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The Back-Patting Society: Letter from the Editor 

There’s something about the smallness of New Zealand arts that breeds a culture of gossip. Inner-city Auckland: next level. Critical distance is impossible, with our one degree of separation. Outwardly, we are a network of back-patters, who don’t dare voice criticality in public forums. Inwardly, we are small cliques who retreat for positive reinforcement.

I was recently told that I don’t ‘belong’ to an art community, sitting in the middle of the venn-diagramed Auckland art scene. I certainIy have a posse, exhibiting mostly within ‘Pacific’ arts circles. Meaning I exhibit with my friends, for my friends. Translated, I use what little privilege my culture affords me to advance my career. Some people  perceive this ‘Pacific’ circle as a tight knit group of similarly cultured artists and curators. In fact, this ‘community’ has divergent attitudes, and encompasses distinct cultural identities. This reality was made clear to me during a row on EyeContact earlier this year, although admittedly I thought I was back-patting at the time.

If arts discourse happens privately within disparate communities, should we still write about art? Or should the cliques exercise self assurance, without proposing dialogue between communities?

Every time I review and every time I get slammed down (in public and in private) I go through an exercise of rebuilding my self esteem, and asking myself, does art still need writing? Has art advanced so much that it can now exist on an individual pavilion with its own unique aura of critical discourse independent from writers? Is it an artist’s right to commission ‘reviews’, and then slander anything else as illegitimate?

Unlike the artist who can claim ambiguity and a right-to-silence, a writer has no place to hide. Words are translucent and require an ownership which in this battle ground can be terrifying.  Despite the often strong will to abandon, writing can become a dependancy, an essential expression. The writer can’t stop.

New Zealand seems to have a resistance to criticism. Maybe it’s our easy going kiwi attitude or complacency in the land of the old white male. Yet we crave it. Whether it serves to spice up conversations at the office, or simply adds weight to the archives of writers, artists and curators.

Earlier this week on Facebook, Blue Oyster Art Project Space posed the question, “How would you define your ideal critical review forum?”. My ideal critical review forum would be a fair and open forum of high quality writing that strives for opinion and debate in all spectrums of art. Seems easy. The real question is how we can generate a culture where critical discourse is empowered, and then debated without the language of personal slander.

The artist, the curator, the writer and the reader will always butt heads. Drama is unavoidable in a privileged industry of well-educated people with plenty of time to develop strong opinions. But let’s be honest, it’s what makes us thrive. The knowledge that someone is watching and is liable to speak their mind, raises the stakes.

It’s the old tree in the woods. If art happens, and there is no one to witness it, to think it, or write about it – did it still happen?

Lana Lopesi

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This entry was posted in: Columns

9 Comments

  1. desperate =disparate?
    Take the criticism on the chin and grow. If you want to foster open criticism , then tolerating unfair criticism allows support to emerge from debate.

  2. My ideal critical forum is where people just let rip, and if they hate the work or the person they just spew it out. It has to be that way

  3. Daniel Golding says

    ideally, criticism is practiced without ideology or agenda, the agenda is stated. when that is made clear, any form of criticism is valuable

  4. despite the attempts of many, I still feel that criticism is bound by rules specific to the medium of it’s public presentation. Facebook or any online format, in my opinion is deeply rooted to very volatile and immature manifestations. If this is accepted and anticipated, it can be seen as simply a step in a open processing of thought. Too often it isn’t and instead is bogged down in attempts to critique the mental actions, relative to this medium, of an emotional two year old. That just doesn’t work. Better to accept the thin skin, ignore taking the bite, and wait until some maturity resurfaces. I’ve seen it happen.

  5. Robbie says

    Quality seems like it could be a hard one to quantify in the context of opinionated writing?

  6. (Emotional) Maturity and taking things ‘on the chin’ are overrated in my opinion. Being critical and open, without diplomacy, leads to hurt feelings, yes. But actually considering an opinion, without knee jerk reaction, is more useful than an unfiltered projectile of gut-thoughts.

    Facebook and online forums are newer outlets which take into account different viewpoints which may have previously been overlooked and/or undervalued. As they are baby outlets, they should be treated as such – I would deem these forums as experimental. Experimental meaning excitement and unpredictability, which should be of precedence if we’re trying to revitalise or sustain a tired practice.

    I guess despite one’s own biased position, an opinion is still of value. Although if reviewing as a friend, one can either be critical without unnecessary bulk (shit-talk) to present a more considered opinion. Or if you don’t have anything nice to say, say it in as nice a way as possible.

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