Sunday, September 12, 2004

John Griffin, Matthew Woodley, Jamie O'Meara, RM Vaughan, and Katherine Gombay


An old article from The Guardian Unlimited called "A few quiet words for culture" got pointed out to me by both Lenny at Washington, DC Art News and Marja-Leena Rathje and I found it extremely cool. Last year, Ian Mayes wrote that The Guardian had about 60 art "critics backed by a similar number of editors and subeditors. The Guardian arts desk has about a dozen commissioning editors and subeditors to call upon (about twice the number of 10 years ago). The largely literary Saturday Review, which did not exist 10 years ago, has a similar number."

Now while I don't read The Guardian regularly, that number, on the surface, seems impressive. Until I start to look a little closer. Under the heading of "Arts" Mr. Mayes includes Books, Film, Television, Architecture, Visual Art, Jazz, Pop Music, Classical Music, Dance and Theater, and there are probably some other sub-genres that I missed. If I were to compare that figure to what we have locally, I am certain that while no one media outlet could compare to The Guardian (well, probably the CBC / Radio Canada, but they aren't print media). Montreal as a whole would completely and thoroughly smoke 'em, and considering the size of London, we would compare favorably (yes, it is nice that everything here has to be written about in two languages).

One of the problems that I find here (and I might add that Mr. Mayes mentions, too) is the lack of space that the arts get. Now I recognize that most media outlets here in town (with one major exception) are ad driven, so there ain't much I can personally do about it, except rail against the wind. If I ever get enough cash, I will try and do something about it, but don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen. Mr. Campello, compares the space and numbers of art and art critics in the Guardian with that in Washington DC, which is fine, but as I am not in Washington DC, it ain't nothing but cool cocktail conversation to me.

My major beef, and one of the recurring themes in this here blog, is the freakin' quality of the criticism. All too often, it strikes me that whoever is doing the writing is going through the motions, or sleepwalking until a better gig comes along. The number of art critics in town who I consider to be kick-ass writers can be counted on the fingers of my left hand. In no particular order; John Griffin (Movies, the Gazette), Matthew Woodley (general arts stuff, The Mirror), Jamie O'Meara (Pop Music, the Hour), RM Vaughan (Visual Arts, Freelance based out of Toronto), Katherine Gombay (general arts stuff, CBC Radio). A couple of points to make - first and foremost, because my ability to read French is directly proportional to my ability to dance, I'm dealing with a limited set of writers, I am certain that there are some really kick-ass critics here in Montréal who write in French, but it takes me about 17 times as long to be able to read and understand them, so I don't do it as often as I should. Second (and this should be self-evident) my list is entirely personal, I would hope that yours is different.

Somehow (and I am not certain how) Visual Art is not dealt with in the same way as the rest of the arts. Somehow Visual Art, and its synonym "High Art" has come to mean that anything written about it has to be academic, dry, and full of ponderous prose. If someone is writing 750 words for a daily or a weekly newspaper, there is no reason why it should be like that. If the other cultural mediums can be reviewed in a manner that is more informal, why can't visual art?

The need to use words like "emanate," "emotional submission," or sentences with lines like "narrative can be interpreted as the extension of a verb," or "psychodramas of a surrealist bent," strikes me as rather absurd. The people who read daily and weekly newspapers might be the same people who read Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, but my best guess is that when they're reading something that has a sex reporter listed on the masthead, they're not exactly looking to read things that would raise their grade point average.

If you've been reading this for a while, you might realize that I've been hammering at Nicholas Mavrikakis because of his name dropping in his reviews. Although it is extremely convenient to pigeon hole things ("Phish is like the Grateful Dead with a touch of Miles Davis from the 1970s"), when you're pigeon holing it helps if peole have actually heard or seen your references. The Musée des Beaux Arts gets about half a million people going through its doors each year, Zeke's Gallery gets about 5,000, and I would hope that the most popular contemporary art gallery in Montreal might get about 10,000. I don't understand how referring to something that might have been seen by a fraction of that many people is going to be helpful to anybody except the author's ego.

Then finally, I have heard from way too many people that there is "too much art" in Montreal to review everything. On first hearing it, I nodded like an idiot and swallowed it hook, line and sinker. By the provincial government's count there are 144 media outlets in Montreal. If I'm lucky, I'll read or hear (I don't own a TV) about a quarter of them. I can guarantee you that like sheep they all will cover pretty much the same damn things over and over and over. Rene Blouin's Gallery, Joyce Yahouda's Gallery, VOX, Dazibao, Articule, Oboro, the three museums, Pierre-François Ouellette's gallery, the Saidye Bronfman Centre, the two university galleries, Clark, and maybe another half-dozen that I'm spacing on. Or in other words about 10% of the galleries in town.

Taking the easiest route, since the begining of the year Voir has published 49 reviews (most of them written by Nicholas Mavrikakis), The Musée des Beauz-Arts got five, The Musée d'Art Contemporain got four, Rene Blouin got three, Joyce Yahouda, Graff, Clark and B-312 got two each. Or in slightly different words, seven galleries have received more than half of the reviews in Voir. My guess would be that Le Devoir, the Gazette, and La Presse have similar slants.

I hope that eventually I will have more praise for the Art Critics in town, but right now, something needs to be done, preferably quickly, that would make them as worthwhile to read as John Griffin, Matthew Woodley, Jamie O'Meara, RM Vaughan, and Katherine Gombay.

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