Critical Infrastructures

Society

23.02.2018

Critical Infrastructures

In an environment where we are starving for criticism, the critics are just plain starving.

Criticism is an ugly beast. In an essay titled The Critic in New Zealand, The Pantograph Punch’s own Founding Editor (and now our Director) Rosabel Tan wrote:

To be a critic in New Zealand is to be a kind of weed. It’s easy to be one, but the space you occupy is contentious and you probably wouldn’t be missed. To many, you are – by definition – simply “hindering the growth of superior vegetation… unprofitable, troublesome… noxious.”

Throughout the essay, the critic is compared to the rhinoceros, because of its mutual dependency on other animals, and, perhaps my favourite, gut flora, “art’s forgotten organ.” However, she concludes by advocating for the necessity of the critic, with the final line, “we can survive without them, but it’ll only make us weaker.”

we can survive without them, but it’ll only make us weaker

The argument for criticism is a familiar one: criticism is a crucial part of making a culture. Australian performance arts critic Alison Croggon reflected that:

Critical discussion in all its manifestations – from the casual tweet to the considered academic essay – is the hinge that links an artwork to a public. Critique is what connects one work to another, and to the contexts – the histories and social meanings – that inform it. Argument is how we hammer out the value of a thing, creating over time a complex weave of consensus and disagreement. A healthy critical culture welcomes the new and strange, inviting those who might feel hesitant to step confidently into the rewards of not knowing.

However, in journalism’s floundering attempts to survive in the digital age and the detrimental effects this has had on art criticism, the question has to be asked: what are the necessary infrastructures for the survival of criticism in Aotearoa – what pathways, support structures, economic models, and publishing avenues do we need? And perhaps more pertinent, do we even need criticism, let alone want it?

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The shrinking media landscape in Aotearoa is symptomatic of international changes in arts coverage, which has not only seen a reduction in reviewers on staff, but also in some city newspapers, no critics at all – leaving specialist publications and hobbyists to pick up the slack.

American-based Doug McLennan of Artsjournal could have been talking about Aotearoa when he commented:

What you’ll find on most such sites are reviewers who are the editors or the website founder, the only people making a living with the site. You’ll find many university teachers doing arts journalism as a sideline, as a passion, or you’ll find fans and boosters (who often could be found among local newspaper critics, of course). You’ll find artists and writers and musicians doing podcasts and videos, often bringing their creativity to the form.

What this speaks to in a wider sense is the lack of value around the arts in mainstream media and among the public more generally. When writing about this very issue, Alex Ross of The New Yorker included an example of the Canadian Opera Company asking “for corrections” to a review in the National Post. The Post’s response was to remove the review completely, with a National Post arts editor quoted in an email as saying, “I really hate running reviews for performing arts. They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.”

This was echoed by Croggon when she quoted an Australian Fairfax insider as saying, “Arts is no longer a priority. It’s all about what rates online.” Newspapers are still adjusting to an economic reality where costs can’t be covered by a sticker price and advertisers hold the power, and these anecdotes highlight what publishers have learned from the online tracking of readership: that reviews are not being read – or at least, not by anyone other than those immediately connected to them. And so, of course, the publishers stop publishing them.

We’ve felt this first-hand in Aotearoa with the reduction (and, at times, the complete removal) of arts coverage from our local papers and magazines – which is a shame, because they’re uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between a specialised and a general audience, advocating for the value of art in everyday life

We’ve felt this first-hand in Aotearoa with the reduction (and, at times, the complete removal) of arts coverage from our local papers and magazines – which is a shame, because they’re uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between a specialised and a general audience, advocating for the value of art in everyday life.

The New Zealand Herald’s visual arts coverage has shrunk to a minuscule back-page roundup from TJ McNamara, and Metro’s move to bi-monthly publishing means reduced coverage there as well. We had a glimmer of hope with Paperboy – a free weekly which heavily featured the arts alongside politics and sport, asserting it as a normal and important part of Auckland culture – until Bauer pulled it after only its first year. Mainstream publications, with their counterpart of mainstream news, generate and reflect back the values of the country, reinforcing dominant positions. Did you ever notice the correlation between our national obsession and the level of mainstream coverage sport receives?

