Editorial: Criticism, Again
by Merray Gerges
The stakes of criticism have drastically changed since C Magazine’s 2015 issue on the topic. The increased visibility of the output of artists, writers and curators who’d been marginalized by the art world has shifted its cultural landscape in a handful of years. The demographics have evidently changed, but have the power dynamics? And how has the practice of criticism, and publishing as an industry, responded? The 2019 Whitney Biennial featured more BIPOC and womxn than previous iterations, but initial reviews from predominantly white critics dismissed much of the work for its derivative lack of aesthetic “radicality,” and evaluated it according to the Euro-American canon. In response, critic and author of The New Black Vanguard (2019) Antwaun Sargent tweeted: “The consistent voices at The Times and everywhere else are entirely white. It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a Renaissance in [B]lack artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored [B]lack artists for decades?”
The incompetence of those white critics to write about work they didn’t care to understand prompted a broader dialogue on the hegemony of white critics, “allyship” through criticism, and barriers of access for BIPOC critics. Many of them asked: is visibility directly proportional to power? The conversation went beyond issuing a call for the inclusion of more BIPOC critics and demanded financial and editorial support for their work, as embodied by the widely-circulated July 2019 New York Times article “The Dominance of the White Male Critic” (whose calls for established white critics to step aside in order to make room for those voices predictably instigated whitelash). A few months later, a NYT piece by a white reporter reiterated age-old stereotypes about Inuk artists working in Cape Dorset. Indigenous artists and journalists called out its peddled trauma-porn tropes, and furthered the dialogue on representation in publishing.
The demographics of criticism and journalism— and who edits it and how—shape the reception and historicization of cultural production. The above are worst-case scenarios of what can go awry when white critics and journalists don’t bother to engage with their subjects with care. But is the lesson here that critics should never cross identity lines? When does that turn into an excuse for writers from certain subject positions to avoid developing the necessary literacy to critique work by artists from different subject positions, especially given the tendency to criticize work by such groups in private rather than in public?
Critic and artist David Garneau has discussed how the settler anxiety around critiquing Indigenous art leads to profiling and patronage devoid of true evaluation or analysis. Here, Garneau begins with an unpublishable quip from a Métis curator who calls Kent Monkman “the Norman Rockwell of Native trauma!” when pressed for an opinion of the artist’s work. Despite the explosion of writing about Indigenous art in the past handful of years, very little of it is critical, Garneau writes. “Critical art writing is needed if we are to deepen the discourse around Indigenous art beyond private judgement, competent understanding, polite appreciation, the commercial market, grant writing rhetoric, and as illustrations of existing theory,” he maintains; for non-Indigenous folks to engage this work, we must configure non-colonial forms of critical art writing. Coincidentally, during the production of this issue, coverage of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Monkman commission regurgitated buzzwords around the work. Garneau refuses to follow suit. He questions whose gaze Monkman’s work is really for, and demonstrates how Indigenous art should be critiqued: with deep care.
Critiquing with care and consideration is as key to the relationship between critic and artist as it is to that of editor and critic. Differences in subject positions, of course, complicate the power dynamic already inherent to the editor–critic relationship. Because editing involves assessing whether a critic’s proposed language accomplishes their intended meaning, it involves “an attempted act of empathy,” as Momus senior editor Casey Beal writes. But if the editor must impose legibility that may override or undermine the writer’s language, “how could we read this as anything other than a decidedly colonial gesture?” Beal questions the limitations of empathy as a tool here, articulating, with vulnerability and honesty, the concealed messiness of editors’ work, based on his own experience as a white editor. He asks questions that are pressing even for me, as an editor of colour often tasked with imposing style guides, and asking writers for explication, both in the name of an assumed “general”—i.e. white—reader.
Criticism’s complicity in the amnesia of Black Canadian artists was central to a conversation between curators and scholars Liz Ikiriko and Andrea Fatona in C144, themed “Déjà Vu,” and here, scholar Joana Joachim furthers their discussion. Joachim reflects on the inaugural Black Curators Forum, an all-too-rare congregation of Black arts professionals from across Canada held in late 2019, which provided space to discuss tactics for professional development and strategies for navigating the difficulties of working in predominantly white institutions. She looks at the structural causes for the dearth of critical engagement with Black Canadian art—which has tended to be shallowly celebratory. She asks: what are the institutional factors (in education, galleries and publications) that limit access for emerging Black culture workers, especially writers? What would it take for us to move beyond celebration towards critique that is generative and constructive?
“The Canadian art world’s claustrophobia can sometimes restrict frank public conversations,” write Esmé Hogeveen and Emma Sharpe to introduce “Tell Us What You Really Think,” the culmination of a survey that asked art writers in Canada to anonymously reflect on how they navigate the social difficulties of their work. Hogeveen and Sharpe ask: how might writers work to transcend differences between theirs and an artist’s subject position? One participant wrote, “Identity differences cannot be transcended, only navigated with respect.” “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,” offered another. Asked whether personal or professional connections affect how they articulate their true feelings in writing, one respondent wrote: “There definitely have been moments where I stopped and wondered if this would burn some bridges. I burned them anyway.”
What criticism looks like is deeply influenced by institutional and commercial interests, and concealing these mechanisms is part of the problem—especially when critics are punished for their criticism. This became incontrovertibly clear to me when I learned of a collector deaccessioning the work of a critic’s partner after the critic reported on an altercation between the collector and a gallery director, and even clearer when, in the ensuing months, I received a censorious legal threat from a publication. I asked critic Michael Turner to revisit that collector’s retaliation against him to reflect on the social politics of criticism, based on his decades of experience as a critic and publishing a daily blog. His piece dances around the art world’s implicit code of conduct for critics, and our punishment when we break it. What does this incident say about the critic–collector relationship, the expectation of critics to serve the art industry, and, more broadly, the Canadian art world’s tacit hostility to criticism?
A key thread woven through this issue is that, in overt and covert ways, how we practise criticism still bears traces of colonialism. Art theorist and writer Kim Dhillon cites an anecdote from critic Amy Fung’s book of essays, Before I Was a Critic I Was A Human Being (2019), where Fung describes the ethnocentric attempts of a white moderator and predominantly white audience to engage with a panel comprised of the BIPOC and/or women finalists of a national art award. This scenario is “characteristic of the still-prevalent colonialism of the discursive formats for engaging with and evaluating art,” Dhillon writes, but undoing that requires more than just plugging BIPOC artists into an inherently colonial structure, “for that only reinforces the normative lens through which their work is seen.” She directs this crucial question to a roundtable including writers Serena Lukas Bhandar and Tarah Hogue, among others: “If the colonial model for art criticism didn’t exist, what else might be possible?”
It would be dishonest and disingenuous to divorce my experience of working as a critic and journalist for the past five years from producing this issue for C Magazine. Whom I commissioned, what I asked of them and how I edited them is very much informed by having been one of few BIPOC editors working in publishing institutions in Canada. This issue’s task is not to ask, yet again, the self-serving question that has very much defined the profession over the past few decades—“But what’s really the role of the critic??”— which could only go so far at a time when the art and the writing of BIPOC was mostly excluded. Instead, this issue asks: what are criticism’s stakes post–Canada 150? What are the social politics influencing this work? And, how do we undo legacies of colonialism that pervade how we interact with each other?