LivingArts: Criticism


I miss Lola Magazine sometimes.   Lola was a publication launched in 1997 in Toronto; it encouraged writing that discarded academic bluster in favour of ‘tell it like it is’ cheekiness, and it introduced to me the concept of ‘shotgun’ reviews.  Shotgun reviews were paragraph long critiques of art shows, television episodes, architecture, urban planning, whatever a contributor wanted to critique; they were written by students, artists, arts professionals, or anyone willing to submit.   The only caveat was that they had to be articulate.  Shotgun reviews were predicated on the belief that everyone had a critical faculty, that criticism could be applied to virtually everything, and that criticism was exactly as fun as it was necessary. 

When Lola’s publication run ended in 2004, I had every conviction that shotgun reviews would somehow relocate themselves to the internet’s unfolding universe of blogs and participatory writing.   I also hoped, that with the cresting of arts activity in this city that some kind of critical culture would rise up along side.

So where the hell is it?

Here’s what worked and didn’t at last year’s Supercrawl Art Installation.  Here’s the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise of last month’s art crawl.   Here’s a public art piece that knocked it out of the park; here’s another that could have been installed better.  Here’s a contemporary art installation at the AGH that was ambitious but unfocussed.  Where do I go to read those opinions? How could those opinions not lead to productive conversations?  How could art in this city not improve if these conversations weren’t frequent and public?

I ask this as someone who writes about art for the city (i.e. I am complicit in this problem).  I cover the arts for Hamilton Magazine.  It comes out five times a year, and I have been told I cannot review things I’ve seen, I can only profile what’s coming.  Similarly, this blog allows me only monthly postings, and doesn’t have a context for critical response.    The Spectator, View Magazine, Urbanicity,  and a handful of online entities publish frequently enough to support critical response, but refuse to be anything other than positive and non-judgmental; which is odd because they are happy to be judgmental about other things (movies, local theatre, urban planning, etc).  The position seems to be that it’s better to boost and profile arts activity than to undertake the cold hard work of trying to sort out what is and isn’t working about it.

As an artist, I have two decades of art production behind me, and the only reviews to my credit (both within and outside this city) are ones that describe my work and glaze it with affirmation.  It’s an expanded version of the same kind of geniality that happens when I post photos of my work on my Facebook.

Cool work Tor!  You are awesome!

And don’t get me wrong: I love affirmation.  It’s just, after a while, it makes you feel a bit like a ghost. Or like no one will ever tell you that you have egg on your face, because they love you too much to embarrass you.  So you walk around feeling loved, but also always wondering if you have egg on your face.  That’s what it feels like to work as an artist who has never properly endured public scrutiny.

There are great critics in this city, there have been sporadic moments where that criticisms comes alive page and screen.  What would it take, I wonder to build a place where art and culture reviews were frequent, fearless, accessible, and centralized.

How hard would it be to deliver shotgun reviews in Hamilton?


Ah, this comment about the lack of Hamilton based visual art criticism in reviews is a long term complaint in the Hamilton art scene. I recall in the early 90’s that there was such a complaint made that there were only positive “reviews” made by writers for the Spectator. This was when Jeff Mahoney began writing art reviews. The gossip was that some money was found somewhere to send Jeff to learn about art reviews. Rumour had it that Jeff was not allowed to give a negative comment either. Out of nowhere a publication that predated the internet arouse. It was called “PAN” published by Guerrilla KRY as I recall. It was cheeky, controversial and irreverent to the point that even Mr Mahoney wrote about the art criticism / publication in the Spectator. Many in the “art scene” liked its biting humour dropping criticism here and there as was its intent. They found it less humorous when it came to be their turn to have their exhibitions written about. Hamilton was a wuss back then and couldn’t really handle art reviews with a biting critical perspective. Maybe, it is time for an internet version of arts critical writing. The PAN writers hid their identity. (They were threatened apparently but not with violence) We have Hamilton Arts & Letters and it is doing a wonderful job writing contextualizing art but not really an art review criticism. Perhaps a more serious art review criticism is in order rather than a cheeky free publication. Go for it Tor. You can do it!

opps remove this second post please.