The truth is, I’m bored by all the ways I hate art criticism – its pitfalls are too obvious to want to hash out, the result of structural problems so grindingly oppressive they’re not even interesting to think through. Having landed there, in a conceptual move of aggressive masochism, I decided to double down and subscribed to as many art publications from around the world as I could (just shy of 30) for 2021, trying to force myself into thinking something new. After reading all of it for a year, I thought, maybe I’d hate art criticism more definitively, but at least I’d hate it differently. Maybe it would be a grand gesture to finally stop engaging it as a field. Five months in, no conclusions yet, but so far the process has led me to a number of books by critics of my generation, including Amy Fung’s Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, which came out in 2019. I equally loved and hated the title and all it promised, but in a way that was exciting, like connecting the positive and negative charges of a car battery with jumper cables. From its cinematic opening of the author dodging racial slurs in the Scottish countryside, I was hooked and read it straight through. In both its discursive narration and open-ended polemic, the book embodies its own rallying cry for an art of complexity: “Complexities do not need another simplified breakdown. Criticality is harder to market, often reserved for academics with specialized language, but criticality is actually the moment when we begin to be a little more honest with ourselves and each other.” Fung’s book of intellectually and emotionally-connected vignettes is not only a brilliant work of art writing, but also the kind of art writing that feels necessary to it having any sort of future. I knew I wanted to talk with her about it, the specific dynamics within art criticism, and her own (so-far failed) attempts to quit “the art world,” which she compares at one point in her book, unfavorably, to a Kinko’s office Christmas party, “but way worse, because these people believe.”
– Jarrett Earnest
There was a paragraph in your book that really struck me, where you talked about your transition from doing the freelance art critic hustle to writing longer-form pieces – that “sound bites and hot takes cannot hold all that remains invisible and present in the world” – and from there you go on to talk about really wanting complexity and that we need that kind of complexity in order to be honest. I want to know more about that journey. What were the kinds of pieces that you felt were impossible within the space of art criticism, and then how did you get toward visualizing this form as a book?
Amy Fung: I had at that point been freelance writing since 2002, so I guess that would be like 15 years or something. You know, through this entire time, print publishing really changed quite a bit. It really regressed in major ways with the rise of online publishing and a lot of places were simply not prepared. When I started writing at like 12 cents-a-word for weeklies, they had not changed the pay scale for decades and didn’t even have an online archive. As a baby journo, I had imagined, ‘oh yes, one day I’ll make it to $1 or $2 per word’, but who knew at that point publishing was actually going bankrupt and going out of business.
And at this point, all the weeklies I had written for are now all folded, right? Even most of the magazines I’ve written for have since folded. And so, with that decline, what was happening on a minute scale was that word count has been slowly decreasing, and there was pressure to write for an even wider audience. There was a general decline in specialization. All this was happening over the first decade of my career and as a writer you’re like ‘okay’, shoulder shrug, what else can I do? I had a lot of existential questions like, ‘who am I writing for’ and ‘why am I even doing this?’ ‘Was this the kind of writing I even wanted to do?’ And looking back, if I had to ask these questions, it probably meant I was pretty lost.
What kept me in it at that point was that I did believe a lot of the art I was seeing was giving me an education I would not have received otherwise in formal channels. There was a real disconnect in what I was taught and what I knew, and I was hungry for what I could learn from those informal channels, be it studio visits that led to discussions about land rights or identity politics, all of these subjects were not really talked about in the overwhelmingly white environment of universities and galleries in Edmonton or even Vancouver. And so, yeah, to get back to your question of transitioning away from hot takes, I wanted to get into what the art was really trying to say. I was trying to have a conversation with it, because that’s what I think art criticism is. You have to converse with the work, but you need more than 400 words to do that.
For years, I was very aware of the pressure from artists just to get written about, to get that byline up on their CV. Early on in my career I would get cornered by artists and even gallery directors about why I didn’t write this or why I wrote that. I was made to feel like I was in service to them, but I didn’t want to be this functional cog in this system, so I stepped back from actively writing, but eventually I missed it. The gap gave me some perspective though. I started writing these non-traditional art review pieces which were … they were kind of funny. They were stories I was writing around or about moments and encounters with art and artists and how I fit in and playing with the form a little bit, playing with the language. You have to understand I started my art writing with a blog and then with these weeklies, so I wasn’t going for permanence and I always resisted the solidity of a book. I was always more interested in documenting something fleeting. The status of a book was the last thing on my mind.
