Art Radar presents a report on the topics raised by the discussion.
Editors of Asian art magazines and journals talked about how their respective platforms have grasped the function of art writing and art criticism, and how they have nurtured and developed these understandings in their publications.
At Art Basel Hong Kong in March 2018, the conversation “Art Criticism and Critical Writing: Where to Now?” on 30 March brought together a panel of global editors to discuss the state of art writing today.
These included: Bhavna Kakar, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, TAKE, New Delhi; Keith Wallace, Editor-in-Chief, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Vancouver; Elaine W. Ng, Editor and Publisher, ArtAsiaPacific, Hong Kong; and Daniel Szehin Ho, Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large, Ran Dian, Hong Kong.
The panel was opened by moderator Hera Chan, a Hong Kong-based independent curator and critic, who began by asking the seemingly obvious question:
“Art criticism and critical writing – what is the difference?”
Keith Wallace, the Canada-based editor of the academic journal Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Art, proposed that criticism was more popular and journalistic – for example, an exhibition review that displays a degree of authorial judgement and authority of opinion – whereas critical writing is more analytical. In Wallace’s view, critical writing is about creating a discourse around an exhibition, artwork or artist, by throwing out an idea or proposition in a way that creates complexity and layering. He says, “I don’t believe in resolved texts.” For him, discursive critical writing is anathema to the qualitative judgements of criticism and journalism found in more mainstream publications.
However, as Elaine W. Ng, Editor of the long-running magazine ArtAsiaPacific notes, it is important to take account of a publication’s specific location, and how this impacts upon audience and content direction. She says:
Within the [Asia] region, you have to recognise that art writing is fairly new – it doesn’t have a long tradition as in other areas.
Which is to say that, whilst some publications take a particular editorial stance, be it more journalistic – recording, descriptive – or something else entirely, there is a wider field of art writing that goes beyond the distinction initially proposed by Chan.
The co-founder of the Hong Kong-based publication Ran Dian, Daniel Szehin Ho, gives that much-berated example, the press release, as well as gallery and museum catalogues – both modes of art writing that come with particular constraints of tone and language.
Based in New Delhi, TAKE is both a publication and an exchange network. Its editor Bhavna Kakar notes that as primarily a print magazine, they often experiment with other forms of writing – for example, poetry, theory and artist’s writing, as well as having guest-edited issues.
This brings up the much-discussed issue of print vs digital. As Chan asks,
“Who is the audience for digital and for print, and are they different?”
The four publications represented by the speakers are all very different in the ecology of arts publications, and so approach this question from varying perspectives.
Ran Dian, for example, was an online publication first before moving into print, and Szehin Ho notes that they approach the print issue differently, in terms of design, layout and production value, as it has always been a standalone object. He even comments that people have told him the publication is literally unreadable, due to the emphasis on experimental design.
Yishu, on the other hand, was founded in 2002 as an academic journal – its subscribers are museums and universities. As such, it is envisaged as a record of discourse, with content oriented towards future research – to the curators who will dig out back issues when working on exhibition plans, researchers and other academics. Wallace notes a concern over the value of writing caught within the news cycle: that more journalistic-type art news can be out of date within 24 hours. Yishu journal produces thematic issues that follow up on artists, ideas and concerns over time – from artist-run spaces to women artists – and documents these contexts with consideration and the perspective of accreted layers of history. It is also the length of the articles in Yishu that precludes a more leisurely audience: the minimum is 1500 but pieces can run up to 10,000 words.
The discussion turns to the different locations in which the publications are based. Chan asks,
“Is it difficult to find writers? How does the ecology of art writing function in each place?”
Ng answers unconditionally in the affirmative – and states that ArtAsiaPacific finds it very difficult not just to find writers, but to cultivate meaningful and long-term relationships with writers based in the countries of its mandate. This relates to the publication’s history – as a magazine founded not in Asia but in Australia – in 1993 by scholars based in Sydney who were beginning to look at contemporary art coming out of Asia. From its nascent beginnings, it is possible to track the evolution of the field through the magazine’s back issues, as it evolved with the development of the region.
With a later move to New York, the magazine has maintained a transnational outlook, but consciously moved away from its academic leanings in the early 2000s. An intentional shift in editorial direction was made at this point to be more inclusive and to address the wider interested readership, and as Ng states, “You can’t lock people out with language.”
