As Mark Amery's visual arts column for the Dominion Post ends he considers the current position of art criticism and commentary in the mainstream media and the importance of publishing that connects contemporary art with the world around it.
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This month my fortnightly visual arts column with the Dominion Post newspaper was cancelled. In some respects this came as no surprise.
When the Dominion and Evening Post newspapers merged in 2000 the new newspaper carried no visual arts reviewing (it featured in both newspapers previously). So in 2002 I approached the newspaper with the idea of a weekly “column” - a Trojan Horse for the return of criticism. Five years ago, that column was dropped, but then reinstated fortnightly, after the newspaper received a large number of letters of concern from readers.
This time round the column has been axed alongside other cuts in content from the newspaper’s Culture section. It follows other recent cuts. Earlier this year, for example, my partner Hannah Zwartz’s long running Wellington gardening column was cut. It has been replaced by content supplied by fellow Fairfax media publication New Zealand Gardener. On the 14 August the New Zealand Herald reported that Fairfax Media Group had reversed a significant slide in its New Zealand earnings due to advertising and circulation declines by cost cutting, including staff. It saw the company make an Australian $224.4 million profit last financial year, compared to a $16.4 million loss in the previous.
This leaves Wellington of the four major cities in New Zealand the only without any visual arts commentary. Clearly, compared to the larger cities of Australasia we are judged on market size as positively provincial.
But this column isn’t about Fairfax. We all know print newspapers are getting smaller, and the resources devoted to journalism and editorship dropping. We continue to see web publishing grow. I’m also told space for the visual arts in the NZ Herald and The Press continues to shrink.
When I first arrived in Wellington in the mid -90's there were six print publications in which I could read independent commentary on exhibitions every week - a range of different perspectives. They included the now defunct street newspapers Capital Times and City Voice, and the Sunday Star Times and Listener, who I was reviewing and writing features for. There was even, with the likes of Monica, Pavement or Log Illustrated more visual arts commentary within niche culture publications. Yes, we didn’t have review site eyecontactsite.com, this platform The Big Idea (which carries an archive back to 2007 of my Dominion Post published work), or some of the excellent, online sites for arts writing, like the brilliant Pantograph Punch and Lumiere Reader, but you hopefully get the picture.
Only certain kinds of people will read Pantograph Punch, or care to delve into Eyecontact. What concerns me is that guy over there, across from you on the train with his newspaper or tablet. Or that woman in a cafe leafing through the newsprint or scrolling through her phone. Or that kid working out what matters to them at the breakfast table. A broad media platform provides us all with access to that we might not even have thought about - not just what our friends have pressed the like button on.
The visual arts coverage the vast majority are now receiving in Wellington is not selected by critics or editors going out to exhibitions and making recommendations. It’s made via media releases and through friendly pitches made by galleries who can afford the staff. Lobbying.
It’s clear that the media will, beyond a withering mainstream continue to fragment into many varied niches, crippily underfunded. Niche publication does not do what a newspaper, online or offline, does. We’re coming to a time when New Zealanders start reading more reviews by Adrian Searle of the Guardian in the UK or maybe even John McDonald of the Sydney Morning Herald than those about exhibitions just down their street. Our small size leaves the culture around arts publication for everyone increasingly fragile.
On occasion I‘ve reminded myself that, ultimately, my role is a publicly funded one: paid for collectively by thousand's of readers and advertisers. We need commentators as part of the mainframe of society. We encourage you to question what we’re receiving. If we’re doing our job, we connect things up. We plug art into the mains.
Having a fortnightly column has meant at best that the bevy of dealer galleries in Wellington receive attention about only once a year or so. They deserve better. Like a newspaper, they are private enterprises with a public good beyond profit at their hearts. They aren’t shops. Yet, at a time art is considered principally by its market value or public controversy over its worth, what they take risks on presenting receives scant attention.
So why so undervalued? One way of looking at it: art is dangerous. Good art changes us. It encourages us to think differently. To make new connections between things, when increasingly we are encouraged to be beholden to spin. Reduced to a discussion of its price or whether ‘it’s good art or not’ an artwork is drained of its connection to the world. Yet recognising, valuing and discussing its wider charge in the world is the very thing the mainstream (rather than niche) media has all the potential to reveal.
Another way of looking at it: we’ve done it to ourselves. That modernism and its commentary became increasingly self-referential, about the ego and object, disengaged in a white box from society rather than its charge in the world. This may be a simplistic explanation and against where artists have been leading us since the 1960s, but its where so much media still seems to lead us.
Yet here’s the thing: at the very time the media are increasingly treating visual art as irrelevant, artists are increasingly creating work that draws many threaded inspiration from the world around it, is increasingly engaging in extending the social and documentary. There’s never been a better time for the press to start to explore these connections.
There’s no better evidence than this year’s Walters Prize shortlist. Work that is so of the world that it has struggled to be represented at Auckland Art Gallery. Simon Denny brings the media into the gallery, Luke Willis Thompson’s selected work asked the public to get in the back of a taxi in a dealer gallery garage and go for a drive, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila ranged as one of the homeless outside Te Tuhi gallery, and Maddy Leach presented nothing within the gallery, instead treating the letters to the editor pages of the newspaper the Taranaki Daily Times as a key site for her work to play out. In that bundle there are a lot of questions for both the art world and the media.
We are seeing our media world fragment into many different tribes sharing commentary. This makes the channels in which connections are made between these communities even more important.
Contemporary art right now is a powerful connector - sending off shoots into new gaps between spheres - but it needs to be recognised as such by the writing around it. The challenge for those of us who write about art is to dignify it by recognising and stressing its connections to the wider world.
If much of what I write here is stating the obvious it is to emphasise the challenge. The gaps are getting bigger and we now all have a part to play in being the media, and being activated by art, rather than just being its consumers.
- The 2014 Walters Prize exhibition, Auckland Art Gallery, until 12 October