Our national visual arts journal opens its mouth and finds itself suddenly mute. THOMASIN SLEIGH thinks about art criticism in New Zealand.
I have been overseas for a year. I returned to New Zealand with that usual, surreal, hyper-awareness of New Zealand culture: what goes said and unsaid, how we react, how we pretend to be ourselves. I have been thinking a lot about art criticism, and the hand wringing about New Zealand’s lack of critical discourse and reviewing culture, our unwillingness to engage in rigorous debate or conflict.
As such, I thought upon my return that I would read the last four editions of Art New Zealand, to reintegrate; to get a sense of what had been happening in the criticism, theory and general scholarship of the visual arts whilst I had been out of the country.
The difficulty I had in getting hold of these editions began the theme of the hermetically sealed activities of Art New Zealand that this article will develop. There were none of the back issues in the bookstores in Wellington, and they were on loan at the public library. I couldn’t order them on the journal’s ancient website so I emailed the address provided and was asked to send through my phone number. After a delay of a couple of days I received a cheerful call from the assistant editor, gave my credit card details over the phone, after which the issues were posted to me. Rather than the open, easy transactions the Internet is so suited to facilitating, getting information about the issues was kind of like negotiating with an exclusive club.
Art New Zealand continues to hold a hegemonic position in the publishing of criticism dedicated to the visual arts in this country. As a placeholder, as a general record, as a journal of significant history, Art New Zealand is important, especially in the context of New Zealand, where art criticism has traditionally had very few dedicated forums. Art New Zealand’s reputation, as it website triumphantly claims, “is unequalled.”
The magazine has been published continuously since 1976, when it was founded in Auckland by Peter Webb. Initially with aspirations to be published six times a year, it soon established a quarterly publication cycle. I have no idea about its readership figures, but I assume Art New Zealand is widely read. It is available in galleries and specialist bookshops throughout the country. It claims to be “the major visual arts journal in New Zealand…Its place in the art world is secure…” It receives no external funding, so its revenue must be dependent on advertising sales, which evidently keep the publication ticking over. Art New Zealand is able to exist as an economically viable entity, an admirable feat in a country as small as New Zealand.
Art New Zealand still looks very similar to the way it looked when it started out in 1976. It has the same layout, feature articles of a similar length, includes reviews of exhibitions and features on specific artists, and still includes short updates from art reviewers in the major urban centers. Its cover image is still dominated by images of artists in their studios or single artworks.
This is all largely cosmetic, and perhaps unimportant, but I think also belies stagnation in the content and approach of this journal. This article is less concerned with the content of the art criticism in Art New Zealand, but rather the framework that these reviews and articles operate within. This article asks whether we should demand more of our national visual arts journal, especially one which makes such dogmatic assertions of its own quality. How successfully does it serve art writers, and, more importantly, artists in New Zealand? If a reader in the future were to pick up the four issues of Art New Zealand that I just read, what would it tell them about art in this country and how writers are able to ‘do’ art criticism in New Zealand in 2012?
One answer to the last question is that art writing in New Zealand is conducted by men. Art New Zealand predominantly publishes art criticism by men about male artists. I remember a panel discussion at the Adam Art Gallery on the present currency of feminism, where an artist said that it was sometimes boring to be the feminist who always counted ratios, but often this was necessary to illustrate the continued male dominance in arts funding, exhibiting and writing; a dominance that otherwise goes uncommented on.
This totting up is a habit of mine as well. It is salient to point out that in the last four issues of Art New Zealand, Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer of 2012-13, thirty of the contributing writers were men and only twelve were women. Of the artists whose work was addressed in a dedicated feature, twenty-one were men and nine were women.
The discrepancy is clear, and further compounded by anachronistic editorial decisions. For example, in the Spring 2012 edition the only two women writers to contribute to that issue were both charged to write about the work of women artists. Such imbalances and editorial blind spots bring into question the “rigour and professionalism” that Art New Zealand makes claims to.
