Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab, ©James Paterson.
For the first time, the 2023 Artlab Editorial Fellows Laurie Rojas and Skye Arundhati Thomas meet with our advisory committee to talk about art writing’s place, purpose, and pleasures.
Hunter Braithwaite: Goa, Berlin, London, Miami, New York, we’re coming from all over. I wanted to start by asking everyone to look out their front door. What does art writing look like in the city that surrounds you? The place that you're in right now.
Laurie Rojas: I live in Hialeah, which is an immigrant community, very working class. It's where my father grew up, where my family is. Miami, I would say… is a mix. Publications that once existed no longer do. Art writers are covering art, music, theater, opera—multiple beats in one.
Orit Gat: I’m quite new to London. I was in New York for 10 years and I moved here, it'll be four years in September, but it doesn't feel like that because so much of that time was during the pandemic. One of the things that has amazed me about London is how diverse and diffuse the scene is. In New York I went to a curatorial program and everyone around me was a curator, or a critic, and was really highly specialized. And then on a social level in London, every time I go out it's an artist sitting next to a curator, sitting next to a critic, sitting next to a novelist, sitting next to someone who works at a nonprofit.
And the scene feels much more diffused. Take The White Review, which I have been involved with for years. It isn't just a contemporary art magazine nor a culture magazine, but is quite committed to letting people explore how to approach these subjects. People can interview an artist and a novelist. It's really committed to translation and to thinking through how culture needs to be made collaboratively. That feels like something that to me really defines my new life as an art critic here.
Skye Arundhati Thomas: I’ve been living in India now full time for about six or seven years. There's been very few publications that have been open to writing from South Asia in ways where I've had the freedom to write how I would like to. And so outside my front door—and that's a combination of Bombay and Goa and Delhi and other cities in India that I frequent—there isn't really a discursive infrastructure around contemporary art practices.
We have newspaper columnists and the occasional glossy magazine like Vogue that will feature an artist, but there is a great kind of distance between the contemporary art landscape and the discursive one. It's very insular. One of the things that I found myself doing is trying to look at practices that they take on history in interesting pedagogical ways. So as to try and bridge some kind of gap between a general interest reader and a super specialized contemporary art reader to see where the commonalities are.
What I realized is part of being an art critic is enabling other people to join me as they go along. So one of the things that I've been doing regularly since I started is doing writing workshops. I've done some in Nepal and Bangladesh too, and then putting people in touch with say, editors at Artforum. I've realized building a community around the practice of writing about art means that we can start developing an ecosystem.
Laurie Rojas: Certainly. And I think that for the most part it's been writing from Miami for an international audience. The alternative is to see myself more in a mentorship role to new aspiring writers locally. I encourage them to write for Caesura from Miami about Miami shows. So that's how I sought to balance that out a bit, to really recognize that there's a lack of developmental writing in the city.
Hunter Braithwaite: Let’s talk about forms of art writing. I just moderated a panel with some critics here in New York at NADA, and the consensus was that while art criticism was flowering, the 300-word review was in crisis. Barry, I first came to your work through your poetry. Orit, you write frequently about football. What are some new forms that art writing could take?
Barry Schwabsky: I want to stand up for the brief review. I would say it's almost the ultimate thing in art criticism—to review something that you've never seen before, never heard about before. You just walked into a space and saw something that you felt you had to articulate. And there's no critical record of it yet. You have nothing to rely on except your perception and your intelligence and whatever. To me that's still the most exciting thing as an art critic.
Orit Gat: Also your experience, not just your perception, right? It's like you come to everything new with the knowledge of everything you've already seen. That feels useful when I think about those questions of place and community. The people I write for are artists. They're the artists that I've looked at and haven't written about. They're the artists I'm writing about.
Skye Arundhati Thomas: Writing a review is a very specific type of artform. The shorter the word count, the more complex and puzzle-like it becomes. The only kind of constraint with the review format is that it is so often tied to the exhibition cycles. So perhaps it's also to do with the way the review exists within the cultural landscape and where it ends up. The landscape that I occupy is so different, where the kind of contemporary art spaces and the practices that I encounter are working within some kind of scarcity index, where people are pulling together two limited resources or where the community as such is very centered around a certain type of politics or ideological position.
What interests me is an art practice that is able to introduce a layer of say, abstraction or ambiguity or complexity to a political or historical moment and then bring it to us. And as a writer, I can also enter that and add another layer of abstraction or ambiguity or complexity to it.
