“No doubt there will always be critics who, like a certain writer in the Saturday Review, will gravely censure the teller of fairy tales for his defective knowledge of natural history, who will measure imaginative work by their own lack of any imaginative faculty, and will hold up their ink-stained hands in horror if some honest gentleman, who has never been farther than the yew-trees of his own garden, pens a fascinating book of travels like Sir John Mandeville, or, like the great Raleigh, writes a whole history of the world,
without knowing anything whatsoever about the past…
They will call upon Shakespeare — they always do — and will quote that hackneyed passage, forgetting that this unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature, is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.”The Decay of Lying, from Intentions 1913. Oscar Wilde
This paper examines examples of visual arts criticism and journalism in Australia during the early 20th-century and contrasts them with current instances and practice. The literature review investigated the role and purpose of arts journalism and visual arts criticism for society, visual arts practice and practitioners focussing on these timeframes; the objective being to clarify if there are clear criteria that can be applied for evaluating the quality and success of critics’ and journalists’ writing, and if critics are fulfilling their roles.
The qualifications and experience of those writing, plus examples of their work, have been analysed in case studies in an effort to learn more about the current content of art journalism and criticism, in contrast to historical examples, if they provide more informed content and unbiased representation of a broad range of Australian visual artists, and If not, why. Furthermore, specific issues such as qualifications, ethics, public engagement, and cultural value were perused in response to the thesis questions regarding the quality of art journalism, and visual art criticism in Australia.
This process revealed historical and recent examples of the variation in the quality and quantity of visual arts journalism and critiquing in Australian news publications. My findings were based on the use of these examples in case studies of Australians who, from between the early 20th-century to the present, have written about visual art. This data inquiry was supported by analysis of the research made by a variety of academics and experts in fields including visual arts, arts criticism and journalistic practice in the literature review.
As a result, evidence indicates that certain arts writers have historically exhibited personal biases, lack of expertise, and poor professionalism in in their writing. However, examples of engaging and informative writing in Australian newspapers from both the past and recent years were also uncovered. This indicated that whilst ‘good’ art criticism may be difficult to find, as news publishers reduce staff for dedicated visual arts columns, exceptional writers do still exist. Based on these findings, issues that require further investigation are whether the hiring practices of news publishers are having an impact on the education of future arts critics and journalists. Additionally, it remains to be asked if an education and practice in the visual arts is worthwhile when considering a future in the media, particularly if dedicated arts journalism is being progressively replaced by generic roles such as ‘cultural’ or entertainment reporting.
1.1 What am I investigating?
This thesis seeks to investigate the practice of arts writing and criticism in Australia in the media, by researching existing findings in a literature review and in a series of case studies of Australian arts writers. One question it raises is what an art critic should know specifically about topics (artists, genres, styles, methods) in visual art. Another question is that of bias and self interest in regard to ethics. In other words, how art critics and journalists influence the comprehension of, and engagement with art by the general public. For example, by publishing articles that mainly concentrate on controversial artists, or those whose works sell for millions of dollars at auction.
As an Australian artist and arts writer, this investigation is important to me because it will analyse and contrast historic and current practice of art criticism and journalism in this country. It also explores possible areas that need improvement for it to be a relevant source of information about activities by artists in the visual arts for the public.
- Statement of Problem
Anecdotally, Australia is commonly called a “sporting nation”. If this is the case, the question for a practicing visual artist like myself, or art aspiring critic, may be where the visual arts stand, and if this country has a sufficient cultural identity in the arts both within and outside of its borders. Additionally, if there is a failure within the visual arts in Australia, to enlighten, or inform its audience where and how is it occurring, and is it only a recent issue? According to Laurie Rojas (2012), as a ‘child’ of Enlightened thinkers such as Kant (1724-1804) and Diderot (1713-1784), and Baudelaire (1821-1867), established criteria is missing from the work produced by historic and current art critics, as informants and educators (Rojas, 2012, pp. 3-7). If this is the case, what has happened? Rojas, suggests that a rejection of judgement, criticism’s intended role, and arts-based education in the qualities that make up exceptional visual art are partly to blame. But, also of important consideration, are the pressures put on art critics and journalists to ‘dumb-down’ content and meet the deadlines for a shrinking 24/7 news publishing environment, that places sport, entertainment and ‘culture’ above serious art criticism (Rojas, 2012, pp. 8-12).
Considering Rojas’ arguments, it is important to me as a practicing modern Impressionist-inspired painter to learn about the work produced by Australian critics – and the artists and artworks under criticism. This begins with questioning what it is that makes good art criticism, and whether the examples in case studies of Australian arts writers indicate higher quality analysis and professionalism in the past in contrast to modern critics. Another point is whether examples of art criticism and journalism from overseas reflect similarities to issues in Australia which will be discussed in the literature review.
1.3 Research Questions
As a practicing artist, the relationships between artists and art critics and journalists are important aspects of my practice. The following research questions indicate the focus of my research regarding historic and recent art criticism and art journalism in Australia.
What makes good art criticism
What visual art and writing or journalism qualifications should be required produce it?
How do current arts journalists compare to those in the early 20th-century
in Australia in regard to impartiality, and experience or formal education in visual art?
What evidence would be uncovered when comparisons are attempted?
Do current arts journalists indicate impartiality, and extensive expertise, and why is this important?
How might coverage of visual arts in the media be changing and thus affecting attitudes to art, and what should it be doing to adapt to this?
Chapter 2: Literature Review
This literature review addresses the practice of arts criticism and art journalism as a specialised field associated with visual art. It explores the qualifications critics should have to work as an art journalist when describing, analysing and critiquing artworks such as paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture. The review also touches on differences between current arts critics and journalists, and examples of those working in the 19th– and early 20th-century in Australia. These examples in the literature review also examine the functions and purposes for the public of these forms of writing and what scholars and commentators say about changes that have occurred in arts criticism and journalism over time. This includes how technology may have influenced how much space is currently devoted to arts discussion in contrast to the past and the form of content and focus. This review also explores what scholars and commentators posit are important areas of expertise and education, methods of practice for art critics and journalists, what makes “good” criticism, and why it is important in a 21st-century context.
2.1 What makes good art criticism?
In 2016, Susan Best, Professor of Art Theory and Fine Art at Griffith University wrote, that art criticism in Australia is “desultory [half-hearted]. Guided by stock responses and assumptions, Australian art criticism rarely helps viewers understand the challenges of new work“ (Best, 2016, p. 1). Good art criticism according to James Carney (1994), in contrast to copying and pasting press releases from galleries or art agents, consists of models based on valid reasoning. These include methodically and rationally critiquing art, in particular, paintings using easily followed steps. For example, in his Model of Aesthetic Evaluation, he advises to begin with “critical evaluation” of the painting. This includes providing plausible reasons why an artwork merits recognition, apart from the personal taste of the critic. Secondly, there should be evidence of an understanding of the painting based on a critical evaluation. Thirdly, the painting should exhibit features that enrich the human experience (Carney, 1994, p. 14). In other words, the critic is providing valid reasons why an artwork has been critiqued in a certain manner, and why they do or do not think that it attains the merits in the criteria for this type of criticism, such as providing understanding of an artwork’s aesthetic features, and the requirements of the audience (1994, p. 15).
As Carney’s Model of Aesthetic Evaluation is not without issues, he continues further with the Style Relative Model of Art Criticism, and the Art Critical Model (Carney, 1994, pp. 18, 19-23). Of these, the Art Critical Model appears the most complex, as it is broken into seven individual steps. These steps indicate the reasons that support good art criticism beginning with placing an artwork in historical context with styles and movements of the time when it was produced (1994, p. 19). They then include the analysis of the physical features or structures of the art such as colours, textures, tones, and brushstrokes in the case of a painting. These structural features support the judgment of aesthetic features that inform and please the viewer, such as the way forms are arranged to tell a story (1994, pp. 19-20). The value features use all of the above steps to create harmony and help to convey the artist’s feelings about the story they are telling in the art (1994, pp. 20-22). Next in the process according to Carney, is “providing a low-level interpretation” which is a brief account using the previously listed methods for a short descriptive account of an artwork, which can be followed by a “high-level interpretation” which provides a deeper interpretation of such things as the “artist’s oeuvre” and the “artwork’s function” historically to indicate its value for contemporary viewers (1994, pp. 22-23).
The final of Carney’s steps is the “critical judgement”, where, for example, an artwork is compared to others of a similar style, by exhibiting the “value features” of that style. This again, Carney says, must be based on reasons that are explained and based on such things as the structural features like dramatic brushstrokes or the ability of the artist to tell an emotive story that enriches a viewers’ experience (1994, p. 24). The complexity and underlying knowledge required to complete these steps, as explained by Carney, indicate that good art criticism requires the attention of experts in the field of visual art separating them from non-experts.
Examined from another perspective, expertise in the field of art criticism can also be called connoisseurship, although connoisseurship often calls for a higher degree of specific knowledge. When writing about this topic Ebitz (1988) places it historically alongside the development of scientific analysis as a productive avenue of criticism and production of knowledge in the visual arts (1988, p. 207). Traditionally, the art connoisseur used their expertise to attribute artist, authenticity, school, and time and place “by eye”, but as Ebitz explains, this has increasingly included the use of scientific methods and “technical aids” such as x-rays, and chemical and spectral analysis. Such exhaustive research it can be argued, sets the connoisseur apart from those that do not have access to such rigorous methods of examination for critiquing. Of concern in this respect, is the practice in visual art education of moving away from the methods that support this type of art examination and criticism, which includes a deep understanding of art history and “intellect and knowledge of the text” (1988, p. 207).
However, this “cross-over” of scientific method and historic knowledge gives validity to the judgements of the connoisseur as an art critic and evaluator. As Ebitz says, “Herein lie the organizing checks and balances and the institutionalization that have enabled connoisseurship to provide a firm foundation of “truths” on which to build our art historical edifice of knowledge” (1988, p. 209). In other words, valid reasoning can be given to an analysis of an artwork supported by explainable established methods rather than relying on the critic’s or connoisseur’s opinion or personal aesthetics. This is important when examining assertions about artworks by “high status” or “recognised” figures that may be based on “perceived authority” rather than academic rigour. The connoisseur, art critic, or indeed the art journalist, therefore must ideally come from a place of knowledge and understanding. According to Ebitz, they must also regain what he claims has been lost, being a closer integration and collaboration with the working processes of practicing artists, for better recognition of their mutual methods. Far from being a function for the “socially elite” or irrelevant to contemporary visual art, the well-informed connoisseur can protect artists and collectors from misrepresentation and fraud, and educate the public based on valid knowledge and methods. This is where the differences can also appear between the expert and non-expert in the fields of art criticism and journalism, and why any diminution of these professions can affect the cultural growth and identity of a country. Whilst some like Carrier (2003) may debate the inclusion of new methods of appraisal and authentication as a replacement for traditional “visual connoisseurship”, in my opinion they add to the authority of critics’ analyses, and qualify their positions as experts in the visual arts fields (Carrier, 2003. p. 167). I would also argue that an additional layer of expertise in writing for the visual arts also means that critiques, analyses, and evaluations can be written by critics with various levels of specialisation to cater for the needs of their audience.
2.1.2 Experts and Non-Experts
Dominic Lopes (2015) says that methods used by experts and non-experts to analyse visual art differ significantly. Where one may unconsciously fixate and then ‘wander’ the eye all over the scene of a painting, this is not the case for an art expert. This demonstrates the criteria at the core of looking versus examining (Lopes, 2015, p. 242). He describes this process, saying that cognitive styles differ not only between ‘experts’ in a field and the general public, but also between nationalities and social contexts. Piotr et al. (2018) add that studies reveal that eye tracking (looking versus examining) is different between experts and non-experts, exemplified by longer saccades, or eye movements between fixation points (Piotr, et al., 2018, p. 3). The result is that the critic with a high level of expertise examining an artwork would glean more information from analysing it for a critique, and place higher value on an original artwork (2018, p.7). There were however, deviations in the results, proving that exceptions to this rule were possible (2018, p. 11).
According to Frank Sibley (1983), evaluating (or critiquing) art is not a matter of a subjective emotional response, it requires reasons that include structural features of an artwork, aesthetic considerations such as use of colour – whether it is bold, harmonious, active etc. Based on criteria like these, a verdict can be made based on reasoning. Some are aesthetic, others structural (or technical) (Sibley, 1983). Carney (1994) says that these are considered the oeuvre of the artist, and genre of the work must be considered, along with its ability to enrich human achievement (Carney, 1994, p. 22). A painting may be beautifully executed, but the topic monotonous and kitsch, which would impact how it is appraised by the critic, who must, according to Carney, increase the reader’s understanding of the artwork, and be plausible in their critical judgement (1994, p. 14).
Such critical judgement includes “historical contextual factors” (Carney, 1994,
p. 16). For example, comparing the aesthetics of an Impressionist style painting
to a contemporary mixed media piece, would create issues for fair and critical judgement says Carney, as the critic would be comparing apples and oranges (1994, pp. 16-17). Consequently, when an artwork was created, the conditions surrounding the artist and their practice, the subject, and the intent of the artist in its creation, mean that the critic cannot base their judgements on the same criteria (Carney, 1994, pp. 17, 24-26). This does not exclude the critic’s taste as a minor consideration. It does however, explain how value can be judged in work that is aesthetically displeasing, or alternatively representative of important trends (1994, p. 24). Such critical judgements give art criticism a “special theoretical status” that places the critic in a qualified position for assessing visual artworks (Carney, 1994, p. 13).
2.1.3 Specific examples in the media
Scholars in other countries also identify what they see as a decline in the quantity and quality of arts journalism and criticism. An interesting point was made by Maarit Jaakkola (2015a), who completed a study of changes in art criticism focussing on Finnish daily newspapers, whilst including other studies from Europe and the United States. Of interest was Jaakkola’s opinion about what they state is a lack of journalistic standards in art journalism and decline in the number of art sections in newspapers in favour of sport in these countries (Jaakkola, 2015a, pp. 383-384). Which is also anecdotally evident in Australian newspapers such as the Melbourne Herald-Sun. The motivation, which at this state is only anecdotally evident by the increase in celebrity, “entertainment” and “cultural news” and the expansion of sports editorial, being the most likely of scenarios.
As a contemporary example, The Melbourne Herald-Sun has no specific arts page, and searching through the web site, it is clear that navigation is not easy when looking for visual arts-based stories. Stories concerning visual art, for example, are best found using the search function to specifically name art as the search item (Herald-Sun, 10th August, 2020).
The Australian Guardian, on the other hand, has an easily-accessed arts section in its web site (Art & Design), which divides into clearly labelled topics. Visual arts, for artists like myself, is one such topic covering painting in Australia and overseas. My main concern with The Guardian, however, is the lack of Australian input by Australian critics, raising the question of availability of local qualified writers and critics, and arts activities of interest to readers (The Guardian, 11th January, 2021).
