State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

A defence of staying marginal and a chat with artist/writer RM Vaughan

“Newspapers should realize that they are no longer competing with each other for “the big scoop”, but, rather, are competing with the healthy multitude of voices out there.” Artist/writer RM Vaughan

Last year I wrote a column regarding the dearth of serious writing about art. What I suggested was that Twitter and other social media platforms had taken over where criticism died and that the public was following these mediums in order to gage what to see, listen to and experience.

Since then I have done a little investigation of my own and in fact realized that there are plenty of people writing about art but that it is all online. The mainstream media had in fact killed its own by continuing to chase advert revenue in covering stories about celebrities and the mainstream in order to survive. Diversity suffered at the hands of editors all clamouring for one more story about Brad Pitt, as if we need to see or know anything more about him.

As an aside, at the last Cannes Film Festival, movies studios wanted to charge newspapers fees to interview celebrities of Mr. Pitt’s magnitude. Many journalists balked at this and walked out refusing to cover the festival at all. The Globe’s Liam Lacey suggested that he run a made up interview with Pitt. Lacey’s reasoning was that it didn’t matter what film you interviewed him for, he will give the same generic answers to everyone.

The mainstream media has moved from critical press to public relations. Perhaps it was always so, but lately it is more obvious than ever. In the last decade mainstream media has catered to film companies, businesses, and anyone who was going to going to keep their inflated stock afloat. This seems a dim and cynical way of doing things. As I said, they did to themselves. Just last week the Globe began a pay wall subscription to their online version. We’ll see how well that goes since; if you want to read about Brad Pitt why go to the Globe when you have Perez Hilton and Page Six for free?

The art world is very guilty of complicity in this regard as well. Artists who vie for mainstream attention and believe they can keep their integrity in tact while hanging out with celebrities, and the superfluous wealth class are in a troubling delusion. For art to stay courageous and imaginative it must stay marginal; only then can it truly lead us forward. Staying marginal and surviving is no easy feat. Since the major media institutions are hell bent on covering the same story all the time, it has become really difficult to get noticed or even have the public care. Making work for a market is now the established goal; artists who won’t do this are left behind.

“We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way – to start challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them,” said American art critic David Hickey recently in a Guardian article. He is retiring from what he sees as an art world devoted to money, celebrity and a flaccid media that fawns over terrible work and exhibitions long on shock and short on ideas.

RM Vaughan, the man who encouraged me to keep writing. Holding top spot on the cultural writing ladder has had its moments.

One exception over the last two years was the writer RM Vaughan who wrote a column for the Globe and Mail called The Exhibitionist. Vaughan is a New Brunswick boy, who conquered the Toronto art scene by his multiple-threat talents; playwright, author, poet, artist and journalist. What I liked about the Exhibitionist was that it did the unexpected a lot. RM visited all sorts of off the wall places giving stature to many artists who would never ever have a chance at such prominence. As a writer RM also made some very poignant statements about race, class and the overweening pretentiousness that can invade art scenes.

This past August RM Vaughan moved to Berlin, Germany for a year to do some non-journalistic writing and get back to his own work. The Globe, Toronto and the art world in this country will be poorer for it. RM, like me, came from an alternative movement in Toronto which had its ground zero in the growing queer culture of the eighties and nineties. Queer is a term for making art that reflects sensibilities of marginal thinking where lines between genders blur, ambitions and dreams have nothing to do with conventional lifestyles, and that being an artist is both an act of great bravery and great absurdity. These philosophies of the alternative are the only reason I believe that art survives today.

In any event RM is now in Berlin posting pictures on Facebook on eccentric German minutiae. I had a chat with him via the social media behemoth that is FB. Here is a transcript of that discussion:

The Globe and Mail is a national newspaper with no budgets for travel which meant you could only cover Toronto. What gives?

