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Critical i

The Dark Arts
by Jeff Jahn

refer to art criticism and curation as "The Dark Arts," but I'll dwell on the former here.

The main reason anyone even cares about art criticism is because the visual arts are so subjective that any outside claims for legitimacy and/or infamy are useful. Sure, getting a review is a bit like jumping into quicksand (the more you struggle its definitions the more you sink), but most artists want one at some point in their career.

Overall, my goal is to reward that which is rewarding and punish that which is punishing so, yes, being provoked is important. That said, don't write grandiose notes to a critic, it makes you look insecure, which is the kiss of death. Let's just say nobody wants to make a baby cry. Critics aren't mean (mostly) ... we care but, by placing limits on whom and what we care about, we stay sane and conveniently "critical."

So, what does it take to get a review? Well, I've made a study of my own habits and those of other critics and these tips might help:

1) Ubiquity: most art critics see so much work they become blasé. Many times the best way to get a review is to simply up the amount of chatter and sightings of your work. If a critic can't avoid your work they will be forced to contend with it. This might not lead to an article but several unavoidable instances will increase the likelihood.

2) Above all, do not play dumb even when being pretentious. If your art is obviously related to Titian and Bullwinkle cartoons and you are confronted by a critic about the issue, either take a pretentious stance and obfuscate the obvious or take on the issue with candor. To a certain point, a critic is looking at the work and artist, evaluating levels of insight and self-knowledge. An artist who is a master of all of his demons (or at least an intelligent custodian) will get a reviewer's attention. If an artist understands the context of their work within their life, it shows.

3) Meet the critic. Yes, this often backfires and I've often decided not to write about an artist because I've met them. Still, if they are intriguing I'll keep them in mind for coverage at a later date. I like to watch for a while and get a compass reading on an artist.

4) Execution of the show and work. I consider art exhibitions to be a form of phrenology and only the more serious artists can keep the level of a show consistently high. Most artists create at least one decent work in their lives; the better artists know why the work works. The best ones don't pander and reflexively challenge their methods for producing their better works.

5) Never waste anyone's time. If your show requires ridiculous amounts of text to explain its relevance, you may be a confused art writer who thinks they are an artist. Some statements are good but over-explaining and insecure obfuscation will tire the critic looking at (or should I say reading) your tedious show.

6) Never take anything personally. Critics worry about the mental health of people they encounter all the time and if you go gonzo it makes them doubly so. Calm people with a little restraint impress a critic, especially if the critic has already been critical of your work.

7) Let the critic have space. So a critic is at your show ... have the gallerist introduce you but give them a chance to survey the room before any extensive conversation. If they seem cagey, it may be that they are still processing and need some room.

8) All critics have their ticks; research them. Jerry Saltz likes to understand systems that produce complex yet organized activity, Peter Schjeldahl likes great art that inspires him to be the poet he never got to be and Matthew Collings likes anything that enhances his subjectivity as a travelogue of experiences.

Locally, D.K. Row likes photography and voyeuristic scenes; if you make that kind of work make certain he at least hears about it. I like minimalism, abstraction, civilization and physical space defining work ... let me know if you have a show of this sort of thing. It's a Pandora's Box, though; critics know a lot about what they like and will let you know if it isn't working. This is an opportunity and you don't have to agree but you should take anything offered as a concern to address. All artwork is viewed subjectively but the better stuff has fewer chinks in its armor ... that way, even an unfavorable review often becomes a litany of the show's success.

9) Just because you read what a critic writes, don't become confident you know how and what they think or like. Language creates a false familiarity.

10) If the show is very tight and well executed, you really don't matter; step aside and let the work speak.

11) Know that reviews are only important in clusters of consensus and act accordingly. Some critics try to be the first to review, others are reactionaries and like to be last. Good artists always get the last laugh and any decent critic knows this.

This isn't everything but it does affect how critics react to you and your work. The biggest thing is that the work, the show and your conduct have some sort of internal consistency. Reviewers often start there.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don't miss his recent columns, be sure to see his April 2002 essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism., and don't miss the art-blog, PORT.

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