Featured in
Issue 181

25 Things We Have Learned

A quarter century of frieze;a quarter century of lessons

BY Jennifer Higgie, Dan Fox AND Jörg Heiser in Features | 19 AUG 16

1. The art world could not function without alcohol, absurdity or angst.

2. There is little or no distinction between life and work in the art world. Which is a great thing if it serves a good cause (including a better life or better work) but a bad thing when it means work is eating up life.

3. Both good art and good writing affirm that there are many ways of understanding the world. This is important.

4. For instance, there are still seemingly infinite new ways of arranging the oldest of materials, such as paint.

5. Further, good writing should not only offer multiple perspectives on art and the world but should also be pleasurable to read. 

6. You can’t please all of your readers all of the time. Disinterested, frustrated, irritated responses to the magazine – when accompanied by interested, enthusiastic responses – are a sign you’re doing something right.

7. For example, putting singer Bryan Ferry on the cover of frieze, as we did in 2004, delighted some and left others spluttering with dismay

8. In writing, even the most complicated ideas can usually be expressed clearly and simply; the use of jargon is invariably an attempt to disguise muddled thought.

9. On the whole, press releases aren’t much fun to read. (See previous point.)

10. Some of the exhibition announcements we receive are truly ludicrous: a few make us laugh, others make us wince or roll our eyes and hit ‘delete’, but almost all of them – from the exciting to the inane – represent the optimism and good faith that drive people to make and show art.

11. Everyone loves to read a stinging review, apart from those on the receiving end. Yet, few dare to write them. We have our theories why, but we’ll only tell you over a drink. (See point no.1)

12. The people who say there is no truly critical writing usually turn out to be the same ones who don’t tend to read much.

13. Some claim that ‘the curatorial turn’ of the early 2000s caused a crisis in criticism by divesting critics of their power. However, we believe it freed criticism to be livelier and more inventive than ever before because that weight of power also reinforced orthodox ways of writing about art, as well as conventions of language, style and form. 

14. On the other hand, it’s much harder now to make a living as a writer. But, while writers may be stony broke, it is the society that does not support them that is truly impoverished.

15. Good art writing is as inventive and as interesting as the art that is being written about.

16. Jean-Philippe Obu Stevenson is the finest art critic frieze has ever published.

17. A suspicion of unearned privilege is a value we share as a team. So, too, is a general consensus about the importance of feminism and the rights of minorities. 

18. We also feel a passion for music, cinema, design and literature is crucial: there’s much to learn from and admire beyond the horizon of the fine arts. 

19. Editing a magazine over a long period of time means you become aware of how trends in art, books and music come and go. In the late 1990s, for instance, J-K. Huysmans’s symbolist novel À Rebours (Against Nature, 1884) was name-checked countless times in our pages by writers, while in the early 2000s you couldn’t move for seeing artworks depicting Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The sheer number of times La Jetée (The Jetty, 1962) has been cited by artists in these pages may have put us off ever watching another Chris Marker film again.

20. That said, there is nothing like the genuine enthusiasm of one artist or writer for another artist or writer. 

21. Artists are conversing with the past as much as they are with the future.

22. Sometimes, issues we had put together thinking they were merely a collection of articles on unrelated topics turned out to have a clear underlying theme. This reiterates our fallibility to ourselves.

23. Civil rights, just as much as artistic freedom of expression or the right to move and travel, are never to be taken for granted, anywhere in the world. They need to be defended today more than ever against the fear-mongering bullies of the ascendant Right. We mostly publish writing about art not politics (although the two often intertwine), but magazines also act as public forums and, when things really matter, we need to use this space to stand up and be counted.

24. An art world without diversity – or a world that does not honour it – is not one we want to be part of. To be an artist or a writer is to live in hope.

25. Art history is a work in progress; criticism is the daily labour of making it.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world. 

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.