Some thoughts on critical writing

I’ve been reflecting a little on the critical writing I’ve been doing over the past year, mostly for my own blog or for Exeunt Magazine, about the UK independent dance scene.

In short, I think my writing is curious about the potential complexity to be found in the act of description; the use of my own bias, in/articulacy, in/attention or dis/comfort as objects for analysis; and the desire to site a discussion of an individual work within wider questions about institutional practice. I understand artworks to be irreducible to any linguistic or meaningful utterance – instead speaking through a muteness – but I see critical discourse as a necessary and dialectical process which continually attempts to approach, meet, account for these artworks; not to trap or pin down meaning, but as a generative proposition from which future work might frustrate and depart. I use this as a guiding principle: “Clear positions act as invitations to think further rather than as mere limitation of what choreography could be” – Emilie Gallier & Alexandra Waierstall (2013) ’Choreography Through I and I, We the Fish, and Me the Reader’. In Inventing Futures, Arnhem:ArtEZ Press.

Alongside this process of choreographic thought, I wonder what else this practice might be ‘doing’. Is it advocating a model of choreographic practice – or a certain group of artists? Is it a way for me to test a variety of opinions or proposals? Is it documenting a moment or a scene of artistic practice? I’m happy to not be quite sure – as with any of my work, I want to experiment with function and form and my understanding – but I’m concerned with the ethical responsibilities of something so relational. Who’s vulnerability am I choosing to risk when I experiment with this practice?

Many power relations surround and are produced through the act of critical writing: emerging through the writing itself (this word over that, how something or someone is represented); the surprisingly subtle borders of opinion and authority; to the circumstances this writing comes to be (undertaken independently, commissioned by an institution, artist or publication, hosted on a particular platform); and in whose work is accounted for (different bodies/artists/artworks are seen to invite scrutiny and judgement) or left entirely excluded from discussion (for all the usual reasons of race, gender, class and more).

Art scenes are small enough such that it’s rare to see a show without being friends with at least one person involved, and a complementary review holds a huge potential value for both artist and institution (although I suspect the way I write rarely contributes good pull-quotes). These aren’t new problems, and each writer must continually renegotiate their own solutions. But I’m particularly concerned with how the independent dance scene is often said to suffer a lack of critical writing – I’ve found that what at first might seem like a helpful contribution can unfortunately give rise to at least three major issues:

– there’s an unavoidable authority that comes with being the only tangible bit of writing to emerge around a performance – even a self-avowedly subjective opinion can’t escape a sense of finality and judgement.
– the writing will come from, and must be presumed to reinforce, the socioeconomic positions that have the time and resources to undertake this (predominantly unpaid) work.
– how the disproportionate and hugely accelerated visibility of this practice effects my other work.

The economy of contemporary artistic practice means that everyone wears many different hats, and it’s complicated how work flows between these positions. I’ve gotten paid dramaturgical work from my reviewing, and a kind of social capital – a visibility, and clout – within certain institutional spaces that (I think) has benefited my artistic practice. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s perfectly ethical for people to be rewarded for their work, and to manifest power for themselves – but I think it’s a problem if it remains unaccounted for within a seemingly-altruistic effort, particularly when it involves publicly passing judgement on other artists. It has some downsides, too: I think my writing practice risks eclipsing the visibility of my artistic work, to which I’m much more committed, in the eyes of both peers and institutions; and there’s been a couple of times when I feared what I had written risked me being expelled by certain social/professional groups. Probably the worst moment was when an incredibly talented and hardworking artist, who I deeply respect and admire, spent a long time after her show speaking to me with an unnerving attentiveness and generosity; I think she thought I was going to write about her work. It felt demeaning for her, and I was pretty disgusted by the power relations at play.

Across all of this, I’m deeply suspicious of my own ambition and narcissism – I want to be seen a clever and interesting, and feel powerful and involved – for which critical writing seems a dangerously potent platform. Responsibility is tiresome, and part of my interest in the arts is their potential for irresponsibility. “Clear opinions are not expressed in the art world because they earn people enemies, and having enemies is a luxury these days: in a liberal world, nobody can afford them. […] In short, nobody can protect freedom of expression because nobody can bear the consequences of it. Being asked to review an exhibition from an artist’s position is problematic: artists can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) be impartial; they are often resentful, capriciously driven to some things and inexplicably disgusted by others.” – Claire Fontaine (2017) ‘Chorus Anonymous: Voices from Documenta 14’. In e-flux #84. Available online at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/84/151271/chorus-anonymous-voices-from-documenta-14/.

I’m doubtful about the sustainability of this practice, both in terms of time and energy and also my satisfaction with the ethics at play. I love writing – it sustains me, as a way of thinking about things that I love that seem to elude thought – and I wonder what other forms might be possible through which this practice could take place: perhaps more directly advocating for artists I admire, or through avoiding directly writing about contemporary artists’ work (I’m not sure what this would look like). In the mean time, I think this critical writing probably does more good than harm; while I continue to think through these things, and work towards a more ethical practice, I’d appreciate any thoughts or comments you might have – particularly if I’ve written about you & your work during the year.

Many thanks to Maddy, Mary & Diana (and all who attend their monthly group for writers at LADA), Hamish and especially Andy for helping me think through these things.

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