Thursday, July 31, 2008

Speed Reading : Zipping Through Art Exhibitions vs. Pausing for Reflection : Open Thread

Jonathan Jones touches on something in a recent entry on his Guardian blog that I've wondered about more and more over the years. In a world moving ever more quickly, what's the impact on art viewers of the breakneck speed with which our newspaper-based art criticism is provided:
Newspaper reviewing is obsessed with the first night, the opening, the new thing. Well, we are called newspapers after all, not oldspapers. But the pressure on critics to get - in the case of visual art - the first view of an exhibition can arguably be counter-productive. It means that reviewers have not had time to weigh second thoughts, and that readers have almost certainly not seen the exhibition before they read the review. The review therefore influences your own encounter. I'm not objecting to this but I do think it might be interesting sometimes to look at exhibitions later in their run, with the benefit of reflection, and in conversation with readers who have also seen it.
Ask any dealer in New York where they most wish a review of their current exhibition to appear, and most will say the New York Times. Why? Because reviews in that publication will most immediately impact the numbers of people coming through to see the show. Having been lucky enough to have a few of our exhibitions reviewed in the Times, I can say that in most instances the writer not only took their time with the exhibition, but often came back for a second viewing and/or followed up with questions about the exhibition before publishing their review. Also, perhaps 85% of the time we've received a NYTimes review, it has come in the last or penultimate week of the exhibition.

For exhibitions in major museums, however, the NYT's review usually comes out before the show opens to the public. And so Jones' two concerns (enough time to weigh one's thoughts and the influence of a review on viewers' subsequent encounter) would seem to be worth considering. The second one, actually, is easy enough to dismiss in my opinion. If you prefer to see exhibitions before reading reviews you can most likely work that one out for yourself. Jones' first concern though strikes me as more important.

The New York Times has on occassion handled this with what I think is exquisite respect for both its readers and culture's importance to the city. Holland Cotter once followed up his initial review of the Met's show "The Age of Rembrandt" with a viewer's guide piece (including an interactive map) and another piece on other places in the city to view Dutch masterworks. It was a truly wonderful example of a newspaper giving ample time and space to a major exhibition. Of course, not all exhibitions are necessarily worthy of so many inches of the Arts section, but it set the standard and other papers can't argue they don't know how to do better.

Thinking about this more, though, I have to wonder how much of what gets dismissed as a one-liner in contemporary art is sold short via hurried reflection. Take Jones' own example used to illustrate his point. After some reflection on Martin Creed's "Work No. 850," currently being performed at the Tate in London ("a relay of sprinters in the long, neoclassical central hall of the Millbank museum. The runners start near the entrance of the building and run the length of the marble floor, fast') , he went from finding it "amusing and diverting" to later concluding that it is "absolutely beautiful."

A couple of weeks [after first viewing it] I found myself contemplating Barnett Newman's painting Onement (I) (1948) in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. This is the first ever painting in which Newman depicted the straight vertical line or "zip" that became his graphic signature. It is a great work of art, and the ultimate source of all minimalism. Newman had the audacity to just paint a thin red line on a canvas he'd saturated dark purplish-brown. The line becomes prophetic, authoritative, the essence of rhetoric. Only humans can make a straight line: there are no straight lines in nature.

I found myself thinking of Creed's Work No. 850. I realised that, too, is essentially a drawing of a straight line: a line made by human bodies. Creed reveals something basic and essential about art, that it starts with a human body moving and a human mind imagining a line.

The difference in what Jones readers would have taken away from an initial review, when he found the piece merely "diverting" to when he had had the time to connect the dots and see more of what Creed was drawing from (pun intended), is night and day in my opinion. Don't readers deserve a bit more of this in their art criticism? I know with arts coverage plummeting around the country that this is much less likely to happen, but then again, perhaps such approaches would make arts coverage more popular and drive in more revenue for the daily publications.

Consider this an open thread on the advantages and disadvantages of newspaper art criticism.
See Image of Martin Creed's Work No. 850 at

Labels: art criticism, newspapers, open thread


Anonymous J@simpleposie said...

Reflection and consideration do seem to have a way of mitigating bias.

7/31/2008 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

If you are a reviewer, I think you have probably seen a lot of work.

Formally a lot of work looks the same. So it's possible to grasp the forms quickly, even though you might see a work for 4 seconds - that's the average time, isn't it?

I mean if you contemplate a white room, you get it. And if you add an object, as a critic you can recall all the other white rooms, so as a critic you have one up on the individual who has limited access to white rooms, light switches and track lighting.