According to Elkins (2003) and Hirst (2020) the past one hundred years has witnessed major changes in the practice of visual art criticism and journalism in Australia and overseas (Elkins, 2003, p. 2; Hirst, 2020, p. 12). This, they say, was due to the opinions and changing political biases of owners, and partly because of favouring ‘cultural’ reporting in rejection of pedagogic arts criticism. As Jenifer Fulton (2011) says, the focus of the state of art criticism is no longer on artistic production, but on the economically successful individual and their lifestyle:
“… achieved through the production of a desirable brand. The museum, the curator and the critic have been eclipsed in their function as determinants of the reception of artistic production and valuation, the market appears to dance to the tune of the celebrity”
(Fulton, 2011, p. 46).
Fulton’s views that art markets and reporting are drawn to celebrity sits alongside another rising news value in art coverage: that of novelty. An example of this can be seen in the Melbourne Herald-Sun newspaper dated March 14th, 2021 (Herald-Sun, 2021, p. 22). That article, of 181 words, which neglected to name the writer, focussed on the price of the work and its novelty in the crypto currency market whilst failing to remark on its artistic merits such as aesthetics or creative process. That being so, whilst Fulton writes from the perspective of a Europe-based academic, the parallels in Australia raise questions about what often appear to be copies of press releases from art agents and galleries, and priorities given to, novelty, money, and celebrity in place of informed arts criticism. This view is also supported by Isabelle Graw (2005), and Peter Plagens (2008) who note the “superficiality” and “churning out” of poorly informed articles that conflate art with the cult of celebrity, and entertainment news (Graw, 2005, pp. 88-96, 89; Plagens, 2008, p. 260). The issue with this practice lies not in artists gaining celebrity status, but in that status taking focus away from any discussion about the style, quality and significance of the work as it is perceived by a qualified, involved art critic or journalist.
Jaakkola states that the important difference between general journalism and art journalism (or critiquing) lies in the journalist having “accumulated cultural capital” and aesthetic legitimacy, and demonstrated by a sufficient amount of cumulated experience” (2015a, p. 385). Put simply, this means that the art journalist should indicate their education and involvement in the arts. Thus, whether it be via aesthetic or journalistic positioning, meaning is assigned to art and culture, based on an in-depth understanding of where art and art criticism lie culturally (Jaakkola, 2015b, p. 541-542). Part of the problem as North (2016) says, is in the historic perception of art and cultural journalism as a feminine pursuit, and thus of less importance than ‘hard news’, which has also been an issue in Australian journalism (North, 2016, p. 357).
2.1.4 Issues concerning “high” art and “popular culture”
Another situation, according to Jaakkola (2015a), is the conflation of ‘high art’, “popular culture”, and “everyday culture”. This issue is reflected in patterns seen in Australian art journalism such as the increase in ‘popular culture’ and celebrity gossip articles, trimming visual art reporting, and use of freelance writers instead of holding on to dedicated ‘arts bureaus’. Such divergent practices in newspapers, in contrast to dedicated arts journals, have meant a growth in popular and social reporting, in the form of celebrity gossip for example, at the expense of traditionally “high-cultural canon” (Jaakkola, 2015a, p. 399). As Jaakkola (2015a) says about Finnish newspapers, “The average length of reviews has been cut by more than half, and the diminution of the high cultural canon is accompanied by the popularization of content” (2015a, p. 383). A similar trend is evident in Australian newspapers and online coverage as “popular culture” is assigned dedicated pages in contrast to visual art reviews, critiques and reporting which are increasingly only available via dedicated arts journals such as the Art Almanac or Artlink. This, I argue, removes visual art from mainstream public discussion, effectively making it appear exclusive and disconnected from the activities of a diverse readership with a broad range of interests.
2.1.5 The Postmodernist influence
According to Jenifer Fulton (2005), the merging of arts reporting under the ‘umbrella’ of cultural news removed the ‘authority’ previously held by dedicated arts critics and reporters. This trend began in the 1960s as Postmodernist practice of ‘commodity art’ and ‘personality artists’ by the likes of Andy Warhol peaked (Fulton, 2005, p. 9). This resulted in the line between artist and critic being blurred to the point where unless the critic was prepared to use Postmodernist language they would not be considered relevant as informed arts writers to the wider arts community (Fulton, 2005, p. 10). These developments were later endorsed in the 1970s by Rosalind Krauss, who rejects traditional critical methods in favour of an expanded set of values which amongst others included linguistics and psychoanalytics and Postmodernist social, political and gender-based criteria (Fulton, 2005, p. 11; Krauss, 1985). Such developments began outside of Australia, but were quickly adopted by academia and critics wishing to appear ahead, or aware of worldwide trends in the arts, that diminished the value of academically-based, informed criticism (Denholm, 2008, pp. 31-34).
2.1.6 Complementary approaches
As a separate branch of journalism to those of general reporting of news events, Phillipa Chong (2019) explains that arts journalism, as a complementary form, can offer a different approach to both genres. She states that the total objectivity that journalism has placed as its ideal is largely unattainable, and there needs to be recognition and use of subjectivity as a complementary tool (Chong, 2019, pp. 427-428). This subjective process of information gathering, is applicable to ‘news’, literature, and art, and according to Chong, is an important part of reader engagement. Janssen (1997) states that, literature [and art] reviews, or critiques, serve the purpose of serving the divergent interests of the public about what is being published and what new ideas are being circulated as part of the cultural conversation (Janssen, 1997, pp. 279, 287). As Tuck & Yang (2012) conclude in their debate about decolonization, objectivity is often based on perspectives which can widely differ. If therefore falls on the arts critic and journalist (and other journalists), to do due diligence in their research and writing in an effort to serve the interests, and make an “objective” representation of everyone concerned with, or affected by, what they are saying (2012, p. 36).
2.1.7 Balancing needs
This type of ‘objective’ journalistic practice and reviewing, irrespective of the subject, (literature or art) according to Chong (2019), requires balancing the needs of the audience and the reporter/critic/reviewer, without overly emphasizing self-promotion or biases (Chong, 2019, p. 438). When specifically applied to critiquing, the very personal emotional connection and engagement experienced by a critic can be an important aspect of furthering that engagement with their readers. As Chong states, “Critics emphasize that their emotional responses while reading books [or looking at paintings] is a tool for gauging the success of the writing” (2019, p. 435). What Chong is indicating here is that this process undertaken by critics is an important addition to specialized understanding of the topic for critiquing creative output. In other words, the specific expertise, and the personal responses to visual art by the critic, work together to balance their needs with those of the audience in an engaging manner.
2.1.8 Methods to meet audience needs in the media
The balancing of needs and informed analysis can be introduced as an early part of the process of researching a story. The use of traditionally arts-based research methods and methodologies by art critics or journalists, for data collection and analysis, according to Hölsgens, de Wildt & Witschge (2020), in addition to traditional journalistic methods, would help to improve the level of understanding for readers (Hölsgens, de Wildt & Witschge, 2020, p. 931). They say arts based research offers ways “of understanding the messiness, hybridity and inconsistencies moving through journalism, and does so by positioning the knowledge and experiences from within the field at its core.” (2020, p. 932). This hybrid method, according to this statement, uses methods drawn from both journalistic practice and ‘traditional’ arts criticism, underpinned by expertise in the arts. Such diverse research methods, or as Kristensen (2019) calls them, “strands”, allow both arts (or cultural) journalists to “exemplify broader power structures, aesthetic values, or transformations in culture or society” (Kristensen, 2019, p. 3). For example, these methods may combine quantitative research, that relies more on numbers and statistics, with qualitative research that includes visual analysis.
2.1.9 Cultural journalism versus specialised art criticism
Alison Croggon (2016), however, sees a trend towards cultural journalism,
as a contributing factor in the continual loss of specialised critics in favour of broader entertainment stories, and less need for specialised art critics. This is of more concern in Australia because in contrast to Britain and the United States, Australian critics have rarely been employed full time, and are generally poorly paid, indicating implanted negative attitudes towards the arts in Australia (Croggon, 1016, pp. 21, 25-37). This is increasingly occurring, as cultural journalism – as an umbrella term for arts journalism, criticism, and entertainment – has taken over from specialist arts criticism (Kersten & Janssen, 2017, pp. 841-842).
Croggon’s views in this regard, lead to other questions, such as whether the trends she identifies are reflected in other areas of the arts, such as the tertiary sector, where tenure and sessional appointments may impact the quality of visual arts education, and if the “culture” of certain educational establishments reduces or eliminates “traditional” methods of teaching art criticism. Such “leverage” in educational institutions, also raises questions about “household-name broadcasters” and the impact they have on what is read or heard by the public, and the conflation of arts reporting under general “umbrella” terms such as “cultural” or “entertainment” news.
An interpretation that defines the importance of arts criticism and journalism as distinct professions, in contrast to a ‘generic’ or ‘umbrella’ term like cultural journalism, is made by Hovden & Knapskog (2015), who broadly state that critics are more focussed on “advanced forms of culture” leaving them less critical of “elitism in art institutions”. Arts or cultural journalists, on the other hand, according to them are more likely to support “popular culture”. In other words, critics favour and analyse, describe and promote ‘high arts’ and ‘fine art’ like traditional oil and water colour painting and sculpture in an informative manner. Journalists, in contrast, promote and describe popular culture as a form of leisure based on what they see as an anti-elitist economic framework (Hovden & Knapskog, 2015, pp. 801-802).
To clarify, Hovden & Knapskog (2015) are saying that cultural journalists are more like intermediaries between artists and critics, leaving each with their own unique identity, leaving pedagogic writing to the realm of the art critic (Hovden & Knapskog, 2015, p. 802). As Postema & Deuze (2020) state, there still exists a broad range of interests in art in society, from ‘Academic’ to ‘Popular’. Such distinct, and variations of these models of art criticism and reporting, it can be argued, provides readers with a variety of ‘levels’ of informing and engagement with art (Postema & Deuze, 2020, p. 12). Hovden & Knapskog (2015), however, are pessimistic about the quality of cultural journalism in general going forward, due to “signs of less critically and professionally qualified” candidates entering the industry (Hovden & Knapskog, 2015, p. 807).
Kristensen (2019) argues this point, defending the role of cultural journalists as intermediaries between the “market and the public interest”, acting as “journalists with a difference”, while, concurrently, indicating that ‘general’ journalism shares similar aspects with cultural (or arts) journalism, such as interpretation, emotionalism, and subjectivity (Kristensen, 2019, pp. 5-6, 9). This blurring of traditional boundaries between hard and soft news in the form of arts or cultural journalism is seen as a way for broader socio-political issues, and “every-day life issues” to be addressed by both (2019, p. 9). The questions arising from this are what aspects are best suited for adopting by both types of reporting, and whether there is a risk of dramatizing facts, or misleading the reader about the significance of a critique over an investigative news inquiry.
2.1.10 From Oscar Wilde’s “arbiters of taste” to art criticism
Historically, exemplified in England by Oscar Wilde, such issues were not a consideration, as arts criticism was left to the domain of specific ‘arbiters of ‘taste’ (Gillespie, 2016, p. 33). During the late 19th– and early 20th-century such critics were not in the habit of working outside of specific areas of expertise, such as visual or fine art. To gain some perspective on the early development of art criticism Gillard-Estrada (2016) examines Wilde’s critiques of the Grosvenor Gallery exhibitions between 1877 and 1879 (Gillard-Estrada, 2016, p. 39). Gillard-Estrada says that Wilde concentrated his critiques on the quality and aesthetics of the art and venue in an informed manner reflecting his “thorough knowledge” of new artistic developments. Wilde’s informed prose was descriptive, informative and lyrical, painting a picture in words to engage readers, based on his academic experience at Trinity College and Oxford University (2016, p. 43). Consequently, examples of Wilde’s writing provided by Gillard-Estrada provide a clearer historical picture of focussed and specialised visual art criticism based on a lifelong interest and education in the classics and arts (Gillard-Estrada, 2016, p. 44).
Placing this discussion within a contemporary context, the point of basing critiques on informed expertise and involvement in the visual arts is not one of disparaging one artist’s work in contrast to another’s, or clinging to accepted norms. I am also not arguing that informed critics are unable to make biased, or conflicting remarks in comparison to their previous stances with other artists, as with the case of Ruskin versus Whistler (Craven, 1977. Pp. 139-143). This example however, does point issues such as consistency when reviewing or critiquing irrespective of the artist or art in question, and the context of such criticisms, such as the period (19th-century, early 20th-century or 21st-century) in which it is situated. It is also my argument that in a 21st-century context whether the artwork is made for financial gain or for philosophical debate or historic enlightenment should not be a consideration when critiquing and analysis is carried out as was the case with Ruskin versus Whistler.
2.2 Why is good art criticism important?
In an age of high quality printed and digital images, and access to art galleries, it could be asked why it is necessary to have art critics talking about such works. My response to that issue, as a practicing artist, is that looking at art does not equate with “seeing” it, understanding it, or engaging with it. In lieu of the presence of the artist to explain or describe their work to a viewer, which is not possible all of the time, the art critic, or journalist, has the ability to “picture” the work in words, adding meaning and context to a print or digital image. This is especially important when the reader has not seen the original work and must rely on someone to express their engagement with it, and the details that cannot be captured with a camera. The “good” art critic shows (not tells) via informed language, bridging the gap between the artist, the artwork and the reader which I argue cannot be achieved by someone who is not educated and/or immersed in the visual arts.
2.2.1 Unbalanced representation
The multi-billion dollar international art market owes a lot to the writing of arts journalists according to Skilbeck (2008), who admits that the “subliminal role” of involved arts writers is widely unacknowledged (Skilbeck, 2008, pp. 141-142). But, as overlooked as the ‘upper-end’ of the visual arts may appear, of more concern is the balance of the work that goes totally ignored, and the low status given to arts writers, especially freelancers, in favour of “mainstream mass media art market reporting” (2008, pp 156-157). As this occurs, price is given primacy over ‘value’, and controversy preference over informed “critical discourse” by specialist art critics and journalists.
Reyburn (2021) is critical of the big auction houses and certain art auction sites like Artprice. He says a small number of critics and curators continue to assess art “untarnished” by commercial thoughts, but “pretty well everyone else, whether they like it or not, is looking at art through the prism of price, mostly on a phone” (Rayburn, 2021, p. 12). My opinion about these issues is not based on what may be construed as “elitism” or “snobbery” in regard to the visual arts. It is my concern that there is an imbalance of promotion and attention given to a narrow spectrum of the visual arts in the media, leading to inaccurate perceptions by the public. In that regard I agree with Reyburn’s concern that whilst ignoring struggling or emerging artists, the “top end” of the art market is making “plenty of money” supported by curators, art auctioneers, traders, and galleries, and promoted by arts journalists and critics at the expense of less “connected” emerging artists. In a way, it reflects a degree of laziness by curators, critics and arts writers who focus on the “cream” that floats in in clear view, rather than going out to the smaller galleries, universities, art societies, and arts events to find out who else is contributing to the visual arts. By failing to do so, focus is therefore on multi-million dollar price tags in preference to “aesthetic appreciation” or “critical evaluation”. Added to this, Croggon (2016) says, is the dismissal by governments of the value of humanities degrees, such as art production, informed criticism and journalism; this has the roll-on effect of lowering public perception of perception of a low opinion of the value of those areas’ contribution to society (Croggon, 2016, pp. 20-22).
