Nottingham Contemporary is all of One Year Old – and it’s fair to say it has had all the usual suspects of criticism thrown at it right from its inception with things like ; why do we need an art gallery? no one in Nottingham will be interested, better build another mall or entertainment centre instead (these were pre 2008 sentiments). On digging the foundations; that’s a bloody big hole in the ground it's more like and underground car park than a gallery (it is built on a hill). And right up-to its final and glorious opening ; looks like a shipping container ! – bloody eyesore.
It has of course sailed through all these (not many!) detractors and proved beyond doubt that it is the perfect spot and long overdue for the area as well as the city. And although Nottingham has always had a strong link with London for many reasons, this is a special place for art in the centre ; positioned as it is between the Baltic Newcastle, Liverpool Tate, Glasgow’s GoMA, all the galleries of London and the Tate in Cornwall. A sort of more accessible connect and radial north/south link. Although still not much use for south or mid Wales and, as far as north Wales goes only if you are prepared to travel to Liverpool. Nor indeed to the north of, and to the north east of Glasgow.... Phew!. And of course not forgetting the south east of the country, (though they do have good transport links to London). But there is definitely a more join-the-dots-up feel between these areas across England, Scotland and Wales than there was, say, even ten years ago.
And a special event being held first in Nottingham (though not for the first time) is the British Art Show 7.
This will then follow on to The Hayward, London, Glasgow GoMA and then Plymouth.
I had been really taken by the #Class discussions held at Winkleman Gallery NYC with its critics dealers and curators last March. So I jumped at the chance on-my-own-door-step, to join a critics *circle* at Contemporary – discussing the types of criticism evoked by the BAS7 and critical analysis of art in general – by three leading critics from the UK's Frieze, Art Review and Art Forum magazines.
True that the slant, if any was about the Broadsheet style of art criticism or opinion. But this was a good base for enlarging on what seemed very useful points and one in particular which was also picked up on in the #Class debate. That of opening up your (the critics) view, being a spring board for subsequent debate by engaging people with art through question. While trying to engage as wide an audience as is possible.
Good sentiments! and indeed as one of the critics in the Nottingham debate put it: not just to hold an opinion and lay down the law with that, nor massage possible favourites with un-critical positive reviews, but to “take yourself on your own journey with art – have an opinion – but open that up to a wider debate.”
This type of sentiment is being addressed far wider than the arts – from science to policy makers (well sort of!) but the time is ripe and right for this to be re-aired – we do need informed debate about a lot of things. And certainly not to re-enforce that historical elitist convenience of *you need a PHD to understand this* and by the same token not dumbing down so much that only the opinion that seems to matter is *I’m right – your wrong*.
I did a lot of scribbling while in the discussion (because I only remember the crucial bits randomly later and not when I need them) so was also slightly aware that I was a *writer*/ blogger/ artist in a discussion talking about “writers who dash things off so quickly they haven’t given themselves enough time to do the in-depth research” etc etc. They were talking about broadsheet writers and their deadlines. And all three art magazine critics here agreed they themselves have a time-rich space-poor bite of the cherry. Art magazines having less space but more time to assimilate in-depth information. So their beef wasn’t with that, so much as the general dismissive-ness that sometimes prevails when the opinion of the broadsheet writer has not had time to open up the argument and only time enough to express a view while filling in a more generous word count. So the opinion is at once not relatively in-depth, then dashed out before copy and by default, set to reach a non-specialist audience.
All these sentiments did though have a wider connotation for art and those who document its meaning; that of opening up the debate.
When the YBA’s first appeared for example, they had taken the task of self-curating and showing themselves with a kind of “high definition grabbing attitude”. Any critical opinion was also made a lot easier with the type of work shown – a simplified debate emerged – once they had latched on, the broadsheets and a lot of critics loved it for that.
This bursting away from insider-clique-full-of-deep-meaning gave way to whatever was the easiest and quickest to grasp. Now, explained one of the BAS7 critics, he believed that Clever Art was on the way (back).
He went on to describe what he saw as the role of art critic. Seeing it as a personal journey with art, including playful scepticism. Unlike the biased attitude mentioned, by massaging fave-raves with *less critical* reviews (not that many would admit to that). Nor to have an idea about art and look to confirm that, rather looking for what the artists are doing.
Recently a lot of critics have basically opted for a listed description – trying not to put a foot wrong – even the galleries themselves are showing reticence on this type of coverage, on the one hand loving the fact but on the other being protectively quiet about saying so.
When the BAS first appeared in 1979 it housed a broad 112 artists from all over Britain, many of whom were abstract artists. Most of which according to the critics here “were crap” and have disappeared. Back then the curating was more of a Survey described as *The Best of* whereas the actual reality of curating BAS now is straddling a line between inclusiveness and un-thematic results but with commonality. The only reference to nationality being its umbrella name of The British Art Show.