Whilst I am going about the fastidious process of counting, in the last four issues of Art New Zealand there were fifty-seven articles and thirty-nine contributors. Four articles specifically addressed the work of Maori or Pacific Island artists, fourteen articles were about painters, no articles were about sound artists, and only one article addressed a performance artist. Given the numbers generated from the four issues I am addressing, the artist most likely for Art New Zealand to run an article on would be a Pakeha painter, and his work would most likely be written about by a Pakeha man employed by an academic institution.
If this seems to be a very anachronistic point to make, I would entirely agree. Addressing the social, racial, and political hegemonies of New Zealand as a post-colonial nation was a particular concern of artists and writers in the ’80s and ’90s—a time that was characterised by the critique of the narratives of western modernism, and an interest in submerged and tangential art histories. It comes as second nature for writers, editors, artists, art historians, to now to look to context and epistemological bias of any history that is put purported. Which is why it concerns me that it is still necessary in 2013 to point to the dominance of Pakeha, male writers and artists in Art New Zealand.
The theorist Irit Rogoff has been a lucid commentator on the operations of art criticism in the contemporary context, and has been an advocate for the emergent discipline of visual culture. She writes in the opening to her essay ‘Looking Away’:
What comes after the critical analysis of culture? What goes beyond the endless cataloging of the hidden structures, the invisible powers, and the numerous offences we have been preoccupied with for so long? Beyond the processes of marking and making visible those who have been included and those who have been excluded? Beyond being able to point our finder at the master narratives and at the dominant cartographies of the inherited cultural order? Beyond the celebration of emergent minority group identities as an achievement in and of itself?
That was written as long ago as 2005. Our imagined future reader of Art New Zealand in 2012 would not perceive that the publication had moved beyond the modes of operation Rogoff calls into question here.
In Art New Zealand there is no editorial voice or acknowledgement of the frames of reference it operates within. There is no editorial in any of the four issues I have been looking at; no opportunity to posit a particular theoretical agenda or set of timely concerns that a set of writers are then able to respond to. There is no mention in any of the issues of the social or political context from which it has arisen. There are no letters to the editor or rejoinders from the artists, curators, or writers who have been the subjects of critical consideration in previous issues.
As such, Art New Zealand reads as a curiously mute journal. It resists any discursivity. Each article asserts a particular position which is a theoretical end point, there is no facility provided for multiple or continued debates or institutional self-reflexivity.
In Wystan Curnow’s 1975 article ‘Doing Art Criticism in New Zealand’, Curnow writes on the lack of dedicated forum for art criticism in this country:
The demise of Art in New Zealand left the country without an established periodical chiefly concerned with art. It still is without such a periodical. There have been attempt to establish a quarterly (Ascent) and a monthly (Arts and Community), both of which ended in failure…there is still no place outside of journalism where a critic can write regularly enough to develop the kind of proficiency that is called for.
This comment was written just prior to the first issue of Art New Zealand appearing. Yet, in 2013 the journal still behaves now as if it exists in the critical context of 1975. Though with markedly different audiences and editorial agendas, there are other forums for extended essays by art reviewers now in existence: the Reading Room Journal published by Auckland Art Gallery; Ocular: Postgraduate Journal for Visual Arts from Christchurch; White Fungus, an arts review and comment journal; Art News New Zealand, Art New Zealand’s closest competitor, is published on a quarterly basis. Though zealously truncated, all our major metropolitan papers print regular art criticism. It goes without saying now that blogs, both personal and institutional, and online publishing are proliferating spaces for a chorus of perspectives and voices.
You wouldn’t know that Art New Zealand existed in an expanded publishing context or in an altered, hyperlinked digital terrain from reading the current issue, Summer 2012-2013, which is Versailles-like in its disavowal of any exterior perspectives, or sense of a freshly formed theoretical community. And furthermore, we now live in a moment of globalised instantaneity—shouldn’t the “major visual arts journal of New Zealand” be engaged in a global discourse? What is the editorial value of its singular focus on New Zealand artists and writers? And if indeed the journal believes there is a need to solely focus on art created by New Zealanders and written about by New Zealanders, shouldn’t this position need to be rearticulated in our moment of globalised work forces, mass telecommunications and the subject’s rapidly changing relationship to the wider world? The critical field has altered but I would argue that Art New Zealand has failed to alter with it.
