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A Need for More Criticism

March 2010

Everyone has their own opinion about art, however pathetic. That’s a pretty controversial statement in itself.

The biggest problem a reviewing critic has to face is what kind of opinion to express. The knock today against arts writers is that they are too afraid to criticize (and risk not being invited to the right parties) or are too expressive (just another free-to-air bombast with an axe to grind). If one has the “courage” to focus on one’s own taste, it becomes easy for readers to dismiss the work as crass and therefore invalid. Filling a review with context and academic references, and usually too many words, can easily become pedantic. And that doesn’t sell anything.

Like any large media market, Ottawa has both types speaking to their respective choirs. But the city doesn’t have enough critics. It’s not that Ottawans don’t have opinions. I suspect the main reason for the low number is that good reviews take time, and so few publications can afford to pay for that time. There’s also the possibility that writers in this city worry about the “nail-that-sticks-up-gets-hammered-down” theory.

For the past few years the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) has run a series of workshops called Articulation. These are four-to-six-hour interactive seminars on critical art-writing. The interest has never been that high, and there are only two teachers this year. But the OAG has picked two gems, almost contrarian in styles that burrow into both sides of critical writing.

Izida Zorde

Izida Zorde is a complete political contextualist. As the editor of FUSE Magazine, she introduced the July 2009 issue with, “Many artistic interventions that skirt the surface of social networks—when divorced from the desire for community empowerment and transformation—can actually have the effect of institutionalizing the negative social impacts of a neo-liberalizing society.” Wow, although the review she did 1 ½ years ago for Walrus on Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule was concise and to the point. Her workshop at OAG is March 20 in English. While the registration deadline is passed, there may still be room.

Nicholas Mavrikakis

Nicolas Mavrikakis is the art critic for Voir Montreal, and has never hesitated to stamp his own loud tastes on reviews. He likes to examine the real value and purpose of criticism and reveals his style best with a one-line explanation of his workshop: “Why is (arts critique) so devoid of controversy in Canada?” His seminar is April 17 and is in French.

 One floor above the OAG at Arts Court, Ryan Stec is taking a different approach. He is the director of artengine, which focuses on the links between art and media technology. No one is reviewing that, so Stec is using some of artengine’s budget to find someone who will. This isn’t a critic-for-hire play, but something called a blogging residency: monthly posts for a year (at $100 per) to both artengine and Toronto art-tech partner Vague Terrain as well as an expenses-paid trip to Montreal in early May for the Elektra Festival.

Stec is “looking to add a regional perspective to the larger discussion/discourse around the media arts. It is also about cultivating opportunities for people in the region.” The prime criteria is that the right candidate will be an emerging reviewer who will be able to explain this emerging discipline. The prime goal is more critical discussion.

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