Adam Pugh, Art Network North East: Thanks very much for joining this discussion. I’d like us to try to bring together some sort of an appraisal of what and where critical writing around art is in the region, with thoughts for possible routes forward to develop it further. To start, perhaps we could consider what we mean when we talk about critical writing? For me, it’s commissioned texts, reviews, academic writing — but is there anything I’m missing, as far as you’re concerned?
Tess Denman-Cleaver: I definitely don’t feel that I am in a position to offer any sort of appraisal of writing (of any kind) in the region. But as far as your question regarding what we mean by ‘critical writing’ about art, I would be interested in thinking about how we can be critical about writing about or in relation to art as a region / network / community, rather than thinking about ‘critical writing’ as a genre or form in and of itself.
George Vasey: When I talk to students there is often a misconception that critical means negative. I think of criticality in the broadest terms; it’s essentially discourse around the work. We need more criticality in society full stop: less opinion and more analysis.
I agree with Tess, one key aspect of contemporary writing is that it often overlaps with art-making. Artists write poetry, poets make films, curators are writing reviews. These positions are fluid. This lack of distance creates problems but it can also create opportunity. I think one thing we lack in a regional context is strong editorial support for people to grow as writers. I benefited from a significant amount of editorial feedback and it improved my writing. I often support writers and artists informally with editorial feedback because I know how crucial it is.
Emma Dean: There is definitely a fluidity. Artists and writers (and/or artist-writers) challenge the discourses and systems in which we operate, but in contemporary art writing there are also artworld agendas to navigate.
AP: Those are interesting positions, and I think helpful for a region-wide perspective. I am keen to think about the relationship between art-making and its criticism and critical reception — and whether, firstly, there is a lack, to some extent, of ‘criticality’ in the region; and secondly, whether there is a link between a greater sense of criticality and a flourishing, or better-supported visual arts community. By thinking less about ‘critical writing’ as a genre you’re perhaps allowing us to think more broadly about the place of writing more generally. How might writing help art and art help writing?
TDC: Yes, I think that is what I was getting at — that a criticality in relation to how writing about art supports art practice in the region might lead to a more ‘helpful’ relationship between the two. But I think it’s problematic to suggest a lack of criticality before defining the critical lens this judgement call is made through. I certainly don’t feel knowledgeable enough about the modes of art making and criticality that underpin various networks / communities of artists in the region, which should be supported to generate their own value systems. However, I do think I have some understanding of what bad writing is, whether it’s about art or not, and I think a critical discussion about that could support ‘better’ critical writing around art, and, in turn, a better supported visual arts community.
GV: Writing on art can take many different forms and ultimately, for me, it’s about bringing a compelling perspective to the work. I think writing is undervalued in the artworld. As a writer, I’ve often been brought into the process late on and offered poor fees. I’m constantly going back to galleries and museums challenging fees. It’s very reactive. Writing isn’t just a responsive medium, it can inform discussion as curatorial work does. Generally, I think writers should be brought into the process much earlier.
ED: I agree with George here that writing is hugely undervalued. I know of writers and editors who have been offered very poor pay, or one off payments that do not reflect the time and commitment required to write a text.
AP: Yes, absolutely: the structural conditions around freelance writing are terrible, and there aren’t many who can make a career exclusively out of writing. Tess, to return to your point, I think criticality, and any perceived lack of it, might be measured to some extent by the presence of writers in the region actively engaged in discourse with / around the visual arts – specifically outside of the academy, because while academic writing around art, and academics who happen to write about and around art (the latter which is perhaps more immediate here) is relevant, I’m more concerned about, firstly, the opportunities to sustain a career as a writer; and secondly, the opportunities to develop a practice as a writer. I’d also like to consider this ‘criticality’ in terms of the visibility of voices from the North East across everything from, for instance, commissioned texts for institutions or artists to the more prosaic jobs of press previews and reviews. Understanding bad writing is very important! But good or bad, are the opportunities here, firstly?
TDC: So we are talking about writing about art that is not generated by the artist / arts community itself or the academy. Which I would agree is lacking in the North East – apologies if that is a long winded way of working out what ‘critical writing’ is at the start of this conversation! I would argue that the opportunities don’t exist for people to develop this form of critical writing about art in the North East.
GV: There is a lack of opportunity at every level; getting paid for your first feature and then taking a step up into the national and international press. Editorial support is critical as is mentorship and coaching. I spent years trying to get published, writing emails and sending off samples and getting ignored by editors! When I got the first positive response I was elated!
Lauren Velvick: On the subject of opportunities, payment and coaching, I agree these are essential parts of the conversation, and it’s been interesting having this discussion around how much ‘pastoral’ support to offer and how ‘cut-throat’ to be as a magazine and as editors.
Recently at Corridor8 we’ve come to an uneasy but productive balance whereby if we want there to be more skilled writers for us to commission, and for more of them not to be white and middle or upper-middle class in the North East and the North of England more widely, we need to have a holistic approach. This includes acknowledging the particular stresses of being ‘edited’ for the first time, likely alongside other work and as an inexperienced person, potentially with nobody to compare experiences with. So with some writers we’re aiming to coach them through their first few pieces with patience and kindness, and then build up to expecting more precision of analysis from more experienced writers. But everyone gets paid the same and it balances out in terms of editorial time.
It’s also worth acknowledging that having a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean someone can toss off a piece of critical writing that’s clear and accessible enough for a general audience, so there’s editing to be done any which way.
ED: I agree that mentoring and coaching are key to early professional development, especially when a writer is just leaving college or starting out. But many emerging writers will not be able to afford this or may not be in the right networks to be able to connect with such opportunities. We need more bursaries or a fee structure that could support this. I’ve seen mentoring and residencies in prestigious galleries that are unpaid.
LV: To speak to the question of criticality or lack thereof, taking into account that this doesn’t just mean ‘having a negative opinion’, we’ve been having this discussion a lot at Corridor8 and have started trying to distinguish between art/exhibitions/programmes that are likely to only be covered by us and those that are already part of a wider network or conversation, because if things aren’t even getting the ‘listings’ attention to begin with that’s a very different environment to be critiquing them within. Does that resonate with anyone else’s experience?
AP: That’s a strategy that sounds as though it’s sensitive and receptive to the needs of the region. I wonder, as an online platform for writing, how you balance those region-specific priorities with the need to exist alongside national – i.e. London-based – peers. Do you find that the writing you publish occupies a space that can project North-based writers and writing about North-based activity to a national audience?
LV: According to analytics about 30% of our readers are London-based, but yeah, we’re trying to acknowledge the extreme London-centricity of the arts in this country rather than pretending it isn’t the case, I suppose — having a somewhat pastoral approach rather than spartan, given the gaps in funding and how, for example, in some places there’s one arts centre serving a huge area and providing preventative mental health care.
But then also trying to provide writers with opportunities to explore their own criticality, in their own context, with the backing of us as an organisation.