Personally I pay attention to that stuff - also skylights, floors (concrete or hardwood, parquet or smooth slab, carved out or broken up). This is part of the experience. Having experienced it once I don't need to again, though I concede that the object in space an time can alter my perception of the space. Also dietary concerns impact my mood and thus perception of room tone, which I value highly.

Conversely, the space can alter my perception of the object, and time.

It's all relative I guess.

But beyond that, I do think people undervalue the imagination - privileging the experience over the interpretation. Who's to say my idea of Martin Creed's piece is any less beautiful than the real thing?

Most people respond to critics who only briefly encounter a work, or who go only once for a long time, or rely on secondhand experience as unreliable narrators.

I'd argue that we are all unreliable narrators, and that the experience is in itself largely subjective.

Why would a naive gallery goer let a jaded NYT critic ruin their experience with a negative review? To save the naif from disappointment or embarrassment later on? To confirm their deep seated anxiety about their lack of conviction?

Not all critics are created equal. And not all experiences need to be viewed to be grasped or intuitively understood based on prior experience.

You never know though, so its good to go, if only to be disappointed.

No straight lines in nature? Please, I am far too sophisticated to be impressed by that drollery.

Very funny line.

7/31/2008 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

If the press opening is on Wednesday, and the review is on Friday, there is no time at all, really. Granted, the NYT gets in before the rest of us. But most of the feature review of the great big show was written before they ever saw it - biography and overview comes in handy, and this is what people have come to expect.
These writers are also writing exhibition history, and so much of the criticism is very caught up in how the work is presented. This belongs to the continuous flow of covering exhibition after exhibition, but it may not necessarily be doing justice to the work in that show, either.

Different works of art demand different kinds of time - you might say that time belongs to the composition of the work, and not to any standard. This sense of time may only be adequately understood over time.

This also means that the kind of writing generated by a work of art is not standardized, either. And I do believe there is such a thing as a standard review.

7/31/2008 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I am happy that Jonathan Jones now has a blog. He has an interesting and, (is it possible?) intelligent attitude to every kind of art I have read him on.
Bring him to New York!

7/31/2008 08:50:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

I think there's a valid place for both the “first response” and the “considered review”. I’ve written about the problem at Art Fairs (looking at 400 booths in four days). Wasn't it Kerouac who said, paraphrasing “First thought best thought”, or, like the old cliché, you never forget your first impression.

Still one of the wonders of good art is its ability to morph over time, to extend its own valuation and comprehension with repeated viewing and in memory.

Both takes have their weaknesses as well. Sometimes the quick read misses some subtle or hidden aspect, while waiting for an insight might allow other opinions or a consensus to influence and color your own.

Most importantly for the consumer of criticism: don’t relay on only one source (The New York Times or ARTFORUM) or one critic, look around read as much as you can, even the blather on some art blogs, present company excluded of course.

7/31/2008 08:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it was Ginsberg that said "First thought, best thought," and his poetry frequently reveals the perils of that notion.

7/31/2008 10:18:00 PM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

Do their opinions matter? Depends on who you ask. Personally, I don't think newspaper or art magazine critics have the same weight of authority as they once enjoyed.

The internet is changing everything and young collectors-- young people in general-- are savvy to it. Online presence is everything. Oddly enough, some of the most praised artists by professional art critics have little to no traffic and barely show up on Google searches. In the eye of the public they do not exist.

Due to the internet the Average Joe's of the world may actually have a say in who is remembered. They may help write the art history books of the future.

I do not mean to suggest that the outcome will be positive. It will be interesting...

7/31/2008 11:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Most importantly for the consumer of criticism: don’t relay on only one source (The New York Times or ARTFORUM) or one critic, look around read as much as you can"

It's a very fortune artist who receives even one review.

8/01/2008 10:08:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

I agree with Zip, on two points - a reviewer has larger reference and grasps more quickly, and this being a subjective experience. There is no 'good' or 'bad' and even a reviewer using their reference will be mistaken in their review sometimes, and over time will open up to the concepts they were exposed to. Isn't that the point of good art, that it opens up our conception, and is sometimes ahead of it's time, even in terms of reviewers critique?

Personally, I believe a piece works on many levels, and I believe many artists will agree with me: the first impression grabs the attention, spurs the first interest. Then, it would grab you into it deeper, where you will actually 'get' it, or 'feel' it, or think about it, or whatever, and it may take a long or a short time for this reflection. If it just grabs your attention but then you think it's silly, it didn't fulfill it's purpose. Needless to say, if it didn't grab you at all it missed the point.

