BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 15 APR 07
Featured in
Issue 106

Critical Timing

Writing reviews is a complex business

BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 15 APR 07

Where might we look for an art magazine’s heart? Does it sit, like the human organ, just left of centre? Is it displayed on the sleeve? Such things are elusive and notoriously hard to capture, but I suspect that frieze’s heart beats somewhere near its back.

A typical issue of frieze includes 25 exhibition reviews, published in a separate section at the magazine’s rear end. Almost without exception, these are at least 750 words long. While a by-line nestles at the base of each review, no biographical information is given about the authors – whatever their status in the outside world, here their words are presented with equal weight. As with the review pages of other art magazines, frieze’s back section sometimes functions as an unofficial audition space for new critical voices. Non-writers might be forgiven for thinking this is a soft landing – surely 750 words are easier to wring out than a lengthy lead feature, and surely a single exhibition provides an imitable structure, a frame for one’s critique, that the diffuse stuff of an artistic practice does not? Me, I’m not so certain. Delivering a successful review demands much of a writer, not least that they interrogate what the criteria of ‘success’ might be. As auditions go (and even established critics are always auditioning, always stepping nervously onto the stage), it’s a tough prospect. You dance your dance in public, wearing home-made ballet pumps. No second take. No erase and rewind.

For all that it might seem obvious, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that the review occupies a very particular place in the spectrum of art writing. While the monographic magazine feature or catalogue essay may be assumed, with the odd exception, to be broadly affirmative (few journals expend large numbers of pages on art that they do not in some sense support, and still fewer commercial or public galleries knowingly publish texts that undermine their business interests or institutional authority), this is not necessarily true of the review. Here the gloves, or at least all bets, are off. No reader should be able to tell how a given show has been received by merely scanning the contents pages of a magazine. Reviews sections, at their best, offer up something rare and rather precious – a space in which art and curatorial practice may be assessed that’s insulated against the buzz of power, money and prior reputation, if not against the critic’s own flawed self.

If the review is about writerly freedom, it’s also about responsibility, not least to a magazine’s readership, to many of whom the reviewer is a necessary proxy, an ocular stunt double employed to see shows they’ll never themselves see. Most writers who have visited an exhibition with the purpose of reviewing it will have felt the flickering presence of the future reader at their elbow, chiding them not only to look and think harder, but to do so with an eye and mind that are not quite their own. This is more difficult than the dubious notion of critical objectivity assumes. While it’s clear that the reviewer cannot approach a show as a viewer in the casual, go-on-impress-me sense (criticism isn’t about whether a work of art rubs you up the right way), neither can they approach it as the viewer – that mythical composite of you, me and everyone we do and do not know. Caught up in the wobbly magnetic field generated by these two poles, they must develop a mode of address that is true to their subject matter, their readership and themselves – one that evokes the absent exhibition rather than merely describes it, and one that evaluates it in terms broader than those provided by personal preference or any one prêt-à-porter theoretical position. If anything still signals critical authority (and if we can still usefully employ that term), it may be the ability to do this.

To write a review – to write anything – is to compromise, and the first compromise is always forced by time. The frequency with which most art magazines are published means that the reviewer has a few weeks to shuffle their thoughts into words – a fresh insight or shift in perspective might arrive, unbidden, after their copy has been filed, but this is not a business that deals in ‘Director’s Cuts’. Space, too, in the form of a word-limit, has an effect: while it’s comparatively easy to parse every work in a small solo show, reviewing a large group show or biennial means presenting, at best, a partial account, and so a partial truth. Other (self)-limiting factors are more in the reviewer’s control – a knowledge gap can be plugged, a prejudice can be examined and lanced – but the most wakeful of them are always aware of the beautiful, maddening failure of their project, which is to say the failure of language in the face of anything but itself. And yet, if every review ever written is furred by time, space and the clumsiness of words, this is not something that is peculiar to the form. As with all writing, what matters here is honesty, along with the hope that one might communicate against the odds.

Exhibitions, unlike most art works, are transitory things, which eke out a second life through catalogue essays and documentary photography. What this material cannot capture, however, is how a show has worked on the uninvolved in a particular time and place. Given this, perhaps the most important function of exhibition reviews is to make solid the ephemeral stuff of reception, to write a history of attention, both to art and to the way it snags on the world and on the self. The reviews section of an art magazine is a strange, strained heart, sure, but it’s one that still throbs with life.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.