What I find interesting to write these days is to sit with single practices over long periods of time to look at how a certain lens develops. I think that there's something in the kind of long-form interview format, where something magical can happen after the first hour of having a conversation or spending six months looking at everything someone has ever made. Because of the completely chaotic political landscape that I occupy, it's been very nice for me to have a longer duration—looking at how people change their minds, or how certain critical positions are forced to shift, or choose to shift.
Hunter Braithwaite: Shannon, what does this look like from New York?
Shannon Lee: Writing in New York is such a specific experience because New York is such an art town and an art-criticism town. At the same time, I think the things that we've been articulating about the perennial death of art criticism is that the art ecosystem here is so driven by market forces. It can be really difficult for art writers to find a landing ground that still speaks to what they're interested in critically, without being subsumed by the market.
It's also, unfortunately, where so much funding comes from for writers. So it's like how as a writer, as an art critic, as an artist, do you eke out a sustainable living for yourself while staying true to your practice? I've been very fortunate to find a kind of pocket within the art-writing world where I can talk about things like ecology and identity and still be able to have a life for myself. But I think so much of what we're talking about in terms of this death of art criticism, the sort of existential crisis of art writing, just comes from the day-to-day logistics of how to support art writers. Journalism at large is in crisis, but the canary in the coal mine is always in the arts.
Barry Schwabsky: The thing that's changed very significantly about the art and art writing scene in New York as I've experienced it since the 80s, is that I think when I came on the scene back then, there really was a fairly airtight illusion that what was going on in New York was what was significant, and that whatever was significant anywhere else was what could make it here. “If you could make it here, you can make it anywhere.” That the sophisticated art discourse was just evident here, and that anything that didn't intersect with that was somehow provincial or something like that. And I think that's just totally exploded now. Nobody can believe that anymore.
Maybe part of the good aspect of the crisis of art criticism is that it's not clear to anyone: What is the basis on which you're going to make your writing? What are the salient issues that you have to deal with? The idea that this big little community of the New York art world can determine that just has no credibility anymore. So then, how do you make a common language to discuss things if you no longer know what the basis of that is?
Shannon Lee: Totally. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the growing importance of subjectivity versus objectivity in writing. Something that I struggled with in my early forays into journalism is this overarching idea that journalism is objective, apart from an op-ed section. I’ve seen an increased embrace of the subjective—that really distinct perspective. These are the experiences, this is the information framework that I'm coming to this art practice with, engaging with work as a person. I've found that to be some of the most engaging art writing, and I love seeing more of that.
Laurie Rojas: Perhaps in the swinging between objective and subjective, what gets lost is actually what was articulated over 250 years ago, probably, in Kant's Critique of Judgment. Which is that it's about aesthetic experience, and aesthetic experience is about the negotiation between the subject and the object, right? Aesthetic experience of the artwork, in the subject, is catching yourself reflecting on the experience of that artwork.
And what does that mean that you can have that reflection? The artwork becomes somehow prismatic of both this universal and particular experience in one. That's what the artwork can capture. I think that that has sort of gotten lost a lot over time, and it was of course captured in its own way by a figure like Baudelaire. Of course it was captured by several other figures of the history of art criticism. But the theory of the '80s, postmodernism at its high watermark necessarily threw away that argument. Then it became theoretical, and then artworks became illustrations of theory, and the opportunities to elaborate theories as opposed to opportunities to think about: What is the potential in the artwork, or what's the limitation of that artwork itself?
Something that's really important to me is to regain that significance of the artwork, the object, the primacy of the object in a sense, but in regards to this relation to the individual’s subjective reflective moment with the artwork.
Barry Schwabsky: There's also an interesting thing to work out, because I’m more in a way sympathetic to your focus on the object. But I hear Skye say, “It's not object, it’s practice.” Those are two very interestingly different angles in which to approach art.
Skye Arundhati Thomas: With my art critic friends I joke about how the real truth of art criticism is that we're desperate to find ourselves in the thing that we see. Sometimes we find ourselves in the things that we see in a way that we like, and sometimes we get antagonized by seeing something that we find just difficult about ourselves. So, I don't think that it's possible to remove subjectivity from experiencing an object, but perhaps what can broaden subjective experience is looking at how objects coexist with each other in a kind of broader ecosystem. For me, I write primarily from India for an audience that lives elsewhere, and I often get asked the question about readership or who I’m writing for. I find that the most honest answer is that I write for a version of myself.