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Watch Where You Are Putting That Pencil

“I have a good conscience; I’ve written thousands of slips of paper. In the sense of this responsibility—work, conscience, fulfillment of duty—I’m no worse a worker than anyone who has built a road.”

-Hanne Darboven

There might only be one thing worse than the financial support structure for artists: the support structure for art writers. Today, to try and be a writer of essays for catalogs, magazines or journals without being an academic, even a lowly adjunct academic, is to play against long odds. Which is why it feels that traditional scholarly art history writing styles and concerns, which in the past often felt distinctly different than the style and concerns of art criticism, are increasingly on display in contemporary art writing. Academics have the training to finish a text fairly fast and are the only ones who can afford this writing habit, excepting the insane and the independently wealthy. Not that academia is recognized by anyone as a path to riches either.

First some facts. I always hear that the standard rate for a writer is one dollar a word. Twice I have been paid more than this amount. Twice I have been paid one dollar per word. The rest has checked in somewhere around half if not lower. The most I’ve gotten for a review is $275. Most reviews for the art magazines I’ve written for are 500 words and up. Write a review for Time Out Chicago, you are lucky if you break $80 for about 270 words. Not that they will hire you, the number of freelancers featured in the art section lately is approaching, if not absolutely, nil. Or you could write a cover story for, say, the New City weekly newspaper in Chicago a year ago, that’s around 2,500 words. Somehow the $100 check is slow arriving.

The last refuge of any scoundrel in the art world is: I love what I do and mean well.

Now, there’s going to be some dour words in this text; don’t think I’m bitching. I am still writing essays and reviews. If the above pay scale is the beginning of a bad model for making a living, consider that probably a third of the texts I’ve written have been for free. That is not counting texts where I was supposed to get paid and didn’t. I mean texts I chose to write for free. Like this one. Not an uncommon fact for someone who has been involved in the artist-run or independently organized scenes. Sometimes it feels better to not get paid to write. Like this one. At least with this situation, I don’t collect the check and realize how little my input is valued. Writing free essays for artists and spaces I admire, like, or am intrigued by has given me some of my best essays and some of my most cherished artworks, not to mention a nice selection of books. Neither the works nor the books help pay the bills, that is an entirely other matter; the artworks and books successfully distract me from the nagging bank account, and besides, that is why I have a day job.

Many writers—and I guess I need to include bloggers as well—do what they do for free, or nearly so, because they love what they do. They see themselves as enthusiasts, supporters, and often think they serve as ethical voices, untainted by institutions and filthy lucre. The writer and critic Bob Nickas, summarized his stance succinctly:

I also decided early on in my career, when I was poor, that I would never write a catalogue essay for an artist in whose work I had no interest, but for which a sizable chunk of money was offered … I resolved as well not to publish an essay just before an exhibition to avoid it being read as nothing more than a glorified press release. I have, however, actively written about—and included in shows—the artists whose work makes mine possible.

Admirable. And yet many who write for free become blinded by friendships or the desire to support, and are just as compromised in their estimations as if they had made a run on the bank. Besides, the last refuge of any scoundrel in the art world is: I love what I do and mean well. Still, I do. And others do. Even if I am also aware that, to paraphrase William S. Burroughs, no one does more harm that someone who feels bad about doing it. Enthusiasm and an opinion do not equal criticism.

The sad reality is that if the writer isn’t getting paid, or getting barely paid, that means the infrastructure at the publication or publisher for which they write is often similarly threadbare, both economically and culturally.

Ethical or dastardly, often you get exactly what you pay for. The sad reality is that if the writer isn’t getting paid, or getting barely paid, that means the infrastructure at the publication or publisher for which they write is often similarly threadbare, both economically and culturally. The current economics of the publishing world do not allow for depth of talent in the editorial offices. In the general trades—daily and weekly newspapers or lifestyle magazines—generalist editors who are overtaxed are the best you can expect. Yes, even the most genius writers amongst us need editors. Literary culture is full of tales of not-so-famous editors who made the famous greats the greats we value them as. If the greats benefit from editors, the rest of us desperately require editors. This is why most major art magazines, Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, who, it should be noted, do still fact check, have a standard format they want in their reviews. It is easier and faster to deal with the texts if shuttling materials into a formula. Three brutal editors I encountered early in my writing career greatly improved my writing and my ability to structure an argument, even if I still am slow to learn how to write to formula. You cannot count on that attention today, which explains in part why academics might have a leg up in this field. It also explains why so much visual art writing is not worth reading. (This isn’t just in visual art, look at film criticism, or the childish pastiche of influences that counts as music criticism for many.)

Facts are not checked, assumptions made. Some sleep-deprived general editor with little knowledge of visual art or concern for art history barely has time for copyedits and assumes the writer knows his field and doesn’t bother to restructure the argument. Everyone makes mistakes. This scenario assumes there even is an editor—not always the case. In this laissez-faire editorial environment I’ve embarrassed myself and sounded like a blathering lunatic; and I increasingly encounter, time and again, art historical facts provided incorrectly by other writers. Like that local writer who in a review while mentioning influences name checked the 70s art movement Fluxus (only about 12 years late). Then there is a local blogger who cannot structure a logical argument to save his life (often the point of a short 300 word post is even hard to locate). A regular and prolific critic misrepresents any fact or attitude about an artwork in her writing in order to instrumentalize artworks in service of her pleasures or pet-peeves. Or yet another writer who regularly misuses theoretical terms in articles at every chance she gets (for example, “relational aesthetics”, which begs the question: who wants to reference “relational aesthetics” to begin with?). Some of these writers may be dumb, some may simply mistype on the rush to deadline, some may never have been told how to write a critical text; no matter, a lack of editorial oversight is equally to blame.

A regular and prolific critic misrepresents any fact or attitude about an artwork in her writing in order to instrumentalize artworks in service of her pleasures or pet-peeves.

In this environment, even well-meaning and perfunctory writers barely stand a chance at coherence. By the time the errors appear the damage is done: the writer looks a fool, and the publisher looks like an idiot for hiring such a bad writer. Criticism is then judged to be ineffectual and art writing is viewed by the institutions and the artists alike as either grudge-bearing hackwork or glorified press releases. Hence I have a crackpot theory about critique and historicism entering into the artworks themselves: first, because the artists do not trust the writers and take the words into their own hands; second, because it allows artists, and the institutions who display the projects, to return critical dialogue and historiography to a powerful platform in the public realm via channels that do away with the uncertainty of whether an other will concur with your viewpoint.

I have yet to mention such moments of job satisfaction as being completely excited about a project and yet not convincing an editor to run a review because it is “not right for that month;” finding that a publication wants only good reviews; having some editor add pizzazz to your text by choosing a title for you; and having publications not check the final print version with you, learning months later that some sentence was completely misconstrued and rewritten to mean almost the exact opposite of what was intended. Or having first person descriptions or asides changed to the “editorially consistent” plural, making the voice of the text downright schizophrenic. Still, I like writing about art; I just need to remind myself that, poor justification or not, it’s exactly what Michael Gerald of Killdozer said about his band’s experience in the music industry: “Now and then, we have to remind ourselves that we’re not doing it for the money because, if we are, we’re doing it all wrong.”

One Comment on “Watch Where You Are Putting That Pencil”

  1. 1 the allinman archives. said at 10:43 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    [...] 19, 2010 this article Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment [...]


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