Deep in the trees in the South West of Western Australia is a small town called Northcliffe. Originally a timber milling town there are only a few 300 people (2016 Census ABS) living in Northcliffe townsite. Yet, from here stems a powerhouse of Regional Arts activity in the guise of the Creative Grid, Southern Forest Arts, the Painted Tree Gallery and the fab Understory Art and Nature Trail.
So we were deeply humbled, and challenged to be commissioned to write for the Mycelium Project, for the Creative Grid, as Guest Bloggers. Our topic was Why Can’t we talk about art? The Dearth of Critical Thinking. The piece was published in early 2021, and we are happy to share it with you here. At the end please follow the links over to the Creative Grid so that you can check out this project connecting the arts across Regional Western Australia.
WHY CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT ART? THE DEARTH OF CRITICAL THINKING
By Daniela Palitos and Jenny Barr
The Local Art Paper (LAP) is an online curated site produced to explore the visual arts environment of the South West of Western Australia in an in-depth but conversational manner with written interviews and long-form articles. LAP was born out of a perceived dearth of critical art writing in the South West in 2019. What we didn’t realise at the time was that this absence was occurring across the globe.
For us peering deeply into art works, artist minds and their practices, art collectors and the infrastructure surrounding and facilitating the visual arts in our regional area was full of rich conversations needing to be had. But there was seemingly nothing other than social media loops of advertising of “creative/arts events”. We created LAP with the intention to fill this gap, to fulfil our own need to talk art and enrich our own daily lives, and we just figured that others would be into it as well.
Through artists words, we transcribe our interviews – verbatim – researching in-depth the chosen artists relationship with the history of art, asking questions about their artistic life, who do we see in their work, and following whatever interesting path we are given to go down. Christopher Young’s photography work Eight caught our collective eye and led us into the photography style of Walker Evans and the Depression Era photo documentary work. Kate Debbo’s painterly love of colour, surface and texture is grounded in her own understanding of the works of Joan Mitchell. And Britta Sorensen lead us to Social Practice Art and the struggles of the non-commercial artist’s practice. Everything has led elsewhere but with a grounding in the Arts.
The title of our piece for the Mycelium project begs lots of questions, but the first ones were-
Why is the continued presence of art criticism important or relevant at all? and What do we mean when we say we can’t talk about art?
In our survey of multiple discussions and panels for this post, what stands out is that there is a general agreement across the world that discussion, or ‘conversations’ as Roberta Smith of the New York Times likes to instigate, whether its heated, balanced, nuanced, informed or not, are good essential things for any artist or those interested in the arts to be engaging in. Curator and Frieze magazine co- editor Tom Morton describes criticism as the history of attention to ideas and a density of attention. Suzi Gablik was highlighting, as far back as the early 90’s, how the enriching of these conversations and expansions of viewpoints is created by the tension of many and opposing views that all interweave and complement each other. And that any entrenched position will always be open to comment.
In reality, the more we talk and write about the visual arts, the more access to information anyone has that is critically informed, the more expansive, deepened and comprehensive the views that can be formed.
If we stop to think when and where we saw our first artwork, would we be able to remember it? Certainly yes. The art of viewing and observing a work of art can be experienced from different periods of our lives.
Watching the first episode of the new eight part documentary series of The Art of Museums (2018) we see how engaged three little girls are, cross legged on the floor, sitting under the 1656 vast canvas of Velasquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado Museum in Spain.
The simplicity of their dialogue between them relating to the details in the painting, the painter and their characters reminisces with our own childhood experience of visiting art museums throughout our school years, and how it influenced our own critical vision/thinking.
We grew up in city environments and every year, there were always excursions booked to different types of art museums and collections. Classes were divided in groups with three or four students, and our task was to sit and observe the painting or sculpture in detail and discuss within our group and suggest a valid interpretation of what we have seen.
Foggy Wake in a Desert an ecosphere by Fujiko Nakaya installed in the Sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Australia and Bosch’s majestic Temptations of St Anthony, in the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon were the first artworks that we experienced as children and which are clear and present in our collective art memories to this day.
