Art writing reality check (time for a new code of ethics?)

Lichtenstein___Art_Critic.jpgThe recent chain of events that led the Village Voice (one of New York’s most important sources of arts criticism) to end their relationship with critic Christian Viveros-Fauné raises some questions about the practicality of applying The New York Times style code of journalistic ethics to the arts publications that can’t offer NYT-sized salaries.

Indeed, given the widely perceived diminishing influence of art criticism (due to the overwhelming power of certain collectors and the market in general in determining what art is seen as important by museums and other collectors), a question I heard repeatedly in the wake of the Voice’s decision was, is it even realistic to expect quality criticism from writers without deep interest/influence in the commercial side of the art world?

The case in point revolves around a Q&A interview by Tyler Green with Christian Viveros-Fauné (see parts one, two, and three) that culminated in Tyler asking Christian:

You’re a managing director of a commercial art fair, Volta, and an organizer of another commercial art fair, Chicago’s Next fair. At the same time you’re a writer, a journalist, you’re the art critic for the Village Voice. Why isn’t that the most basic kind of conflict of interest?

Christian responded with perhaps a too honest answer that included several of the key issues leading me to wonder just how practical (if not how adhered to) the current code of ethics really is [all emphasis mine]:

I believe you can wear a lot of hats in the art world, and one needs to because, among other things, critics can’t survive on the money that they make from writing. Very few critics can. And, not only that, but I’m interested in curating, and I firmly believe that there is no interest in the art world without a conflict of interest.

Now, that may seem counterintuitive, and it is, but I would argue that the art world is counterintuitive in the extreme. In what other industry, for example, does one of the major magazines that chronicles both the creative and the business end of the art world establish an art fair of the same name. Obviously, I’m talking about Frieze.

And that’s nothing. Examine, for second, the practice of writing catalog essays. You know and I know that there is no such thing as a negative catalog essay and the reason for that is obvious: one way critics make money is by writing promotional copy for galleries and, hopefully, artists they like or love. And then there’s the business of curators and critics slinging their asses around to universities and institutions for speaking engagements.

Shall I go on? I mean, again, what I’m arguing for here is honesty all the way around.

In light of the practicality of living on what arts writing pays and being insightful without inserting oneself deep within the commercial structure in this particular age, and given that whether there’s a more pressing conflict of interest to address is no longer relelvant, perhaps attention can now be turned to the issues Christian raises. In particular, is it time for the code of ethics to specifically address critics lecturing for money at universities whose artists or exhibitions they later write about, accepting paid travel and hotel expenses in return for press (and the rules for acknowledging that), confluences of power like that represented by the Frieze art fair, writing catalog essays for pay, and the rest of it?

Author: Edward Winkleman

New York art dealer (Winkleman Gallery : www.winkleman.com) and author of blog on art and politics (http://edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com)

9 thoughts on “Art writing reality check (time for a new code of ethics?)”

  1. This topic is a Pandora’s Box of important issues.The question about conflict of interest goes far beyond money.

    First, the majority of arts writers, even at mainstream news publications, operate with conflicts of interest if you take the New York Times guidelines as your benchmark. A survey of critics that I conducted showed that almost half of them are also working artists and almost one out of four of them exhibit their work, usually in their local markets. Who else but a freelancer with a strong, passionate interest in art would write reviews for $25 or $50 for the local newspaper? Nevertheless, the same involvement would not be tolerated from sport or business writer.

    Second, it is far from settled that “arms-length” reporting guidelines guarantee the best criticism. Those guidelines serve “objectivity” whereas criticism is by its nature subjective. Many believe that deep personal involvement is the best path to refined, knowledgeable art appreciation. Could the guidelines for political columnists be more appropriate for critics? We know that Krugman or Kristol have deep personal ties to liberals and conservatives — it’s precisely why we read them. Ethical guidelines for critics are of relatively recent, and distinctly American, vintage. Yet, even in America, the golden age of criticism, certainly in art and classical music, coincided with the years when most “ethically conflicted” critics were active and writing.

    Third and perhaps most important is the issue of where the discourse of the art world is being shaped. In the honey-glazed, sunny and rosy golden years of art, the memories of which still hang over our current conceptions of the art world, critics commanded a certain level of influence simply by virtue of arbitrating among opinions and ideas. You could stand on the outside of the commercial institutional matrix and your ideas and opinions somehow penetrated into the pipelines of power. If money couldn’t measure art’s worth, ideas and opinions did. That was the critics’ payday: their cultural relevancy. But those days are gone. How and where the art world now goes is decided almost entirely without any critical intervention. So the compulsion grows to go over to the other side, to jump over the fence, as it were, and be part of the real action.

    Maybe instead of worrying about why critics have no power outside “the system,” the art world should look for ways to reinvigorate the influence of ideas within the institutions and marketplaces where the fate of art is these days determined.