All that said, the most important thing is that it won't always work on everybody, including reviewers. So I would certainly take everything anybody says with a grain of salt and trust my own intuition.

8/01/2008 11:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

If you're able to draw a straight line, that's nature. You are just being Nature. The physically longest living insect is a straight line (and its legs are pretty straight). Rays of light, I presume to be straight.

Or do the reverse, plunge into the atomic scale. That Barnett line would probably look like a terrible mess. Ah ! Rhetorics!

I never trust a critic. As much as I can, I read reviews after I've seen the show (or I'll read the first paragraph to see if I should be adding a buzz show to my visit list, and read the rest later).

Reading reviews is just additional fun for me, I don't stress about it. If I disagree it's never going to be heard anyway.

I love Art Critical's attempt at making forums where people exhange their opinions about an exhibit.
I love it here when people start to "chicane" about one exhibit that everyone has seen. That's much more stimulating.

That Creed pieced is probvably fun to watch for 2 minutes, but it doesn't beat my "Svayambh" by Anish Kapoor which I think it compares theoretically much more than an old Barnett at Moma. Why always return at Moma? Look at what's around you.


8/01/2008 07:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A favorite critic wrote a feature review of the museum retrospective of a favorite contemporary artist, for the New York Times, after visiting the show in the middle of the installation. Works yet to be installed were brought out and placed where they were planned to be hung.

8/02/2008 12:23:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

"his poetry frequently reveals the perils of that notion."

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,

The begining lines of "HOWL" by Allen Ginsberg

8/02/2008 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

James says: I think there's a valid place for both the “first response” and the “considered review”.

I agree tptally, Typically the newspaper review is the first response, and the magazine article, which has more lead time, is the considered review. And with blogs, we have people writing during and after the shows, often interactively--a bonus.

Most of us won't get to see but a fraction of the shows in New York in a given time, so all of these sources help us get a sense of a show. And don't overlook the museum or gallery catalog. There's much good information there--as well as the website for the venue, which you hope will provide good images for study.

Apropos of the picure that accompanies the post: I'm moving slowly because of a meniscus tear. It's amazing how much more I'm able to see, even though I'm visiting fewer venues. I spent five hours at the Guggenheim yesterday, mostly for the L.B. show, but also for the informative show on Reinhardt conservation. I don't recommend knee problems, but I can vouch for the pleasure of slower looking.

8/02/2008 05:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

The Bourgeaois show is alerady up ??

Is it good?

I disgress.


8/02/2008 11:35:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I'm with James and Joanne on the "first response" and "considered review" dual-action approaches. It strikes me that a full or half-page of one-paragraph, maybe 3-sentence "first impression" reviews, each with a snapshot, would be an energizing adjunct to the handful of full length articles usually seen. And it might serve the artists and galleries better than the simple show listings seen in various locales -- assuming those three sentences aren't damnation and hellfire -- or perhaps even if they are.

Speaking of articles, Edward, it's looking more and more like you've become the gallerist of record, when NYTimes needs the inside view of that world -- speaking now of the recent Donnelly article. Seems only recently we were reading only of mainline journalism's near-complete disdain for blog writers. Congratulations -

8/03/2008 07:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The local free paper in San Francisco wrote a paragraph about my first solo show, which I was of course happy about, but it taught me a few things. It wasn't claiming to be a review, more of a preview, but the author led the reader to believe that she had actually seen the work in question. She mentioned one "monumental 12 foot" piece in the show.

Well, somewhere in the press materials, 12" got read as 12', and the use of the word "monumental" made it clear that she had not seen the work. She did note that it was made of pieces of dollar bills, so you might think that she would have figured out that it was 3 inches by 12 inches, but ...

Hey, as long as they spell my name right (which they occasionally don't).

Off topic, Ed, congrats on being quoted in the Times Magazine today.
Although the editors or designers did an annoying thing: this was an article about a particular artist, Brian Donnelly, and there was an illustration by someone other than the artist of some works in a gallery. It was unclear whether it was a rendering of Donnelly's work by someone else (why would they do that?) or images of Donnelly's work and the illustration part was the drawing that situated them in a gallery, because the artworks in the illustration fit the brief description given of Donnelly's artworks. Very unsatisfying and confusing use of illustration. Unclear on the concept.

