Critical Barbs - 2

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How to lose friends and tick
people off (be an arts critic)

In my last blog on this subject, I referred to artist and arts critic Peter Bell as fearless, and for good reason. Bell took on the arts establishment in St. Johns at a time when arts criticism was something new, and successful artists were not accustomed to having their work dismissed as degenerate and commercial.

While a few artists appreciated what Bell was trying to do, the vast majority hated him. He was a parish on the local arts scene.

Craig Francis Power has some idea how Peter Bell felt, though his experience is more recent. Power is a recognized visual artist and writer who was an arts critic for several years, through his blog and some print publications. Power liked to stir up the hornets nest and knew hed get stung doing so. He just didnt realize how large the swarm would be.

Power graduated in 2003 from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) with a BFA in Media Arts. His arts criticism began while studying at NSCAD, with short reviews in the student publication and other work for the two artist-run centres in Halifax.

I had noticed that there was a real gap in art reviews I'd seen in the Canadian art mags and in smaller, local publications, both in Halifax and here in St. John's when I finally came back, Power said in an email interview. On the one hand, the bigger publications published work that seemed to be written in a kind of boring academic style, while local publications generally employed reviewers who didn't seem to know much about art, or were just general culture writers who took a descriptive versus analytic approach to art writing. I wanted to publicly personalize my experience of art without becoming less intellectual. In St. John's, this was coupled with a desire to write honestly about my reactions to shows happening in galleries. It seemed like the community could've used some rigour.

Power launched his Art in Newfoundland blog in November of 2005 and set the tone immediately with his first post, a frank review of a show of paintings by Clement Curtis. Here is an excerpt:

While it may indeed be virgin territory for Curtis, the viewer will very easily fit this work into the long canon of traditional Newfoundland landscape painting; a tradition which embodies a very palpable love for the harsh and rugged beauty of the island, supposedly a metaphor for the harsh and rugged beauty of Newfoundlanders themselves.

It's sure laid on thickly. Curtis' canvases are built up with layer upon layer of paint and his technical proficiency is evident in the creation of compositions which immediately draw the viewer in. But, as luscious as these paintings are, all they do is kind of sit on their asses in the gallery space. There are certain tricks a painter learns at a very early stage of their development which allows them to construct pictures that are pretty to look at. Curtis seems to have that down, but there doesn't look like there's much else going on. I mean, it looks like these paintings were made to just sell, baby. I like my art a little more complicated than that.

I always thought a younger generation of artists had it as their duty to question the assumptions under which the previous generation worked, but that sure ain't happening here. These are pure Gerald Squires hand-me-downs

The only criteria Power applied to what he reviewed was where a particular show took place.

I tried limiting myself to work shown in public galleries. Very rarely would I write about a show in a commercial space. Never would I write about shows in a restaurant or bar or something. Not because such work is automatically crap or anything, but because public gallery shows (like in artist-run centres) are determined through peer-reviewed juries that force applying artists to write and think carefully about what it is they're producing.

Powers posts were sporadic, though he tried to update at least twice per month. He allowed anonymous comments to encourage discussion and, in the early days, the debate was quite reasonable and respectful. However, in January of 2006, the first troll appeared, in a review of works by visual artist Joe Cooper.

You are such a pervert Craig, and to be frank I'm don't think you would know great art if it hit you in the side of the head, wrote an anonymous commenter. Pity the concept behind this blog had such potential. Pity the task was taken up by such an angry boy. Good luck with that grant application. Here's a insightful review of Craig Power's writing: It sucks and he can't!

Okay, a few more examples. In February of 2007, in a review of a show called Shift, there was this comment:

Man, you are an asshole.

Heres another example of the sort of vitriol that was heaped upon Powers writing, from a March 2007 review of a show of portraits by artist Michele Stamp.

It just seems to me that you cant quite get your own shit together and tend to resent anyone else who's out there doing the work and getting ahead. And dont try and tell me that hiding behind an art critism blog, a f***ing web-journal, is what allows you to call yourself a writer. Why dont you do something, put yourself out there on the line and see if you can hold up along side some of those you insist on discrediting with your little petty little complaints.

That was the way for many of Powers commentaries; intelligent, opinionated but generally polite debate punctuated by an outburst of mean-spirited personal attack. Not surprisingly, it was Powers criticism of conventional artistic traditions that prompted the most venom.

Generally, if I was ever critical, or derisive of some part of official Newfoundland culture, people got pretty pissed off. But that was fine as far as I was concerned. Good art writing, like good art, is meant to provoke. It was the personal attacks from anonymous douchebags that baffled me. I still wonder how many of those awful screeds I received were written while the person was really drunk.

Power said he tried to engage all commenters including those who disagreed in some form of discussion or debate.

There were a few people on the blog who vigourously disagreed. But so long as it didn't devolve into name-calling, there were some really good debates. The nice thing about the blog format was that after I posted a review, debates would come up in the comments that went beyond anything I'd written about, you know? The people who read the reviews really drove the discussion a lot of the time, which was the whole point of the thing. When someone's beyond reasoning with, it's pretty obvious right away, so I never lost much sleep over that kind of thing.

Powers critical commentary slowed down and eventually petered out. The last post to his blog appeared June 18, 2007. Power conceded that the often vicious tone of debate was at least some of the reason for that hiatus.

I'll still write the occasional piece about something or other for the local weekly or whatever but I kinda got fed up with the whole thing. I mean, here I was, putting my heart into art writing, trying to foster discussion within my community, and some f***head would just tear me down personally because I didn't like their friend's exhibition of drawings or something. Like, grow the f**k up already. A lot of people in the arts community always say we need more critical engagement with work and so on, but what they really mean is we need more boosterism. No thanks.

It also dawned on me that this lack of critical reviewing in art went way beyond Newfoundland. Look at those bigger art journals: with very few exceptions, these periodicals operate more like PR than serious inquiry. If you want a career in criticism, you don't rock the boat.

Power said he has considered returning to critical reviewing. But for a blog, at least, some things would have to be different than first time around, he added.

I asked Power about the quality of arts commentary in the province is he satisfied with the current state of affairs?

It's not a wasteland, but it's not very good, either. Most visual art reviews here are written by people who have no background in art or art history or contemporary art. As a result, you end up with pieces which are the literary equivalent of plot synopsis. They'll describe (usually in pseudo-poetic language) the colours, the forms, the lines, textures, etcetera without ever seeming to wonder what a particular work means to them. It's a curious phenomenon where people are writing about art while trying to avoid saying anything meaningful about the work at the same time. I don't get it.

Yes, Power has a lot in common with the venerable Peter Bell. Power, like Bell, is a talented visual artist, and not afraid to lay it all on the table. And, like Bell, he has been rebuffed and slagged by many of his contemporaries.

For another sample of Craig Francis Powers controversial, insightful and entertaining critical commentary, check this piece in The Scope, in which Power selects the 25 most important pieces of art ever created in this province.

And while youre there, have a look at the comments section

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