Tell Us What You Really Think: A Survey on the Landscape of Canadian Art Criticism
by Esmé Hogeveen and Emma Sharpe
“Do you think anyone will read it?”
bq. “Okay, but did you actually _like the show?”_
bq. “Have you gotten paid yet?”
Like any niche scene, art criticism and critics exist in tangled webs of camaraderie, competition and other contextual factors. Though we deeply value the role of peer-reviewed essays, journalistic exposés and first-person texts in exploring the stakes of art criticism, we also note the ways that the Canadian art world’s claustrophobia can sometimes restrict frank public conversations. As such, rather than pontificate ourselves, we wanted to hear from participants in the field: what are their (your!) gushes, gripes, inspirations and frustrations?
Inspired by the vulnerability and tongue-in-cheek tone of Seventeen magazine quizzes of yore, we hoped to create a space for honest, informal reflection via an online survey. Invitations were shared with C Magazine contributors from the past two years, who were in turn invited to circulate the survey among colleagues and friends. With their anonymity assured, respondents were encouraged to pick and choose questions with which to engage, as well as to note any oversights in the survey’s format or purview. The (lightly edited) answers below reflect a cross-section of selected responses.
Acknowledging the inevitable impact of potential biases derived from our own subject positions, as well as the limited network of respondents, we envision this survey only as a catalyst for further conversation rather than an exhaustive inventory. We are immensely grateful to all who shared their joys and trepidations, and posed additional questions, in response to the original survey. We hope that some of these conversations will continue, expand, mutate, self-destruct and evolve on and off the page to include a growing number of voices.
bq. WHAT DO YOU SEE HAPPENING IN CANADIAN CRITICISM THAT EXCITES OR INSPIRES YOU?
Tbh, I read Canadian criticism to keep up, not to get inspiration (at least I haven’t found much that inspires me lately).
Canadian criticism! I feel that people are attending to Canadian art/ film more, especially smaller or independent work… so that’s good!
More First Nations curators and writers
more writing “around art” as opposed to contextualizing solely within an art historical legacy.
To a certain extent, I see more diverse voices writing and getting talked about, shifting how the conversation happens, but not as much as I’d like.
Experimental writing that challenges typical writing formulas, or popular opinions and practices.
I am inspired by how seriously Canadian art publications seem to take the push for inclusivity, and how that is being reflected not only in who is being written about but also who is doing the writing. There are potential accompanying side effects of this (such as tokenism) however in general the effort strikes me as thoughtful.
People injecting more humour and social observation into art criticism!
More small publications trying to start up despite austerity—new publications means new voices (I hope!).
Auto-theory (when it’s done well)
I appreciate independent publications that are surfacing and the diversity of voices that are being represented … I tend to get the most out of exhibition texts from artist-run centres.
Criticism that engages the fleshy reality of seeing, feeling and sensing artwork that unsettles, decentres and lives inside you
bq. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO SEE LESS OF?
Less institutional power in the hands of people who have always held the power. Less institutional pressure to pander to “diversity” and “inclusion” without any real action or clear mandate to address these issues, without working with the communities these issues affect the most.
Gatekeeping, inner circle stuff.
Less framing of work within a strictly Western art historical legacy. (snooze)
Reviews that invoke identity politics in under-researched ways, friends writing reviews of friends’ shows but not admitting personal connections.
Timidity and complacency. White women in charge. I think less academic jargon is super important, but I also think super lofty CFPs from publications that then are like “NO ACADEMIC LANGUAGE” is pretty…ironic. Like, if you’re an expert, or even a quasi-expert, you’re bound to use specific language and vernacular sometimes. So I think it’s the editor’s job to make sure it’s not excessive and well-explained, but I think just saying “no academic language” is kind of lazy and actually doesn’t even end up being enforced in the pieces I read in most established art publications.
I find it hard to read myopic art writing, that is, writing that refuses to incorporate a more comprehensive world view and is satisfied with trotting out the same tropes and antecedents.
bq. WHAT DO YOU PERCEIVE TO BE THE STAKES OF LEVELLING “NEGATIVE” CRITIQUES WITHIN THE INTIMATE CANADIAN ART CONTEXT? IS IT WORTH IT?
I hardly come across any “negative” critiques in the Canadian art community … I don’t think there’s a culture of having constructive criticism in Canada. Not really and of course there is a big difference be- tween slamming and posing pertinent questions.
I think people are too scared of this! Both publications and audiences are far more receptive to critical perspectives (in my experience) than conventional wisdom would have us believe. Depends on the publication and the idea, of course.
Leading question. Refuse to answer.
Depending on what part of the country you’re in, you sort of end up siloed into a group of individuals all seeing the same exhibitions or talks, etc.. so it’s risky because to “burn a bridge” (so to speak) by being negative about a practice/exhibition, you can’t be entirely sure what other bridges you’re burning along with it. People talk! It’s not really worth it as a freelancer, this could be different if you were employed as a writer for a publication who will back you up and continue to pay you afterwards.
