Never read the comments: notes from 25 years of art criticism

Twenty five years ago this April, my first bit of art writing appeared. I still think of myself as an "art writer" and not a "critic," because everybody hates critics. However, this distinction — only ever employed by me — has hardly saved me any skin.

An art writer reflects back on a quarter century in the art world (and yes, nudity still sells)

Moses (Charlton Heston) comes down the mountain with the ten commandments in the 1956 film. (Paramount Pictures)

Twenty five years ago this April, my first bit of art writing appeared. I still think of myself as an "art writer" and not a "critic," because everybody hates critics. However, this distinction — only ever employed by me — has hardly saved me any skin.

I don't remember what art I wrote about, but I remember my first angry letter. I was informed that people "like you" (little me!) do not belong in the arts.

Since that wonderful moment, I have, like the humble first weeds of spring, perennially found myself scolded and praised, considered an untouchable and also, of course, an insider. The art world is nothing if not fickle. Fickle and ADD-addled.

Here, then, is a celebratory list of 25 certainties culled from my quarter century of gallery-loitering and museum freebee scamming. That, by the way, is Rule One for you aspiring art writers: never pay museum admission fees. You write about the arts, you don't have that kind of money.

1. Canadian artists and intellectuals are feverishly devoted to the concept of free speech — the concept, but not the actual practice. Every time I have written something about art that people decided not to agree with, there has followed a campaign by artists and their pet writers to have me denounced, fired and then flayed alive with a butter knife.

2. The dumbest questions come from eggheads. I was once asked by a professional anarchist (unpack that if you can) what university I attended, degree I attained and how I thought those achievements possibly qualified me to write about the arts. Pity the tenured anarchist – they'd storm the barricades if only they could find them.

3. New York City. People in the arts in Canada can't shut up about NYC. You learn to pretend to care.

4. No one, least of all the writer of the article, should ever read the comments section. Never, ever read the comments section.

5. If you write about an incomprehensible art show and mention that that show is incomprehensible, you will be told you are too stupid to understand the art.

6. If you write about an incomprehensible art show and describe the show in the language the show uses to describe itself, you will be told you are an elitist intellectual.

7. If you write about an incomprehensible art show and then meet the actual artist, you will tell yourself your mother was right and you should have become a veterinarian.

8. One week after I landed a newspaper column, all the rich collectors who had tried to have me thrown off another publication started chatting me up at art openings. I felt like Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby. An arts patron is just a friend you haven't written about yet.

No one, least of all the writer of the article, should ever read the comments section. Never, ever read the comments section.- RM Vaughan

9. Young artists will give you their art. You are not allowed to take it. It costs about 30 bucks to mail back a medium-sized piece of art you are not allowed to accept.

10. If artists knew how media-inept the majority of art dealers are, they would not hand over the 50 per cent commission. I regularly get long and fascinating emails describing exhibitions currently on view. This is some quality writing, highlighted by quotes from dead French cultural theorists! But the text is often not similarly anointed with the address of the gallery or its hours of operation.

11. Regionalism is alive and well. If you live in, say, Montreal, and write about exhibitions on view in Montreal, somebody from Edmonton will be very angry with you for not covering the teeming Edmonton scene.

12. Not only are there sacred cows in Canadian art, there are entire herds of holy cattle. They might look slow and old, but tick them off and they mobilise faster than nervous North Korean border guards. They will come for your money by threatening boycotts of any journal uppity enough to name you on its masthead, an action also known as The Vancouver Stampede.

13. Everybody loves you when you're (almost) dead. I recently wrote a profile of an artist who happens to be having a health crisis. He has sold more art in the two months since that profile appeared than he has in two years. And people say I'm cynical.

14. Contemporary art actually does all look the same. That's not in question. Your career path depends on whether you find this reality liberating or unnerving.

15. Canadian art needs more affirmation and cuddles than an aging child star. Boosterism is the default mode of expression. You'd think it was 1805 and we still had to send an annual allotment of bison to Her Majesty, that we are still just an obscure colony with an adorably feisty little arts scene. We are not. Canadian art is big international money and has been for decades.  

16. Describing what an art show looks like is superficial and reactionary. For instance, a pile of used furniture thrown in a corner is absolutely not a pile of used furniture thrown in a corner. Rather, the pile of furniture is about piles of furniture, which means it is about consumerism, which means it is about death.

If you live in, say, Montreal, and write about exhibitions on view in Montreal, somebody from Edmonton will be very angry with you for not covering the teeming Edmonton scene.- RM Vaughan

17. You're only as good as your last essay. If on Tuesday you write how wonderful Artist X's work is, you will be told you are a national treasure. If on Wednesday, however, you take Artist Y to task, you will be told you ought to be deported. Logic tells us that this means everything positive you have written about artworks is as wrong as everything negative you have written about artworks. The art world never connects the dots, it just paints over them.

18. Commercial galleries forget that they are ultimately in retail, that the difference between what they do and what a shoe shop does is that a shoe salesperson will be happy to show you some shoes. I once visited a fancy commercial gallery with a friend who happens to be very well off. The gallery owner never lifted his eyes from his computer screen and grunted us away. When I told the owner a few weeks later who my friend was, he was furious with me for not proffering introductions. For today's busy gallerist, a bird in hand is worth killing with one stone.

19. Andy Warhol was once asked what he thought of his critics. "My critics are always right," he replied, by which he meant press is press is press. Contemporary artists have forgotten the golden Warholian rule: show up and shut up. A Twitter sissy fight has never sold a painting.

20. Everything in the art world is about money. Don't talk about money. The art world is like one really long episode of Downton Abbey: people gut each other with shrimp forks over every stray sawbuck, but they talk about the polish on the tines.

21. Not all art requires a response, from me or anybody else. A lot of contemporary art is perfectly happy to sit all by its lonesome in a pristine white room, being neither bothered nor bothersome. A fellow art writer once asked John Waters why people hate contemporary art. "They should," he replied, "Contemporary art hates them."

22. "Everyone's a critic" has never been truer. The art world is experiencing an unprecedented, castor-oil-strong dose of democracy. The artists who will thrive in this new reality are the ones who make so-called community art, a.k.a. art made with participation by children or sad people. Community art is criticism proof. Only a monster would critique community art. I hate community art.

23. Nudity still sells.

24. Here in Germany, when you visit an art gallery the attendant will get up from their desk and follow you around the room. I find this comforting. Why should I be the only one to suffer? Europeans understand that anxiety is the main motivator for art buying, and Germans dish angst out by the platter. Being watched while you look at art reminds you that your life is floating away at an alarming speed so you'd better buy something to use as an anchor.

25. I was asked recently why, if I "hate art," don't I write about something else? First off, it is impossible to truly hate art. There is just too much of the stuff. Second, I don't hate art. Art gives you something to talk about at dinner, and when people think you "hate art" just because you write mean things about art they get terribly confused when you carry on about art for hours on end. A life decorated with petty triumphs is a joy to endure.

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