  2. Andras suggests “the art world should look for ways to reinvigorate the influence of ideas within the institutions and marketplaces where the fate of art is these days determined.”

    I think that’s happening with blogs. Museums and newspapers are adding arts blogs and increasing the influence of ideas in the process. I hear from more and more collectors all the time that they too now read blogs. Of course, we’re talking more about gossip with most blogs than quality criticism, but that can evolve, IMO. As the medium gains respect, it attracts better writers. The question then becomes how arts blogs can pay the good critics enough to ensure they offer their writing via them.

  3. Ah, we’re all useless nowadays are we, us art critics? Well, try telling that to the artists who nervously read the reviews, or the galleries who need the reviews to attract a viewing public. Never mind that the show’s presold or that the market increasingly drives taste – none of us should work in a critique-less vacuum.

    I’m very fortunate in having a fulltime role as an art critic, as very few such jobs exist, so I can sympathise with the plight of the freelance art critic who side hustles as curator, lecturer and you-name-it. However, my position doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop me from judging an art prize or helping to select galleries for an art fair (both done by committee), but should prevent me from being in direct business with the galleries, whether it’s writing essays or curating their shows. I might go to their private views, the occasional dinner or attend a press trip, but I won’t allow these to sway my initial judgement, because no opinion means no enjoyment and no service to the reader. And while I try and follow the market, I don’t earn enough money to buy at today’s prices and so don’t fall into the category of unofficial artist fluffer or apologist. So I suppose you could call this a code.

    I also try and exercise control over those who write for my publication and inevitably have those relationships with galleries; mainly by asking that they be transparent and honest with me so that I can send them to see the right shows.

    Another version of this rolling argument – saying that critics should not befriend artists – recently played itself out on the Guardian’s blog, splitting its own critics down the middle. I enjoy being part of the art landscape, despite all its vagaries. But given that it’s such a small world, I believe most people would subscribe to Adrian Searle’s admission that, ‘I am prepared to suffer the complications of my relationships with artists. It comes with the territory. Without such intimacies, I wouldn’t bother to be a critic at all. No conflict, no interest, I always say’.

  4. Damn. Christian is a joy to read. Not having his “Voice” available on those familiar pages is both their loss and ours. He is like Jim Hoberman (still employed as first string film critic) in some ways: conversational, synthetic, heady, bringing a larger historical and cultural context to bear on the discussion of particular artists. I find myself returning to certain reviews — on Martin Kippenberger, Kara Walker, Lawrence Weiner, the New Museum — not because I agree with every point, but often enough for particular turns of phrase I wish I had written. Good criticism is inspiring, like good art, and it’s a pity when it is effectively silenced for any reason. So let’s hope Christian will find a new venue, and soon.

    Obviously he was not sacked for a particular impropriety but for the illusion of impropriety, for the notion that a conflict of interest might occur at some point. In other words, to satisfy a legalism. But is it fair that critics be held to a higher standard, perhaps an unattainable standard, in comparison to other arts professionals who also function as taste makers? Curators circle the globe, often with transportation and accommodations gratis, in order to assemble work for an exhibition and gather materials for a catalog. This activity can only enhance the reputation and the market of a chosen artist and the associated gallery, in much the same way as a good written critique. But is the privileged position of curators, and their role as advocate for the artist, held up to scrutiny? Similarly, collectors serve on museum boards and vote to mount certain exhibitions, or even build their own museums to showcase their particular holdings. They champion certain artists in this manner, generally out of passion and commitment to the work, but also to enhance the value of their holdings. Is “conflict of interest” cited as an issue in this case?

    Andras observes that many critics are also artists. Some are married to artists. Some are involved, emotionally, intellectually or romantically, with certain artists or certain art dealers. At what point should the line of virtual incorruptibility be drawn? Should the ideal critic be hatched in a special incubator, raised in an environment of carefully controlled stimuli so as not to be robbed of impartiality, then conducted, like a sequestered juror, to some Platonic plinth where the art can be confronted and judgment rendered, antiseptically and without any danger of contamination? And even were this possible, would it lead to anything meaningful or inspiring or poetic? As Adrian Searle (through Ossian) notes, “no conflict, no interest”. Christian is slightly wordier: “There is no interest in the art world without a conflict of interest.” Amen.

  5. Ed brings up a good point when he writes that blogs are one of the newest and most prominent ways to get critical discourse back into the institutional and commercial framework of the art world. And he’s right to point out that at the moment blogs offer more gossip than quality criticism. But this overlooks the other role that blogs and bloggers play, the one that instigated this whole Viveros-Faune episode, and that’s the role of self-appointed watchdog.