In many different countries, there is accessibility to a myriad of cultural spaces and their unique collections, and they form an integral part of an education system which incites and supports young students to develop their critical thinking. Understanding from an early age how art is intrinsic to the human being from the beginning of the Human existence is an essential concept to retain as we move forward in life and with our education.
In Australia, art education is strongly linked to art practice and not necessarily to art history and the art of looking at art works. It is not until University that this leap is made which then ties art history knowledge with the elitism of tertiary education.
Having access to art exhibitions is immanently linked to having a National, State or Regional Institution able to support, receive and secure supporting travel exhibitions.
We now live regionally and have observed that the access to the visual arts and collections of works not for commercial purposes is very limited. And to see is taken here as to be able to physically stand in the presence of a visual artwork, to engage the senses, with texture scale smell present before you. We know many artists and art appreciators who will make the journey to see a particular artwork elsewhere in the globe in the real just to see it. The more you look, the more you see.
The nearest private collections open to the public in Margaret River Region are the Leeuwin Estate Art Collection with works of notable Australian artists, and the Vasse Felix Gallery which hosts different exhibitions throughout the year mainly from the Holmes à Court private collection. Both galleries are situated in vineyards. A bit further up the coast the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery holds the City of Bunbury Collection, which was kick started with a philanthropic donation in 1948 to bring art to the people of the South West. Smaller gems such as The Art Gallery of WA’s Picture Club where individual works are discussed in depth are currently open to WA Gallery Foundation members only.
At the Local Art Paper, we realise that it is time to reinvigorate this dialogue at a regional level. Education is the key to promote art discussions from a young age bringing schools together with local art galleries to engage the children in a critical thinking between themselves, within the teachers and their families. We recognise how important it is for kids to familiarise with images, their presentation with different mediums, techniques and to create a narrative around what they see and observe.
Only then they can start to understand the singularity of each art work; how organic these works are as they have a life, how they grow and get old; that they will need preservation and conservation to keep them for future generations to see them. Then they will start to learn to contextualise the artworks in a period of time and in a particular style comparing artist and their works, and finally capture and learn the meaning and content of the artwork. Understanding all the more that artworks are inexhaustible.
And when the depth of looking and conversation is lost what will we be left with? Will it just be a continuous engagement with reproductions and screen lit imagery contributing to more disengagement, fostered by the unparalleled dominance of a online construction that relies upon catching an increasingly diminishing attention span in the viewer with the lowest common denominator but one that is currently favoured for its ability to produce quantifiable numbers?
The Australian Art Critic Sebastian Smee’s Quarterly Essay ‘Net Loss’ is listed as a self help book in Goodreads. Yet, he addresses the inner life and the price we are all paying for living in an age of constant distraction especially for developing artist and thinkers into the future. A life of not looking deeply, a life of distraction. Instead is this not a political or social commentary essay about the fate of culture/s?
The dearth of critical thinking
The more sides of view that are accommodated, the more we learn to go beyond an elite western hierarchy of class, gender or race. As Lance Esplund questioned in his title ‘The Art of Looking’ are the art-viewing public intimidated to look and to make a range of possible interpretations of art works in galleries and museums? If so, that is why we believe that art writing is still so relevant to ease this gap within our communities.
Overall, we learnt that Art criticism can take the written form of the review, the conversational column, the catalogue essay, or the theoretical synopsis to name a few conventions. Each has its own predetermined constraints, bonuses, hazards. What we notice is most art reviewers seem to be writing about a show that is already shut or located elsewhere across a vast countryside which you can’t get too.
Our choice of the long form written interview is based on a vision we have of being an actual paper one day whereby a long cup of tea or coffee can be had whilst perusing words and ideas relating life to art.
Criticism the word itself has really suffered in a post politically correct social media reconstructed world. Then throw in the concepts of “taste”, “judgement”,”kitsch”. In the beginning criticism belonged with “discussion”, “conversation” and had an expectation of reciprocity between discussers. In the end, the goal is to understand. But really as Octavio Paz says about Cy Twombly “it is very difficult to talk about an artist, always we are talking about another way of trying to understand a secret.” (Chalk by Joshua Rivkin 2018)
The creation of the International Association of Art Critics in 1950 under UNESCO recognised that art criticism was a critical discourse that needed saving after Fascism and World War II. Nowadays, we understand and acknowledge art criticism as a practice with different types of writing, audiences and objectives that come within a specific style.