Tugarev (2018), argues the importance of informed and professional art journalism to society because of its potential “The potential of journalism to influence the masses in terms of their training and culture is very strong. Well-exploited, the media message can civilize the audience, manipulating their behaviour and shaping their aesthetic visions” (Tugarev, 2018, p. 157). In other words, in regard to visual art, people’s perception of what artists create is not served by a monopoly of articles about the multi-million dollar sales at Christies. For art journalism and criticism to reach its potential as stated by Tugarev, a broader picture of the arts world is required, provided by a balanced review of the sizeable spectrum of activity in the arts To disregard this need would assume that art is irrelevant to every-day living by the general public.
2.2.2 Informing to a standard
Art journalism, Tugarev (2018) says is “not only a source of producing and providing the necessary subjects for cultural dialogue, it is an active participant in the dialogue of cultures” (Tugarev, 2018, p. 157). In other words, while the general news informs the public about the who, what, where, when, and why of topics such as politics or crime, arts journalism, when done well, adds a breadth of cultural understanding for a higher form of cognitive appreciation via the arts. It brings a deeper understanding, via context and belief systems, of the values that underpin culture and the moral and intellectual issues that form the basis of the creative process.
The benefits of adopting standards held by art critics is acknowledged by the International Association of Art Critics, a global association formed in 1950 and represented in Australia that is currently working towards international cooperation “in the fields of artistic creations, dissemination and cultural development” (AICA, 2020). Groups such as this invite professionalism and accountability in arts critiquing to a level that may not have been considered in the early- to mid-20th-century. AICA’s mission is partly to “promote art criticism as a discipline and contribute to its methodology and protect the ethical and professional interests of its members and to co-operate in defending their rights” (AICA, 2020). It also promotes international professional relationships amongst critics and their rights to freedom of expression (AICA, 2020).
As advantageous as this appears, it is not an invitation for arts journalism to merge to the point of disappearing into a conflation with entertainment or general news. Hellman & Jaakkola (2012) note that journalism has faced a crisis as a result of financial issues and technological change in the form of the increase in online media (Hellman & Jaakkola, 2012, p. 784). They say that in the United States arts-based stories have been steadily shrinking or disappearing, with entertainment replacing art in several countries. In addition, art journalism and critiquing have traditionally been done by people with higher education in the arts and they have not had the same ‘fit’ within the structure of the general newsroom as ‘general’ journalists because of differing ideals and values (2012, p. 786). According to Hellman & Jaakkola (2012), the important thing that an art critic or journalists provides is their specific expertise, making them a specialist in their field, underpinning their legitimacy to their readers (2012, p. 787). It is this expertise that makes the role of an arts journalist different and why it cannot be performed sufficiently by someone without the education and immersion in the arts.
Nevertheless, content analysis by Hellman & Jaakkola (2012) of arts writer case studies revealed a shift in styles from “aesthetic toward journalistic paradigm”, shrinkage in article lengths, and declines in freelance critics along with the redesign of the format of news pages formats (Hellman & Jaakkola, 2012, pp. 789-790). They also noted that hiring practices, beginning in the 1980s had decreased the roles for full-time “star critics” on arts pages (2012, p. 793). This was reflected in redundancies at Fairfax and Arts Hub in Australia during May 2017. Amongst a massive number of closures, and general staff redundancies over a five year period, were plans to reduce arts editorial staff to one person per paper at Fairfax (Zion, 2018, p. 25).
2.2.3 Deciding what is important
Norman Podhoretz (2008) reflected on this trend in the treatment of art criticism and journalism, and said in Making It (1967), “the idea that wrong critical judgements do not really matter means that the literature in question does not really matter” (Podhoretz in Denholm, 2008, p. 31). In other words, if criticism or judgement, of art for example, is of little importance to news publishers, it follows that what they are writing about doesn’t matter either. Michael Denholm (2008) adds that in Australia art criticism has “considerably declined” as culture has been redefined as anything from the consumption of beer to football and an anti-intellectualist attitude has overtaken the country (Denholm, 2008, p. 32). An issue behind this, and the mass consumption of art for consumption rather than art for aesthetics, has been a lack of “institutional support” for artists who are not ‘new’, ‘novel’ or ‘edgy’ enough to get the market’s attention (2008, p. 33). Arts reporting is, according to Denholm, lazily highlighting the ‘big events’ and major players from Australia’s art history while ignoring worthy artists struggling to make a living (2008, p. 35). The issue he states is ‘so called’ critics “taking care of business instead of taking care of art” as a reflection and foundation of the development of a nation’s culture, and that is where the importance of professional art criticism lies (Denholm, 2008, p. 35).
It is the term ‘professional’ that Jaakkola (2015) addresses when talking about the ‘umbrella’ term, cultural journalism, that has been steadily replacing the specific genres of art criticism and journalism. According to Jaakkola, cultural journalism is a type of “hybrid”, having its foot in both camps of journalism and the arts, without the benefit of a “solid educational or disciplinary background” (Jaakkola, 2015, p. 539). This, he says, puts them in a “continual struggle” to justify their integrity, which is what a qualified and specifically educated arts critic has little need to do, as their credentials are easily verified. In contrast to the five frames of crisis framed by Jaakkola, these qualifications do not mean falling back on nostalgic subjectivity and a desire to return to the 19th-century elitism of ‘high art’. Nor does it present an elite group acting as ‘gatekeepers’ keeping out the ‘rabble’ of lower forms of culture (2015, pp. 544, 546). Under a general ‘umbrella’ of cultural journalism, ideally, art criticism and journalism should operate with its own values, remaining autonomous and working in collaboration with journalism in general, but this approach, Jaakkola says, is not being sufficiently supported “by any occupational-cultural structure”
2.2.4 Specialists or multi-skilling
One source of lack of support, according to Jaakkola et al. (2015) can be explained by the gradual drop in advertising revenue worldwide, forcing major changes in mainstream news organisations and news distribution, professional values, and work practices to, for example, multi-skilling or divergent journalism (Jaakkola et al., 2015, pp. 811-828). This drift away from the use of specialists like art critics, to more “liquid” or flexible categories of cultural (or entertainment) journalism as Jaakkola et al. explain, reflects the modern newsroom where autonomy is disappearing, journalists are expected to report on a variety of topics and genres, and careers are less secure (2015, p. 814). In simple terms, what Jaakkola et al. are describing is the reduction of staff and consolidation of ‘departments’ to cut operating costs by eliminating specialist reporting such as arts journalism or art criticism (2015). Their replacement could be described as a holistic genre, such as entertainment or cultural news, produced by people trained as journalists but with little or no specific expertise in the arts.
The issues that arise from this are the basic ways that general journalists collect and present data, which ideally is objective and based on facts and not opinion. Cultural or arts journalism has, however, never had a comfortable fit in this regard, as a certain amount of subjectivity and aesthetic appreciation forms an important part of critiquing art (Jaakkola et al., 2015, p. 819). Rather than reporting the facts of an event, the role of the art critic, or journalist, is one of educating readers, highlighting the work of artists and art’s place in society, and analysis based on standards of quality in art, which comes from a specialised knowledge and expertise. The trend towards multi-skilling and loss of such expertise in the newsroom means a loss of such specialised knowledge, and pressure on full-time journalists to redefine themselves or think about freelancing (2015, p. 819).
Jaakkola et al. (2015) state that there has been a substantial shift in how art journalism (cultural journalism) is perceived and conducted; they say it has moved from educating to entertaining, “appreciating previewing” rather than analysing and critiquing. Jaakkola et al. (2015) say this is based an assumption of ‘high art’ being elitist art, and therefore, setting itself ‘above’ the regular reader and other forms of culture. As they conclude, it is difficult to identify the sources of changes in art journalism, as they could originate with the art being produced and current trends, the arts market, arts education, the influence of galleries and curators, or the changing place of news in the market place (Jaakkola et al., 2015, pp.
2.2.5 Publishing alternatives
These issues, ideally, should be addressed by publishing to the internet, which can provide coverage of such diverse arts-based reporting and critiques (Abramson, 2010, p. 43). According to Abramson (2010), there is ample room to entice “informed” readers, even when a subscription is involved, to reliable and informed material. The benefit of such publishing on the internet is that it provides freedom from column space restrictions typical of print. However, certain guidelines and restrictions for journalists and editors persist (Abramson, 2010, p. 43). One extensive version of this is Reuters’ online journalism handbook which has guidelines for 33 categories of stories (none of which are specifically for visual art critiques or commentaries) (Reuters, 2020). Feature articles, under which arts can be classified, according to Reuters allows for only 800 words, with no specific mention of the arts (2020, p. 27). The word count is significant in consideration of the examples of the length and depth of stories included in this paper for analysis and criticism, and the examination of articles and papers in the following review, as it is argued that the space provided reflects the value, or lack thereof, perceived by editors and ownership of news organisations.
2.3 What should good art criticism do?
As a practicing visual artist, I argue in support of the collaborative, and sometimes confrontational, relationship between critics and artists, and its importance in building a strong cultural foundation for society. Critics also challenge artists to look at their work from a different perspective, and to dig deeper into their motivations, skills, and output in regard to who their audience is and whether they are meeting their needs. This is why there still exists a need for informed and involved arts critics, who demonstrate specialised expertise in a variety of areas concerning the arts.
According to Dabbous (2009), there is a clear delineation that distinguishes critics into areas of expertise such as art, drama, literature, and music. Within these roles, are specific “common understandings of how to write a sound critical text” and a focus on the work itself with the intention of such things as appraisal, guiding “public taste”, and assigning historical context (Dabbous, 2009, pp. 375-377). On the other hand, cultural or art journalism, as described by Skilbeck (2008), responds to the growth of “cross-cultural exchange”, globalisation, and the growth of the international contemporary art market (Skilbeck, 2008, pp. 142-144). Rather than analysing and academically critiquing an artwork or exhibition, it incorporates cultural and political contexts, convictions of the artists via interviews, and background interviews for a broad range of entertainment and arts events
(2008, p. 149).
2.3.1 Informing based on valid methodology
Defining such specific universally applicable methods for the evaluation or criticism of visual art might appear to some to be a difficult if not impossible task; according to Donald Gordon (1952), such a stance is naïve. As he states, “Without a valid method of evaluating aesthetic products there can be no certainty of progress in art, no clear awarding of prizes in competition, no great or mediocre art, no critics or artists” (Gordon, 1952. p. 338). Whilst the meaning of ‘art’, its uses, styles, materials and contexts have dramatically changed throughout history, the focus of this study is visual art criticism and journalism primarily in Australia during the past century. In this regard, Gordon’s study has relevant input to the discussion about arts criticism practice. His studies involve both ‘experts’ and ‘laypeople’ assessing a set of oil paintings according to certain criteria including colour, form, composition, texture, lighting/shading, style, mood and content. Gordon admits using such terminologies may be refuted by other researchers, however, he asserts the value of coding based on verbal criticisms when determining the qualities of one painting over another (Gordon, 1952, pp. 351-352). According to Postema & Deuze (2020) such methods of assessment and criticism should not be outside the realm of the contemporary art critic or journalist who works in a descriptive or interpretive style of writing (Postema & Deuze, 2020. p. 6). Such agreement indicates that some writers on arts criticism concur about consistent parameters and methods across the profession of arts criticism having overall benefits for the field of visual arts.
An art journalist or critic may utilize journalist methodologies, and can certainly collaborate with general news-gathering and reporting, but there are additional distinct differences in what art criticism should do. In contrast to the artist, or curator, the art critic (or arts journalist) often “has the last word”. Put simply, that should separate the art critic from the production, promotion and sale process to one of analysis and description. If it is that simple, as Elkins (2003) states, it should be asked why arts criticism and journalism is disappearing from newspapers despite being more widely practiced now than at any time previously (Elkins, 2003, pp. 5-8).Elkins is of the opinion that what there currently is of art journalism and critiquing is lacking in depth or authenticity, and that relative to population sizes, there is far less of it. So, what should it accomplish? Elkins says that arts criticism should not shy away from strong commitments, or thoughts about contemporary art movements (Elkins, 2003, p.12). That is not an invitation to return to the self-serving practices of the early to mid-20th-Century, but a desire for a return to an “engaged, passionate, historically informed practice” with a determination to come to a distinct conclusion (2003, p. 21; Suchin, 2006). Elkins values “critics who show signs that they have read the literature, when it exists, and who have thought out the main claims about Modern and Postmodern art made by writers from Adorno and Benjamin to Lyotard and Jameson” (2003, pp. 83-84). He argues that much of the current arts criticism is lacking in academic rigour in the form of complex ideas, references to primary sources, and understanding of visual art practice. He states that the most interesting critics show that it is possible to acknowledge complex ideas and practices even given short formats, broad public readership, and tight deadlines of newspaper publishing (Elkins, 2003, pp. 83-84).
2.3.2 It’s not just describing art
Joseph Kassman-Todd (2019) points out tasks involved in art criticism aligning with Elkins’ position. According to him, the role of the critic is not just to explain how an artwork was made, for example how the paint was applied, and what materials were used. It begins with explaining how engagement with a specific artwork will offer enriched understanding based on the critic’s personal responses to the creative processes involved from which it was made (Kassman-Todd, 2019, p. 76). The critic must understand the social context in which the artwork was made, and any “internal factors” that made the artist unique (2019, p. 78). They must also question the artwork’s significance at the time of making, historically, and currently. For example, was it something that challenged the general accepted styles and subjects of the period in which it was created, and did it set in motion any changes and movements in the artworld? Has it influenced any contemporary artists, and how is it currently perceived by art historians? By doing so, the critic or journalist engages the reader in a journey of understanding and appreciating art, by producing good arts criticism, rather than treating visual art as a minor consideration in cultural or entertainment news.
Kassman-Todd (2019) adds weight to the argument that critics should explain how the artwork and the artist was understood at the time of creation of a piece, and how it can be understood in a new current context. This allows for public engagement and a way for people to better understand what they are looking at. As Kassman-Todd (2019) insists, “the critic’s ambition is to render perspicuous the possibilities of sense-making made available by the artwork” and warns “there can be an incorrect way of construing the sense-making possibilities made available by an artwork” that can obscure or “violate” its meaning (Kassman-Todd, 2019, p. 76). What Kassman-Todd (2019) is saying is, the critic interprets art for viewers, helping them to understand the intent of the artist and the context in which the art was created. This places a burden of responsibility on the critic, or arts journalist, to professionally, and ethically make sense of art for the public, and enrich their experience when engaging with it.