Another recent turn for critics in general has been the lack of political or angry art, so the shocking art of 20 years ago has moved from the black and white toward less easily articulated forms of criticism. Although gender has prevailed and gathered momentum, whether within the matured art expressed with one time YBA Sarah Lucas (in the BAS7). Or the fact of one’s gender per-se, as with Grayson Perry (who I noticed got an appalling and veiled article directed at him in The Mail last week – based on the fact of gender alone – and not his actual contribution to art or current affairs) the headline ran on the lines of “Why did BBC use this man as expert on spending cuts ...and why did they spend licence money on his bizarre bike tour of Germany?” complete with this picture just to make things absolutely clear.
A Red Top also once ran the headline about a Turner Prize winning Antony Gormley back in the mid '90's as "Gormless Gormley" (a friend noting at the time - poor sod he can’t even help his name). Another bash would have been Chris Ofili's work with its much obsessed and bandied elephant dung-isms.
Non of these were critical reviews, and this is still the sort of thing we see a lot of in the sound-bite press. But apart from things like gender, the target-specific, if you like, the obvious ticked boxes of art have not been in great supply in the last few years for critical debate (unless you count the headline grabbing stuff of Hirst, Koons and Murakami and the more established Stars-of-Art who emerged from the 80's and mid 90's).
Even in the insider-world-of-artists many would probably say that the open season criticism that abounds is certainly not for the faint hearted !
The overriding ethos or idea that I came away with was the importance of attitude and responsibility as an art critic. To develop an interest in encountering work that doesn’t necessarily show itself immediately and open up dialogue between the self evident and wider more informed (specialist) meaning.
This was eloquently put on how the BAS7 exhibition is being curated. By having a healthy lack of information on the walls explaining blow-by-blow what you’re supposed to be experiencing. And instead an information booklet with which you can choose when (and if) to read the artists essays. Parallel with this an analogy of the music industry was also made: As its critics have no insider audience to speak of, they are much tighter more informed and on the ball – because people *get it*. Art on the other hand still has that intimidating distance which renders it stable to certain biases. Some people still literally feel that walking into an art space is intimidating never mind the anxiety about *getting it*. "We expect not to get it, and so it becomes a form of social exclusion."
And so summing up, the critics saw their role as should be; not “here it is (my opinion)" but ”here are the questions (from my informed, but not static opinion)"........
I also took some notes I made during the #Class Critics debate and here are some clips from it taken via the live stream back in March 2010 ........
“The demand for popularising art is too broad - that there has to be a place for ‘high art’ or the kind of art that no one knows anything about, meaning some art is so inscrutable there is no translation. Even though some would want or desire it to be layman-ised and made accessible, really, connoisseurship and populism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
Absolutely, but I was still picking up in the wider debate; this vague or rather useful way of saying I’m in a (relatively) comfy place here and the need to defend it.
Most were very concerned and defensive that as critics they had a responsibility to history and also to their moral code of ensuring impartiality and detachment, even when reviewing friends or people they had an affiliation or affection with. I did notice from the artists gathered ‘laughter at the thought of ethics and art’.
One genuinely helpful comment, that tried to set aside a critic from (just) someone with an opinion, used the word ‘why’, on the lines of.... “as a critic I am passionate, I write about the work I am convinced about by being positive but you have to have or define your base line to say why you think X is bad and Y is good; why there is difference. In my book that is the whole point of having an opinion, not a gut feeling per se but the why.”
Money was never far away, in fact I don’t think there was any one particular point in the whole NY discussion which didn’t give a nod to some manifestation of that; not being paid enough (obviously), and one that stood out with its deflector stance; as collectors being the gatekeepers of the art world.
Indeed not the critics then.
Although both discussions were from different angles and indeed countries. I did feel that in the New York debate there were far more crucial questions being directed and answered about impartiality, money and ethics.
Either way the sentiments from both discussions did overall come up with a similar approach to what it should mean to be an art critic:
To open up debate with questions not affirmations. Why it is, rather than simply, it is.
And its 24 hrs into #RankMiami !
Man Bartlett started the proceedings with The Absurd Tailor photographing each measurement
"Measure." Acting as the Absurd Tailor, Man Bartlett will take measurements of fair-goers and relate them to the measurements of the art for sale at SEVEN and other fairs. Based on actual and imagined relationships, the artist will draw conclusions about which work is best suited (or not) for the potential buyers.
If you haven't yet, check out the live stream on the website:
Also An Xiao's Studio has some very useful links to the people who actually made it to Art Basel Miami Beach;
Along with Hrag Vartanian's intrepid posting from ABMB on Hyperallergic
Photographs from the Seven Photo Stream
Plus the twitter images of Susi Kenna's
The next post here this coming Thursday 9th, will be taking on board some of the issues and indeed hilarity raised during the events. Including the chalk-board which has been rendered *hot lips* pink (I'm guessing this is not a Farrow & Ball shade). To air the many points raised during the discussions and performances, including the ranked art stereotypes and cliches.
which includes :
A reminder of the event Calendar