About a month or so ago various friends were talking about Janet Malcolm, a critic of The New Yorker who covered art. I had not read her before so I started to. The article she wrote that people most talked about was, A Girl of The Zeitgeist, a two-part profile on Ingrid Sischy published in 1986. How can I put this delicately? I did not like it.
I kept asking myself, ‘why don’t I like this,’ as I was reading, and that's an awful thing to do, to be building a wall of disdain for something while you are in it, but I just couldn’t help it. The profile is configured to be about Sischy, who at the time was Artforum’s newly minted editor at the tender age of 27. That’s right folks, 27. Malcolm goes about laying the foundation for the recent history of said magazine in oblique and direct ways via Rosalind Krauss, John Copeland and a slew of others that were a part of the first and then recent incarnations of Artforum. At first it seemed to make sense but halfway through reading the first half of the first section I was left wondering, ‘who is this profile supposed to be about again?’ Ah right, Sischy. But no, Malcolm only inserts Sischy in brief descriptives in small moments. I was perplexed but thought this must have some rational so I stuck with it.
I’m not sure if it was worth it though as the more I read, the more frustrated I became. Malcolm’s diversions into sub-events, such as Thomas McEvilley’s spat with MoMA over a primitivism show just went on and on and on. And after getting to the second section the unbearable use of quotes and sub-printed quotes made me come to the actualization that this extensively long piece was literally ninety percent quotes. I kid you not. It was grueling and I felt like Malcolm was wagging her superiority over me as a reader, a form of endurance testing for a sport with an audience of one, herself. It made me bored and annoyed and slightly pissed off. But then again I thought, okay, there has to be something to this. Malcolm using other’s words was like her being a collagist. She was creating a collage of the time of art at that moment. A time that seems so recent yet so far away. It was only 1986 but then you think 30 years. 30 years is a long time for art these days.
In a way, that is perhaps why my friends so admire this piece as it is a capsule, overly thorough and filled with excessive minutia, but for those that like that sort of thing that might seem glamorous or fascinating. But I’m not one who likes such things.
This piece made me think about the time it was reflecting but also about the concept of the critic. Throughout the piece Malcolm was in her own territory. Writing about artists and art critics while being a critic herself. Maybe that is why she took such a distanced stance and why her words, her actual writing, was so cordoned off. It seems to have been a similar but also a funny time to have been a critic. That time seems more golden then the time we are in now as today there are only a handful of well-known or respected writers in the field. This goes back to nagging questions I often think; where are our young critics? Where are our young voices? Where are our fierce thinkers that have both writing chops and a full brain?
Now-a-days getting a review is like getting a star on your homework. It is a thing to add to the CV, the press kit, to entice and authenticate the veracity of an artist but for what? A sale? There is maybe one, maybe two art writers today who really might sway things one way or another but in truth the critic and criticism is a crippled form.
It is no longer who is writing about the work that matters but who is paying (barely paying) for that writer to have it published. ‘I have a review in Artforum,’ ‘The show was reviewed in The New York Times.’ These are the things people note and want to hear. Who wrote it has very little significance. But that’s the flaw. It should matter. It does matter.
Just because someone writes for something doesn’t mean anything unless what they wrote is fucking well written. I hate to swear but that’s how annoying this has all become to me. There are so many bad writers out there (and also not writers) who get asked to write about this or that show or do some such thing and they are atrocious writers. What is good writing? It’s like asking what is good food or what is good sex, subjective but when you taste it or have it you know exactly what ‘good’ is. When it is bad it’s the same and for me, reading bad writing is like eating a disgusting piece of food. Why are we consuming such terrible writing when it doesn’t have to be so?!
Why is this happening? It’s not that there is a lack of smart, opinionated, well-versed people out there. There are loads and loads, but when it comes to the getting access, getting paid and the edit then you basically have a pittance remaining. The industry doesn’t have time for it (nor the money) and the writers don't either. And when there is a buck or two and some loose editorial control then there is always unspoken rules and expectation. I have actually been told to make articles ‘nicer’ because such and such gallery advertises with them, hence those articles have never been published. Everyone is trying to make friends because friends have money and art is vague so why not trade it in for that.
No. Art is not vague or mere commerce for cultural capital. No, you shouldn’t make things nicer. No, you shouldn’t only review or give ink to people and places, that already have access and power. No, you shouldn’t pretend you are from another time or class or race or gender to make things easy for readers. No, you shouldn’t add esoteric references or quotes to make it look smarter. No, you shouldn’t tell me how you really think about a show or artist or idea over drinks but not in your writing.
So then, what’s the point of all this? I’m not sure myself. All I know is that reading Janet Malcolm’s piece left me upset because I think it is a type of writing that doesn’t have justification to be esteemed the way it is. It makes me upset because my really smart friends think it is good and I think that must make me a dummy. It has me wound up because it makes me think that the state of criticism today is in even poorer shape than back then because at least back then there were people like Malcolm who could swagger and tisk their fingers and people paid attention to it. I’m not sure what to do about it but I can’t help but feel a bit more deflated and worried about how art writing/criticism is and how it will be, today, tomorrow and 30 years from now.