2.3.3 Critics live in the same world as the rest of us
The sometimes common perception, based on popular models of the art critic, according to Blandy and Condon (1991), of “lofty university-trained writers” who experience art and live lives totally “alien” to the rest of society is one that needs to be overturned for something more in line with Kassman-Todd’s description of informers and educators (Blandy & Condon, 1991, p. 1). In addition, Blandy & Condon say that the critic must look at art from more than one perspective, and take in a “world-view” acknowledging that art and creativity is part of the cultural development of more than Western civilization (1991, p. 2). As a “servant” to the artist and the public, the critic meets the needs of a culturally diverse community, by acknowledging differences and ‘speaking’ “in keeping with and expressive of structures of discourse as they exist within a community” (1991, p. 3). The art critic’s role is therefore not ‘removed’ from their readership, but one of engagement and informing from an informed global perspective. In other words, art critics and journalists meet the needs of culturally diverse readership as members of society, not in elitist isolation or alienation.
2.3.4 Some examples
18.104.22.168 Clement Greenberg
American essayist and visual art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), whilst more recently criticized as an “exclusionist” by some critics, is claimed by Daniel Siedell (2002) to be an ideal example of the art critic during the 20th-century (Siedell, 2002, p. 15). What he says made Greenberg so important, is not so much his individual critiques of particular artists, but his overall establishment of “what constitutes quality art criticism and how it should function within the artworld” (2002, p. 16). What he advocated was an “object-oriented position” that brought “analytic rigour and historicity “ in the process of critiquing whilst bringing to the public a degree of “passion” and “aesthetic experience” (2002, p. 26). Importantly, Greenberg considered whom he was writing for and the artwork at the centre of his critique, which is what he wants his readers to ‘see’ (Siedell, 2002, p. 26). Greenberg also thought that art should not be valued over or confused with the general well-being of society: “The Germans started the business of assessing the worth of society by the quality of art it produced. But the quality of art produced in a society does not necessarily – or maybe seldom – reflect the degree of well-being enjoyed by most of its members. And well-being comes first. I deplore the tendency to overvalue art” (Clement Greenberg in Hilton, 2000, p. 12).
As Greenberg stressed that art did not solve the world’s problems; as it didn’t necessarily reflect the well-being of the entire society in which it is created. He warned against the tendency of critics who inflate the value of art which removes any position of objectivity in favour of emotive subjectivity (Hilton, 2000, p. 12). As Hilton says, these are wise words, as art critics and indeed art itself, can be taken too seriously when removed from the context of its place in contrast to what is happening in the balance of society (Hilton, 2000, p. 12). In other words, it is not the job of the critic to promote unscrutinised significance, or value of an artwork over balanced aesthetic analysis and explanation.
22.214.171.124 Harold Rosenberg
Rival to Greenberg was Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) art critic for The New Yorker, and described by Balasz Takac (2019) as “the most important American art critic of the 20th-century” partly because of his association with, and promotion of Abstract Expressionism (Takac, 2019, p.13). Elizabeth Frank (1987), however, holds a differing opinion of Rosenberg’s critiques. She describes him as “an adherent to the old-time religion of art, with fierce prejudices and a penchant for contumely [insults] which he would knit together in argument that more often than not unravelled in contradiction and inconsistency”, and who despite these “faults, championed artists who were overlooked or marginalised” (Frank, 1987, p. 170). Frank, like Greenberg, describes Rosenberg’s critiques as vague. Greenberg, according to Daniel Siedell (2002), also described Rosenberg’s critiques as “prone to misinterpretation and nonsense” (Siedell, 2002, p. 19). Franks (1987) adds that Rosenberg often overlooked the aesthetics of a painting, and what it ‘had to say’ in order to concentrate on the social and political rhetoric surrounding it, which as a critic, she says, hardly fulfills the needs of the readers (Franks, 1987, p. 179). His unwillingness to ‘see’, by looking, analysing and judging, according to Franks, kept him from doing what his aim was – critiquing. So, whilst he may have intellectually understood the function of the critic, and hotly debated it with Greenberg, it seems he failed to live up to his own criteria (Franks, 1987, pp. 186-187). The takeaway from these analyses of Rosenberg is that critics like him have built careers whilst ignoring their own criteria for critiquing art and the needs of their readers, such as precise description and analysis of the aesthetics, message and quality of an artwork.
126.96.36.199 Walt Whitman
According to Katz (2015), someone known for not setting his own criteria for art criticism, was Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Katz says that Whitman was “actively involved in the arts” (Katz, 2015, p. 217), reviewing exhibitions and criticizing the National Academy in the United States. She states that he was a supporter of artists overlooked by other critics and Academicians, whom he labelled “old fogies” (2015, pp. 220-221). Whitman, rather than considering the ‘controlling powers in the arts establishments’ in the “the cliques and private interests that control[led] institutions ostensibly serving the public” (2015, p. 217), served the artist and the art, effectively “[emphasizing] the role of exhibitions in democratizing painting and sculpture during the 19th-century (2015, p. 219). Whitman, therefore, was not concerned with ‘arts establishments’ or the art that was in favour by them. He was interested in critiquing ‘good’ art irrespective of the standing of the artist according to a select few, with an anti-elitist critical view of representing the entire arts community to the general public. This puts him at odds with more recent arts stories in the news that highlight sale prices at auction or the notoriety of artists over aesthetic value.
188.8.131.52 Waldemar Januszczak
Good art criticism as described by scholars and researchers is inconsistent with entertainment or ‘cultural’ news, as its focus does not rely on sale prices at auction, sensationalism, or shocking readers. This types of criticism, it appears, can be produced by the informed and the ill-informed, as exhibited by British arts writer and documentary presenter, Waldemar Januszczak in 2013. Januszczak was scathing in his description of Australian Impressionist paintings at the Royal Academy, withholding praise for indigenous and recent contemporary art (Januszczak, 2013. pp. 7-8, 9-10, 15). Overall, his piece appeared emotive and based on personal preferences, and aimed at “shock value” from a professional whom in the past I have come to respect for his engaging documentaries. In this instance, Januszczak despite his in-depth understanding of visual art, used language more akin to pop- and celebrity-culture writing than unbiased critique. According to researchers, the role of a good art critic, or art journalist, is one of engaging readers, informing, educating, and entertaining whilst subtly emphasising the role of art in a nation’s cultural development and expression, which I consider was lacking in Januszczak’s remarks.
184.108.40.206 Bernard Smith
Bernard Smith’s (1916-2011) life is an ideal example of how art critics are not necessarily part of an “elite” part of society, removed from the bulk of the population. Remembered by Andrew Fuhrmann (2016) as “the greatest art historian Australia has ever produced”, Smith was born to an unmarried servant and adopted by a working class family. Yet from this very modest beginning, he worked to achieve a PhD at the Australian National University (ANU). He became, firstly, a teacher, a painter, and later an historian, Professor of Contemporary Art at Sydney University, and art critic for the Melbourne Age newspaper. Of interest to this paper was also his influence on Robert Hughes, who is briefly examined in the case studies, and his book, The Art of Australia, produced in 1966.
One of quotes Furhmann attributes to Smith that I find sets him apart was,
I am interested in artists as failures,” wrote Smith. “Hodges was a special kind of failure. The failure who is a forerunner we should, as art historians, pay more attention to (Furhmann, 2016, p. 7).
Another point to be made about Smith was his understanding that to be a better art historian and critic, he relied on his practical experience producing art. As Smith stated in an interview with the Bulletin in July 2000, it was drawing and painting that taught him “a lot about the difficulty of doing it” (surplusvalue, 2000. p. 4).
In specific regard to art criticism, at the opening of the second Mildura exhibition of sculpture in 1964, Smith stated,
[The] business of the critic is to speak the truth as he sees it frankly and without fear or favour. If you ask me what are the use of art critics I can only reply that criticism is precisely what makes a society a free society, and if you are going to have art in a free society you must have critics. Is it possible to have art in an unfree society – history provides us with numerous examples – but not criticism. Art criticism is the price the artist pays for living in a free society (Butler & Palmer, 2018, p. 99).
This I believe succinctly states the purpose of good art criticism and what it should do and indicates why Smith came to be so highly regarded in the Australian arts scene. I would only add, as a practicing painter and visual art writer, that criticism is also a benefit for the artist for “living in a fee society”.
2.3.5 Some issues are timeless
In the context of the 21st-century, despite the current dramatic growth and challenges of the internet in journalism and arts criticism, certain criteria are constant. For example, Hellman & Jaakkola (2012) suggest that the “journalist/critic is a representative of the artistic field in the newspaper rather than a representative of the journalistic field in the arts” (Hellman & Jaakkola, 2012, p. 785). In addition, they describe arts reporters as “seeing themselves as ‘crusaders’ for the public appreciation of the arts and writing to a peer audience, a public of equals” (2012, p. 786). The difference lies in priorities and skills. What Hellman & Jaakkola are saying is that the writing style, and goals of the writer in each case are different. According to them, the journalist writes from the perspective of general journalism, alternately, the art critic or specialist art journalist writes from the perspective
of a member of the arts community as practitioner or analyst/critic.
Importantly, Hellman & Jaakkola (2012) say that “A cultural journalist, or a critic, is a specialist in his/her field of art and needs a sufficient amount of cultural capital, or involvement in the arts, in order to gain legitimacy. His/her articles relate to the general art discourse, and he/she plays the role of an expert instructor who is able to interpret artistic products for the readers” (Hellman & Jaakkola, 2012, p. 787). Whilst Edgerton (2014) says that this has been argued to be more to do with social status, he contends that cultural capital is more of a versatile “toolkit” for various occupations (Edgerton, 2014, pp. 195-198). This illustration is based on an aesthetic rather than journalistic paradigm where the writer’s stance is based on an expert position using subjectivity underpinned by ”epistemic authority” which Pierson (1994) describes as expert knowledge in a particular field (Pierson, 1994, p. 401). The cultural journalist, or a critic therefore displays a depth of knowledge, as an expert educated and involved in the arts which sets them apart from, but not extraneous to journalistic methodologies.
2.3.6 Recognition and memory
Hellman & Jaakkola (2012) state that the adoption of certain journalistic methodologies, such as adopting journalistic story structures, has given art critics more recognition in ‘the news room’. However, they warn that this should not be at the expense of traditional aesthetic paradigms and critical skills and values, based on expertise in the arts. It is the critic’s immersion, specialization, and engagement in the arts that provides authority that readers rely on, without the interference of editors who may wish to ‘spin’ a different ‘angle’ to a story or critique (Hellman & Jaakkola, 2012, p. 797).
Why this is important is explained by Emily Watkins (2019) who, when exploring the steady loss of arts journalists since 2018, quotes Julian Meyrick who states, “arts journalism helped inform policy as well as a national narrative” (Meyrick in Watkins, 2019, pp. 10-11). Meyrick (2017) also writes elsewhere that editors reducing their arts journalism to cut costs should consider the long-term impact of such cutbacks on their communities: “Australia already has a problem with cultural memory. It doesn’t look back and it doesn’t want to look back, but if there really is no mechanism for arts criticism, if all the media is whistleblowing alone, we’re going to end up with very scary results” (Meyrick, 2017, p. 3). As Meyrick concludes, the loss of informed arts criticism will not only affect those working in the arts, it has ramifications for Australia’s cultural future.
This literature review examined the role of arts criticism and art journalism as a specialised field associated with visual art. Based on the research and judgements by scholars and researchers, there has been a lack of specific expertise such as the visual arts exhibited by art critics or arts journalists. As a visual artist, I agree that involvement in the arts and a deeper understanding of its history and analysis of genres, styles, methods, context, and aesthetics are important criteria for art critics and journalists, and this view has been validated by comments and evidence in the review. The literature review also presented evidence of the reduction in full-time distinct art critics in favour of ‘entertainment’ or ‘cultural’ journalists – a trend that has had impact on the quality of arts criticism in Australia and overseas.
Despite Waldemar Januszczak’s example in this review, researchers stated that the authority demonstrated by art critics as specialists in their field cannot be achieved by a ‘general’ journalist who may have no specific area of expertise. It should be noted here, however, that Januszczak and others mentioned in the case studies such as Streeton and Lindsay, prove that there are exceptions, who use their authority to make emotive and biased statements, and that some journalists can write informed arts-based articles. Whomever the writer may be, an informed in-depth critique demands more column space than is progressively allowed in publications both in Australia and overseas. The result of this trend, it can be validly argued, is a lack of value attributed to visual art by news organisations, or appreciation by their readers. In other words, if art is considered of such little value that it takes up insignificant space in news publications, its value to the public will be misunderstood or imperceptible.
As it stands, the trend both overseas as discussed by Jaakkola (2015a), and in Australia, is one of less priority being given to visual arts-based critiquing and reporting, unless it is accompanied by a sensationalist headline and controversy (Jaakkola, 2015a, p. 397). Among the losers from this scenario are emerging artists and critics having less news outlets to showcase their work, leaving an unbalanced and flawed representation of the art market. This is an area of the visual arts in Australia that requires further research to investigate the prospects for professional careers for emerging artists and art critics.
Chapter 3: Methods
The purpose of this research is to analyse examples of critiques by a variety of artists and art journalists to identify experts in the field. This process examines the writers’ qualifications and biographical and professional, social positions and relationship to the visual arts professions along-side how their criticism and art stories have been written.
These data are seen through the lens of a researcher who is a practicing fine artist. This is a reflexive element in analysis which adds myself as a researcher, using my practical and academic education in visual art and arts writing and arts practice to the understandings which can be drawn from the arts journalism materials collected for this study. This, I believe, adds a more personalised quality to writing style of this thesis, and as an artist,
I debate the need for an increased value to be placed on art critics and journalists. As educators and informants, they – art critics and journalists – discuss historic and contemporary art in Australia, not as an elitist pursuit, but as part of an important cultural foundation moving into the future.
In order to respond to these issues, the following methods of research are used for comparative analysis. These are a literary review, case studies of Australian arts writers and autoethnographic reflexivity. The case studies contrast the work of a selection of Australian arts critics and journalists from the early 20th-century, and the late 20th-century into 2020. The scope compares articles written by arts journalists/critics, to uncover the changes that have taken place over the past century in Australian art journalism and if any application of set criteria has been used to make their judgements. What I was looking for are examples of obvious biases, lack of professionalism, or implied lack of specialised knowledge in visual art. For example, in consideration of the context of Streeton’s writing, I investigated historic evidence to support or dispel my understanding that he supported male colleagues in preference over his often overlooked female peers.