This leaves specialist platforms to cover the arts, leading to a much smaller and committed audience. Given their own precarious business models (nobody reads reviews remember, let alone pays for them), they struggle. The now-defunct sites #500words and TUSK ran their courses with little to no funding (full disclosure: some of the editors for both those sites are now at The Pantograph Punch); Theatreview – the only site that has attempted to comprehensively cover theatre across the country in some way – announced last year that, due to the funding environment, they’ll no longer be reviewing in Auckland; and as announced earlier today, The Pantograph Punch is moving to a new model too – reducing the amount we publish in exchange for better pay which – I say with a broken heart – will result in us hitting pause on publishing reviews.

A crucial aspect to criticism that is often taken for granted is the entirety of the work involved

A crucial aspect to criticism that is often taken for granted is the entirety of the work involved. A book reviewer, for example, has to read the book (or so you hope). Sometimes twice. They might read other books by the author – or read more widely around the book’s focus. At this point, they’ve probably clocked up 20 hours – and that’s before they start writing, and that could span as long as they allow it (and that’s before it goes to an editor, a subeditor, maybe a sensitivity reader, a marketing person, and an accountant to – you hope – pay everyone involved).

In theatre, a play may not take as long to consume, but there are other pressures of expediency given their shorter seasons (some shows run for three or four nights, compared to the weeks or even months that an exhibition might have). Great theatre reviews draw on contextual understanding, not only of what else is happening locally (some reviewers see three or four plays a week) but the sociocultural history within which the work sits – and then, again, there’s the writing.

And there’s all the broader stuff you can’t measure: the need to maintain relationships with artists and institutions. The shows and books and films and exhibitions which aren’t reviewed, but add the necessary flavour to a critic’s voice.

in some cases, critical writing is remunerated for even less, or nothing at all, operating instead on a labour economy of guilt and a sense of duty that preys on the critic’s love of and commitment to what they’re reviewing

In Aotearoa, all of that is remunerated at 5–10 cents per word, compared to an average of 50 cents–$1.50 per word for other types of journalism. And in some cases, critical writing is remunerated for even less, or nothing at all, operating instead on a labour economy of guilt and a sense of duty that preys on the critic’s love of and commitment to what they’re reviewing.

For example: Sites like Theatre Scenes and Theatreview do not (and cannot) pay, while in the visual arts #500words paid a flat fee of $100 and EyeContact a flat fee of $200, with $200 the usual rate used by arts institutions. If we contrast that with the average per word rate of non-arts journalism then a 500-word review should be paid between $250 and $750, a 1500-word review at $750–$2250, and a 2000-words+ review (a Pantograph Punch specialty lol) should be paid upwards of $1000–$3000. And those are just the writers’ fees, let alone anyone else involved in the process. Speaking only from the perspective of The Pantograph Punch, there is no way we could make a fee like that – a fee that writers fully deserve, by the way – work.

This shift away from reviewing presents other possibilities, as Toronto-based critic David Balzer commented:

The truth is that the Internet has forced critics to look at art’s greater relevance: its connection with the market and popular culture, its interdisciplinary qualities. This may constitute a relative critical renaissance. Such voices peal over traditional reviews, which treat the exhibition space as romantic and impermeable.

In our own new model, priority will be placed on the exciting yet precarious trajectory Balzer describes above – on developing a new type of critical voice for Aotearoa. Overarching pieces will look at histories of work, sector-specific issues, and trends that deserve attendance. It’s these long-form pieces which our reader statistics tell us are of higher value – and more importantly, which we feel are of higher value too.

In the wake of the gap left everywhere else, these pieces will allow us to do arts coverage more broadly, whereas a single review, as our Director grumpily said late one night, “feels as effective as taking away a single gun compared to staging a full-blown protest"

We’re only a small team and we operate on a small budget. Our 2018 annual income is $46,600 – which covers our operational costs, paying the eight members of our editorial team – which includes a subeditor and sensitivity readers – writers’ fees, and our events and production team. On a budget that small, we feel these pieces will be of a higher value. In the wake of the gap left everywhere else, these pieces will allow us to do arts coverage more broadly, whereas a single review, as our Director grumpily said late one night, “feels as effective as taking away a single gun compared to staging a full-blown protest.”

Yet by no means does this approach replace reviews, which uniquely cast a raised eye over a singular work, which evaluate its success, spark conversation, sell tickets, guide audiences. It’s reviews that build our country’s art history, collectively working to record and archive the values not only of artists at any given time but society at large. It’s these pieces that in 10, 20, 100 years’ time will be accessed by yet-to-be-born generations of artists, art lovers, historians and academics.

