“How to Lie About Canadian Art”: A Case Study in Art Criticism

John Baldessari, "I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art," 1971. Image courtesy of NSCAD University Permanent Collection.
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Art criticism doesn’t often speculate on the value of pithy maxims such as ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But when an article by a noted art critic was recently published by a national broadcaster, and didn’t merit re-posting by the two major institutions under review, it suggests that the truth in this truism is up for debate.

A new initiative on Canadian art history launched by CBC, Canada’s state-owned media conglomerate, provides the context. Many art followers are paying attention to this development, perhaps initially curious to see if the format would mirror the popular documentary series Art 21, or re-divine the BBC’s “Art Nun” and critic, Sister Wendy Becket. The reality is very different. “How To Lie About Canadian Art … guides to faking your way through discussions of Canadian art history” featured in its premiere a range of perspectives, mostly humorous, from self-deprecation to insider jokes and the Emperor’s New Clothes. What needs to be determined is can this format add critical value to art history?

Writer RM Vaughan opens the series through the lens of The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968-1978, an exhibition exploring connections between Conceptual art and one of Canada’s most renowned art schools, NSCAD. Curated by David Diviney at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS), there’s over one-hundred objects in various media by more than sixty artists including Lucy Lippard, Michael Snow, Jenny Holzer, John Baldessari, Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, and Joyce Wieland. The roster conveys a project of national and international import. Vaughan was content to reference the exhibition without visiting the gallery, however, deliberately deploying a conceptual framework of his own, one akin to an online flâneur.

This strategy did not sit well with some luminaries, many publically agitating at this form of art joke. But Vaughan’s tactic could be seen as a meta-critique, one mirroring his 2006 review “Antwerp Diary,” published in Canadian Art, in which he penned a diaristic travelogue to deliver a harsh review of contemporary art from Vancouver. In this earlier scenario, then-Canadian Art editor Richard Rhodes flew Vaughan to Europe, knowing the author’s prejudices would spark discussion, and published a feature that spent little time analyzing the art. The ensuing firestorm required the magazine to open a letter’s column (short-lived) commencing with Reid Shier wondering how such “spiteful vindictiveness would meet the editorial standard.” Meanwhile Vancouver Art Gallery curator Bruce Grenville noted the “very dismal article,” saying he “would have welcomed some insight and critical analysis.” In this regard there’s a parallel to CBC’s recent feature, as it also skirts discussion of the art. As cut-and-paste images abound, Vaughan is arguably also creating a catalogue of meta-critiques.

Similar to the previous outcry, Vaughan’s recent approach to “lying about Canadian art” results in a heated outpouring via CBC’s online comments section. AA Bronson asks, “RM Vaughan, you are a good writer when you put your mind to it. Why this piece of silly fluff?” Jeffrey Spalding opines: “The gift of humor is an art; some can tell a joke, others can’t … It occurred to me also that the CBC decision to go along with the spoof was an opportunity lost.” And Ann-Barbara Graff, Vice-President (Academic & Research), expressed to me through a dialogue with NSCAD University, her “belief that art has an ethical function. Therefore, I dispute the premise that lying is central to the enterprise of art-making or art criticism. While there are pretenders in any enterprise, Conceptual art is not about fooling people.” Yet in this instance, there’s good reason to see why some people feel duped.

Vaughan’s opening pitch, revolving around the supposed cachet of shoulder-rubbing with artists, social mobility, and navigating art lingo, is punctuated with a large pull quote, “The exhibition contains too many ‘didactic interruptions’ and more ‘archival resources’ than necessary. This is the smart way of saying there is too much to read alongside the art.” Funny? Sure. However, in our conversation, Diviney asserts that the AGNS presents this exhibition partially salon-style, and that the overall design is not excessively laden with interpretive interruptions. In an email interview with David Morris, CBC Senior Producer, Digital, he demurred from answering questions seeking attribution for the quote or who at CBC undertakes fact-checking, instead noting that “humour is a key part of both the artworld and Canadian culture, and our ability to poke fun at even the things we love and cherish is one of our best qualities as a nation.” Perhaps so, but the facts surrounding CBC’s approach point toward a critical conundrum of fact versus fiction.

To evaluate this, it’s important to recognize that the series appears under the CBC Arts masthead. Morris also indicates a raison d’être via email, in that he hired a “noted Canadian (and currently Berlin-based) art critic” to deliver a “tongue-in-cheek take on discussions about art, seen through the lens of an exhibit focusing on an important period in Canadian art history.” This scenario indicates the publisher contextualizes Vaughan’s article, and the new series on lying about art, as art, distinguishing the article from literature or entertainment, or, in the context of literary or “gonzo” journalism, where readers may better anticipate writers toying with history and taking liberties with the truth. So if lying and humor are valid strategies for CBC’s artful series, what precedents exist and how does this fit within a certain history?