It is my contention, based on evidence in the case studies of arts writers, that writers such as Streeton and Lindsay laid the foundation for a skewed and ill-informed understanding of Australian art during the late 19th– and early 20th-century. By contrasting evidence of their work against that of current arts critics and journalists in the case studies of arts writers, my goal was to support this contention of bias and self-serving, which undermined the true ‘picture’ of the development of art in Australia. Another issue worth clarifying in the case studies is the qualifications of each of the critics. My initial assumption was that an education and practice in fine art would add depth and quality to writing, helping it to inform readers, in contrast to general journalism training or humanities education.
3.1. Autoethnographic research
The research project began with an examination of the state of art criticism in Australia from a third person perspective. In the past, as an undergraduate student, I have been careful to keep a neutral ‘third-person’ position when writing a paper, presenting the ‘facts’ with little of my own argument, even when supported by citations. However, as I have researched further, I have learnt that my education and experience in art and writing has value and a place in forming new hypotheses and arguments (Etherington, 2004, pp. 141-142). My confidence has been further developed by the revelation that reflexive, or autoethnographic, research has its foundations in a variety of disciplines including anthropology and philosophy (Cunliffe, 2003, p. 983). Cuncliffe (2003), says that “reflexivity also raises fundamental questions about our ability as researchers to capture the complex, interactional and emergent nature of our social experience” (Cuncliffe, 2003,
During such reflexive research I not only question the validity of the claims of other researchers but also my own. This “betweenness” creates a relationship between myself as the researcher, the cohorts (critics) and their work, the texts, and the reader in an effort to create a “new reality” or understanding of a social phenomenon. Importantly, this means interrogating my previous assumptions and being open to new possible explanations by critically engaging with the data. To be clear, during this process I am not challenging scientific research methods by conflating them with historical, artistic, personal or philosophical investigation. According to Ellis et al. (2015), as a humanities researcher, reflexive research, “acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research, rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they don’t exist” (Elis et al. 2015, p. 247). This, I believe, aptly describes the investigation into art criticism and journalism that I am currently undertaking.
Etherington (2004) adds, “To be reflexive we need to be aware of our personal responses and to be able to make choices about how we use them” (Etherington, 2004, p. 19). Like Etherington, I have struggled with this concept, and have had to overcome my insecurity about whether readers would consider my experience and expertise as an artist and academic as a valid source of knowledge (2004, p. 19). Concerns that are shared by Doloriert & Sambrook (2009) when they say that autoethnography has been criticised as a “vulgar realism” and “a romantic construction of the self”, which only serves to make researchers hesitant to be reflexive, and worry about who the readers of their research are likely to be (Doloriert & Sambrook, 2009, pp. 28, 29, 41). With these issues in mind, I could either revert to my previous method of third-person observer, or mindfully continue on with the autoethnographic model as a reflexive researcher, using the lens of a practicing visual artist.
The autoethnographic model I decided on introduces the lens through which
I, as an artist, art teacher, academic, and visual art writer, can compare the trends occurring in Australia in regard to the value placed on art criticism and journalism. Ellis and Adams (2014) describe the process as a “blend of social science methods with aesthetic sensibilities of the humanities, ethnographic practices with expressive forms of art and literature, and research goals of understanding with practical goals of empathy, healing, and coping (Ellis and Adams, 2014, p. 255). In this case, it is the positioning of myself as an artist, art teacher, academic, and visual art writer within the text as the researcher, and as an aspect of the focus of the research project. As a female painter and art-based writer, the balance of genders writing about art from one period to another has significance, as do any differences in female writers’ education, experience and output in comparison to their male colleagues.
By placing myself within the research it also an opportunity for self-examination with the intent of avoiding some of the mistakes made in the past and present, and learning from the best examples of expertise in art criticism and journalism (Nadin & Cassell, 2006, p. 210). Anderson (2019) says that this process and product helps to develop a better understanding of culture, in this case arts criticism and the social contexts surrounding it, and for understanding why I chose this research this topic (Anderson, 2019, pp. 234, 237). While critics of this method of research may continue to argue that it “sacrifices the analytic purpose of scholarship” I disagree, because autoethnographic first-person active argument for a ‘humanities-based’ theses offers goals of “descriptive/prescriptive” and “practical/theoretical objectives”, of shared “reflections and understandings” (Adams, Holman Jones & Ellis, 2015, pp. 100, 101, 102). What is refreshing in this type of research, is that not only what other researchers say of importance, but so is what I have to contribute.
3.2. Case studies of arts writers
Case studies of arts writers as a research method was chosen to serve, as, Piekkari et al. (2009) say, as “a research strategy that examines, through the use of a variety of data sources, a phenomenon in its natural context, with the purpose of ‘confronting’ theory with the empirical world” (Piekkari et al., 2009, p. 569). Thus, the collection of a sufficient sampling of case studies provides data for the formulation or substantiation of a theory, or response to a set of research questions Case studies of ten art critics have been undertaken as the central data of this research: examination of examples of their art writing alongside personal, professional and biographical details available on them in the public domain.
These case studies of arts writers contrast and compare the work of several Australian arts critics and journalists from the early 20th-century to those working from the late 20th-century into 2020. Stavraki (2014) says “the aim of the instrumental case is to provide detailed description of the context of the case, to enhance an understanding of a phenomenon beyond its context and to build theory from emerging evidence” (Stavraki, 2014, p. 6). The case studies in this research also briefly include the qualifications of each critic/journalist in an effort to understand why articles may differ in consideration of the social norm of each time. Women journalists are included to ensure a fair and balanced analysis, as well as to, potentially, reveal biases that may be uncovered by either gender. Additionally, an Australian art critic working in the United States, and an online writer have been included to compare current arts criticism from one country and format to another. These are Sebastian Smee, writer for The Washington Post and Matthew Sharpe who writes for the online paper, The Conversation.
To enable in-depth examination of case study writers this study initially restricted the number to eight. They were ‘paired’ into four groupings to compare and contrast timeframes, genders, practices, education, and social contexts. The pairs in the case studies (Results and Findings chapter, pp 51-76) highlight variances in practice between Arthur Streeton and Gertrude Langer, J.S. McDonald and Neha Kale, Robert Hughes and Lionel Lindsay, Sebastian Smee and Matthew Sharpe. How these critics represent a cross section of social and professional positions from which they operated and eras during which they worked, or work, is explained later in this chapter. After an initial survey of these past and present Australian critics an additional analysis of two critics currently working on web-based news publishing platforms was made in a separate section. These two critics are Jonathan Jones and Mikey Cahill – bringing the total number of art writers as case studies in this study to ten.
Particular critics were chosen for their fame as painters, such as Arthur Streeton, and others because of their controversial opinions, for example those made by Lionel Lindsay, also a practicing artist. As an artist and art student, with an interest in Australian Impressionism in particular, I have a good overall knowledge of the arts practices of Streeton and the Lindsays but not their work as critics, is the focus of this investigation. Other more recent critics and art journalists were selected because of my reaction to the quality of their work, or the topics they chose to write about that indicated an adherence to academic standards and ability to engage a reader interested in the arts on a deeper level, whilst not being practicing artists.
The information within the studies records social contexts, analysis of articles and critiques, criticism by other researchers of the work of cohorts in the studies, evidence of biases and lack, or presence, of professional behaviour, and differences in writing style from one generation to another. The goal was a better understanding of how critics work, and defining differences between ‘purely’ art critics, artists working as critics, and art journalists, provided by ‘real life’ data about the work they produced. Importantly, case studies of arts writers raise the question of the use of subjectivity as an aesthetic tool for writing quality and engaging content for readers, in contrast to only mentioning the favoured artists of the critic, exemplified by Arthur Streeton.
The term case study is derived from ‘case history’, used more in medicine or psychology. Whether it is a method or an approach has been debated by anthropologists and sociologists who may have differing goals in mind (Hamel, Dufour & Fortin, 1993, p. 2). Both select a subject or group to focus on, and for my study, the group selected was art critics and journalists. After selection, data collection can take a variety of forms, such as interviews, observation, statistics, cataloguing, and sourcing archives (1993, pp. 6-7). An important thing to remember in this process is that “the object under sociological investigation is more than mere facts or items” (1993, p. 12). As Hamel, Dufour & Fortin (1993) state, “the case study must thus consider the perspective of the social actors. This will provide understanding of the personal experiences of these actors”, while allowing my “research voice” to shape questions and form hypotheses (Dufour & Fortin, 1993, p. 12; Stavraki, 2014, p. 4). Consequently, understanding the context of each case study in this research project, in order to more clearly grasp the behaviour, work and opinions of art critics and journalists (the “actors”) by comparison to one another, is the most appropriate method of responding to the thesis questions.
It was anticipated that further patterns would emerge based on education, gender and contexts such as the type of publication, and the timeframe in which articles were written. A table of Australian critics’ qualifications table was created (Chapter 3) to provide such data in a concise format. Plus, printed newspapers in contrast to web-based news were investigated before a critique was made of the impression these writers make, and how they reflect the standard of arts journalism and criticism in Australia. This information reveals the need for the study and explains why this research is important.
3.2.1 Sources of case study data
My methodology for finding sources for the case studies of arts writers began with locating critics listed online who have educational and biographical data available. Of importance was noting and eliminating any art critics who did not have enough information available about their practice, output, or biographical information for a rigorous case study. Some of these, however, were included in the Australian critics’ qualifications table to provide a broader picture of critics working in Australia (p 48).
The final eight critics were decided on because they met my criterion of education in visual art, writing, or the humanities. I also wanted them to represent both common genders, be from two specific periods, and constitute a mix of practicing and non-practicing artists, and writers. Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Lionel Lindsay (1874-1961) were male practicing artists during the early 20th-century who also worked as critics. Gertrude Langer (1908-1984), female critic, and J.S. McDonald (1878-1952), male critic, had an arts education, and worked as critics, but did not practice as artists. Robert Hughes (1938-2012) had a degree in art and architecture and worked only as an art critic. Current female critic, Neha Kale (1982), has a degree in writing and cultural studies but no specific visual arts education, whilst Sebastian Smee (1972-), male critic, has a degree in fine art but is not a practicing artist. Matthew Sharpe (N/A) is an academic in the arts who also works as a critic.
Data was accumulated from these case studies of arts writers by analysis of biographical information to place each critic in the context of their era, gender in consideration of that context, type of education, practical experience in the visual arts and art criticism. This was compared and contrasted with archival evidence of critiques produced during their working lifetime. These critiques indicate the critic’s understanding of art history and practice, possible biases, writing style, and advantages in the form of column space for example, awarded by news publishers.
Critiques by the artists and critics examined in online newspaper and library archives provided valuable information about what and who these critics wrote about enabling comparative exploration. The case studies were informed by these critiques along with research by academics, researchers and critics in the literature review.
The table of various critics later in this chapter provides a snapshot of critics, including those disregarded for deeper study due to lack of available extensive data. This table summary helps to add historical and other contexts to those included in the ten case studies. These include gender, birth/death dates, education and qualification, original nationality and if they were practicing artists.
Examples of work produced by current Australian artists working as critics and journalists was also accessed from online libraries and newspaper archives – including university, library and journal archives. I also used my extensive personal text book library and online (Google Scholar sourced) biographies of historical and recent arts critics to assess these writers’ education, training, emersion in the arts, and journalism experience.
Such archives, are not only useful for “descriptive purposes” but also to explain human behaviour, for example, why certain art critics have expressed certain opinions that today would be considered racist, anti-Semitic, or misogynous (Jones, 1995, p. 106). What may appear anti-social and unacceptable today, with critical examination and questioning of archival data, can be explained, if not forgiven, when placed in context during case studies of arts writers.
As, Van den Bulk et al. (2019) indicate, media policy study, and I would argue media research in general, often starts with “scholars [usually having] as their starting point some normative theory about the role of the media in society, in fact they say, “theory and concepts can help the researcher overcome the potential messiness of case study research” (Van den Bulk et al., 2019, pp. 73-74). Van den Bulk et al. also consider case studies as an important methodological approach, in which the researcher can avail themselves of a variety of research methods, which in this case is mostly qualitative (2019, p. 71).
Put succinctly, the strengths of case studies form the basis of their selection
as a research tool. According to Stavraki (2014) they provide thick (detailed) descriptions that illuminate the actions, narratives and voices that shape individuals’ experiences. In other words, not only the physical behaviour of each individual critic is involved in thick descriptions, but also the context in which they operate/d to allow for better understanding of social meaning for readers outside the field of visual art criticism and journalism. Put simply, it means ‘showing’ via descriptive language, to create a ‘picture’ for the reader, which allows me as the researcher to capture the complexities of the critics under investigation, and develop a context-embedded account that reveals varying perspectives (Stavraki, 2014, p. 15; Stavraki, et al., 2018, pp. 1886-1908).
Stavraki’s input in regard to case studies of arts writers has been valuable because she writes from the perspective of an arts researcher with experience in preparing and explaining the methodologies involved in case studies such as analysis of archival records. Additionally, in her 2018 paper, she states that the findings have “transferability” to a number of contexts outside her research focus (Stavraki, 2018, p. 1886). The result is a new explanation of a single cultural phenomena from a marketing perspective, and additional data relevant to artists, critics, art journalists, curators, and gallery managers. This indicates to me that case study research is valuable for not only the intended readers and researchers involved in art criticism and journalism, but also associated professions and practices to both the arts and journalism fields, such as general newsgathering and reporting, and gallery curating and management.
These methods and methodologies of research used were chosen as they suit my style of research as a practicing artist. I prefer ‘digging’ my way through archives, journals and books, and visual analysis to form questions and hypotheses to explore for personal understanding and improvement, and to raise debate, rather than looking for concrete conclusions. For research based on case studies, this allows for a summary of key themes, and examination of the “form of the delivery” and development of a “conceptualization of the content” (Drisko & Maschi, 2015, p. 85). My research methods also include provision for
in-depth reviews of literature, comparative case studies of arts writers, and contextual contrasts. A theoretical or conceptually informed structure during these processes according to Van den Bulk et al. (2019) aids in the selection of methods and data sources, keeping in mind the need to move on from description to contributing to scholarly debate as an art critic (2019, p. 82).
The accumulated data adds to knowledge about arts criticism in Australia and
its issues by exemplifying the quality that is achievable by ‘experts in the field’
with relevant immersion in visual arts practice, criticism, and art journalism practice. It also dispels any misunderstanding about when and where this quality has been produced, and by whom. As revealed in the case studies, practicing artists in the past have not been ideal examples of art criticism, in contrast to my early assumptions, just as some current arts journalists have proven to be praiseworthy for their depth of knowledge of the liberal arts and journalistic practice.