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critics make public arguments for culture and keep discussions going

The question has to be asked, given the severe changes to infrastructures for publishing – including pathways, support structures, economic models and publishing avenues: is criticism even worth saving? Arguments in favour of traditional criticism remain obvious, even urgent. Courtney Johnston of The Dowse sums up the argument well when she notes that critics play a key role in the arts ecology, providing audiences with pathways into a work or show. Conversely, they also provide the gallery or artist an “informed, opinionated response that tackles the question of whether their goals in making the work and staging the show were achieved.” In an expanded sense, critics make public arguments for culture and keep discussions going. They commemorate and historicise shows that many have not seen in person, they can encourage the market and are a crucial aspect of the contemporary art archive. They build art history, and aid in defining what a country’s art-making practice is at any given time. Critics make connections across connections and without that, “what you have is just a whole lot of art.”

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Given that our journalistic landscape is suffocating, this is not a case of pointing to our arts publishers and expecting them to do more, but rather asking my third question: how can we build better infrastructure?

One important aspect is examining the economic models behind criticism. A big part of this is, of course, Creative New Zealand, who are core funders of a range of arts publications including The Pantograph Punch, providing a crucial economic model for criticism in Aotearoa. They have funded EyeContact, Theatreview as well as #500words, and still do fund The Sapling, New Zealand Books, Landfall, Takahē, Contemporary HUM, Design Assembly and even the Books section of The Spinoff, one publisher demonstrating how to make digital journalism work. They have also funded initiatives to develop writers, such as Extended Conversations. But the piecemeal yearly-grant approach stunts long-term growth and more importantly, public funding should not – and cannot – be the only revenue funding any project like this.

There are other models too: magazines like Art News New Zealand and Art New Zealand are still tied to the traditional systems of needing advertising and sales revenue – as are The Listener, Metro and The Herald. But all models have their own precarity.

In light of this, institutions within the contemporary art world have attempted to step in themselves through self-publishing reviews of their exhibitions on their own websites. On the face of it, this seems like a great solution: artists and galleries want writing, critics aren’t covering shows because there are only a few outlets and even less money, the gallery has a website – so why not publish something off their own back?

But this is part of the problem too. There are questions of independence, which feels potentially compromised when the institution commissioning a review is the same institution being critiqued. As a reader, it feels complicated not knowing exactly what you’re reading, whether it’s paid copy, or an independent voice – and it’s important to retain some sense of separation to maintain a healthy, multi-tiered ecology, rather than subsuming it into one institution.

The use of resources for a gallery’s own legacy project takes away would-be revenue – through advertising, patronage or partnerships – for independent publications of criticism, further diluting the resources publishing. To be clear, I am not conflating criticism with catalogue essays, exhibition and artist publications or annuals, all of which should be produced by the institutions and have their own important roles to play in building art history.

One alternative approach we’ve been trialling at The Pantograph Punch is a partnership model, where institutions essentially pay for coverage (this is by no means new – The Boston Globe did the same in 2016). In our case, we only partner with organisations whose work we’d cover regardless. We set a low yearly quota of pieces we’ll produce (to avoid being locked into every show, and to allow the editor freedom in what they cover). The institution supports our costs and we retain editorial control (meaning yes, we do write negative reviews) – and it’s signed off by acknowledging on the site that it is partnership content.

I know some people will be shuddering at the thought of this kind of arrangement, especially those who feel entitled to be reviewed and feel above valuing critics and editors with the financial remuneration they deserve. But let’s be frank: paying for coverage is not new, it’s just not usually transparent.

critics do what they do because they are head over heels in love with art

In all honesty, I don’t know what better infrastructure would look like. The entire journalism industry is in a major phase of recalibration and arts coverage seems to be the first domino to fall. It also falls victim to the wider discourse of media, government and educational institutions, all of which systematically fail to value art. The problem we’re seeing with criticism is symptomatic of art’s own infrastructures, which are further influenced by the wider environment – all of which the critics themselves are the easy scapegoats for, but not solely to blame. To some extent critics are at fault. But critics do what they do because they are head over heels in love with art.

In an ideal world, the critic wouldn’t be the sole rhinoceros in the grasslands reliant on its mates. We would all be rhinoceroses, all relying on each other to make it work a bit better. Art loves to use the term ecosystem, but the reality of the ecosystem is that when one part dies off, it all turns to shit. The demand for criticism isn’t lessening, yet the position of the critic is becoming more and more precarious. To quote Balzer again:

If the traditional review needs help, it will not survive without a reengagement with its practical, economic function. As art history teaches us again and again, forms are upheld, and canons established, by virtue of investment, not merely entitlement.

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