Feature Articles

February Issue 2003

A View from Down Under
on The Garden of Art Delights?

by Judith McGrath

Last November I reviewed, for the local street paper, a Big Corporation's second annual 'open' Acquisition Exhibition that carried a $15,000 prize. I viewed the flawless works and wrote about what I saw; a blatant bias toward a certain style as practiced by a select few. The exhibition was an insult to all those fine artists who entered but were overlooked during the selection process. I could not let this pass a second time without comment.

The day after the paper hit the street I was phoned by one of the exhibition organizers demanding a 'please explain' while the editor received an e-mail from the venue's manager saying I didn't understand the process. At a function that weekend, two participants in the Big Corp's exhibition snubbed me. The art establishment was attacking my reputation as a freelance writer. But my credibility was restored when two (important) critics in separate (proper) papers echoed my opinions, albeit in a softer manner.

So why do art critics and writers do it, tell the truth? And why do independent art publications with minimal revenue publish a paper no one in the establishment admits to reading? One can only suppose it's because we are gardeners at heart. Allow me to explain.

My neighbour Mrs. Todd is a keen gardener. Even those who don't know her respect her because she diligently tends her garden, which is a work of art all can appreciate. She's no sweet little old lady who talks to her flowers; she's tall, leather skinned and methodically tends to her plants. She'll feed, water and prune where needed, watch the healthy, nurture the weak, find and kill the weed in an effort to maintain an overall balanced garden. Isn't that exactly what critics, writers and independent publications do in the art world?

The other day I noticed Mrs. Todd examining a rose bush; she took off her sunglasses and bent close to a bloom to stare intently at something. Her action brought to mind my art school days. At the end of term, students would take their work outside into natural light to be reviewed by the lecturer and an invited 'expert' from the art world. One particular critic and writer was often asked to participate. He was tall, leather skinned and methodical. He'd peruse the work wearing sunglasses, removing them only to inspect some detail of a painting, which he would then constructively critique. He'd accept only the best, encourage the hopefuls, spot and dismiss the pretender. He was hard, honest and he cared; the art world's equivalent of Mrs. Todd.

The art critic/writer keeps an eye out for artistic equivalents of leaf mould and root rot that could destroy the garden of art. We encourage the growth of talent by feeding it honest words, and prune overindulgence with constructive criticism. Unfortunately that's where the metaphor ends. When Mrs. Todd pulls weeds from her garden she earns approval but when art critics/writers separate real flowers from plastic facsimiles we're pilloried. Where the flower garden is a peaceful place, the art garden is full of Trifids out to blind you.

The freelancer art commentator needs to have a hide as thick as the sun tanned gardener. We're stung by insults, seared by heated glares, frozen out and cut by careless sub-editors. Without being attached to an academy or media group to give weight to our opinion, the free-lance writer's words are acceptable only when they reflect the opinions of the art establishment and deemed irrelevant when they don't. Independent writers are a danger to the Trifids in the walled garden of art because often we don't conform to the opinions of the dominant species. We review the artwork in daylight and take off our sunglasses before commenting.

Many free street papers and independent art publications appreciate how the art garden, as a whole, is more important then any one plant. They aim their writing to a more inclusive audience not just the single-focused art cognoscenti, who often feign ignorance of the publication's existence. The art establishment will not support what it cannot control. For years I wrote art reviews for an independent journal that no one in the art garden admitted to reading yet they all knew what I wrote. And when I was involved in the germination stage of two other art journals, I witnessed first hand how the establishment stood well back waiting to see if they would take root. One, a hybrid, died after eight months, the other was a transplant from another city and lasted four years before it withered in arid soil. In both cases money was needed to nourish the roots but like water in the wasteland, financial support is scarce in the walled garden of art.

As a gardener in the art world I've come to realise that while the horticulturist is respected the art-culturist is not. So why do art critics persist in their thankless tasks? Because someone has to aerate the soil in the garden of art. Why do freelance writers continue to contribute to street rags and glossy mags no Trifid confesses to reading? Because someone has to speak for the informed appreciator who wants to learn, not just to the initiated few who believe they know it all. Why do these independent journals continue to operate just this side of the break-even point? Because they know that the garden of art nurtures the roots of our culture and if mould, mite or misunderstanding takes hold the best will be replaced by plastic plants.

As for this particular art critic and freelance writer, I tend to the art garden knowing that what people say lives only in memory as an opinion and is soon forgotten. However the published word is archived, a fact forever in future art history. It's a highly satisfying thought.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).

A collection of her articles which have appeared in Carolina Arts can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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