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Frieze debate redux

From:     blp
Category: Art
Date:     05 February 2008
Time:     02:29 PM


They didn't run my response and wouldn't communicate with me about why (or about anything), though I
emailed them to ask. It could be a glitch, but I now can't post in that thread at all. 

Oh well. Here's what I wrote, just slightly tidied up since I didn't have the chance to post in
haste and repent at leisure:


Hello all. I read the exchange here first, then went looking for Lewis' piece and found, rather than
the piece of cheap tabloid sensationalism I'd been led to expect, a long, reasoned, intelligent
article clearly backed up by extensive researches. Who's misrepresenting who here? 

Higgie understandably alights on the very small bit of Lewis' piece that pertains to Frieze, but
then, indefensibly, blows this up into a smear of the entire piece and the man – in doing so,
leading a largely unified charge from her cohorts. It starts in her first paragraph. Lewis does not
[confuse and conflate] 'market forces with what is actually being produced on the complex and
multi-layered stage that comprises the contemporary art world' – his entire piece is about market
forces as they play themselves out in this decidedly idiosyncratic and unregulated context. To call
this a perpetuation of 'the kind of anti-intellectual resentment against art that is usually to be
found in the tabloids' isn't just conflation; it's a pure act of the imagination. Higgie objects to
Lewis’ demonology leaving out some notional honour-role of art world saints, which is silly – this
was journalism, not a May-Day parade – but also unfair given that a stated part of Lewis’ concern is
that the dubious machinations of the market are harming talented artists. She suggests Lewis seems
not to have read the magazine, but one can’t help wonder how carefully she read his piece before
launching her broadside. Dan Fox, with his generalised sneering at the press’ myopia on the art
world, looks like an even less close reader.

The pity of it is, Higgie might have a point if she could only zero in on it. Lewis is undoubtedly
guilty of conflation: without, perhaps, quite being libellous, he implies a failure of journalistic
objectivity caused by vested interests – a serious charge, backed up by only the flimsiest and most
ambiguous of circumstantial evidence. Still, that evidence is a charge in itself and one with which
I’m in sympathy: the criticism in Frieze just ain’t very critical. 

In the surprisingly vicious swelling of the ranks that follows, it’s heartening to see that, on this
point at least, the Frieze contingent are not completely of one mind. Higgie baldly refutes the
allegation, stating, ‘Reviews are often critical’, then hits out with another swipe, ‘but unlike
Lewis, we back up our criticisms with facts’ – cheap given that she doesn’t back this statement
itself up with anything at all and given Lewis’ extensive weight of concrete material on art world
wheelings and dealings, though fair enough on the single material point of Frieze’s objectivity or
lack of it.  The negativity Higgie claims for ‘some reviews’, meanwhile, will no doubt be of
editorial concern to Dan Fox, who sees the criticality of criticism as just so yesterday: ‘Criticism
is not just about being negative or positive – the old-fashioned connoisseur-critic presiding in
judgement over the worth of a given artwork’. 

And, actually, except for its oddly arrogant sense of history (when was serious criticism ever just
about being negative or positive?) who’d quibble with a statement like this? Well, it’s all about
context. No, criticism isn’t just about negative or positive, but, in Frieze, when is it ever about
the former? I used to read the magazine at art college and just after quickly fell away in boredom
and have been checking in periodically ever since to see if the situation’s changed; which, up to
the present crop of reviews, which I’ve just had a look at, it apparently hasn’t. If, as Higgie
seems to claim, there is often negative criticality here, why, since it became possible to interact
with the online version, have the reviews provoked almost no debate at all? Couldn’t be because
there’s nothing much there to contend with could it? Well, that’s how it’s always felt to me. 

I don’t think it’s mean-mindedness or even anger that makes me want a bit more aggression in my art
criticism. About the worst charge you could level at me is a naďve attachment to the analytical
force of the dialectic. Well, hey, it’s always worked for me. I also think negativity’s making this
particular Frieze thread a lot more piquantly readable than most of the others, even if the critical
knives have only come out in response to a foreign body intruding critically. Besides, if subjective
identifications of the negative and positive are good enough for Greenberg, Judd, Krauss and, hey,
Searle, whose perhaps hastily penned position here is the most surprising part of this fracas, then
pension me out and call me old fashioned. 

The point is, Lewis’ charge, however poorly substantiated, feels plausible because Frieze’s
glassy-eyed absence of criticality looks corrupted even if it’s not. I don’t know what’s behind the
policy of excluding negativity, if policy it is, and I wouldn’t be in anything like Lewis’ hurry to
blame filthy lucre, but it sure looks like a love in for an in-crowd. Who knows? Perhaps it’s like
that because of the concern Higgie evinces for the art types who have it so damn hard. Whatever it
is, if actively negative criticality is being actively discouraged, that’s an unusually controlling
and numbing blanket editorial directive. Sorry if this seems a cheap shot, but I’m thinking Pravda.
As Jasper Joffe indicates above, there are a hell of a lot of us out here, most of whom probably
fall into the ‘have it so damn hard’ category, who feel alienated and bored by this kind of thing. 

Searle, while professing not to be bothered by art world corruption (alright, so I’m not sure how
seriously to take this), objects that Lewis’ findings are not new. Well, maybe not to you, Adrian.
Until a week or so ago when someone told me about similar trading activities to those Lewis
describes, I knew nothing about this – and I’d be surprised if most readers of the Evening Standard
did either. Bank used to talk about the art world money obsession, of course, identifying a giant
elephant in the room that no one else seemed to want to talk about (as Matthew Collings pointed
out), and now Lewis, in his rather different way, has done it too. Why, exactly, shouldn’t we see
more of this and why should art world publications be so reluctant to enter into it? And why should
Lewis, for having the temerity to turn over the rock, be castigated with so little nuance if he
hasn’t got his taxonomy of the squirming life beneath it absolutely right? 

Fox implies that it’s because this kind of critique is never about anything but a validation of the
public’s philistinism: ‘Charles Saatchi and Nicholas Serota are frequently mentioned in the same
breath, as if they are high priests of a shadowy crypto-Masonic sect who meet to decide who’s in and
who’s out, what is validated as art and what is not. Money is the central topic of discussion –
record auction prices, is such-and-such a piece of sculpture really worth the six-figure sum paid
for it – not enquiry into why an artist made something the way they did, what their ideas are, where
they’re coming from.’ None of this is material to Lewis, who has extensive experience of talking
about contemporary art, clearly likes a lot of it and doesn’t engage in any of this populist
conspiracy theorising in his piece. Strange. Make no mistake, I’m not conspiracy theorising either –
just pondering the odd phenomenon of defensiveness making its proponents look even worse. Why are
they panicking, ordinary people will say, these effete Frieze people. Or would if they bothered to
read any of this. Why are they being so haughtily nasty?

I remember what it felt like myself when I still bought the idea that the slightest negativity about
contemporary art was somehow a threat to all tolerance and complexity of thought. Contemporary art
is a tough sell and often subject to unfair brickbats and this does instill an almost cultish bunker
mentality. But actually, of course, this mentality is a failure of complexity in itself and
encourages more than its own fair portion of BS. No surprise that a magazine that eschews negativity
in general wouldn’t have its bullshit detector turned on. 

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