIONS+ Symposium, 9th October 2012.

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