The following thoughts on envy, community and ‘The limelight’, with regard to art judgment, are triggered by the recent anti- and pro-Richard Mosse sentiment, during and following the presentation of the Irish artist’s photographic and film installation, ‘The Enclave’, at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), Dublin, between February and March 2014.

Envy is a terrible thing; ‘begrudgery’ even worse when you learn that, shamefully, it’s an Irish colloquialism. Of course we are not the only culture afflicted by the green-eyed monster: ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ (Australia); ‘Schadenfreude’ (Germany). However, you begin to wonder if human nature’s “underlying biology may well incline us to evaluate our positions relative to others rather than simply by any objective criteria.”2 What is certain, however, is the fact that we all make critical judgments tainted by such tendencies as bias and begrudgery, and not by semi-objective criteria – subjective bias obviously exists in every act of judgment.

One element that brings this negative discrepancy to the surface  is ‘The limelight’. For instance, Cindy Sherman’s abject work of the ’80s was a frustrated response to the dumb machismo of American pseudo-Expressionism, and their garnering of all the attention and conceptual plaudits. Such is the nature of The Limelight, always shining just out of reach, like Kafka’s Castle. When The Limelight does shine upon a member or institution of the ‘tribe’, whether for 15 minutes or in perpetuity, there are repercussions for the immediate, Petri Glass community. A type of pseudo-judgment is perpetuated. This perverted judgment is first offset by broad questioning, followed by nit-picking, then an incubation period when criticism is cultured with envy and cynicism and skepticism. Perhaps it all stems from our primitive instinct to keep everyone and everything on a level playing field: any one person wasting the limited resources is seen as a threat to the status quo. It’s the Caveman Principal.

What complicates the Caveman Principal is communitarianism. Community – a utopian ideal – is easily spoiled by introducing an individual who is incandescently cast in the glory of The Limelight. Communities within communities – micro-communities – and the cliques and institutions that form such micro-communities is where The Limelight achieves optimum conditions for corruptibility. The psychology of groupthink dynamics and behaviourism apropos of micro-communities, such as the localized and competitive art scene, are played out daily on Facebook, especially when The Limelight comes into play.

The free thinking and judgement that online social media is supposed to offer the individual is in fact a homogenizing and psychological Game Changer. Coy individuals who wouldn’t say boo in person are body-snatched by inflated online personifications in the quasi online communities of unstable selfhood. Of course toneless online text is partly the cause of inflated semantics – Crack injected verbs and eye-popping emoticons are supposed to make up for the emotional shortfall;—D

This viral harmony of ‘likes’ and ‘sharing’ gets most interesting when the group-thinking social media Borg is faced with criticism of one kind or another. Initially, professionals and amateurs alike lose the rag. Fangless and hairless individuals turn werewolf. However, it is within the envious shade of The Limelight that patterns of consensus and censored criticism build and feed one another. Take for instance the build up to last year’s Turner Prize on Facebook, when – on my news feed anyway – the consensus for Tino Sehgal not to win was overwhelming. Why? What came across from the Facebook commentary was critics of Sehgal were fed up of his hogging The Limelight all the while conceptually self-proclaiming to evade celebrity with his ‘anti-documentation’ art production. In the end Turner Prize 2O13 will be remembered for Sehgal losing not ? winning.

The tamer online spats revolve themselves after a short-lived comment thread, because rarely do these spurts of argumentation occur in the moment, in what is an online/offline temporality. Facebook does not represent the Habermasian ideal of the Public Sphere. When an established art institution or individual in The Limelight is critically challenged, however, patterns emerge, cliques form, negative/positive consensus grows. Defending your own plot unavoidably creates critical blind spots. This is especially the case regarding a local art scene where resources are tight and opportunities are few. Anything or anyone who is upsetting the balance by draining the limited resources, or, is just being too visible, is deemed a PR pimp, a restless networker, or is blessed with nepotism and a privileged upbringing. Friendship biases, institutional allegiances and career aspirations are the biggest threats to art discourse. Facebook is a front row seat to how all the players negotiate the art scene. And what a telling and corruptible playground it is. Anticipating the pot calling the kettle black responses – none of us are above being corrupted online or whatever community we work or play in.

Regarding Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’ at the RHA, it’s difficult to know whether the artist’s aesthetic treatment of the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the bells and whistles PR rollout of ‘The Enclave’ and the accompanying blue chip photography is the honey for the swarm of contention. Whatever the case, never has an art event stirred such forensic critical analysis on the one hand, or total disregard on the other. Dublin Contemporary 2011, being a juggernaut guzzler of resources and attention during Ireland’s economic collapse, along with the aloof administration of the event (among other things), understandably received its fair share of critical one-twos. But for an individual artwork and artist to generate such bad feeling is suspicious to say the least. Unsolicited discussion with regard to Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’ is only trumped by small talk about the weather these days. When ‘The Enclave’ was first shown at the Venice Biennale in the summer of 2013 there were a few opinions floating about but nothing like the present cackling tsunami of opinion. There is definitely a sense of the local art community feeding one another a few too many green pills. Of course there are valid criticisms of ‘The Enclave’ with regard to the anomie of representation, but it has become farcical why the inner circles of the local art scene are so emotionally invested – torches and pitchforks at the ready. While strangely, but maybe not surprisingly, the ‘general’ public bloody LOVE IT! Just check out the successive Twitter threads where terms that artists and critics are unwilling to publicly pronounce are being thrown in the face of Mosse’s detractors: “powerful,” “moving,” “speechless”.

Perhaps I was mistaken when I wrote in a recent +billion- review of ‘The Enclave’:

“Undoubtedly beautiful, they fail to register (on their own) what art critic/philosopher Dave Hickey defines as ‘beauty’; the enigmatic aesthetic moment that changes the way you see and experience the world from that defining moment onward.” [read full review here]

Hickey goes on to proclaim that ‘beauty’ changes society. The diametrically opposed opinion concerning Mosse‘s ‘The Enclave’ has succeeded in stirring up the usually passive and flatline reception of art in this country to one of love and hate. People are talking! People are impassioned! People actually have an opinion! What more could an artist desire from their art? What more could we ask of art?

Next stop for the Richard Mosse train is Ormston House, Limerick

Preview: Thursday 27 March, 7.30pm

Exhibition dates: 28 March – 5 May, 2014


1   Jean-Luc Nancy, An Inoperative Community, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 8.

2   David Barash, 'Envy and Evolution': []

21 MARCH_2014_

The Limelight Also Comes in Magenta:

Thoughts on Envy, Community and ‘The Limelight’ with regard to Art Judgment

Oh, how bitter it is to look at happiness through another man's eyes.

(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 5:2)

Begrudgery ~ (Irish, informal) resentment of any person who has achieved success or wealth. (Collins Dictionary)

The in-play of the in-common. (Jean-Luc Nancy, An Inoperative Community)1



Petri Dish with ‘RICHARD MOSSE’

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