Thursday, March 7, 2013

'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' criticism roundtable

On Wednesday evening I attended an Early Career Researcher roundtable at the Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia. The roundtable had the title of ‘See No Evil, hear no evil,speak no evil’ and had the aim of discussing “the past, present and future of “criticism” in art, architecture and design”. The roundtable was convened by Dr Chris Brisbin and the panellists were Dr Alexandra Lange, Professor Ian McDougall, Andrew McKenzie, Dr Naomi Stead and Robert Leonard.

After introductions the roundtable began by discussing the current state of criticism in art, architecture and design and there was an early need to separate ‘bad’ criticism from ‘good’ criticism and to define the meaning of criticism as being not opinion, but writing coming from an authoritative voice. My initial concerns were that this might result in a negative view of social media as the vehicle for criticism and the gatekeeper model. With much of design and art now being shared on the internet, it would make sense that criticism also appears online rather than only in the traditional mainstream media.

As someone from the visual arts the differences between art and architecture practices of criticism were interesting. From the panel, there was a sense that the visual arts are written about more than architecture. Dr Alexandra Lange (from Brooklyn, NY) described how in the US architectural critique is moving away from ‘starchitects’ and big iconic projects to writing about local communities, streets and bike lanes. I found this interesting as it parallels with current discussions about urban living in Adelaide, what we want our cities to do, the lived experience of people and how they use the city. Architecture criticism seems to only come after the building, the vision, has been realised. As Dr Lange pointed out, the feedback loop should come earlier in the design process to make a difference to the plans of the building and the needs of the people using it. This method would also call for thick skin by the designer.

Robert Leonard spoke mostly about visual arts and the lineage of writing about art from the moment of Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917. Discourse became the “stuff of art”, with the writing about the art object being equally important as the artwork. With my training in art theory and history and an arts writer, this really stood out for me. A common complaint is that too often artists write their own criticism. As Robert alluded to, the cause of this is the university and the need for the visual arts to conform and fit the mould of research. Can the painting (or sculpture, or photograph, etc.) exist and be judged as good or bad on its own, or does it need the exegesis (the writing) to support and provide the research context for the making of the work. In my own experience the studio artists were often more interested in making art, rather than writing about it. As a theorist I wish there was linkage between the studio artists and the history and theory students. It would have been mutually beneficial for me to write about the work other post-grads were making and for my writing to be used by them in the promotion of their work (another point by Robert, art only exists when it is written about).
                                      Marcel Duchamp, 1917, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The panel agreed on the need for better criticism and perhaps even a new model for critique such as using Tumblr or Pinterest as a form of visual criticism (Dr Stead and Dr Lange mentioned Unhappy Hipsters as an example of this). Professor Ian McDougall made the analogy between the niche publications of performance arts criticism and described it as a “pathological” need to write. This goes to the core of the issue, why do we need to write about art, architecture and design? Is it to make a historical record of the event, of writing the object into history? Or is to also provide informed criticism as a dialogue with broader cultural values?

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