First of all, it’s so similar to where I feel in my own relationship to writing, where it’s like, in order to get to any kind of complicated understanding of a thing, which will never be a definitive understanding of it, it needs more space for indirectness to … to move. And one of the things I loved about your writing and the way that each of the chapters in the book work together, is that they never resolve each other, and they never conclude. There are no takeaway points, you know. In a way the book is very polemical, but it also felt to me that it was aspiring toward that kind of complexity that life has, that can hold these kinds of experiences together which certainly inflect each other but they don’t explain one another in a direct way. I would just want to hear more about how you conceptualize that for yourself in the work of writing.
Yeah, I get called polemical a lot, if you can believe it. [laughs] If you’ve worked with any number of editors, you know they want a certain type of copy, right. And often it does involve an arc towards some kind of digestible conclusion, you know, point A goes to point B so we get to point C. And for me, I don’t want someone to read a review and feel like they know everything they need to about the work. A piece of writing should just be one of many entry points into a complex idea, right?
So, when I began writing the book, I thought I was going to do a series of interviews. But, as you know, when you interview someone, there’s a certain kind of structure and maybe even hesitancy, kind of a filter that’s already imbued in this process. Instead, I thought I was going to try and center these moments that have stuck with me over the last, whatever, 10 or 15 years. When I finally started writing and had a few chapters down, I couldn’t see the structure whatsoever. I think this is a common fallacy that writers will just chart out how they are going to write a book and then it just happens. It totally began inside out and outside in and the form came in at the eleventh hour. In the end, the book is just chronological. It was always there. It didn’t have to be complicated. I mean, I definitely tried to complicate it by organizing it first geographically or then thematically, but one of my readers, author Alex Leslie, simply said chronology tells you a story. And as you have already said, there are no resolvable answers. There are no easy answers to what I am trying to ask. They are ongoing, they are lifelong questions. So, I want to trace them as I grew and as I developed as a person and that development happened to also cover a wide geographic space across what is known as Canada through various positions and opportunities I’ve had the privilege to hold.
One of the things I would be curious about, because it’s been two years since this book has come out and wondering in a kind of structural way or almost diagnostic way, what the reception of it has been within the concentric rings of the art worlds that you inhabit? I say this because I think that your book is a very generous book, and that’s one of the things that really drew me to it. But I also know that you can never underestimate the pettiness of people in the art world.[laughs]
And yeah, so as I was reading it, not knowing the people that you’re describing, but knowing that many people would recognize them, I thought, ‘ooh, I wonder how this is going to land’
I mean I haven’t heard anything bad about it.
Obviously, I think, before the book came out, a lot of rumors were circulating because in Canada we get a lot of art funding, and this book was one of like 200 projects that was funded through this like big grant that Canada had put out for its 150th. And so, there was a lot of awareness within the art community that this was one of the projects. I think from what I heard some people really assumed I was writing a tell-all gossip book about the art world, but like, that would be pretty boring in Canada.
But yeah, I think because Canada is very repressed, people don’t really talk about class or race in ways that are honest. I think people were worried that they were going to be implied in some sort of guilty gotcha or whatever, but that’s on them to think I would care enough to write about them. I don’t think the book really throws anyone under the bus in any way. I think I’m really writing about myself and how I’m navigating all of this. But I know that this triangulation of communication happens within certain art circles. I hear so and so shared a passage trying to be scandalous, but I’m the one putting it out there in a book. There’s this assumption that I’m out to get people, but I’m like no, I tried reaching out to everyone that had a speaking part in the book, and not everyone replied or was interested. I think there’s also just people who really think the worst of each other, which is the most disarming part.
Well, exactly to that point, one thing that I really advocate for and also aspire to in my own work is an understanding that we bring our whole selves to whatever we experience as a work of art, like all the parts of our lives and our backgrounds and it’s so strange the way that those experiences are supposed to be filtered out into very narrow kinds of things, like only certain kinds of information is usually allowed to be permissible or relevant within the space of a piece of art writing. And I felt like you created this very wide field of your experience as a human being, that is just like the story of a mind and a heart and a person who has a particular family background and race and class background and gender background or position, coming to terms with life as you’re living it. Which is what I think art is about.
Ta-da! Yes, because you know, here I am writing this book about literally everything in my life, which includes art, but it also includes where I’m from and stories about my mother amongst other things. And most people, peers, friends in the art world, just had no idea, because supposedly as a critic I was just here to give you critical feedback or whatever you think my job is limited to be. But a lot of people I’ve worked with and written about have never really engaged with me and that’s so weird because you’re asking me to write about and critique your work. Don’t you want to know how I actually see the world, who I am? Don’t you think those things are connected? Or does that lack of engagement just mean they think the critic is some kind of “neutral” stamp of approval?
But none of those things are like a given, within art writing. You know, to me, at least from my view of art criticism, it’s a very hard-fought position in order to claim for yourself.
Well, I think your book is kind of an analysis of why that is. But I’m wondering about how you see this in relation to what writing about art is or could be, or is this just like a doomed endeavor? Should we all just fold up shop?