In terms of Yishu, Wallace is in agreement: “Clarity is essential”. The journal works with a spectrum of writers from the established to those just starting out, who they also mentor. “The problem with writers coming out of academia,” he notes, “is that they think they are writing for a professor – you have to change the language.” A negative or questioning comment must be qualified, measured and clear, rather than a personal opinion or generalisation and not through a writer exercising authority over their subject or an artist.
Kakar discusses the potential conflict of interests that arises when writers, unable to financially sustain writing full-time, work for galleries or curate shows – only to pitch writing on the very exhibitions they have worked on. Whilst objectivity is an issue here – she is based in New Delhi with exactly the more limited tradition of art writing that Ng raised earlier – TAKE actively takes steps to intervene in, and develop, the writing ecology within India. They hold workshops, exchanges and mentoring sessions – both open call and by invitation – as well as organising a writing prize in order to create, in Kakar’s terms, “a peer community of critical thinkers”.
In terms of language itself, quite literally, ArtAsiaPacific publishes in Chinese and Arabic, Ran Dian publishes in Chinese, but the main language of all four of the publications is English. Chan asks,
“What are the limitations of language and does this have an effect on the audience or type of audience for writing?”
Szehin Ho begins by quoting the Croatian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović, who once said: “An artist who doesn’t speak English is not an artist.” Szehin Ho acknowledges the difficulty of moving beyond English if you want to be accessible and legible to the international art world, but the discussion moves to a more nuanced account of how each publication manages the limitations of language.
Yishu was the first journal on contemporary Chinese art and was founded with a remit to disseminate information at a scholarly level. Despite publishing in Mandarin for four years, this proved unsustainable, with texts translated now into English – with a focus on international distribution. Szehin Ho comments on the important job that Yishu is doing – exactly by translating Chinese voices into English. He asks, “Can you name a voice in art history in Chinese?”
In contrast, ArtAsiaPacific’s desire for editorial inclusivity is leading more and more to publishing in languages that are not English. The magazine covers the Middle East, engaging in an ongoing conversation about the legacy of Orientalism, which necessitates publishing articles in Arabic, as well as others in Chinese. As Ng discusses, the discourse is so new in these languages, and there are very few outlets where young people can read about art in their own language. Whilst growth so far has been organic, Ng argues that a more sustained effort is needed to inspire the next generation. “It is important,” she says, “to build an audience from within and not just from the international art world”.
In her view, art writing needs an indigenous audience to build a space for sustained conversation and dialogue. The value of an engaged, local audience reading writing in their own language cannot be underestimated. She says,
Do we have readers? Because if not, we are completely irrelevant.
Part of the way in which ArtAsiaPacific is building this community is through its reviews section – an essential part of the magazine, despite criticism’s leveled against the prescriptive format of an exhibition review. For Ng, a review is a place for documentation but also a critical place for feedback within the art community, acting as a public forum for curators, artists and galleries to engage with each other.
The panel then opened to questions from the public, which ranged from the place of an artist versus a critic’s writing, the financial viability of print publications in the face of the immediacy of social and other digital media, to tips for young writers – closing out a fascinating discussion on the state of art writing today. As Chan concluded, addressing the audience directly,
You can all participate, no one is an art critic until they just do it.
- Preview: pedagogy and performative contemplation at Frieze New York 2018 – May 2018 – Frieze New York returns in its 7th edition, connecting more than 1,000 of the world’s leading modern and contemporary artists
- ‘One world, One Canvas, One Bahrain’: Art Bahrain Across Borders 2018 – curator interview – March 2018 – the 3rd edition of Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB) is open to the public from 14 to 18 March 2018
- India Art Fair 2018: 10th edition closes amidst reports of strong sales – round-up – March 2018 – with new ideas and initiatives, this year’s edition of India Art Fair ended on predictions of new energy and confidence in the South Asian market
- “The Privatisation of Art Journalism” talk at Art Basel Miami Beach – summary – January 2018 – content writers and art reporters Sarah Douglas, Ossian Ward and Mary Louise Schumacher contemplate the future of art journalism in the uncertain times ahead
- Art Basel Hong Kong Salon 2017: The Art of Publishing, Digital Media and Cultural Journalism – videos – April 2017 – Art Basel Hong Kong industry professionals gathered to discuss key issues in the art world
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