Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mark Adair on Artists and Art Critics

As artists we have, it seems to me, two distinct jobs. One is making art, and as Catherine Daigle used to say, "... an artist can only make the art they make." And the other job is "getting it out there". What Daigle meant was that the struggle of art production is very personal. And as Michel Denis, a Montreal artist, said to me many years ago, it's that idiosyncratic voice that is what makes a thing special (to paraphrase). I can paint a vase of sunflowers, but Van Gogh paints a Vase of Sunflowers. It's not perhaps 'better', but somehow it is just better. In "getting it out there", we stretch out our necks only to expose ourselves to the sharp sword of the critic.

The critic's sword has two edges. One cuts for the artist, and the other slices into the artist. In speaking with a colleague the other day I learned that she has felt the sting of a reviewer. Not a bad review at all, just one simple word that made her wonder about an aspect of her work. Should it be seen this way, or that way? A semantic twist that can twist one's understanding. I have really felt the sting of the reviewer's pen to the extent that it made me wonder what the hell (at the very core of my being) I was up to. You might say that it's a nice problem to have and I would concur, but with caution. What real use is a review other than the undeniable pleasure of seeing one's name in ink? It has been suggested that a good review can give the reader (collector) confidence to perhaps make a purchase. Well, that is a very important part of our business. But I would argue that arts writers, and I have had the very real pleasure of working with several good ones, have a raison d'etre all of their own. Not separate from artists but joined at the hip so to speak. Arts writers and arts journalists wield their wicked little pens (cameras and computers, blogs and magazines) to write into existence their own cultural visions. Think about the implications of a 'simple'  review. For every show chosen by the reviewer there are hundreds ignored. That's a lot of resentment. But more to the point the selection process of arts journalists underscores how this one aspect of arts culture works; certain shows are chosen to be written about. Certain artists are brought to the public's attention. A discourse is established. As artists we tend to whine about the tail wagging the dog. I think this whining might might be a big mistake. The fact is that we are a small part of a very big cultural industry. When I get reviewed these days, or someone flatters me by noticing my efforts, (with praise, faint praise, or even mild ridicule) I try to remember my place in the food chain. The region of south western ontario is a great place to be an arts worker. Everything is up for grabs; anything can happen. We are very blessed.

Mark Adair