I think the shops are folding upon us already, around us.
Like in Canada right now, Canadian Art was the longest running art magazine in this country. It just announced a “pause,” which may be temporary, but it may not be. I still remember when Fuse folded. And before that, PARACHUTE. And this is just in the last decade or so. But the problem I have with the current premise or the false analogy that art criticism is dead is because this suggests there has been a lack of critics, which is simply not true. There has always been writers capable of thoughtful criticism from a wide array of viewpoints, it’s just that no one wants to pay for it. And if there’s not a lot of interest in sustaining criticism on a material level, then that is really what limits who gets to write it, let alone who can access it.
I know that you said that you were pursuing a PhD, and I’m wondering what forms of writing about, or thinking with, art might be of interest to you in the future.
I have really tried to step away from art during this time when I can just focus on my degree that has very little, if anything, to do with art. I keep getting pulled back into the art world a little bit here and there, but it’s also like going back to a bad relationship. It’s like, I left this for a reason, I don’t feel good when I’m here, I don’t enjoy these petty dynamics. For now, I’ve been happy to write a piece here and there, but it’s getting less and less frequent.
Mhm. Well, I’m wondering because even in the past few years, the discourses around the way that identity gets talked about in the art world have shifted in various ways or, I mean, maybe they haven’t enough actually, but I was really into the section of your book where you were talking about seeing the Witnesses exhibition. And I’ll read this line, where you wrote: “I thought the show could very well be great but wish there was support for a spectrum of criticism and responses, especially around identity-based exhibitions. Art magazines which are predominantly run by white editors and publishers don’t have a lot of guts when it comes to talking about racial nuance.” I just wanted to underscore that and ask you about it because it’s something that I’ve heard echoed by a number of my friends who happen to be artists of color, and a number of my friends who are critics which is like, where is the complexity within this space that isn’t just affirmation?
I’m sure it’s nice to have your work acknowledged by press, but if the discourse around your work is just fueled by white guilt, that’s still a slap in the face, in my opinion. If you’re not willing to engage with the work as a work of art, that you still see it first as a minority work and therefore will only engage superficially or paternalistically, then yeah I think that’s a problem. But the thing with complexity is no one wants to be that guy. No one wants to be the one to say it aloud or be proven wrong in a public way. It’s part of the hypocrisy where everyone wants criticism, but just not about themselves or their friends, or even their friends’ friends …
Like, there are people active in the art world and the academy from curators or directors who refuse to admit or allow themselves to ever be publicly wrong. They will only back who they know and some are even afraid to do land acknowledgments or pronounce non-English names because they are so afraid to do something incorrectly they’re just not going to do it at all. And to me that’s a really fucked up logic because it’s not about you as an individual, right? It’s about trying to build better relationships. If you’re wrong, then just admit you were wrong. Apologize and try to do better.
Yeah, how hard is that?
Maybe the stakes are too high in this era of cancel culture, but I don’t know what this power-play is of standing your ground when you’re dead wrong, but it goes on and on and on. I see it again and again where people with the tiniest bit of power will not apologize or admit they were wrong. I’m always reminded of what curator Kim Nguyen says, that ‘legacy is for losers’.
One of the chapters that I loved was when you just acknowledge the struggle of trying to get people to talk about class, as it intersects race in the art world because that is, you know, a consistent, shocking erasure. I’ve also felt it especially in conversations around queerness. And there’s a chapter where you talk about a relationship. And I just wonder what it was about the discourses of queerness or your experiences of queerness that didn’t rise to the level of an interpretive frame as within this book project as the other things that you foregrounded?
Hmm, yeah, you’re right that this book is not explicitly queer, but I think the book is informed by a certain kind of queer methodology overall, like the ethics of care and community are underpinning a lot of things in terms of how the book was edited. But I only talk about one major queer relationship because I think its ending was kind of happening at the same time as the writing process and I couldn’t disentangle it. She deserves credit for pushing me to write the book in the first place, and she did read an early draft, but even our queerness doesn’t really foreground that chapter. It’s just there. I was really just trying to work out some of the questions and tensions I had around who was having antiracist conversations in public spaces and how do we have them privately? I think that was probably why I included that chapter, to kind of illustrate that there are these major disjunctures between who we say we are and what we actually are in our day to day existence. So while it’s not overtly queer, I think it’s still pretty gay. It “passes,” but honestly, I also probably pass as straight to everyone, except lesbians. So, I don’t know how queerness fits into it all. I’m just trying to examine myself.
Right, truth is a big thing in your book, or honesty. You really want it to be honest. And is that what you’re responding to, what you describe as Canada as a deeply dishonest society?
Yeah, I mean, what’s the word I’m looking for? Not in doubt, but when you’re not admitting to what’s happening?