Hmmm. I honestly think the no-money-for-travel is just the New Real for newspapers, whether you’re writing about art or sports or the international dairy trade.
However, there is a larger problem underneath this shortage of funds for travel — what happens mostly is that only writers who can afford to pay their own way end up covering art events, and that leads to a sameness in tone, interests, and class perspective in the coverage. I think it’s a bad thing when art is read through only one lens, especially when that lens is the same one art has always been traditionally read through — the periscope lifted by the well off.

Your column tried to go beyond the ‘gallery’ into back yards, libraries so forth; do you see this ‘beyond the gallery approach’ as the new way to do things, or it was just interesting to you?

Both. It’s crazy to think that art only happens in galleries. If that was ever true, it has not been true for decades. Also, I wanted my readers to explore the city with me, to break their habits (and I wanted to break my own too), particularly the habit of white cube = art space. Furthermore, I tried to cover art made by people who the hierarchy-obsessed art world does not consider Artists — street artists, artists who partake in mental health services, archivists and librarians, and people who are looked at as “craftsmakers”, not artists (a stupid distinction I have never understood). Basically, I wanted the readers to know that art was all around them.

And, I will tell some tales out of school here, I got hostile pressure from all fronts for doing this — the commercial gallerists felt they were not getting enough space, then the museums felt they were not getting enough space, then the artist run centres … every month, somebody was whining at me because they could not understand why I thought, for instance, that a garden designed by an artist was just as deserving of coverage as their white-cube show or big-ass museum show or whatever. Toronto, as you know, is the world capital of whining.

What about art writing and criticism, dead? buried? or becoming something different because of the internet?

Not dead, but maybe buried: buried by the landslide of art blogs, art reporting sites, and online art criticism mags. The reader today has to dig to find the kind of art coverage she or he wants, and I think that’s great, because it means that the readers are more invested in what they are reading. Newspapers should realize that they are no longer competing with each other for “the big scoop”, but, rather, are competing with the healthy multitude of voices out there. It’s not something that people who write about art in traditional media should be afraid of — rather, it is something we should be excited about and energized by, and learn to co-operate with.

I find a lot of artists are suspicious of this online thing, how about you?

Not me. I love it. Yes, it has limitations. What doesn’t? The great benefit is that I can look at art from around the world, one click at a time. Simple. That access is ultimately way more valuable than whatever the pitfalls of selling/promoting art online might be.
Also, there is now an entire world of art, a world with a very full history, made specifically to be viewed online. The circle is rather sweet, with online art going from representations of physical art to now being its own form of art. Win-win, I say.

Finally, did you enjoy having that column and what it is like to have a national profile in that way?

I LOVED writing the column. LOVED it. LOVED the actual writing. I was never bored or at a loss for topics. I HATED the profile it supposedly gave me. HATED it.
Here’s an anecdote that I hope explains why I HATED the “profile” : I went to an opening at MOCCA of an exhibition of Toronto art works from the 1980s. I moved to Toronto in the early 1990s, when most of the people in that show were in their career primes, and were perfectly horrible to me (and any other newcomers to their tightly controlled scene). So, there I was, wandering around the show … and many of the same people who treated me like shit on a stick when I first came to Toronto were now fawning over me and being all kissy face. Because they now thought I was one of them and deserved respect? Of course not. They wanted press.

Another similar story: I had a party at my house for a friend who had just gotten his MFA. One of his instructors, a senior performance artist in Toronto and Canada, casually asked me why I was leaving the city. To write a new book, I said. Oh, she said, and then with a mouth full of acid, You’re one of those journalists who always dreamed of writing a book? I’ve published 8 books, I told her. Really?, she says, and then with the same smarmy tone, I know nothing about you.

And this was an artist I had covered three times in my column. What did I learn? When you are in the arts media in Toronto 99% of the people around you will only see you in terms of your direct value to them — you have no other identity, past or present.

And, no, I will not name names!

State of the Arts is off next week and will return November 22!

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