Thoughts on conflicts, the appearance of conflicts, etc..... « PREV | NEXT »: Collected Stories

November 13, 2010

Mr. Moon, for the Misbegotten (That'd Be Me)

No, it's not just Tom Moon's kind use of the reference, "Mr. Plagens" (something I'm not too often called, for reasons inherent in this comment), that draws me to me his very good, very thoughtful, very honest post. The issue he raises is a meaty one, albeit all but rendered moot by the blogosphere. (If Huey Long were around today, his famous speech might have to be reworked as, "Every man an online critic.")

In sum, being an artist never caused me any trouble as a critic, but being a critic caused me lots of foreseeable but endurable trouble as an artist. The art world in which I grew up--way smaller, way poorer, way more ingenuous than today's--had a tradition, and an ongoing practice, of artist-critics, from Selden Rodman to Robert Motherwell to Don Judd to a whole bunch of people in what was called the "Women's Movement" in the 1970s. Practically everybody worked two jobs--artist/teacher, artist/critic, artist/entrepreneur, or, the hardest row to hoe, artist/curator. True, hardly any staff critics for major dailies or popular magazines were known to be working artists (who knew what they did in their apartments in the dead of night?), but more often than not the authors of art-magazine reviews were also artists. Nobody ever said to me, officially or not, you shouldn't be a critic because you're an artist, too.

Newsweek (where I was staff art critic 1989 - 2003) didn't mind. In the first place, the contemporary art world was too fringe and too small (even after it got big in the 1980s)-- compared to movies, pop music and TV--to cause worry about a critic's double-tracking. Secondly, the shoalier waters were in books. David Gates, the very good fiction writer who was one of the two chief book critics during my time at the magazine, enjoyed the best agent (Binky Urban), the best editor (Gary Fisketjon) and the best publishing house (Knopf) and so had to recuse himself from reviewing any book that was a product of any of those entities. All of us in the Culture Section were expected to demur from covering the work of friends, which was especially difficult in the little Greek fishing village that was the mostly-New-York art world. But I managed. In short, the matter of critical conflict-of-interest was largely--and efficiently--self-policed.

Although nobody ever said to me outright, you shouldn't be an artist because you're also a critic, that cloud always hung in the air. Over the years, I was probably left out of a lot of anthology shows because the museums mounting them thought that'd look like they were currying favor from somebody who might review something else of theirs someday. (Or, worse, who would have to demur because of conflict-of-interest.) This was particularly true--I've always felt, with no hard evidence--when I was on staff at Newsweek. And I could hardly hustle my own painting to out-of-town dealers (my gallery in New York, Nancy Hoffman, has stuck by me since 1974), for the same reason. But this bed was made by me and I voluntarily, but not always happily, lay in it.

Administrators (a category which embraces editors) are always tempted to solve thorny issues with, to mix metaphors, a meat axe policy: "No one who writes music/art/dance/book/movie/etc. criticism for this publication will be allowed to create, and professionally cause to be put in front of an audience, music/art/dance/books/movies/etc." Easier said than done (e.g., you've got but one dance writer and the not-to-be-ignored performance was choreographed by her former ballet partner, so you're going to ignore the performance?), and then there are those matter-of-degrees (e.g., what if the choreographer were her sister's ex-husband, or had written the critic asking permission to produce an old piece the critic had choreographed herself in her pre-critic days?). A fetish for absolutely clean hands can lead to absurdities such as The New York Times (still, I gather) not allowing its critics to serve on prize juries. Best, I've always thought, to have a little chat in advance of a particular case, suss out the conflict, and proceed from there. In the end isn't the text, as the scholars say, the text, and should be judged accordingly?

Side note: I do disagree with the tone of Mr. Moon's reference to Keith Olbermann ("an MSNBC commentator helps fund political campaigns"). While MSNBC's rules about that were known to Mr. Olbermann, and while he was rightly slapped on the wrist, all the guy really did was contribute a couple of thou to some individual campaigns, something (small contributions) we're all usually encouraged to do in the interest of counteracting corporations' huge (and now, thanks to the Supreme Court, even more huge) money leverage in politics. And as if MSNBC isn't rather openly the Fox News of liberals. What, Olbermann shouldn't vote, either?

November 13, 2010 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)

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