Delivering a blow to the ivory-towered world of high art like Conceptualism dovetails as part of a droll, even legitimizing tactic for those who regard art history’s esotericism with derision – or more generally, as a democratizing tactic for those seeking to explain it. Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) set a benchmark for exposing artworld structures. Wolfe’s elegant wit and slick turn of phrase (famously linking Bohos to SoHo), replete with a description of the art-mating dance, is widely acclaimed. His poetics unpack artworld exchange mechanisms, invoking values and ethics in relation to social hierarchies and castes. Likewise, Ralph Rugoff’s Circus Americana (1995), Pablo Helguera’s Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2007), or I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette from Paper Monument (2009) provide us with exemplars of parsing and contesting the status quo, but also discerning alternate means of establishing value.

More specifically, Wolfe and Helguera link art and capital in a way that Diedrich Diederichsen has written about as Mehrwert – the added value derived from the “special object character” of art — or surplus value unique to contemporary art. This structure assesses and assigns values – capital, artistic, cultural, and social – in a system of “commodity form” and “auras” associated with art objects. These examples speak to the imperative of empirical engagement with art, which, aside from Vaughan’s strategy of selective avoidance, is something increasingly under threat. A case in point is Orit Gat highlighting, in her recent Momus article “Any Plans After the Exhibition,” that “one of the main ways we see art today is in a small square on a screen.” Like Gat, I don’t advocate for remote consumption of art. Settling for a distant send-up and collateral damage as surplus value may be handy for a quick guide to lying about art history, but some people will inevitably prefer more than superficial sacrifices on the altar of ego.

In this sense, like Spalding, I tend to think that an opportunity was lost. After the Group of Seven and Les Automatistes, NSCAD’s fostering of Conceptual art could be argued as only the third time that art in Canada achieved lasting recognition internationally (I’m aware there’s more, particularly since). Diviney could recall only two other art schools on which the book publisher, MIT Press, has published: the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. This clearly suggests content of value, yet neither the AGNS nor NSCAD wished to share the publicity afforded by Vaughan’s article. Aside from these institutions likely taking umbrage, perhaps the answer is simply Morris’s observation that “art and humour share the quality of being not to everyone’s taste.” True enough, but I find such a response as little more than an alibi for skirting and negating a rich history of humor paralleling artworld strategies.

By this I do not mean just parody, upon which the initial CBC guide to “faking your way through discussions of Canadian art history” is heavily reliant. Instead there is room for a more rigorous investigation of systems that consciously engage with tongue-in-cheek conceit and self-reflexive critique, to advance a new agenda. References to the fields of visual art and art history, hinging on humor and satire, were cited in Vaughan’s comical takedown with his invocation of Quentin Crisp’s “manners are not morality,” followed by a critique of “Modernism’s sub-agenda of heteronormative power (re)assertion.” But beyond this there is a whiff of overdependence on author-as-stand-up-raconteur. This is not to underestimate the value of iconoclasm, a role Vaughan seems to relish here; but only time will tell if we have a corollary to lowbrow art criticism or Stuckism in the making.

This debate draws attention to the pitfalls of underselling critical value. As John O’Brian reminds us (responding to Vaughan’s “Antwerp Diary”), “getting away with murder in writing about contemporary art has always been easy. (Only in the field of political writing are the standards lower).” So if the CBC settles for “lying” to portray art history as inaccessible or elitist, what does this convey about the positive values that art can bring to its audience? Does there really have to be self-deprecation of an entire system? And while we’re at it, what entitles the same author to write what is purportedly valid criticism one day, and then launch into taste-based mockery the next? Ah yes, fibbing and quipping.

8 Comments

  • Earl Miller says:

    Excellent follow-up to a disappointing “review” by RM Vaughan.

    That said, I would like to point out that to my knowledge there has yet to be a well-disseminated review of the exhibition by a critic who actually saw that show.

    I’m not sure if that is in MOMUS’s mandate; however, I’d love to see it somewhere.

  • Robert Dayton says:

    The CBC isn’t exactly known for being funny when they attempt humour.

  • Eva Lewarne says:

    R M Vaughan is brilliant in exposing the Emperor having no clothes…

    It is about time we saw art history as having been written by an elitist group for another elitist group and being very insular…

    It is only at the international level that the real art will emerge that will last…

    R M Vaughan is correct in saying that canada has taken a classist and racist approach to critiquing and supporting art, namely all the wealthy sticking together in their opinion and supporting each other…

  • K.I.A. says:

    Also, what no one seems to have addressed, but I think is perhaps a factor in the lack of a “yet to be a well-disseminated review”: economics. Did the AGNS fly in a few writers? If not, why not? (The remuneration from a paper/magazine for writing an article wouldn’t cover the cost of transportation, lodging, etc…)

    Here’s a question to the critics: Why haven’t you written about it either?

    (Honest question, not adversarial, asked because it addresses wider issues: the need to put more money behind the business of promoting Canadian art both here and abroad; as well as the death of print journalism — esp. the shrinkage of arts sections and reviews — due to budgetary restraints.)

  • Gabby Moser says:

    So pleased to see a thoughtful critique of this text that avoids dismissing the essay, and Vaughn, outright. I also think Averns hits the nail on the head when he writes “there is a whiff of overdependence on author-as-stand-up-raconteur.” Art criticism that is in fact about the art critic, and not the art, gets tiring very quickly.

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