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Criticism and the (small) city – Part II

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My last column discussed the state of local art criticism. The response I received was, interestingly, nearly unanimous – many people feel that there isn’t enough criticism here, and that what we do have tends to be tentative and rarely completely honest.

This is really not a new conversation. When I sought comment from someone who has been both artist and critic in St. John’s, this became even more clear. Craig Francis Power, visual artist and author of the award-winning Blood Relatives, started a blog called Art in Newfoundland in 2005.

“The blog was my first foray into criticism here. Like anywhere, I’d noticed a lot of back-biting going on and scathing though not very articulate critiques happening behind an artist’s back or what have you. I thought that having a forum wherein people could respond to something I’ve written while still maintaining their anonymity could help foster dialogue in a way helpful to both the local community and whatever artist I’d happened to review. Which, I think, was generally successful, though it often just became insults directed at yours truly.”

“…I’d noticed a lot of back-biting going on and scathing though not very articulate critiques happening behind an artist’s back…” (Craig Francis Power)

The first post from the blog outlined Power’s intentions:

“Because the community is so tiny in St. John’s, I’ve noticed in my two years here that not everyone involved feels comfortable enough to express their true opinions about gallery shows, performances, books, screenings etc., due to fear of personal or professional retribution from those being critiqued. So here’s your chance to engage in an actual dialogue, to voice your opinions and/or reservations about what’s happening here anonymously.”

The conversation hasn’t changed too much in the years since, as these are the same concerns – the small town, the fear of backlash – brought up by current bloggers Darcy Fitzpatrick and Chad Pelley in my last column.

Professionalizing the community 

Power was attempting to start an honest dialogue and, even if anonymously, have people actually engage in productive criticism.

“I was really hoping that it might help to professionalize the visual art community in a way, and it was telling the reaction I’d get from some artists whose work had maybe not received a glowing review. I mean, this was years ago and I still have people coming up to me saying how I don’t have a clue about art because I seemingly just don’t get why their flower paintings or whatever are so brilliant.”

Perhaps some of those whose work was the subject of discussion on Art in Newfoundland were unused to criticism. But to my mind, that comes with the territory if you’re putting work out into the world. It’s (hopefully) going to be discussed, and not everyone is going to love it. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the process. 

Online anonymity

Now, the anonymity. Power was providing a venue in which you could comment on the blog posts and contribute to the discussion without having to name yourself. I have mixed feelings about anonymity online when it comes to this kind of dialogue – it has its downsides.

“The whole anonymity thing is a bit double edged,” Power says.

“Often, and particularly in small towns, a given person may feel strongly about something, have something very valid to say, but may be under a lot of social or professional pressure to keep their mouths shut. Being anonymous while engaging in a discussion about art can be really helpful for those people. Then again, it allows inarticulate assholes to toss out insults that would get them punched out face to face, but what can you do?”

Someone who is associated with an organization or a funding body, or has too close a personal relationship with a particular artist, might be understandably hesitant to voice a potentially provocative opinion if it meant having to attach their name. In these cases, yes, it’s great to have a place where you can still express your opinion without endangering personal or professional relationships.

If we’re to try to nurture a culture of criticism, it can’t happen with a crowd of voices of which nobody will claim ownership.

But I do think that the anonymity afforded by the internet is an opportunity too often abused, and what results has begun to bore me. I find myself less apt to actually read a comment logged by someone not using their real name, or at least to peruse websites which host discussions conducted largely anonymously. Perhaps that’s unfair, given the valid reasons I’ve just stated for which one might not want to reveal their identity alongside a strong opinion. And in certain cases, the anonymous forum can work. But largely, it’s frustrating. People often get lazy when they won’t be held accountable for their words. And what kind of productive discussion can arise from that?

Look at the comments section on almost any news site. Friends often send me links to articles with a caveat: “Just don’t read the comments.” It can be infuriating, not because the commenters disagree with you, but because nobody is accountable, and the ‘discussion’ descends into name-calling and petty insults. If we’re to try to nurture a culture of criticism, it can’t happen with a crowd of voices of which nobody will claim ownership.

Keeping up

Ultimately, however it is delivered, I think the importance of critical engagement to an artistic community is difficult to argue with. As Power notes, it’s gratifying to see people respond thoughtfully to the work you put out into the world. And there’s hope that we might see more of that kind of response here in the future.

“It’s wonderful when someone takes the time to really engage with something you’ve produced, and that’s really the most important thing: having a considered and intelligent response to work whether the artist in question takes your advice or not. But NL is such a conservative place in terms of visual art that those instances are few and far between. But that’s changing. There are now a lot of younger artists in the province producing challenging work, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the majority of these artists have trained, at least partly, out of province. That makes a big difference.”

Judging by the feedback I received following Part I of this article, there are a lot of people eager to see more critical discussion around work produced here in the city. If more of these voices begin to speak up, a sustainable, constructive dialogue can emerge. Along with growth and change in the kind of work we see here has to come a growth and change in the way we respond to it. We have to keep up.

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