Eye of the art critic

by R.M. Vaughn

The motivation for writing my article “Antwerp Diary” was, to be perfectly honest, my desire to see the city of Antwerp. But when Canadian Art originally offered me the gig, with travel expenses covered, I almost refused, because the editors wanted me to cover an exhibition of photo-based art from Vancouver, and I have a long print history of being very cranky about said work. But a free trip is a free trip, so off I went. Perhaps, I naively thought, I’ll even like the art.

The main challenge in writing the piece was whether or not to tell the truth. When I met with the exhibition’s curator, he walked me through the exhibition and provided a running commentary that was largely dismissive of the work. He repeatedly signaled to me that, although most of the work was dull, academic and unattractive (and I agreed), the art world had canonized the work and therefore we had to pretend that it was important.

How to record this bizarre transaction?

I decided to write the article as a diary and to record the conversation as it related to the art. When the article went into the fact-checking stage, the curator, frightened no doubt by the damage he may have done to his career, sought to clarify his comments but never retracted them. We decided to include his clarifications along with his original comments, to be fair to him. I was not, after all, interested in getting anybody fired. I merely wanted to show the reader how the art world sometimes operates on hype and publicity, and to further show that when the hype is at its most feverish, even a curator who has misgivings about the art in question will still program it if he/she feels the work is considered important by higher powers.

The most rewarding aspect of writing this story was that I finally got to speak my mind about work that had pissed me off for years, and in a major publication. I felt like I had taken a long, deep breath and finally exhaled, after years of holding my breath (and biting my tongue, to mix metaphors).

The reaction was swift, angry, and loud. Letters flew across the country, petitions were set up against me in Vancouver galleries, and I was called all sorts of unprintable names by all sorts of prominent Vancouver artists (and their prominent friends). At one point, a member of this club compared me to Adolph Hitler. Apparently, some players in the art world consider genocide and negative reviews to be equal evils. 

Most of the reactions ended in petty name-calling, and were therefore easy to put aside, but within such statements were buried some revealing notions. The first thing that struck me was that if, as my detractors claimed, I was neither intellectually nor academically qualified to discuss the art (in themselves two revealing, class-based assumptions), then all the positive things I’d written about the art were also wrong. Funny how nobody worried about that conundrum.

The other revelation was that artists in Canada, particularly artists who have “made it,” are often the first people to call, indeed howl, for censorship when something is printed with which they disagree. I found that sadder than being compared to Hitler.

All in all, however, it was worth it, and I’d do it again.

The arts in this country are too cozy and prone to boosterism. As a novelist/playwright and video artist (my other lives), I’ve had my fair share of raves and dismissals from critics, and I accept these as being part of the game.

When my next book comes out, however, I don’t think I will read the Vancouver reviews.

Read  “Antwerp Diary