Five years ago I titled my last outing as an artist THE LAST WORD SHOW. For 2017 I am going to write under the same banner.

Here's why.

Last month I was invited to offer my thoughts on critical writing on art in Ireland at two art colleges and one artist-run space. Five years had passed since I was last invited to present exclusively on art criticism. During 2010 and 2011, a time when everything and anything was in so-called crisis – criticism, print, whatever – I was called upon several times to present as an advocate for criticism, which always means dressing up as an agent provocateur.

I accepted the invitations then because I believed art criticism was art advocacy. Dumb, I know. I accepted the invitations last month because I had been personally questioning the perverse nature of art criticism in a world of such fragile resources and hearts.

This time around I had no motivation to be an advocate – although agent provocateur was still on the clothes hanger. I wanted to uncover what the new generation of would-be artists, and hopefully would-be critics, really thought of art criticism on the ground. I spelt it out in my introduction that I love art, and art criticism helps me engage with art and language on a level that I couldn't without it. But I added that art criticism can be isolating, polemical and something that is almost never publicly validated on social media (the majority of the mostly positive responses to my writing over the past seven years on +billion- have been privately sent messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email, a store of support that I nibble at during times of hibernation.

What these private messages say a lot about is 'freedom of speech'. They also say a lot about the lick-arse economy of our art scene, an economy we invest so much time validating on social media while despising in secret. (Those of you who disagree with this sentiment are safely tucked away in your context – sweet dreams!)

I knew that art colleges – NCAD in particular – were the perfect environments to get some explicit opinion and answers on the matter of art criticism, especially if I hammed it up and wore a cape and horns. Because it was art college where I was forced to find my own critical voice nine years previous at NCAD, with the help of such lecturers as David Godbold, Sarah Durcan, Kevin Atherton and Joan Fowler. Further, art colleges are a world apart: what happens in art college stays in art college, more or less.

This is some of what was put forth on my whistle-stop tour last month.

One student professed in one breath the importance of art criticism, but in the next breath questioned my urge to critique art in the first place? Another asked why there was so much pretty writing being produced around art in Ireland but not much in the way of art criticism? One surprisingly observed that a gallery didn't share my critical review of an exhibition on Facebook, and asked how did I feel when they did share the positive review written in The Irish Times? And many said I was part of the system that I was critiquing.



But this is what I think.


Criticism has a bad name, it always has. The word doesn't just imply negative judgment it states it as if a prerequisite. Describe, analyse, critique in that order, criticism is the public shit we take on art after all the pillow talk is done. That's how we digest and metabolise the word 'criticism' in an art scene that hails feathers.

But I have always thought of criticism as simply: questioning out loud. And if publicly questioning the contexts that shape an artwork (rather than privately gossiping about them) is regarded as shitty, then I believe that we all need a bit of shitty in our lives to create, to think, to sustain and better whatever we do.

Unfortunately we don't get much of what I call art criticism in this country. If there ever was a crisis in art criticism, then today the situation is gone beyond crisis to apathy. The thing is, out in the virtual art scene words have less of a voice than images.

Images are everything now. Images are our identity. The carefully chosen image of us, our interests, our immediate environment, even a deceased celebrity, define us as individuals against the communal online noise. Our images scream ME, shout brand, even in their deliberate coyness on Instagram.  

Images promote our own little worlds that contain our seemingly very large lives online. Our play, our work, our process, our progress, images do what words could never do: they casually suggest a grandiosity, an authenticity, an intellect, an aesthetic, a mood in their cropped and filtered truth. Whereas words: well words make a meal of things, stuttering and stumbling and being generally misunderstood.

So, what of words and art?

Well, generally they have a good relationship, as long as the word is delivered as an image, a metaphor. (That's why descriptive art writing has such a monopoly now – it's basically images disguised as words.) However, the relationship between word and image becomes a little more fraught in the activation of criticism.

Criticism has a necessary and oftentimes reductive logic and structure; whereas art, if translated directly onto a page would end up looking like word soup. That's also why there's so little art criticism these days and so much word soup, the latter blends in.

In stark contrast, criticism is the Gremlin before it is shoved into the food blender. Criticism doesn't blend, it lodges in the machine. Criticism is freedom to question, freedom to be misunderstood, freedom to say what's on your mind (and what's on all our minds): "To learn who rules over you simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise." (Voltaire)

(I still have lots of rulers that I hope to nicely assassinate btw in 2017 and beyond.)