Yeah, when you’re in deep denial about foundational roots … like Canada definitely used slave labor, but many historians and politicians deny it to this day. The state passive-aggressively pursued genocidal strategies against Indigenous peoples instead of outright war like America, so it thinks itself morally superior. It had very insidiously exclusionary immigration policies that followed step in step with America targeting racial minorities, but it now thinks itself so much more tolerant and ‘multicultural’. It’s not so much ignorance as revisionism. I see it as a place that is unable to reconcile with itself and its own violent histories. And I think that really carries over into the cultural imaginary, what we think this place is supposed to be, when it’s been incredibly violent. But because the myths of peacekeeping and multiculturalism, Trudeau self-identifying as a feminist and certainly sitting next to Trump’s America these past four years made us believe even more that we are a super progressive, tolerant society.
But it’s all so gross as this liberal side stepping of responsibilities for the appearance of progress or allyship is something that is also very prominent in the art world, where institutions will issue solidarity statements until they’re blue in the face, but will not change a single thing structurally about how they operate. Artists are supposedly more radical or counter-cultural to the dominant mainstream narrative, but what I really see these days is how art reinforces the dominant narrative in this neoliberal way of how art circulates and who holds the power to speak and for whom. I know that’s a very cynical perspective to take. I know some people are just trying to live, but trying to contort yourself into a system that has a hard time imagining you as human is not a battle I want to be involved with anymore.
So, have you formally submitted your art writer resignation?
I keep trying to, but no one cares enough to process the paperwork. [laughter]
There was a very loving portrait of the ethos of the prairies in your book, which I loved. Maybe as a way toward concluding, I think, we’ve talked about maybe a negative interpretation of the state of the art world or of art writing and in some ways your book is a kind of story of disillusionment with writing about art or at least participating in art in a particular way, which I have huge fondness for as a project. But in a more optimistic way, I’m wondering what does art mean to you at this moment? What does it seem like it makes available or that you would want to engage in, it’s in his best form?[sighs] In its most idealist way, I think it could be connection, but I think that requires an understanding that it doesn’t have to belong in a gallery or be validated by art professionals. And I know that that really upsets or makes uncomfortable what art is. I don’t know that art needs to be this tangible object or even experience that has to be drawn under specific boundaries, because it’s convenient I guess to know when the art is happening or where to see it. But now more than ever, no one I know is going to any galleries or spaces for new encounters and conversations, but we still need that kind of connection and to engage in perspectives beyond ourselves.
Can I ask you a question?
What keeps you in the art world?
It’s funny, because I don’t really think I am in “the art world.” I don’t really know art dealers or art consultants or collectors – the personal-professional apparatus that the term signifies. The people that I’m really close to are artists and writers, and we have these sets of connections and conversations that evolve. I believe, like you said, anyone can write about art any way they want. And I had to realize that I only want to write about people I know really well, and I want to work on it for a long time. That makes my writing come out of living my life, in a direct and layered way. It also keeps me accountable to those people that I’m writing about, with, and for. It’s the way that I’ve been able to connect to something like the humanity of art writing. I see what I do as “human” work.
I think you just had a show open, and didn’t your art critic book come out through Zwirner? You know, those are decisions, right?
Right, right, right.
Well, I’m curious to know why you still believe in art, as someone who doesn’t anymore really.
I love that you’re asking me this. I think part of it is that we get to choose what it is we attend to, and the ways in which we attend to it. And I just don’t take any of that other “art \world” stuff very seriously or personally. What I take seriously and personally are art, ideas, and the people that I believe in, and love. And some of those people will make a painting that can be sold for a million dollars. Many artists I admire cannot make $1 selling their art. And to me, between those two artists in my life, there’s not a hierarchy at the level of art, and that is how I attend to them. I’m interested in other forms of value than financial. And in fact, I know that my position is a contradiction. I mean my actual position in the “art world.” But the truth is, as far as I’ve experienced, there is no “the art world,” you know, there’s lots and lots and lots of different groups of people who are friends, and then there’s this myth of this monolith that is the thing that we’re supposed to be part of called the art world. And I think that’s why I liked your book so much, it is such a beautiful portrait of the worlds in which you inhabit and intersect and move through in a very fluid way.
Hmm. Yeah, I’m not asking for you to convince me or anything, but I guess I get curious because, part of me doesn’t want to abandon it entirely, but at this point I don’t see how I can stay in it. So I am always curious to know, to talk to those who still believe in it so hard because I want to know what you could possibly see in it.
But here’s the thing, I think that that doubt is a part of it. I think that that level of dissatisfaction and disbelief is healthy, necessary, maybe even a prerequisite for writing or making …
Yeah … or maybe I’m really over it.