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Issue 100

Write On!

For the 100th issue of frieze the editors celebrate the pleasure and pain of criticism 

BY Dan Fox, Jörg Heiser, Jennifer Higgie AND James Trainor in Opinion | 07 JUN 06

Dan Fox: I’m often surprised at how many non-writers assume that writing is as straightforward as speaking. Whenever some pub bore implies the ink-slinger’s life is spent on Easy Street, I ask him to imagine how he’d feel if he knew that what he was saying was going to be distributed across half the globe to X thousand people and could not be retracted. Writing is a weighty business, not least when it comes to producing one of these: an editorial.

Until about 18 months ago frieze had never had one. A magazine carries many voices, yet because these opinions also have physicality – pages bound together and unified by an overall design – they are often mistakenly regarded as a singular entity. (Hence, ‘that article is sooo frieze’.) Writing an editorial is akin to being picked to represent your class on school sports day; you’re a hero if you get it right, but no one will speak to you if you mess it up. No matter what drivel people may louchely proclaim about how they never read art magazines (usually the first to complain when anything negative is said about them in – yes – art magazines), regular commentary in print about art and cultural production is a serious endeavour. Published eight times a year, frieze lurks on the shelves for a month or two at a time. Its frequency means that the currency of an editorial lies in the balance between urgent topicality and a measured distance, all the while trying to avoid sounding platitudinous. How do you write with your nose both up against the coal-face and ten miles away from it? And if there is a supposed ‘crisis in criticism’, why have the last few years seen such a mountainous proliferation of art-related printed matter?

James Trainor: Gosh, that’s sooo frieze of you, Dan! I think that the proliferation of art-related ink-slinging is just one indicator of the mountainous proliferation of absolutely everything; of art education, making, selling, distribution, interpretation, reception, consumption – the whole ramped-up machinery of cultural production that makes the publishing division of the art world of 30 years ago look as quaintly off-register as a mimeograph machine. Back in 1985, when David Byrne of Talking Heads warbled about how in the future there would be too much happening for anyone to keep track of it all, it seemed like a funny pop dystopian fancy. Now it sounds like gross understatement. As far as art-related writing goes, the Internet has been the great democratizer of opinion, although the same technologies have elsewhere truncated attention spans and fostered a glut of blogospherical blather, gossip masquerading as content. (I’m always amused by Amazon’s perky question ‘Do you want to be the first to review this book?’) Are consumer-rated art reviews far behind? That’s why I see an arcane notion such as the editorial page as an oasis. For me the model for the ur-editorial will always be the pre-Tina Brown, anonymously penned ‘Talk of the Town’ in The New Yorker because it was like having a friend whose opinions you respect even if you don’t always agree with them. It was never platitudinous or unkind and was always shrewd enough to suggest the Zeitgeist without over-defining it. When asked why he wrote, Paul Auster used to answer that if you kept a pencil in your coat pocket long enough, sooner or later you’d be tempted to use it. That’s how I feel about the blank slate responsibility of the editorial. If you decide to set aside a page devoted to sharing a conviction, a hunch or a suspicion, you are more than likely going to use it. Hopefully wisely.

Jörg Heiser: The conviction, the hunch and the suspicion of many is that written criticism is a mixture of envy and vanity – people promoting their competitive little agendas. One of the reasons The New Yorker – or the news weekly Der Spiegel in Germany – published anonymously penned opinion was to counter such assumptions for the sake of the authority of the whole title. One of the reasons both titles eventually introduced by-lines was that they allow readers to hold distinct individuals accountable for their opinions. And the point really is that even amid the stickiest kind of vanity, envy and anxiety any critic who deserves attention is concerned with accountability. That means not only getting the facts right but also allowing the assumptions on which an argument is based to be constantly checked. It is the demand for accountability – that what one writes has a verifiable relation to reality – that sometimes makes writing hell to go through (am I fair, am I really getting it right?). Some writers, however – here I express a fervent hope – who for whatever reason do promote their competitive little agendas of sucking up to something by denigrating something else, will eventually get sucked up too.

Jennifer Higgie: I agree and empathize with all of the above. (An argument for the frieze voice perhaps?) Dan’s irritation about the pub bore’s assumption that writers live on Easy Street (ha! – how many non-writers know the feeling when you’ve been writing for eight hours and have 200 words LESS than you did that morning?) is one that strikes a particular chord; it reminds me of Thomas Mann observing that ‘a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. James’ description of The New Yorker as a friend whose opinions you respect even if you don’t always agree with them, is surely something we all humbly aspire to here at frieze. However, it is Jörg’s pithy take on the necessary hell of accountability that I empathize with most deeply, as must any writer, however experienced, who has felt a little faint when the freshly minted magazine arrives on your doorstop and you turn, with trembling hand, to the piece you wrote so alone and so late at night and which you now see in the harsh light of day. This fear of exposure is the paradox every writer suffers from: writing is an intensely private activity that needs a public.

This is frieze’s 100th issue; for the past 15 years some of the finest writers on art and contemporary culture working today have permitted us to print their opinions, irritations, loves, loathings and flights of fancy. They have reflected on, clarified, analysed, praised and persecuted the work of hundreds of artists, musicians, theorists and historians – and without them we would not have a magazine. If this issue is dedicated to anyone, it must surely be to them. Dan Fox is associate editor, Jörg Heiser and Jennifer Higgie are co-editors and James Trainor is US editor of frieze.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).

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

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. 

James Trainor was US editor of frieze between 2004–07