« following up | Main | bounty of the internets »

May 15, 2006


Bunny Smedley

Two quick thoughts (and sorry if these have been done to death elsewhere - I read and enjoyed the discussion on Edward’s site but didn’t have a chance to plough through the whole ArtsJournal one) …

First, surely the line between ‘real’ arts journalism and blogging becomes more blurred with each passing minute?

Maybe this is a British thing, but it’s incredibly rare for most of the people I know to buy an actual newspaper, as opposed to reading the newspapers online - with all that implies for being able to flit sluttishly from one paper to another, including overseas titles – and increasingly, this is true for arts or cultural commentary publications, too. The existence of ArtsJournal surely underscores this.

It’s also increasingly the case that as soon as paper publications develop an online identity, they feel the need to offer something blog-like, too. For instance, here in the UK, the feeble house-organ of the left-leaning metropolitan elite is now attempting a sort of blog-like thing (mostly un-subbed stuff that isn’t good enough for the real paper, which is saying a lot) with a full if much-abused comments facility. So where do we draw the line there?

At a physical level, all this clearly has some impact on how we consume ‘real’ journalism – since I haven’t splashed out on buying a paper, there’s no reason not to graze, to scan, to skip things knowing I can always Google for them later. I read them, in other words, the way I’d read a blog post. And it’s a matter of time before journalists realise this and shape their style and content accordingly. The two sorts of media are still at the stage of learning a lot from each other.

But it also leads on to the second point, which is about quality. It seems just deranged to suggest that hard-copy publications are somehow innately more serious, measured or profound than the content of at least a minority of blogs.

When it comes to broadsheet arts journalism, some of it is by necessity dashed off very fast, leans heavily on press releases, and is written by jobbing hacks who know little about the arts and who care less. Meanwhile, arts publications – here, anyway – seem to get glossier, sillier and less critical with each passing moment. Sure, there’s some good stuff, but there’s also an enormous amount of ephemeral dross. To pick up on a thread from the discussion on Edward’s site, a lot of this really is just entertainment – or, worse still, a bit of copy around which to float expensive ‘lifestyle’ advertisements. And even for the best print-media arts journalists, hard-copy publication implies tiresome constraints about word limits, illustrations, links to other sources of information – and, in generalist publications like newspapers, a bit of concern about boring or frightening a lowest-common-denominator audience.

In part I’m making this obvious point because there’s such an apposite example right under our noses. If an art historian, a hundred years hence, wants to learn something about, oh, say, a show called ‘Painting Summer in New England’, which would he or she find more useful? This perfectly good newspaper review, which I rather enjoyed, or this blog post? Which is more informative? Which raises the critical stakes higher? Which comes across as more ‘professional’?

The idea that all blogs are simply illiterate, demotic, scrappy little things is, like so much in the world of journalism these days, lazy, self-serving and more than a little ignorant. Most blogs are, of course – and in some cases, that’s probably a good thing, because there’s a place for illiterate demotic scrappiness, too – but all the same, to pretend that real criticism and real blogs can’t coexist is, frankly, delusional.

Final proof - Modern Painters (post-Fuller incarnations) versus Modern Kicks - is there anyone out there who wants to tell me that blogs per se have a quality problem?

Bunny Smedley

And another thing ...

... having now read some of that massive ArtsJournal debate, wow, there are some serious grownups coming out with some pretty astounding nonsense there.

For instance, in what way are artists' views to be 'taken with a grain of salt', while (presumably) professional critic's views aren't?

It's lovely to dream of a world where e.g. William Feaver will publish something one of these days where he says that while Old Man Freud still has the occasional spark of quality, paintings X, Y and Z in the recent show looked slack, muddy and incompetent. Or, err, might Feaver have just a little bit of an interest in looking the other way and praising on regardless?

And by the same token, the broadsheet hack who tears apart a contemporary show is unlikely to get the next juicy 'exclusive' wherein Tracey Emin talks about her fertility, or Rebecca Warren pronounces on the subject of what fluff really means to her.

No thanks, I really wouldn't want to write for a broadsheet these days, even if someone paid me.


Modern Painters embodies everything that's wrong with the world of art journalism. They went from a charming, contrarian publication that covered art like it mattered to yet another idiotic glossy. "Make them for the ages," exhorted Barry Moser about the manufacture of works of art. You can tell what writers feel similarly about the making of their comments about it, and this matters more than the medium.

Bunny Smedley

The day will come when that spavined, pensioned-off old warhorse Electric-review.com will limping once more out of its stable to give the new Modern Painters at least an early instalment on the kicking it deserves. Honestly, I do hope Peter Fuller's shade is giving someone out there some very nasty nightmares.


The day will come when that spavined, pensioned-off old warhorse Electric-review.com will limping once more out of its stable to give the new Modern Painters at least an early instalment on the kicking it deserves.

Hasten the day. As much as I'm not inclined to criticize art writers, the fall of Modern Painters is simply too sad. It was even good for a number of years after Fuller's untimely death; but the current incarnation has lost its soul.

All in all, it is the art magazines, and not newspapers, that really disappoint. Newspaper writers are under all the pressures you list above, and many (of those that I read at least) still do a good job (since the Globe came up, I should say that I like a lot of what they run, including McQuaid's reviews. At the minimum, the most beleagured small market art writer, who may be the only person in town covering that beat, gets the word out on what's going on.

But yeah, there's a lot of nonsense being spouted over there. One gets a sense of how shocked some writers are by the current situation. When I read these sort of media discussions, I'm reminded of how I used to sit around on Sundays with friends, looking and mocking the New York Times. Now people do it in public online--and journalists are shocked to discover that so many people think that (to stay with the example) the Times Sunday Magazine is a joke.