3.2.2 Australian critics’ qualifications table
The following table “acts to augment rather than duplicating text” in the case studies of arts writers and not as a stand-alone set of data (Hancock & Algozzine, 2017, p. 86). In other words, it underpins information in the case studies, adding to an understanding of each individual critic. It also adds other names than those examined in the case studies to provide an overview of critics working in Australia during the same timeframe. Of interest are gender, period of practice (current or historic), education, and emersion in the visual arts as practicing artists. The critics in this table were chosen from a short list of Australian art critics in a Google search on the web which resulted in names for art critics in a Wikipedia page (Wikipedia, 2017). This page was only used to build a list of names after which I searched for valid sources of data elsewhere, such as research papers, government documents, and biographies. Several names were not included in the table as their experience, or practices did not fall strictly into the criteria for the research. For example, some were music, movie or theatre critics who did not specialise in visual or fine art.
Some of these other critics, for example, have taught art related topics to tertiary level, authored books, and been paid academic and industry speakers. A few have blogs on the web where they publish critiques away from editorial control by news publishers. They add to the discussion about Australian art criticism and art journalism by indicating areas for further research, such as web-based arts blogs for criticism, as the opportunities for critics evolves away from print-based communication with readers. Advantages and shortcomings of how this emerging method is being tackled by two Australian newspapers is briefly covered in a comparison of two digital art journalists in results and findings in chapter 4.4.
|Christopher Allen||M||1953-||BA (French) (Hons, University Medal) (UNSW)|
MA (France), PhD (Sydney)
|Mary Cecil Allen||F||1893-1962||Gallery School (Victoria)|
Slade Fine Art School (UK)
|Donald Brook||M||1927-2018||BA (Fine Art) (Leeds, UK)|
Post. Grad. Chancellor’s Award (Ancient Sculpture) (Greece), PhD (Art Critical Appraisal) (ANU)
|Edmund Capon||M||1940-2019||MPhil (England), Painting (London University)||No||Aust.|
|Lynne Cooke||F||1952-||BA (Melbourne), MA and PhD (Art History) (London)||No||Aust.|
|Geoffrey de Groen||M||1938-||Julian Ashton Art School, National Art School||Yes||Aust.|
|Geoffrey Dutton||M||1922-1998||University of Adelaide, Oxford University||No||Aust.|
|Ivor Francis||M||1906-1993||Adelaide Teacher’s College, School of Arts and Crafts (Adelaide)||Yes||Aust.|
|Benjamin Genocchio||M||1969-||PhD (Art History) (Sydney University)||No||Aust.|
|Esmond George||M||1888-1959||Heatherley Art School (UK)||Yes||Aust.|
|Sasha Grishin||M||1950?||Art History (Melbourne University, State University Moscow, Oxford)||No||Aust.|
|Jennifer Higgie||F||1962-||BA (VCA) (Melbourne), Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship||No||Aust.|
|Robert Hughes||M||1938-2012||Arts and Architecture (University of Sydney)||No||Aust. O/S|
|Neha Kale||F||1982-||BA (1st Class Hons) Professional Writing and Cultural Studies (Curtin) (WA)||No||Aust.|
|Natalie King||F||1966-||MA (Visual Art and Museum Studies) (Monash University Melbourne)||No||Aust.|
|Gertrude Langer||F||1908-1984||PhD (Art History) (Vienna)||No||Aust.|
|Lionel Lindsay||M||1874-1961||Gallery School (Melbourne) |
Art Lessons with Walter Withers
|Norman Lindsay||M||1879-1969||Creswick Grammar School||Yes||Aust.|
|James Stuart MacDonald||M||1878-1952||Gallery School (Melbourne)|
Printing Apprenticeship (Lithography)
|Norman Macgeorge||M||1872-1952||Art (School of Design) (Adelaide)||Yes||Aust.|
|Norman Baxter Mather||M||1853-1940||N/A||Yes||Aust.|
|Alan McLeod McCulloch||M||1907-1992||Art (night school Melbourne)|
Honorary Doctorate Melbourne University
|Drusilla Modjeska||F||1946-||PhD (History) (UNSW)||No||Aust.|
|William Moore||M||1868-1937||Scotch College (Bendigo)||No||Aust.|
|John Neylon||M||1944-||Dip. Teaching (Vis, Art), B.Ed. (University of South Australia)||Yes||Aust.|
|Elizabeth Riddell||F||1910-1998||Walkley Award 1968, 1969 Best Newspaper Story, 1968 Critic of the Year||No||Aust.|
|Robert Rooney||M||1937-2017||Art (Swinburne, Phillip Institute)||Yes||Aust.|
|Matthew Sharpe||M||N/A||PhD (Arts) (University of Melbourne)|
BA (University of Melbourne Lecturer at Deakin University
|Sebastian Smee||M||1972-||BFA (Hons) |
Pulitzer Prize (Art Criticism)
|No||Aust. And O/S|
|Bernard Smith||M||1916-2011||BA (Sydney University), London University, PhD (ANU)||Yes||Aust.|
|Arthur Streeton||M||1867-1943||Gallery School (Melbourne)|
Printing Apprenticeship (Lithography)
|Paul Taylor||M||1957-1992||BA (Hons) (Monash University) (Melbourne)||No||Aust.|
|Celia Winter-Irving||F||1941-2009||Fine Art (Sydney University)||Yes||O/S|
|Blamire Young||M||1862-1935||Mathematics (3rd class Hons) (Cambridge) (England)||Yes||Aust.|
Female Representation = 35%
Practicing Artists = 57%
The table helped to unpack and note trends in education, and for data collection to find materials/sources. It clearly and succinctly revealed underlying considerations for critics’ criticisms and whether these align with their output, backgrounds, knowledge as artists in their artistic practices, and education (arts and/or journalism). The table also aided in building a matrix of evidence, to assemble elements of the selected researched art critics’ practices and journalistic and critical skills.
My ethical approach uses and follows ethical standards in compliance with the ethical requirements of Charles Sturt University and the ethical standards of the National Association of Visual Artists (NAVA) which I am a professional member. To confirm that my research complies with these standards steps were taken to ensure the validity of research sources and methods, and data via public domain sources. Additionally, I worked to comply with copyright and plagiarism laws and guidelines, and creative and intellectual property rights including fair use.
The limitations of such research begin with detailed historical biographic data not being publicly available for certain earlier critics of the 20th-century. This is especially so during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in Victoria. Records for the Victorian Artists Society, which have information about early art critics/artists for example are in the physical archives of the State Library of Victoria. This is also the case for the state library in New South Wales and the national library in Canberra which would have required extended travel time, accommodation, and finances to physically access.
Gaps in the data, especially regarding the motivation of art critics became apparent during research, as historical records and archives often do not include the private thoughts of early critics. Letters between Streeton and his peers for example, like his published writing, included references to his close friends in art and rarely included thoughts about art in general, or lesser known painters.
My materials, sources and methodologies are used in this research to build
a picture of visual art criticism in journalism in Australia, both historically from the early 20th-century, to current practice published both in print and on the internet. It also aids in constructing a critique of the artists and journalists researched in response to the three major research questions in this paper. These are briefly; qualifications in art and journalism, how each differed in consideration of timeframe, editorial control, education, practical art (visual art) experience, gender, and perceived importance of art as a cultural foundation at the time of publication. The information informs my perspectives as an artist and arts writer about what has, and is being done in the profession, areas I identify for improvement heading into the future, and the importance of this research. The result is a clearer picture of the successes and failures in the practice of art criticism and journalism in the past and present, and more focussed and reflexive participation by me as the researcher looking at the data through the lens of a fine artist and arts writer.
Case studies of arts writers, in addition to the literature review, add a significant component to the research, providing data in the form of public records of original articles that can be authenticated via public libraries and newspaper archives. The case studies provide meaningful information in response to research questions and are ‘real-life’ additions to the material in the literature review. Unlike other forms of research, the case study also provides an opportunity to analyse and interpret on an ongoing basis, as each study is added. This allows for a logical flow of information to be accumulated and compared from one case to the next before any conclusions or theories are proffered. It also helps to prevent being overwhelmed by the amount of data collected as research is conducted (Hancock & Algozzine, 2016, p. 62). The anticipated result is a research project that raises awareness and discussion about the history, current condition and value, and future of art criticism and journalism in Australia and my part in that story.
Chapter 4: Results And Findings
Findings during the process of researching this thesis have yielded unexpected information about the conduct of art critics, and standards of art criticism and journalism over the past century. As the practice has shifted in some respect during the past few decades, from using practicing artists, to freelance and full time journalists, an overall loss of qualified and objective commentary was expected. While there is an indication of poor hiring practice, in the form of a lack of any requirements for higher education in the arts, there are examples of Australian arts journalists with specific expertise, and post graduate arts education writing both in the country and overseas.
Additionally, the expected expertise and professionalism from critics, who were acclaimed Australian artists of the early 20th-century has been disproven by examples of prejudice, misogyny, racism, and closed-minded inability to analyse and critique art and artists of all genres based on an openly informed perspective. Evidence of bias based on personal and professional connections was also uncovered, suggesting that artists working outside of certain ‘male-based friendship circles’ in Sydney and Melbourne, were largely overlooked or ignored.
4.1 Major Themes and Patterns
Major themes and patterns revealed during research included the historical and current qualities of arts criticism and journalism in Australia and differences in these qualities based on education and practical expertise. Another theme was the difference in the degree of attention and priority given to arts reporting and critiquing by news organisations which led to exposing hiring practises as a reflection of the lack of attention given to arts journalism. Other themes that became evident included whether readership drives hiring decisions, or perceived readership interests by management is responsible for a reduction in dedicated art critics in newsrooms in preference for ‘cultural or entertainment journalists’.
4.2 Research Questions
Investigations in this document are based on the following research questions.
What makes good art criticism
What visual art and writing or journalism qualifications should be required produce it?
How do current arts journalists compare to those in the early 20th-century in Australia in regard to impartiality, and experience or formal education in visual art?
What evidence would be uncovered when comparisons are attempted?
Do current arts journalists indicate impartiality, and extensive expertise, and why is this important?
How might coverage of visual arts in the media be changing and thus affecting attitudes to art, and what should it be doing to adapt to this?
4.3 Data: Case Studies of arts writers
The data in the case studies of arts writers indicated that historically, and recently, there has not been a need for tertiary education in art for art critics and journalists. Whilst exceptions to this were found, the majority, especially historically, were predominately practicing artists who also wrote about art.
4.4. The Critics: Case studies of arts writers
4.4.1 Arthur Streeton
Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) was arguably one of Australia’s more notable Impressionist landscape painters. He was born in Geelong, Victoria. He attended drawing classes at night school at the Gallery School in Melbourne, and training in lithography. He had no formal training in painting. His friendship, and experience painting en plein air with painters such as Tom Roberts built up his expertise in using the medium (Galbally, 1990, pp.1-3). Streeton and male colleagues attended the artist’s camps in Heidelberg and Box Hill during the late 1880s, and after spending time in Sydney and England, returned to Victoria where he wrote as art critic for The Argus (1990, pp. 6-11).
Streeton’s critiques in The Argus that are of importance in this review, because of his elevated role in the development of Australian art, nationalism via his status in Australian art circles, and art journalism (Berryman, 2014, p. 574). What he wrote, who he wrote about, and who he often neglected to mention, indicate some of the social and professional restrictions during his lifetime, and his personal biases.
For example, Streeton as a member of the groups staying in the artist’s camps in Heidelberg and Box Hill, would have painted with women artists like Jane Sutherland, who took the train to paint with the men on a daily basis (Lindsay, 2007, p. 226). Yet, he rarely if ever wrote about them in his articles, preferring to support his male colleagues, and a political push for a male-based nationalistic vision of Australia (Berryman, 2016, p. 575).
In October 1934, Streeton wrote a full page article for The Argus in Melbourne titled Eaglemont in the ‘Eighties. In it, Streeton wrote about his experiences at the artist’s camps, mentioning the fellow male artist and students from the gallery school who participated. However, his writing in this Melbourne newspaper clearly indicates a neglect to mention the individual contribution of women artists who attended to paint. In a shorter article written earlier that year, Streeton critiqued an exhibition opening in Melbourne’s CBD. In it he makes passing mention of three male colleagues before concentrating on the work of a single male artist, named only as Mr Munch. In it, Streeton is descriptive of the painterly qualities of the landscapes, whilst admitting he had little knowledge of the colours of the ‘red centre’ to qualify what he said. Equally, his critique of Indigenous portraits reflects his knowledge of colour and composition in a landscape, but not of the topic of Aboriginal features, which he skips over.
Galbally (1990) says that as critic for The Argus from 1929, Streeton used his status, thanks to the support of critics like J. S. McDonald and Lionel Lindsay, to be a “tastemaker” in topics such as art, the environment and public affairs. He also used this position to promote himself and his solo exhibitions. (Galbally, 1990, p. 11; Werskey, n.d. p. 9). Such subjective self-interest, according to Chong, puts the writer at odds with their commitment to their readers’ needs. Although writing about literary critics, the principle is the same; the critic should be informing the public about the topic (artist, or exhibition), not in order to primarily build up their own prestige or reputation (Chong, 2019, pp. 430, 437). The subtle alliances between Streeton, McDonald and Lindsay during the 1920s and 1930s, according to Hoorn (1992), created a context in which male artists, who met certain criteria, were promoted, effectively shutting women out, in favour of a “masculine mainstream presence”. Those that they considered were incapable of meeting the demands of the “academic mainstream” discounted as inferior and not worth their attention (Hoorn, 1992, pp. 15-17). These were opinions that would be challenged in coming years, from outside Australia’s ‘art and cultural centres’ of Melbourne and Sydney, by Gertrude Langer, a female immigrant from Nazi-controlled Austria.
4.4.2 Gertrude Langer
Gertrude Langer (1908-1984) was critic for Brisbane Courier Mail 1953-1984, and held a PhD in art history from the University of Vienna 1933. Betty Churcher (1993) describes her as having “gilt-edge credentials” however she never held any official posts at the Queensland Gallery, and spent years in Brisbane lecturing the public for free as a way of giving back to her adopted country after fleeing Nazi-controlled Austria in 1939 (Churcher, 1993, p. 514). It wasn’t until 1956 that she was appointed as art critic for The Brisbane Courier Mail, a position she held until her death in 1984. Langer’s experience as a female wishing to enter art journalism was not unique to that genre of writing. Historically, it was equally difficult for women in general to find employment as journalists in Australia. Clarke (2014) states that even when hired, often only part-time or casually, women were relegated to ‘soft news’ stories and ‘women’s pages’. They were also paid less than male journalists, something that was not widely known, as they were employed at lower grades than equally qualified men (Clarke, 2014, p. 1). Clarke noted that a survey held in 1996, over a decade after Langer’s death, women journalists still mostly remained in lower pay grades, indicating that she may never have gained equality with her male colleagues, despite her experience and education (2014, p. 3).