Beyond the discussion between and across art critics, an even more important question is to what extent Art New Zealand productively supports or accurately reflects the practice of contemporary New Zealand artists. An artist friend anecdotally commented to me recently that an Art New Zealand review of her exhibition was like “the reviewer had been to a different show.” As Gavin Butt comments in the publication ‘After Criticism’:
Questions have recently begun to be asked beyond the pages of ‘October’—from literary studies to the emergent academic field of visual culture—about whether or not the theoretical register remains a fertile ground for opening up critical perspectives on art and culture or whether it, in itself, has become part of criticism’s dilemma, servicing to delimit what can be said and how it is that one might say it.
Art New Zealand’s content has the tenor and style of conventional art writing, which materially describes and extrapolates upon an artwork, placing it within an art historical frame work or responding personally or poetically to the work. Perhaps the dearth of writing on performance or sound artists in Art New Zealand and the predominance of writing about painting points to the redundancy of this institutionally ratified style of writing in response to new modes of art making.
Writer and editor Bopha Chhay has suggested that the Internet is inherently a more flexible space “where an alternate reality can exist and where emerging practices are more free to take place. It is a site where possibility is enabled. In this regard it can become a space that frees us to approach art writing practices differently. It seems to allow for a generosity in the practice and process of thinking, writing and production.” There is a value in Art New Zealand continuing to pursue an agenda of conventionally written art criticism, but I think it has a responsibility as a national publication to at the very least acknowledge and discuss the current debates around the validity of this kind of writing in response to certain modes of art making. Certain modes Art New Zealand presently elides.
The September issue of German visual arts journal Texte Zur Kunst concerned itself with art criticism and the possibilities and potentials of conflict within this discourse. One sentence seemed particularly relevant to this discussion:
As far as we can see, the dilemma is not that criticism is no longer possible or can no longer be articulated, but that the will to engage in debates within art criticism is lacking. For what purpose should art criticism be formulated, if not primarily to enhance its own discourse? In the best case, art criticism is an open process in which contentious voices are continuously involved in negotiating the possibilities, principles, and questionable aspects of artistic production.
The editors of Texte Zur Kunst believe in the relevance of art criticism and that “dissent in art critique and in the debate on art in general is absolutely necessary to time and again determine its conditions and the criteria of one’s own judgments.” In this light, Art New Zealand is a very well behaved journal where dissent is kept to a minimum. Not in the sense that reviewers don’t give exhibitions negative reviews, they do. But that disagreements with other reviews, provocative questioning of institutions or editorial intervention, is minimal.
For the benefit of the visual arts and its criticism in this country, Art New Zealand, our national visual arts journal, should be leading in the approach advocated by Texte Zur Kunst. Instead of shoring up the judgments of its writers as discrete pronouncements, the journal should be looking outwards to the way the critical community and infrastructures of the visual arts are changing, not only in New Zealand, but internationally. This idea of an ‘open process’ as posited in Texte Zur Kunst, of concurrent interplay between debate and self-reflection is absent from Art New Zealand and is, I believe, what is necessary to keep the journal timely, rigorous, and relevant to the community of artists and art critics it seeks to serve. The most productive thing Art New Zealand could do for the stuttering conversation of art criticism in New Zealand would be to disagree with it.
Important also is the self-reflexivity that is at present conspicuously absent from the journal. Another of Irit Rogoff’s essays ‘What is a theorist?’, published in 2006, opens with the provocative line “A theorist is one who has been undone by theory.” I would champion a process of ‘undoing’ for Art New Zealand; for the journal to collapse and continuously redefine its approach, question its own parameters and then find itself productively ‘undone’ is the face of its own pronouncements.