Mark Amery’s Wednesday art review has just been cancelled by the Dominion Post. This leaves the major metropolitan newspaper in New Zealand’s ‘creative capital’ with no visual arts reviewer! I believe this will make the Dom Post unique in this regard, with all of the other metro papers running a healthy level of art criticism. How embarrassing for them.
While The Dominion Post continues to cover the visual arts with informative promotional pieces—and I’m not knocking this practise, especially as Photospace Gallery and some of its exhibiting artists have benefited significantly from the publicity—the loss of Amery’s column will leave a serious gap. As I mentioned in an introductory posting on this blog, the thing that is weakest in the triangle of artist-gallery-critic is the criticism. Artists need critics in order to give them objective, external feedback on their work, and the viewing public need critics to help them develop their personal opinions, tastes and insights into current exhibitions. With the recent demise of the NZ Journal of Photography, there is now a severe shortage of publishing outlets for criticism of photographic art, particularly in Wellington.
To clarify, galleries and artists send press releases to newspaper arts editors, who then sometimes decide to give editorial coverage. This usually involves a reporter interviewing the artist (and sometimes the gallery director or curator) and a photographer. It’s all great for publicising the show but it’s different to what a critic does. A critic will visit the exhibition, usually unannounced, look at the work, make some notes, do some research and come up with a piece of writing that is a mix of description, evaluation and personal opinion. This is done without input from the gallery or the artist. In my experience with Photospace gallery, there has been a high level of publicity-type journalism published, some it by the Dom Post, and it has all been much appreciated. Most of the exhibitions have enjoyed some degree of editorial coverage. Reviews, on the other hand, have been few and far between. A couple per year seems to be about it, unfortunately, and I don’t think many other private galleries have fared better.
Being an art critic in a country the size of NZ is, of course, fraught with hazards, the main one being that everyone knows everyone else. In the days of punk and new wave, (I hated that term) it was not unknown for a journalist to get the snot kicked out of him by fans of the band, or the band itself, for writing a bad review of a gig or record. I haven’t heard of anything like this lately, but having an opinion and publishing it can still make one unpopular. Mark Amery always wrote fairly, with balance and insight, and I don’t believe he could have seriously offended anyone. But he wasn’t afraid to give an opinion, to say what he thought. Reading Amery’s column, you always knew you’d read a review. Some other reviewers (I could name names…) seem to be able to waffle for 500 or 1000 words without actually saying anything. You end up confused as to what they actually think because they’re too wimpy to offer much more than mere description. Amery also avoided the tedium of academic-style writing, choosing not to use his column to showcase his vocabulary or a collection of post-modern catch phrases.
Mark Amery made a successful and vital contribution to the DomPost over five years, and the quality and insightfulness of his writing was at a level above most of his fellow columnists. He gave photography a fair suck of the sav too, being a photographer himself. I recall an interesting exhibition of his colour street photography at Bowen Galleries a few years ago. Perhaps The Listener or some other high quality arts-focussed publication will pick up his writing talent and run with it.
Last week Mark circulated an email to announce the cancellation of his column. The email contained quotes from the letter he received from his editor giving reasons for the decision. While that information is out there, I won’t repeat any of it because the email’s contents should really have been kept private. Still, I’m glad he sent it.
One thing he asked, and that I will repeat, is that you write to the editor of the Dominion Post and give your opinion about the axing of his column. This would be more useful than commenting here, but please feel free to do that also.
[Don't do this now! This is an old post. Mark Amery is still writing his visual arts column, albeit fortnightly rather than weekly.]
by james | 27 October, 2008