But our critical voices are tempered and hampered by the contexts that shape and sustain us, and the invitations we accept in our eagerness to be part of something bigger than ourselves. But there are times when we can choose to resist being a dinner-party critic. It is at such times of resistance that criticism is performing at its purest.

Admittedly, the art critic is always a compromised soul. Some writers on art deny any compromise because their context rules them: they are absolute in their denial. While others just accept the way things are and peddle a brand of art writing devoid of energy, passion, humour, risk or resistance. Criticism is the source of all these things if you embrace it fully, wholly.

Like art, criticism is founded in resistance: resisting saying: 'well, that's the way it is'; or 'who am I to argue'. Out of criticism alternatives are born. I firmly believe that I have inspired other art writers because they fucking hate what I do.

Well, there’s hope.

billionjournal.com came out of a criticism I had for the lack of urgency and timeliness of art reviewing in Ireland. Criticism has to be timely for the words to set in the moment. After-the-fact criticism is only fit for the archive and the artist's CV.

Criticism, at its best, is a timely questioning of our tendency to passively comply with the way things are with regards to power, by offering an alternative position out of advocacy for the things we love. Editorial house styles, editorial rules and regulations, editorial mission statements, artist statements, manifestos, advocacies are all forms of compliance, that should inspire resistance if criticism is a thing. But more and more it seems that criticism is less of a thing, and apathy and promotion more of a thing.

We scold mediocrity as artists and critics but we are all promiscuous facilitators of it. Facilitation of mediocrity is when the art community share online the positive journeyman journalism that's only fit for Lonely Planet. Not because artists think it is well written, insightful or challenging, but because it's printed in an established and visible magazine or newspaper, and therefore lends itself well to their ‘reputational’ economy.

Facilitation of the status quo is when the art community withhold sharing criticism if it's in some way directed at or connected to them. Five Star Reviews, Critics' Top Picks, this is how we want to project ourselves and save ourselves from invalidation. Image is everything; image is Instagram.

I ask myself how I feel and think when I receive closed praise versus how I act at the open gates of criticism? Well, praise is the status quo, a never changing landscape of power juggling in which the in-crowd are the jugglers and everyone else the clowns. Criticism stirs up the status quo and makes clowns out of the jugglers.

The internet culture is the main culprit.

I am trying to think back when the internet didn't play as big a part in the visual art scene as it does today. When promotion was a letter in the post, an email, word of mouth. When praise and envy weren't so mutually inclusive. When motivation was not so extrinsically motivated. When art experience was not so preconditioned by premature and raving hyper-enthusiasm. When the curtain was not already drawn before the show began. I can't!

Admittedly, I'm not from the generation that received hardcopy exhibition invites in the post – the email invite was my first taste of inclusiveness in the art scene. But I do long for the time when I blindly gallery-crawled across Dublin City as an art student not expecting, not suspecting what to expect or suspect next.

I am wondering now what was that experience of art before the internet; before the megalomaniac drumroll promotion of art today online. A time when artists spend more time promoting their art than thinking and making it.

Yes, everything gets stale over time. We begin to notice patterns in our habitual and algorithmic lives. We begin to get fed more gossip than the daily recommendation. We end up stomaching the fibre-less begrudgery, click love, like, favourite, retweet, and bear the brunt of our critical constipation.

Because we are all critics, underneath. We don't even have to admit it to ourselves; we perform it enough behind each other's cliques. But when I think about it, it's so perverse being an art critic in this under-resourced world where All Bran is not the breakfast of champions but Honey Puffs are.

Just take yourself out of yourself for a minute and have a real look at the online art environment of hyper-enthusiasm and reciprocal validation. It's taken me five years of not being an artist to see, to really see, what is blatantly in front of me, and which is gathering momentum.

Art criticism against this bank of positive images seems to be in the wrong body, a body snatcher, a vestigial organ.


For 2017 I am going to go cold turkey on social media. (This is an experiment not a manifesto.) That means no more self-promotion; that means no more advance warnings of reviews; that means blocking emails from galleries and artists that give me a preview of what is to come.

I want to fall upon exhibitions like I once did before social media. I want to be surprised. I don't want to see patterns anymore. All I want to see is art, not back-stories, not gossip, not affiliations, just art.

Safe passage through the art world, virtual and real, in 2017. I will be jotting away on +billion- so drop by anytime.

Towards a subculture of art.

[James Merrigan]


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