If these “negative” critiques are about the lack of inclusion, diversity or question the authority of voice that is not a bad thing. We need to have these conversations.
Yep worth it. It means we are taking each other seriously. That there are stakes.
I’ve learned that if you decide to write critically you need to have your facts 100% on point. When folks see things in print, the stakes feel really high for everyone and the likelihood is higher that people are going to be defensive.
bq. DO YOU THINK DIFFERENCES IN BACKGROUND OR IDENTITY PRECLUDE A HOLISTIC, RESPECTFUL OR FULLY REALIZED INTERPRETATION OF AN ARTIST’S WORK?
IF SO, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU THINK WRITERS FROM DISSIMILAR SUBJECT POSITIONS CAN DO TO TRY AND TRANSCEND THAT DIFFERENCE?
Yes, I think there is always going to be a gap when you are considering work that is steeped in a different background or identity than yours. But I also think this gap is an opportunity for education and research. It doesn’t have to be a gatekeeper issue if approached with sincerity and humility.
I really wish I had an answer to that question! I think this is something that (white) critics are asking themselves a lot, and most have no idea.
Writers need to be open about where they’re coming from when reading a work. Identity differences cannot be transcended, only navigated with respect.
I think it depends on the expressed intent of the artist’s work. If someone’s work is about their lived experience and it is wholly dissimilar to mine, as a critic I don’t feel like I’m in a position to analyze their practice … I’m very much aware when my voice is not useful to add to the conversation.
I think the coding of culturally specific work and programming requires a greater investment in critical education, and a meaningful diversification in art criticism. Publishing standards and professionalization practices need to change in order for more perspectives to be given courage and editorial direction. Simply put, we as a readership need help in parsing the pell of culturally specific and challenging work. Expecting a matchmaking process—i.e. only a Black writer can write about a Black artist—would be too narrow a solution, and would only further encourage marginalization of both critic and artist.
bq. IF YOU’RE A WRITER, HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO PITCH OR WRITE ABOUT?
If I feel like I can offer a view different from what’s already said in the curatorial statement or exhibition essay.
If it keeps me up at night or slithers into my dreams.
I like to pitch stories that shed light on unknown art or artists in the geographic area in which I reside which is woefully underrepresented in the national conversation.
I consider the mandate of the publication, how much time is necessary to write/research and whether I will be fairly compensated.
I look for work that I respond to on a visceral level
Certainly there needs to be the sense that you will be saying something that hasn’t been articulated before … You want to push back on something, or extend it out. You want to hold the contemporary moment up to the court of history.
I write about work / shows that speak to concerns I have in the world, in particular the underrepresented voices of BIPOC, women and LGBTQ2S+ voices in the arts.
I feel some small responsibility to review (what I consider to be) strong media art shows—to consecrate them in Canadian art history. If no one reviews the show, did it ever happen?
bq. WHO DO YOU THINK YOUR WORK IS LEGIBLE TO? ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH THIS READERSHIP?
Canadian editors usually miss the boat in understanding readership in art criticism; too many assume it has to be academic or faux-academic (pedantic, labyrinthian and flush with references).
i hope it is accessible to a wide-reaching audience (i think relating art to other disciplines/perspectives within society at large helps with this and opens up the opportunities for connection with those who might not be schooled in artistic discourse)
mostly art folx and activists and that’s fine
Ideally, my work is legible to the art-curious at large. I’d want them to be curious about art and its discourse, though not necessarily art-educated. Who knows if they’re coming to the writing, yet, or if they ever will. I do worry there isn’t enough signage for them to arrive. But carrying an ideal, however hazy, for who your audience might be is so crucial to the writing.
Artist-academics, my friends. Not always satisfied but preferable to trying to artificially generate other forms of readership.
It’s always hard to know if anyone actually reads your stuff, unless they really dislike it they’ll let you know. I try to write for art-world and academic audiences but mostly it feels like I’m tossing texts into the void.
bq. HAVE YOU EVER ALTERED OR EDITED YOUR TRUE OPINION IN ORDER TO ADVANCE A PERSONAL OR PROFESSIONAL CONNECTION?
Yes. Working institutionally requires that in countless ways, daily.
There definitely have been moments where I stopped and wondered if this would burn some bridges. I burned them anyway.
Everyone tends to be more generous with their friends and mutuals. Catalogue essays are a great example of a genre of writing in which the writer, the subject and the commissioning body all usually insist that they’re not exerting any influence on each other, but the text is still usually understood to be PR … Many times I have written what I know my editors want even if it deviates from what I really think. Even the required length (i.e. short) of most pieces is a factor that doesn’t allow space to flesh out reservations or contradictions.
I’m always nervous about being too critical, and have definitely felt a pressure to champion certain “highbrow” or art-house pieces that an editor/community clearly loves.
When I was really junior, I asked a gallery director for documentation images to supplement an exhibition review I had written. She refused to send them to me unless she could read the review first.
No but, while reviewing, I have tried to focus on the positive aspects and have definitely left out really dire critiques.
Not really…. but I do sometimes think I should write about more popular artists or contentious subjects if I want more people to read my work. Sad, but true?