Churcher (1993) stated that although educated in European Baroque and Renaissance art, Langer became well acquainted with Australian art. Her articles and critiques were informed by getting to know artists in person, sometimes inviting emerging artists to her home. Despite her informed reviews and increasing stature in Queensland, Langer’s views remained largely overlooked by galleries and the government regarding purchases for collections, and remote art education for those not living near the city. She was awarded an OBE in 1968 for her contributions to the arts in Queensland, however, after much of her efforts were ignored in favour of lesser qualified men, it can be asked if this held any satisfaction for her (Churcher, 1993, p. 514).
One study by Strobl (2018) uses a case study of Gertrude Langer, to draw out what she contributed to Australian art journalism, and the qualifications that underpinned her writing. An important aspect that Strobl points out in regard to Langer, was her PhD in Art History and Ethnology, achieved prior to fleeing Nazi-controlled Austria, for Australia in 1939. This is where other important points reveal themselves – discrimination and anti-Semitism in their various forms, which were responsible for Langer and her husband leaving Europe, and restricted her as an academic and critic for over a decade in Brisbane, Australia (Strobl, 2018, p. 18). The biases inherent in employment practices in art journalism during the 1940s is reflected in her employment by the Brisbane Courier Mail, which Strobl described as a “minor piece of journalism” requiring no specific training (2018, pp. 24-25). Evidence suggests, however, that Langer was able to use her education to build a respected reputation in the local arts world. She did this by directly informing the public and acerbly critiquing artworks of all genres. This was something that was often hotly criticised by members of the Australian ‘art establishment’ due to Australia’s slow uptake of 20th-century mart (Strobl, 2018, pp. 17, 21, 28).
Hamilton (2013) supports Strobl’s remarks about Brisbane’s “cloistered art world” which underpins the difficulty in raising awareness to “contemporary values in art” faced by Langer. As she states, reviews were largely written by art groups and individual artists, that had biases and agendas, based on persistent cultural conservativism (Hamilton, 2013, pp. 203-207). Langer on the other hand was looking for more than skill in handling a brush, as she brought creativity and critical thinking into the process of painting and its criticism (Hamilton, 2013, p. 208). As Hamilton points out, more than artistic skills were necessary to professionally critique exhibitions and artworks. Statements, Langer proved, must be based on and supported by evidence of expertise in the field, which helped her to inform and entertain readers, and it was this credibility, according to Hamilton, that sustained her career until her death (Hamilton, 2013, pp. 211; Strobl, 2018, p. 25).
Of importance to this research paper when analysing Strobl and Hamilton’s views, are the varying social aspects that were in place, and personal and professional qualities that helped Langer to overcome them. Langer was ready to learn about her readership and build a sense of trust and professional regard in both the arts community, and from her readership. As a woman, from a Nazi-controlled country, conservative Australia needed to be adapted to, understood, and then informed by her “treasure chest” of knowledge. Her high degree of art education, and persistence and willingness to keep learning, are qualities that separate examples of mediocre ill-informed criticism of the period from exceptional art journalism (Strobl, 2018, pp. 26-28).
Langer’s abilities in art criticism come through in her short contributions to The Brisbane Courier Mail. While, examples of her work indicate that she was restricted to less than 300 word articles, Langer was able to write informed comments underpinned by historical and literary references. In addition, she was critical without being cruel or personal. For example, in her critique dated 29th June, 1953, of a joint exhibition by Alan Baker and Harry Pugmire at the Moreton Galleries, she concluded by saying:
“Alan Baker shows oil paintings of flower pieces, small portraits, and one nude, more or less painted with an eye on popular appeal. Let us quote the Chinese painter-poet. Su Tung-po: The one who values a picture for Its likeness has no more discrimination than a child.”
“As to Pugmire, he has nine landscapes in pastel technique and four in oil. There is much room for improvement in the oils. The pastels are more interesting” (Langer, 1953).
This example of her critiquing adds historical referencing, and a certain amount of literary skill, tempered but still direct, in order to put forward an informed analysis. In 1954, when critiquing the annual exhibition of The Queensland Art Society, she stated that “Sunday painters” might be better off by forming an amateur society. It was her opinion that art created as a hobby, reflected “poor craftsmanship”, and whilst painting was a wholesome and commendable pastime for some, this wasn’t a reason for including lower standards of work in a high profile exhibition (Langer, 1954).
Langer finished off with some encouraging words for several artists, saying that several indicated “measures of promise”, signalling her intent to be fair whilst informing from a well-versed perspective. Her inclusion of emerging artists irrespective of gender or race in her critiques sets her apart from Streeton, who, despite painting with several women artists, like Jane Sutherland for example, rarely if ever mentioned their work in his columns, preferring to promote the work of his male colleagues instead (NGV, n.d., pp. 6-7). Langer was more receptive to contemporary art than most if not all art critics during the early to mid-20th-century, and this difference is clearly seen in the attitude underlying rhetoric by James Stuart McDonald.
4.4.3 James Stuart MacDonald
The following analysis compares and contrast James Stuart MacDonald (1878-1952) with Neha Kale cultural journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2020 and Robert Hughes art critic for The Guardian 2017-18. The century separating these critics will indicate how writing styles and output by art critics have evolved and in some ways matured from the emotive language used by McDonald.
Australian art critic, James MacDonald attended Westminster School of Art in London in 1898 and the Julian Calarossi and Carmen Academy in Paris from 1899 to 1904. He taught art in New York, practiced painting, lithography, and drawing, and was an Australian war artist. During the 1920 he became a newspaper art critic in Melbourne for the Herald newspaper.
Forward wrote of MacDonald that he has been considered a monster by most Australian historians. He supports this by adding that he was known for his opposition to modern art, extreme conservatist political stance, and most importantly his bigotry, misogynism, and anti-Semitism whilst occupying top positions at ‘national’ galleries in Melbourne and Sydney during the 1930s (Forward n.d., p. 1). Forward also links MacDonald to Lionel Lindsay, saying that as friends and the two most “influential writers on Australian art” during the 1940s, they were in positions to sway public opinion and political support for the arts. Macdonald in particular, who had more influence, used this to undermine the development of Australian art, and voice his biased views in public debate (n.d., p. 10).
Berryman (2016) writes that “The nationalism of the post-Federation decades was soured by the ideology of British race patriotism. This occurred at the hands of crypto-fascist and imperialist artists and critics, J. S. MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay being the arch-villains, and continues saying, MacDonald personified Australian national art’s sad evolution from exuberant nationalism to pathological nationalism” (Berryman, 2016, p. 581).To better understand MacDonald’s rhetoric, an example of his criticism needs to be analysed from The Herald Exhibition of Modern French and British Art in 1939. When describing it’s artworks he said:
They are exceedingly wretched paintings…putrid meat…the great majority of the work called “modern” is the product of degenerates and perverts and that by the press the public has been forcibly fed with it … (MacDonald, n.d., p. 4).
Excerpts from the Bulletin in 1934, in addition, confirm why MacDonald’s views indicate the need at the time for Australian art journalism and critiquing to mature to an international standard. Speaking about women and gay artists he said that “women rarely shine where workmanship is involved” and that they “hadn’t learned to paint in any numbers” despite learning from the same masters as the men, and that gay men, which he referred to as “pansies” were allies in not being able to speak or think about art in any depth (Ambrus, 1992. p. 140). Comments which were supported in the same publication by Hattie Knight, a female contributor, who said “women, with a few exceptions, do not possess creative ability in art, literature or music” and “But it is men – decadent men, “pansies” even – who supply the ideas, paint decadent pictures and generally keep up the world supply of mischief and poison for women to play about with” (Ambrus, 1992, p. 141).
Ambrus (1992) succinctly describes MacDonald, saying “In all his fulminating MacDonald did not offer any critiques based on aesthetics. His metaphors did not appeal to the intellect but to the basest of emotions” (Ambrus, 1992, p. 139). While evidence of his rhetoric in The Herald is far less acerbic, than that of critiques by Lionel Lindsay in his book Addled Art, the only assumption I can make is that editorial control in various newspapers was responsible for curbing many, but not all offensive remarks for fear of legal reprisals (1992, pp. 140-141). Ambrus refers to this when talking about the “abysmal” quality of arts criticism. She also notes that it was the habit of ‘the art world’ to withhold constructive criticism of women artists’ work, or not mention them at all, except for a few exceptions. Male peers’ work was considered to be superior to women’s, so women were treated to a “code of silence” by critics like Lindsay and McDonald (1992, p. 6). Where ever these views appeared, however, they have no place in contemporary society and indicate that education and practice in visual art did not prevent bias and prejudice from tainting art journalism and criticism in the early 20th-century in Australia.
4.4.4 Neha Kale
In contrast to MacDonald, Neha Kale cultural journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, holds a BA in Professional Writing and Cultural Studies with First Class Honours and Robert Hughes art critic for The Guardian 2017-18, had a BA in Architecture. Kale, when writing an article about podcasts produced to highlight the work of women artists, draws on journalistic methods including a variety of quotes from various valid sources, and a depth of knowledge about art history in regard to women artists that is often overlooked, citing examples including Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi and contemporary artist Patricia Piccinini. An obvious difference to the writing by MacDonald, is the absence of spiteful or biased remarks when talking about how arts education, and art books, had in the past largely ignored many women artists. She stated the facts, and referenced the book The Story of Art by Gombrich, without the need to attack the artist on a personal or professional level. Instead, Kale states: “You have to dig to find these histories but there is an extraordinary history of women making art” (Kale, 2020, p. 7).
4.4.5 Robert Hughes
In 2008, Robert Hughes wrote a 2732 word article about a retrospective exhibition of the work of Francis Bacon for The Sydney Guardian. In contrast to the length of minor pieces exemplified by some recent posts in Melbourne newspaper sites such as The Herald Sun, of less than 200 words, Hughes was allocated the space to write a well-informed and researched piece. Speaking of Bacon’s work, he said, “Bacon’s main subject and primal obsession is the human figure, radically reshaped and engaged in an activity that, before 1969, was punishable in England – and quite often was punished – by criminal prosecution, social obloquy and jail” (Hughes, 2008, p. 7). Considering Bacon’s sexual orientation, had Lindsay or MacDonald critiqued his work, the rhetoric would have been far different to Hughes’, who went on to say:
Such a denouement would hardly have been expected by John Ruskin, greatest of English art writers. But then you might say that, within the long scope of British art, Bacon is Ruskin’s antitype: in his ferocious sexual frankness, of course, but most of all in his denial that human life has any “higher purpose”, or that art and nature connect us in some way to God. He was the complete atheist, anti-metaphysical, anti-transcendent. (Hughes, 2008, pp. 8-9).
In such statements, Hughes underpins his analysis of Bacon’s paintings with context. In other words, why he painted as he did, and what the viewer was seeing, rather than merely stating that the artist was ‘controversial’ without informed explanation. Hughes continued on, describing Bacon’s artistic sensibilities, such as his dislike of narrative paintings. Bacon’s goals, he said, were ones of distinguishing thinking from feeling, or “brain’ from “nervous system”. Comparing Bacon to Goya, Hughes went deeper than a superficial comment about a selling price, to analyse the artist and his work, and how he dared you to think further than a sensational moment at an art auction.
Despite failing to complete art and architecture studies at university, Hughes, indicated by his analytical and elucidatory skills, was described by Malcolm Turnbull for The Australian Media Hall of Fame, as “one of Australia’s most influential art critics” (Turnbull, 2020, p. 1). While it must be noted that Turnbull’s wife is the niece of Hughes, this doesn’t detract from the list of life accomplishments accredited to him including time as art critic for Time Magazine, television series and book The Shock of the New, and internationally best-selling art history book
The Fatal Shore. He was later awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Melbourne and New York amongst other literary awards. He was known for being blunt, but arguably, this was tempered by well-formed and researched argument.
4.4.6 Lionel Lindsay
Lionel Lindsay, in contrast to Hughes, and despite family involvement in the arts, and a certain amount of visual art education, revealed conflicting views during his lifetime. Lindsay was taught at the Gallery School in Melbourne and privately by George Coates (1869-1930). He also taught himself etching and engraving. Joanna Mendelssohn says of Lindsay’s background, “Lionel had a strong, almost passionate, interest in most fields of knowledge, and did not hesitate to voice an opinion both in conversations and in correspondence. As an atheist, despite his mother’s religious convictions, he loathed Protestants for their religion, Catholics and Masons for their rituals and secrecy, and Jews for creating the Judaeo-Christian ethic” (Mendelssohn, 1988, p. xiii). Attitudes which may help to explain the rhetoric in his book Addled Art.
During the late 1920s, after returning to Melbourne from his European trips where he was exposed to current trends in art such as Cubism and Surrealism, Lindsay worked as art critic at the Melbourne Herald. During the 1930s, although seen as a Sydney outsider by some artists, according to Mendelssohn, and as evidenced in his writing, he critiqued exhibitions relatively fairly, especially in regard to younger emerging artists, but not in regard to the “Melbourne establishment”. His critiques of portraits including statements such as, “nothing of life emanates from its soft amorphous surface” (Mendelssohn,
1988, p. 186).
Overall, however he mostly kept his hatred of certain genres to himself, with a few exceptions such as, when asked about the European modern art movement in 1928, he stated, “It is loaded up with the leprosy of the ages. It is offensive to the eye” (Prunster, 1995, p. 100). However, he wrote kinder criticisms for local artists, like, “With the notable exception of Mrs Preston, Australian artists who have “gone modern” have kept to the picture plane, and, happily, not adventured into the mazy depths of mathematics, distortions, and the sub-conscious that have tortured Europe”. Unlike Streeton, women and men are included in Lindsay’s local critiques, along with references to his understanding of painting techniques and methods. His implied criticism of Preston’s work, however, hints at his growing misogynist attitudes regarding women artists who took up Modernist painting, and anti-Semitist perspectives as noted by Mendelssohn (1988,
These growing attitudes became manifest during the Herald Exhibition of Contemporary Art in 1939, which included recent work from Europe (Mendelssohn, 1988, p. 196). In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, a decade later, his personal biases, in particular, his anti-Semitic opinions were made clear, and printed without editing.
The Australian public is perhaps yet unaware that modernism was organised in Paris by Jew dealers, whose first care was to corrupt criticism, originate propaganda – in this infinitely superior to Goebbels, for it worked – and undermined accepted standards so that there should be ample merchandise to handle. It was Udhe, the Jew art critic, who proudly boasted that three-fourths of the art dealers, critics and collectors were Jews, whilst to mystify the public a jargon employed which no art in the past has needed to establish its bone fides (Lindsay, 1949).
Despite Lindsey’s protestations to the contrary, as one of many of his comments, particularly in his book Addled Art, this quote indicates his adherence to the undercurrent of racism that flourished in Australia under the ‘White Australia Policy” (Mendelssohn, 1988, pp. 201, 204).
