Blind and Deaf Men Around an Elephant:
On the role of writers, editors, publishers, and the art community in the formation of a living art critical culture
(this essay is adapted from diskurso.com editor Jojo Soria de Veyra's brief talk at Art+ magazine's Critical Platforms, a "forum on art criticism in the Philippines", held last October 17, 2015 at the UP Vargas Museum)
diskurso.com editor Jojo Soria de Veyra (with microphone) reads his lecture at the first Critical Platforms forum. (Photo from the Facebook account of Duffie Hufana Osental)
WHAT is the state of art criticism in the country today?
Are there truly problems facing art criticism in the Philippines?
What is the role of a new art magazine's editor or publisher in addressing these problems?
These are the questions I am supposed to ask myself and provide answers to in my talk today. So, here are my answers.
AS an editor of an art magazine online busy with providing fragments of art criticism, I consider myself a player rather than an observer from without and cannot therefore make a competent assessment of the state of art criticism in our country as viewed from a distance or from above, if only because I would neither have the time to do that nor is it really my job to do that. For the same reason, I would also not be suitable as the one to give you an enumeration of the problems facing art criticism today.
But I can give you situations as I observe them from the position where I stand. You may judge for yourselves whether these observations may function as anecdotal evidence for your final judgment on the idea of an overall current state of Philippine art criticism.
Let me start by saying that, from where I stand, the state of art criticism in the country seems to be fine, although also not fine.
Now, to explain that dual view, let me go to the introduction to the Facebook page on this symposium, Critical Platforms, which stated the following (italics mine): "it is often pointed out that, in the midst of all (the present growth in the Philippine art industry), criticism in visual art has largely stagnated. There are relatively few active art writers and critics, and even fewer platforms for their works. This leaves the market as practically the sole form of validation for an artistic practice and its subsequent place in art history."
We all agree on the reality of that growth in the art industry. But when we say there's stagnation due to a poverty of art criticism, we'll be faced with the problem of a definition of that phrase, "art criticism," as well as the problem of validating a statistical statement that uses the words "few" or "lacking."
First of all, why do we seek more writers and writing?
What do we want to happen? Is it because we want the Philippine art community to have a living art critical culture? But what do we mean by that, a living art critical culture? What are we looking for? Are we looking for lively and loud and prejudiced critics like the late Brian Sewell so we can declare our art critical culture to be "buhay na buhay"?
And when we say art criticism, do we mean solely art criticism established by their having been printed as books or journal essays or established by their presence as blogged essays or as art reviews in the magazines or newspapers we know?
Why don't we include curatorial writing, too, which also contain critical thoughts? Why not include PR writing for shows that galleries provide, which also contain critical thoughts or claims? Why not include what artists say about their art and others' art during interviews? Why not include comments on Facebook that may be valid as art critical statements?
Because if we can be liberal about it and include all these as among our art criticism sources, then maybe we can discard that statistical statement of ours that says we only have a few active art writing and criticism. In fact, if you give me 48 hours, it's possible that I'll be able to gather at least 50 art critical writings that were produced from these sources in the past two months and put all those materials on the table in front of you as evidence of Philippine art writing's being not so few. . . .
But wait. If I believe we have enough art writing going on in all the various places, where is it that I would deem us to be not so okay in?
LATELY, I have been tagged on Facebook as a theorist. It may be embarrassing for me to accept that tag, but let me try to live up to that tag, just for today. Because I have a theory.
I have a theory that our problem is not in the number of art reviews that are put out there or in the number of art critical statements that are made on Ross Capili's ArtPhilippines Facebook group or elsewhere on Facebook.
I think our problem is in our obsession with the notion that we are short-handed in our art critical efforts. Everywhere I go, people tell me about Art+'s and diskurso's and any other art writing outlet's being important to the art industry because the industry is in dire need of art criticism and there are only a few people doing it.
This is actually a lie.
Because, first of all, isn't everybody a critic? Isn't the only difference between a music CD buyer and the professional music critic in the fact that the professional critic can articulate what may actually be impressions already in the mind of the ordinary buyer? And, in the absence of the articulate critic, wouldn't the inarticulate critic's statements pass for criticism, too, assuming there is rapport in the distance between him and his listener who is able to see what the inarticulate critic means to state? Didn't some music genres survive without the attention of any professional critic in those genres? . . . Now, medyo lalayo nga lang tayo masyado pag lumalim nang lumalim tayo sa issue na yan, so let me go lighter now and talk about AlDub.
"The reason why AlDub is a living part of Philippine pop culture today is because people reacted to it, are reacting to it, and may continue to react to it till a newer pop phenomenon comes along."
The reason why AlDub became such a living part of Philippine pop culture is not because somebody came up with the idea and implemented it. You could actually have a hundred noontime shows in all the local channels in the archipelago, all of them with an AlDub sort of either contrived or accidental concept. But if nobody is going to react to any of these concepts, all you will ever have is a hundred dead AlDubs. The reason why AlDub is a living part of Philippine pop culture today is because people reacted to it, are reacting to it, and may continue to react to it till a newer pop phenomenon comes along.
Using the same logic, you could have a thousand art reviews being written by a thousand art critics in the country for dozens of art magazines, but if no one reacts to even just one of these art reviews, you'll have nothing but a dead art critical culture.
Let me give our students here a reality bite for an example. A gallerist would hire a writer to write about his painter's next show. Now, would that gallerist really read what the writer wrote and meant to say? Would the artist? Would the people who go to that show read what's written on the wall or in the catalog? Would the buyers care what the critic wrote? Who can answer yes to all of these questions and quantify it? Or, better yet, who can do a check on the quality of their reading?
So, you see, it's back to the AlDub secret. It doesn't matter that we have a thousand art reviews manufactured every week. If no one reacts to any of them and all we have is an industry celebrating their mere presence, then, the real picture is . . . what we have now: not a living art critical culture, but corpses of art criticism that the industry would like to pretend are living simply because they are there. In truth, what we have are art critical zombies looking for a readership to eat.
TO be honest, all we need is just one art review. Just one art review that a handful of people would react to, for us to be able to say that we now have a socially living art critical culture, as against an art critical culture living only in the individual reviewer's head. . . .
So, to end my 10-or-so-minute talk, let me say that what we're in dire need of is not really more art critics, or more art magazines, whose jobs are actually only to make judgments about an elephant the way blind men around an elephant make judgments about it. The art critics' and even the art magazine editors' job is to give focus on their writings' or their magazines' bias for or against things, give focus on where they are located beside that elephant called an artwork. We are not in dire need of their multiplication precisely because they have already forever been giving us those invaluable services that they're so good at giving, qua blind men around an elephant, and still no one's been listening to what they've been saying about that elephant! Everybody just wants them to keep saying something, anything, and just be there for the sake of being there. Just be there, even if, in truth, the art community is deaf to what these blind men have to say.
And so, instead of more art critics, I propose that our calls be redirected to our deeper need for art historians (and the art historian in every art critic). Art historians who would record not only what's going on in the art production area of the industry at present, not only what's going on in the selling area of the industry, not only what's going on in the buying and art collecting area of the industry, but also what's going on in the art critical area of the industry.
Remember, politicians donít react strongly to opinion columns in opinion pages. But they constantly react to news itemsí presentation of supposed facts. Letís have contemporary art historians churn out essays of claimed facts, and then maybe weíll find the art community reacting to their words with the shock of a possibly real AlDub.
That's my talk. Thank you, maraming salamat. [d]
Text © copyright 2015 by diskurso art magazine online.
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