Yes, sometimes when an editor pushes their opinion of an artwork (even if indirectly), I feel intimidated or like it’s hard to push back because receiving writing contracts is so precarious (and again, the time-to-$ ratio makes it hard sometimes to put effort into fighting or negotiating edits you’re unsure of).
bq. WHEN YOU BREAK IT DOWN, WHAT’S YOUR ESTIMATED HOURLY RATE WHILE WRITING? …ANY THOUGHTS ON THIS?
It’s pretty inconsistent—from $0/hour to $40/hr. my thoughts on this are HEAVY SIGHS. It’s really messed up. Really, I wish people would be upfront and acknowledge the time it takes to do this kind of work.
I’m scared to even calculate it, because I’m worried that—because I’m paid per piece—it’s going to make me too sad to go through the rest of my day.
On average, my rate is about $0.75/word. I’d like it to be more. But I acknowledge the financial precarity and resource scarcity that many publications experience. I’m in a position where I can afford to write for less … Maybe I am a part of the problem… SOMETHING PATHETIC. I recently turned down a thousand-word piece for $50. It would have involved reading multiple books for research and I was tired and depressed and like… wow, $50 … I just… no. Not the editor’s fault of course, but I think these kind of sad pro bono inner debates are pretty standard for my peers, too.
Pretty much nothing! establishing connections in the art world which leads to $ eventually.
$5 an hour … I sometimes wonder how long I/my friends will keep trying.
We need to ask for what we’re worth, and be unremitting and brave in our approach to having these conversations with integrity, transparency and without shame. It all goes to turning the tide for better remuneration standards in art writing and criticism. It’s high time.
bq. CAN CRITICISM BE TAUGHT? HOW DID YOU LEARN TO WRITE CRITICISM? WHERE WOULD YOU POINT AN EMERGING CRITIC FOR ADVICE ON HOW TO GET STARTED?
I learned by reading history, criticism and theory, and by looking at and thinking about art within its social contexts. Emerging critics should practice by going into art spaces and writing descriptions of what they see (not just the art, but everything else too). Also, remember: just because it’s published doesn’t make it good or right.
Writing circles, working groups and collectives are important, and often the only source of substantive, critical feedback on your writing.
I think you can teach people to be critical thinkers and strong writers. You can help people learn how and when to pitch. The rest is on them.
I would tell people to read widely, talk to artists, go to events, take whatever (formal or informal) training they can find and practice writing. Start with student publi- cations, if any are accessible.
I attended free workshops through artist-run centres and did a lot of reading on what certain publications look for before I pitched an idea to them. My advice would be a combination of engaging in the arts community in your area, reading a lot of criticism to better understand the form and not letting imposter syndrome get in the way.
work for free for small pubs and hope the larger paid jobs start to roll in.
I would try to direct them to an editor with a publication that specifically supports emerging writers.
mentorship with experienced critics
I think analyzing texts is so valuable, and that it’s good to read not only mainstream art criticism. Like, what can we, as art critics, learn from music or lit criticism? Or sports writing? I think it’s good to stay broad and find what you love in writing and work those angles into your own lens on art.
The success I’ve experienced has been obtained through direct field work, asking advice from my peers, cold pitching and calling, failing and trying again. I’ve had no guidance from peers in the field. It’s a small field and while I write continuously, regularly, there are certainly individuals at the helm of publications that are exclusionary. For emerging critics, I would suggest being brave and going for it. You’ll know if you’re on the right track and your work will improve as you write and read more.
Emerging critics should read EVERYTHING.
bq. PAINT A PICTURE OF YOUR IDEAL CANADIAN ART CRITICISM LANDSCAPE; WHAT’S THE UTOPIA WE SHOULD AIM FOR?
Truly diverse representation of voices, with writers from marginalized backgrounds in positions of real power, and the ability to use this power to highlight art that has been ignored or neglected in the past. An understanding by all individuals involved in the arts community about the importance of intersectionality in all the work you do. A community that is a living thing will respond and evolve with its members, rather than become monolithic or institutional. And a real sense of fostering new writers/ voices, with the money to back it up. So utopic, I know.
I would love this to be a world that felt less cagey, where I didn’t feel so much anxiety reaching out to somebody who has more “social capital” in this world than me.
uHMmmmmm, oh who knows? There is no utopia, that’s why we are critics. I would like to see more steady contributing / column writer positions. I think with an increase of these positions some real criticism could start to occur because in late-capitalism, within an intimate market, financial security is really at the core of honest criticism. Can’t be comfortable if ya can’t afford to eat! Having a reliable, constant voice increases readership also because people get comfortable with their style and feel close to them.
Respect without caution. Generosity without paternalism. Candour without artlessness. Thoughtfulness without pragmatism.
So many voices —diverse, emerging and established— that are championed and well-supported (both financially and editorially) as they sing across the provinces … A panoply of publications, small and large, across both online platforms and print stands. A brave and un-blinking ledger of support from gallerists, patrons and government funding for Canadian criticism that doesn’t hew to provincialism or mere promotion.