I have been to a few exhibitions recently that weren’t actually that great. A couple were absolutely awful, but the others? They just missed the mark. The problem (apart from the more general problems of exhibitions that miss the mark) was that everyone seemed overly invested in saying that everything was fantastic. It seems that after the effort of not only creating the work for an exhibition, but working with the venue, and installing and then promoting, it’s almost churlish to say that it doesn’t do the business for you. I’m not talking about amateur art, or Sunday painters’ clubs, but exhibitions in established venues by professional artists – and I came away from the last of these recently thinking that if we genuinely want to be taken as seriously on the international scene as (for example) the just-launched Dublin Contemporary would have us be, then we have to get a little more critical.
One of the problems is the lack of critical outlets, or rather the lack of outlets for criticality. When my architecture book (Space: architecture for art) was published a number of years ago, there were reviews both in the arts and architectural press and pages, and because of that increased space for comment, negative reviews (and there were some) were balanced by ‘good’ ones. When there’s only one or two voices, however, it begins to feel a little like early feminism – where you weren’t meant to diss the Sisters, because no one else was going to stand up for you. A bad review these days may be the only review you get, so the inclination is to be overly fair, and when all else fails you, just be descriptive. Another school of thought is that negativity should be expressed in a binary way – you only cover the good stuff, and the less good gets the ‘off’ switch and is ignored – but that method means that one of the roles and functions of criticism – as constructive commentary – is lost.
So here I am, writing on mediocrity and criticality, and subscribing to the same hesitations – I’m not able to bring myself to name the shows that I found so disappointing, I’m not going to identify the one that was so over-hung the works were compromised, or the one with such an portentious pretentiousness that I felt the need to decontaminate my brain after leaving… But what if the newspapers took art criticism seriously? If an Irish Times review could be read in context of a different considered opinion in the Indo, and another in the Examiner? If we had a level of debate between the pages (now online) of CIRCA and the Irish Arts Review? Then, I think, we could start to get stuck in – and we’d all be the better for it.