Through our research, we have also noticed that there has been a global discussion around the state and function of art writing and art criticism. Some panelists argued that more than a state of crisis in the art criticism circle, there has been a shift of critical practice to new art professionals like curators, auctioneers and art collectors who bring now a different agenda to the primary art critic role of the “agitator”. For example in New Delhi, editor-chief for TAKE Magazine, Bhavna Kakar realised that there was a lack of independent art writers as many of them were working as curators for different art galleries creating a conflict of interests that could compromise their critical objectivity.
On the other hand, former manager-editor of Afterall Journal Melissa Grolund believes that curators have a closer relationship with artists and their work allowing them to bring their vision across from a different perspective, not putting the art critic authority in danger.
The changes in how we pay attention and how we discuss are linked to the social media landscape that has radically altered the world since its inception and uptake in the early 2000’s. Behind the scenes algorithm driven engines of questionable ethics and intentions, are built to build clicks, build audiences into statistics, to bury the lowest denominator and all this succeeds in pushing the less popular the less viewed out into the back carpark in the worst parking spot. It is a circuitous framework that you can’t escape if you choose to engage.
What we did notice before beginning LAP was that most online visual art platforms were in a state of regurgitating advertising and constantly providing copy to maintain traction in this digital space. Through necessity Artists themselves have had to become more self sufficient, more enterprising, using this digital space as galleries have closed and/or moved online and print media has declined and had to redefine itself.
The LAP chooses not to have a Facebook page, acknowledging that publishing quarterly doesn’t fit the dictates of the Facebook structure. Instead, we use the Community Noticeboards and Instagram to advertise when a new interview is up, and are simply relying on email subscription and word of mouth to build our audience. This is slower perhaps, but we are slow and that is our reality.
What do we want LAP to be, and where do we want it to go?
Part of our endeavour is to clarify the work we do within the visual arts using language that moves away from the contemporary lexicon of the “creative industry” which was born from the 1994 “creative nation” policy’s economic definition of ‘Culture’ and ‘the Arts’ as a “sector”. The policy was updated in 2013 to include the growth of new media technologies but now uses a very broad brush with the term ‘creative’, including for example the more commercially structured Advertising and Graphic Design Industries.
The term ‘creative industry’ encapsulates industries that directly compete in our opinion with the visual arts on an uneven commercial footing. All of Humanity uses creative thought to solve problems and dream up new ideas yet this doesn’t necessarily make you a visual artist.
To give an extra voice.
LAP grew out of recognising that there was a dominant commercial gallery presence in Margaret River, and observing n.f.p’s that were receiving funding for advertising and social media based initiatives under the ‘creative industry’ umbrella, and that more traditionally based visual arts were underexposed and without representation.
To link the art community in the South West and encourage a continuity of critical thinking in the arts in general.
We celebrate and exalt the fact that we have places like the Cocoon Gallery at Margaret River Library giving space to emergent artists to exhibit their work, and the Foyer Gallery, a concept originating from Arts Margaret River, and now being facilitated by the Shire of Augusta Margaret River HEART. How Bunbury Art Gallery under new curatorship is growing its public profile with a progressive active engagement with the wider Regional community delivering workshops, art talks and multiple art events. To highlight how Margaret River Regional Open Studios, an art event success story regionally, has over the last few years undertaken to educate the audience in how to enhance their viewing experience with a little more information about how to talk and look at artworks and engage with the artists.
We would like to reinforce the idea that art is a democratic force, and that art-viewing and art criticism are an essential support of the artistic practice. The language of the visual arts needs rescuing, expanding, re-imagining and defending all at once.
We will leave you to think on the recent press release from the next Biennale of Sydney 2022 titled ‘Rivus’. The statement declared that the curators are to be a part of ‘The Curatorium’ (a board of curators) and those selected to show work at the Biennale, which is usually a career highlight, are to be ‘participants’. Now who gets the cooler latin term and who sounds like they’re playing Auskick? What will the viewer’s be? Experiencers’…And we haven’t even mentioned Wellness and Art…
DP and JB