Incidently, since his name came up, some time ago I started reading Peter Fuller's lecture Aesthetics After Modernism. Though it's only 40 pages long, I managed to put it down and lose track of it before finishing. I found it mixed in with some other books over the weekend and started it again. I was interrupted about the 30 page mark, but I'll be picking it up again at the first opportunity, and probably will have something to say about it. And I think I'm going to have to break my vow to save money and not buy books by getting a copy of this.

Bunny Smedley

And I think I'm going to have to break my vow to save money and not buy books by getting a copy of this.

The late Peter Fuller is admirably hard to place, even now. In the book you're about to buy (let's face it, standing up to temptation is for wimps), the chapter called 'British Romantic Landscape Painting' is possibly the most important, but I've got a soft spot for 'The Journey: A Personal Memoir' if only because it's one of the most true, if laboured commentaries on art-writing I've ever read. What would Fuller have made of the age of blogs? To belabour the obvious, I wish this strange, interesting, irreplaceable man had lived long enough to give us the real answer.

As for newspapers, JL, quite possibly the situation in the USA is simply better than it is here. After all, you have far more newpapers, and the readership is regional, rather than largely class-based, as it is in the UK. (In the UK, to call someone a 'Daily Mail reader' or 'Guardian reader' really does say more than any US equivalent.)

Here, though, the broadsheet art-writing is mostly just dire.

Brian Sewell at the Evening Standard is the best of the bunch. Too often he lapses into something like a self-parody of negativism and loathing, but to give him credit, he at least possesses a level of art-historical training that puts any other broadsheet writer here to shame. Better still, though, as anyone who has seen him at a press view can attest (because although his articles are possibly read by more people than are those of any of his peers, he seems not to get private views of the paintings) he really does look, at length and with seriousness, at what's on view. I have a lot of time for him.

Richard Dorment at the Daily Telegraph is a Very Nice Man. I once, briefly, worked in art publishing, at which point I knew several very unimportant people whose paths crossed with his, and they all spoke as one: he's really, really nice. Sometimes, alas, this may get in the way of his art writing, making him a little too keen to give the benefit of the doubt to something that might not deserve that benefit. At other points his enthusiasm is like magic, and lights up the whole page. At best, there's something genuine about his responses that is nothing short of enchanting. At worst, though, there's a sense of the triumph of optimism over good sense. Nice man, though!

Adrian Searle, over at the Guardian, writes well but is far too keen on the main chance for my liking. Call it different sensibilities, if you like, but he doesn't do much for me.

As for Andrew Graham-Dixon (Telegraph, mostly) he's also really nice in real life, but sometimes his art writing is quite boring. We could all do a competent digest of The Grove Dictionary of Art if we were paid enough. AGD should show a bit more heart and guts a bit more often.

Sarah Kent at Time Out is a 437-year old woman trying to sound in touch with the latest trends. (As I'm only a mere slip of a 433-year old I can write this in good conscience!) Sadly, this doesn't quite equate to taste. So the result is often the dullest sort of worthy, hard-working boosterism.

Finally, although this is an embarassing admission, I do sort of love Matthew Collings. Once upon a time, I thought he was the worst part of Modern Painters - mostly for his proto-blogger qualities. Now he is obviously the best thing there. If one strips away the embarassing rhetoric, there's a lot of old-fashioned good sense, and even a bit of tough-edged Greenbergishness, in his utterances. Also, I once accidentally cut him dead at a press view, because I was doing that very English thing of trying to be cool when standing near to someone who's famous because he's been on television, so I feel a bit bad about that.

And who else is there? The Times employs someone who really doesn't have a clue what she's doing, although she tries hard; the Guardian deserves points for fielding the odd non-professional, who's generally much better than the real thing; most of the mass-market papers don't even bother with any sort of art-writing any more. So do you see what I mean? We live in a desert; no wonder blogs seem like such an oasis when we spy them on the horizon.

The sad thing is, though, that although David Lee's Jackdaw is good fun in its own bitter way, there's been no real replacement for the old-school Modern Painters, and meanwhile the quality of broadsheet reviewing has deteriorated to nothing, more or less.

But as I say, this is probably just another British Disease. Doubtless we'll muddle through bravely, and sort ourselves out in due course.


Wow, thanks. While I read some of the British press online, I'm nowhere near schooled enough in it to have known all the above. One point, however, since Tyler's linked to this post and various arts media people seem to be visiting: readers should know that the overview above was delivered by someone whom I consider among the best critics writing today.

Despite what I wrote earlier, I'm not really equipped to judge the state of newspaper art criticism across the nation. The comments over at ArtsJournal certainly paint a picture more dire than my blithe remarks did. I suppose I meant more than I think a lot of those who write on art in the papers are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. There can be problems, some of which are unavoidable. Boosterism may not make for good criticism, but is hard for many writers, particularly in smaller markets, to escape it entirely. One certainly at times notices a reliance on press packets, and I'm not sure how many writers actually have any formal background in art, though some, perhaps many, do. In part it may be that my expectations for newspaper criticism aren't very high, or the local examples of it that I read most frequently are better than average.

Sometimes when I think of all that must be involved in putting out a major daily paper every day, I get a little dizzy and have to sit down.


Oh, and also: yes, when he's not too self-indulgent, Matthew Collings can be pretty sharp, and easily is the best thing left in MP. Fuller's work demands more attention than I'll be able to give to it--the essay that I'm reading is only a taste. I am looking forward to that book, though.

The comments to this entry are closed.

From the Bookshelves


  • Send email to modkicks at yahoo dot com