Oriane Stender

8/03/2008 01:07:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I think the The NYT is grooming editorial illustrators, Oriane.

I agree that it's not clear that it's an editorial cartoon in the context of an article about an artist/illustrator who makes cartoony work.

But I think you actually do understood it but didn't like it?

Because to me the concept was a typical spoof - Mad Magazine does it all the time.

This artist, who traffics in cartoony looking images, is doing a take on cartoons, putting his trademark x eye on stuff.

Like Murakami doing anime. You can tell its a murakami. That's enough concept for some people.

Like duchamp putting a mustache on the mona lisa. Like the troops putting messages on bombs. Like, you know, graffiti tags. It's art.

Many don't like that think another artist can chalk over or disrespect someones work like that - or like the illustration does.

But "painting over" a graffiti artists work? you might be experiencing culture shock if you think it's wrong.

I know I do. A lot. Like when I go into a "conceptual" art gallery. So austere! I mourn the loss of what it replaced, even if I don't know what it was.

To me the artists work looks a lot like the stuff in Juxtapoz magazine - but thats a whole nuther can of worms.

'Nuff said.

8/04/2008 01:58:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

“Particularly in a society that values the progressive, there is an instinct to make great and influential the same thing,” he said, “but they aren’t necessarily.”

8/04/2008 02:24:00 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

A period of consideration is valuable, but I'd be even more interested in reviews written after multiple viewings.

I went to the New Museum's Unmonumental half a dozen times (I'm a member, so I just drop in). The last viewing was very different to the first. e.g. I initially loved Rachel Harrison's Huffy Howler, it made me laugh. But it lost some of its glamour over time. Isa Genzken's Elephant, which I at first dismissed, had real staying power, and became the one piece I kept returning to in the show.

It's the difference between a quick crush and what I call "chewy" art, art that takes a while to digest. Too much art writing is about the quick crush. Multiple viewings are needed to get past that. But which news organization can afford that?

8/04/2008 06:21:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

"But which news organization can afford that?"


8/04/2008 08:24:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Eric is right. There's no news organization, even the NYT, that can afford to send its reporters multiple times to the same show--except in rare circumstances. So here's where piecing together your own coverage from various sources comes in. It takes dedicated reading and research to do that. And the blogs offer good coverage from multiple viewpoints,Eric's amusing cartoon notwithstanding:

The bottom line is that art viewing, and reading about art, is not a passive experience. We need to work at it.

8/04/2008 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

WOrk at it? C'mon thats puritanical calvinism. you mke art sound like Victorian drudgery.

For most people art is easy - something you do for fun. If you want hard there are plenty of things that are harder - math for example, or factory work. Talk about serialism!

You can refine all you want but that wont make your experience deeper or more meaningful, necessarily.

All you really have to do is focus - that's what you meant by "working at it," right?

And the NYT can afford to send reporters multiple times - they just have to pay less. What does a critic at the NYT make anyways?

8/04/2008 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Although we’ll be carful not to blindly accept what one new source says about your blog-spot, nonetheless your deserve kudos for the NYT mention.

While I agree with Joanne (sorry to hear about the meniscus tear, gotta be more careful on that skateboard) and Jon, regarding the mainstream press not having resources to go too deep (excuse the blatant self promotion here but…) the “Brooklyn Rail” makes a point of running longer reviews and interviews, many written by artist/writers.

8/04/2008 01:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

zip said:
"But I think you actually do understood it but didn't like it?"
I can't tell if that's a question or not. I'm going to stick with "it's confusing" and "it was a poor editorial choice".


8/04/2008 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

thanks for the kind words about the NYT article, James, Bill and Oriane...

I'm gonna blog about the issues it raised tomorrow.


8/04/2008 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

If you're not working at it, you're a Sunday painter. I don't feel that what I'm doing in Calvinist drudgery (well, OK, I do when I'm wrapping and packing, or keeping the books), but making art, is both hard work and deeply satisfying, as is art viewing, when you look seriously, systematically, intellectually--and if, after all that, you write about it as well. (The Italians have a great phrase: croce e delizia = cross [to bear] and delight, or burden and pleasure).

Thanks for the kind words about the knee. Yeah, those big half pipes are killer. Everyone, read the Brooklyn Rail!

8/04/2008 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger поп said...

I think the The NYT is grooming editorial illustrators, Oriane. Thats all.

8/05/2008 04:37:00 AM  
Blogger TB said...

Speaking of Martin Creed's No. 850, have you seen this?

8/18/2008 11:10:00 AM  

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