    Tyler Green is at his best when he’s playing just this role. No other voice out there spends so much time raking the big arts institutions through the mud for their various improprieties. It was only a matter of time before he turned the klieg lights on a critic. (Though we should note that CFV was certainly not the first. Carol Vogel must be blind after having spent so much time under Green’s spotlight.)

    What I think we need to recognize however is that bloggers are free to play whatever role they want to–watchdog, gossip, critic, gadfly, bore, reporter, etc. They write the script as they go. So it seems just to ask, What code of ethics applies to the blogger? It’s wholly arbitrary to think that the Times’ Guide to Ethical Journalism reigns supreme over the blogosphere.

    This is different than asking under what code of ethics should an ‘art writer’ operate. Such codes don’t apply to people until they find themselves employed (either by themselves or by another) to produce or provide a service. The ethics go with the territory, so to speak. And what we seem to get nervous about, indeed what got Green up on his horse, was CFV’s border crossing. Is this a conservative fear?

  6. I would like to agree with Ed that blogs can be instrumental in reinvigorating discussion, in providing useful information and well considered opinions. That’s why he maintains his own site and why we’re here on Artworld Salon. But until blogs are fully attributable and responsible for their content, they cannot approach the unimpeachable, ethical standards that are the subject of this thread.

    Jonathan correctly notes the watchdog status of Tyler Green, and one might add Martin Bromirski of anaba and Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City to the list. But they represent the high ground in a bog. In the current state of the internet, where identity is often hidden behind user names or the all purpose “Anonymous”, some contributions are just plain garbage, others are about turning a quick buck, while still others descend to pettiness and malevolence, to defamation and the spiteful settling of grudges. It’s impossible to respect the transparency and honesty of this content, let alone its good intentions. Certain blogs are awash in mediocrity, impropriety, prejudice and misinformation. Until these are dealt with, they foul the water and demean the entire field.

  7. To the point about blogs: Blogs certainly generate an atmosphere of discourse, or, at least, an atmosphere of chatter. It’s the 21st century version of a smoke filled bar–vital to any thriving cultural enterprise.

    To become an alternative to major publications, however, blogs would need to offer at least four kinds of institutional leverage. First, guaranteed visibility across a wide swath of the art world. Second, some level of economic security that would allow the writer to avoid Faustian bargains. Third, a guarantee that the critic has passed some level of editorial muster to assure readers about accuracy and credibility. And fourth, not inconsequentially, protection against libel. I know of no art blog (yet) that meet these criteria.

    The part of this thread so far that intrigues me the most is what would be the acceptable new terms of engagement for writers who do not wish to merely watch from the sidelines, and who are functioning on a substantially transformed art-world field of operations.

    I will say that according to The Visual Art Critic survey (www.najp.org/publications/researchreports/visualarts.html), arts writers’ ethics are all over the map. I can send highlights.

  8. Regarding “the acceptable new terms of engagement for writers who do not wish to merely watch from the sidelines, and who are functioning on a substantially transformed art-world field of operations”, consider the case of one Charlie Finch, whose latest artnet posting, Late Bloomer, comes urgently datelined from the table tops of Bottino. I enjoy the brutal honesty and economy of the transaction. Provide him with sufficient vittle and plonk at a suitably fashionable Chelsea boite, and out come 272 dutiful words. This “will work for food” arrangement, common to squeegee men and German Shepherds, is mitigated by the Finchian penchant to growl more often than he wags his tail. Just so we understand we are not dealing with a total pushover.

    And this is hardly an isolated phenomenon. More often than not, posts on the Artforum.com diary issue from the dinners, after parties and limited invitation events of the art world’s celebrity stratum. Where better to observe the Sturm und Drang of the Scene and Herd? Of course, we are clearly in the province of the entertainment reporter here rather than the art critic. But many writers wear both hats, switching off as occasion and opportunity dictate. Might social reportage from tonight’s dinner in any way influence an exhibition critique penned next week? It’s a question that can only be answered in the smithy of each writer’s soul. But as Andras notes, “arts writers’ ethics are all over the map”.

  9. There is also another important thing to note here I think and that is the fluidity between the different roles that the intermediators (of all sorts, collectors as well, if you could call them intermediators) these days. I can’t claim to be historically spot on but it seems to be easier today than the – lets say – last half of the 20th century. I still remember the days when an editor of any newspaper in Norway would never EVER change to another newspaper. It would just not happen.

    Or how often did it happen that a critic became an art dealer – but nowadays this seems to be a sort of latter-day fauxpax.

    I have to say I do admire Tyler Green for his stamina (even Marc Spiegler gave in to change role last year, crossing the former uncrossable border) and a question I have been asking myself ever since is: if he wants to, can he go back? Can he become a journalist again?

    I think he can. Today it seems you are able to. He might even have deeper insights into some things now, and he might also be able to get sources that no other journalist could.

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