In August 1946, Sheila Rein, Art Critic for the Daily Examiner Denounced Lionel Lindsays’ book “Addled Art”, calling it, “65 pages of rabid and irrelevant anti-Semitism.” Rein said: “Modern art evidently has arrived in Australia. This distresses Lindsay, who attacks it in a manner that is hysterical and irrational’ (Rein, 1946) Lindsay revealed more than just his hatred of modernism and distrust of Jewish art critics and dealers in his book. In it he attacked more art movements such as Fauvism, Dadaism, a variety of male European artists (especially if considered to be of Jewish heritage), and women artists whom he described as following any new fad and finding all styles “equally pleasant” for their “light hands’ (Lindsay, 1946, p. 53). This book, away from the control and editing powers of the newspapers for which he worked, indicates a raw and uncensored view of the mind on Lionel Lindsay. In it are a rash of statements that may have been let go prior to the second world war, but were quickly rejected in later years by critics, artists, and the public. These statements also overtake any qualified remarks about ‘the mechanics of producing art’ and its aesthetic value based on his practice as an artist, which it would be better to remember him for, rather than his inflammatory statements against modern art and it practitioners.
4.4.7 Sebastian Smee
As a contrast to Lindsay, and the social context of the period between wars in the early 20th-century, Sebastian Smee, currently active Australian art critic and journalist, exhibits a significantly different style of writing, based on an arts degree with first-class honours from Sydney University. Smee has also worked as art critic in Sydney, and London for several high-profile newspapers and art magazines before moving to the United States to write for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. He won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2011 while working at the Globe. Additionally, Smee is an author of arts books and regularly critiques books for the Spectator.
This broad exposure to art journalism overseas has given Smee a greater understanding of global movements in art, rather than focussing on Australian art or any particular genre. When critiquing Smee’s book The art of rivalry: Four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in modern art, Bruce Jacobs said, “Smee’s selection of artists captures different eras in the rise of modern art, and he enriches his narrative with numerous references to the critics, gallerists, lovers, spouses and collectors of the time, and concludes commenting, The art of rivalry is a captivating story of eight artists at the top of their game and how they got there by climbing each other’s ladders” (Jacobs, n.d. p. 3).
Smee’s article in the Washington Post, dated the 29th-July, 2020, is a critique of a pastel work by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789) indicates his level of education and willingness to research his subject for a subjective, but still informative story.
It includes some personal history of the artist, influences to his work, and the development of his signature colour, blue. Smee describes the use of the materials based on an artist’s understanding, and describes the artwork in an inviting and engaging manner. Of this Beauty in blue, as he titled his critique, Smee said:
Up close, you can see how Liotard used both the texture of the vellum surface and the opaque, subtly layered and slightly granular pastel to imitate the look of skin, with its pores and shadows and highlights. The delicate striations of diagonal highlights on the girl’s rosy right cheek give it a palpable lustre. (Smee, 2020, pp 8-9).
He goes on to describe intricate features of the subject in the painting in a lyrical manner, pointing out how the artist highlighted sensitively, the lips against the skin, the expression in the eyes and youthfulness of the child sitter. Smee then finishes of by light-heartedly talking about the child’s dog “staring out” of the painting with “doggy bemusement”, effectively ‘showing not telling’ the reader in an inviting and entertaining manner.
Not restricted to historical art of the 18th-century, earlier in 2020 Smee wrote about William Johnson, an artist in Harlem in the early to mid-20th-century, who painted his impressions of the race riots he had recently experienced. Again, Smee covered the artist’s background in influences on his art to give the story context, he also included information about the riots themselves. He then moved on to critiquing the method and style of Johnson’s work, and rather than attempting to render conclusions about the narrative in the artwork, poses questions for the reader to ponder, along with his aesthetic responses.
Unlike earlier critics like Lindsay, Smee invites readers to continue to ponder the meaning of the artwork, as a method of furthering their engagement beyond reading his article. His final words saying, “Was Johnson painting a dream — an all-African-American police force concerned for its exhausted and abject citizenry? I really don’t know. But if he were dreaming, no one would blame him” (Smee, 2020, p. 12). A style of writing that includes less of the writer’s ego, as evidenced in Lindsay’s writing, and far more about informing and entertaining the reader about the artist and the artwork.
4.4.8 Matthew Sharpe
Matthew Sharpe’s writing style has a similar ‘flavour’ to Smee’s. In a recent article dated July 23rd, 2020, he wrote the article Guide to the classics: How Marcus Aurelius’ Medications can help us in a time of pandemic, which draw my attention, as it indicated his depth of knowledge of ancient history and philosophy, as well as art. The juxtaposition of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the Stoic philosophy of a Roman Emperor (161-180 CE) made an interesting, and unusual story with currency, to my thinking.
Sharpe, is writer for the online paper, the Conversation, holds a PhD and is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Critical Theory at Deakin University in Melbourne. He has authored books covering biographies, critical theory and contemporary politics, so is qualified to write a story of this type, that asks readers to find strength in the writings of a long-dead philosopher Emperor. Interestingly, though, the article is written in language that is easily read, and relevant to current conditions.
Where he quotes Aurelius’ book Meditations, Sharpe explains the statement in clear simple English, to engage the reader, not bolster his own ego. The goal of the article is to give people hope, and ways of coping in abnormal times of stress, by showing that it has happened before, and there is a way to thrive during adversity. The inclusion of several artworks depicting Aurelius, in support of his Stoic philosophies is another way of helping readers to visualise acts of kindness and hope, while appealing to aesthetic tastes of art lovers.
Overall, Sharpe leaves the reader feeling informed and respected because he doesn’t appear to ‘dumb-down’ his topic. As he says, “The Stoics propose that what they call virtue is the only good. And this virtue consists above all in knowing how best to respond to the things that befall us, rather than fretting about things we cannot control” (Sharpe, 2020, p. 5). To finish he includes a quote by scholar Pierre Hadot, which sums up his message, saying:
All this makes the Meditations the singular classic that it is. Or, in Hadot’s moving words:
In world literature one finds lots of preachers, lesson-givers, and censors, who moralise to others with complacency, irony, cynicism, or bitterness; but it is extremely rare to find a person training himself to live and to think like a human being …
We feel “a highly particular emotion”, Hadot continues, as we witness Marcus trying, as we each do, “to live in complete consciousness and lucidity; to give each of our instants its fullest intensity; and to give meaning to our entire life”.
“Marcus is talking to himself”, Hadot observes, “but we get the impression that he is talking to each one of us” (Sharpe, 2020, p. 7; Hadot, 2001).
In a Postmodernist society, where art and the humanities are often used
to tell us everything that is wrong with the western world, Sharpe has used his understanding and expertise to leave readers with an example of how to live ‘in the moment’ for a life with ‘meaning’ to think about. This contrasts strikingly with the celebrity-based entertainment stories broadly published as arts and cultural news in the tabloids, and the self-promoting or biased critiques from the likes of Streeton and Lindsay.
4.4.9 Comparison of Digital News Arts Journalists
In addition to the practices of art critics and art journalists, news outlets themselves indicate the significance, or lack thereof, attributed to the visual arts in Australia. To hint at how this differs two digital newspapers have been chosen to analyse the visual art stories published on any particular day. Also, of interest is whether the writer is a local Australian journalist, or someone from overseas, how much of the content is about Australian art, and how much is about traditional ‘fine art’ in contrast to photography, performance art, and digital art. The papers are the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian Australia.
4.4.10 Jonathan Jones
The Guardian newspaper, although ‘published’ on the web for Australia as well as the UK, contains arts content written in England by English (Welsh) arts journalists, like Jonathan Jones. Educated in history at Cambridge University, and with a lifelong interest in art, Jones has been an art critic for the Guardian since 1999. Greatly influenced by Australian art critic Robert Hughes, Jones admitted in an article in 2012, that trying to emulate him was a bad idea for him, and that he needed to modify his methods to suit the digital age (Jones, 2012, p. 3). His long tenure at the paper indicates his appeal to readers, however he has attracted his share of critics as well. In 2017 Greg Jenner wrote an article attacking Jones’ lack of knowledge of da Vinci’s engineering experiments, basically saying that Jones did not do his research, perpetuating misinformation about da Vinci’s activities (Jenner, 2017, p. 4). Similarly, Michael Dooney, in 2014, attacked Jones for his opinions about the placement of photographs in art galleries (Dooney, 2014, p. 4). Dooney, who apparently writes from the perspective of a supporter of photography as an artform, and admitted he knew little about Jones, criticised him for his views (Dooney, 2014, p. 2). Views which, in my opinion, he had every right to express in an effort to raise some debate about the subject, but I must at this point indicate my bias in this regard as a painter who sees photography as a means to an end, although I appreciate the creative skills of certain professional photographers.
Given the above criticism, unlike critics of the past, Jones invites discussion and feedback, as according to him, his strong opinions should “strike a spark that lights a debate” (2012, p. 4). His plain and direct approach in discussing ‘high art’ is refreshing, and from the perspective of a practicing artist, makes fine art more approachable to the general public, rather than something so academic that they have no hope of understanding it. His blend of “success value” and “reception value”, in other words, the artist’s ability to produce an artwork that is “good-of-its-kind”, and its ability to be appreciated by its viewers, in his critiquing, sets Jones apart from a majority of his peers. Based on Kantian theories, as Tuna says in her paper, “The [Kantian] art critic engages in several different operations, such as evaluation, classification, description, interpretation, analysis, elucidation, depending on the work, in order to create a common ground of appreciation, by means of appealing critiquing” (Tuna, 2016, pp. 9-10; Jones, 2017, pp. 1-9; Jones, 2017a, pp. 1-6).
Jones meets these criteria in both his articles online and his new online art education venture. During 2020 he initiated a series of purchasable online, globally available, Guardian Masterclasses, with an associated email newsletter and social media presence (Jones, 2020). They cover subjects from the art of ancient Egypt, to the Renaissance, and the Avant Garde for anyone interested in the history of art. This idea of masterclasses is something that expands the role of art critics into a more diverse role of analysts and educators which could be taken up by contemporaries in Australia. Rather than accepting the traditional role of arts journalism, or critiquing, Jones and the Guardian have ventured to improve the viability of employing arts critics by expanding their roles within their areas of expertise. The Guardian website itself has a direct link on the home page to cultural stories. The site then splits up content under headings, but none are specifically related to visual art which must be looked for in the small menu to the side of the page under art & Design (The GuardianAustralia, 2020a).
Figure 1: The Guardian Webpage, May 24th, 2021. © The Guardian Australia
Figure 2: The Guardian Art & Design Webpage, May 24th, 2021. © The Guardian Australia
The topics are then, again, under easily deciphered headings and the proportion
of visual art to other topics is evenly distributed, as is the quantity of photographs and illustrations. The site also encourages feedback from readers on most pages.
4.4.11 Mikey Cahill
In contrast to Jones, Mikey Cahill, Freelance arts and entertainment journalist in Australia, sells his stories to a variety of news outlets including the Sydney Morning Herald and News.com.au. Cahill holds a degree in Communication and a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing, Journalism from Monash University. He has no history of visual arts engagement, but has worked in association with the music industry. His move from staff columnist at The Age, Melbourne to freelance writing reflects the move towards divergent reporting, with specialised expertise of less interest to editors and publishers, as Cahill reports about a variety of topics from visual art, to pop culture and music. Web site Muck Rack demonstrates how Cahill’s stories are spread throughout a host of news outlets, often on the same day, proving the advantages of internet based reporting as a freelancer. For example, his story When the circus went quiet, Mike French picked up a pen and drew a pub, was published in four papers on October 15th, 2020 (Muck Rack, 2020).
Cahill’s style of writing and depth of knowledge of the visual arts, however, is vastly different to that of Jonathan Jones, and the articles are generally shorter providing readers with an overview without too much ‘meat’. By that I mean that there is little about the style, methods, or skills involved in the creation of artworks, in preference for social context and some biographical data, such as living arrangements. For readers with only a casual interest in art, and what people may be doing to cope during the COVID-19 lockdown in Victoria in 2020, this may be enough. However, for those with a serious interest, or involvement in art, such as practicing artists, Cahill’s stories don’t provide historical contexts, practical or aesthetic analysis as sufficiently as Jones’ articles, and others by the likes of Sebastian Smee or Matthew Sharpe.
Another important difference between Jones and Cahill, is considering they are both published online, is how each is taking advantage of the internet – or not. Certainly, it is the job of the newspapers to change their methods as they move from print to digital, but ideas can come from the journalists, as is the case with Jones and his online Masterclasses. Rather than inviting engagement, there is no avenue to respond to Cahill’s stories directly, and no indication of moving away from the current print-based methods of publishing with a few tweaks for web pages, which either indicates a lack of foresight by publishers and journalists in Australia, or, as I suspect, the low regard for arts criticism and journalism (particularly fine and visual art) held by news corporations in comparison to sport and popular entertainment. A debate that is continuing by commentators such as Howard Duggan and Peter Hill (Duggin, 2015, p. 1; Hill, 2010, p. 5).
The Sydney Morning Herald site accessed visual art articles via the culture menu, which takes you to a page not too dissimilar to The Guardian’s, with various topics under listed headings down the page (Sydney Morning Herald, 2020). The Art & Design heading/link takes you to a specific art page with listed articles, each with a photo or illustration. The stories, by various writers, average close to 300 words, with at least two photographs but there is no ability for readers to give feedback on any of them. Unlike The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald is lagging behind in its adoption of all the facilities that the web offers, and a higher engagement with its readers.
A salient point, recently made by Rubenstein (2019), questions the inability of news publishers, editors and art critics to make better use of the digital medium. According to him, the traditional way of communicating with ‘readers’ is not attracting followers, even those working or studying in the arts (Rubenstein, 2019. p. 2). This, he says, has a variety of causes, such as a lack of quality and judgement in the style and content of criticism, in favour of celebrity gossip and brief entertainment ‘snippets’. Rojas (2012) supports this argument in regard to the loss of judgement, citing several researchers’ opinions on the causes, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s (Rojas, 2012, pp. 27-37). In addition, culturally, importance is not being placed on the role of art criticism and quality art journalism both in higher education and by news editors. Plus, in the face of the growth in ‘bloggers’ and ‘citizen journalists’, and the art market itself, it could be argued that critics are facing an unprecedented amount of competition for readers’ attention.
4.4.12 Art criticism and the internet
The internet, in this regard, has fostered a large amount of unqualified and misinformed content that thrives on controversy or celebrity in the place of validity and informed analysis. As a result, as revealed in the case studies of arts writers, and commented on by Rubenstein, there is good reason to be sceptical of the work by certain art critics in the past and present. However, I agree that good examples can be found, if one is willing to take the time to search for them (Rubenstein, 2019, pp. 16-17). Nevertheless, my issue with this is that it should be as easy to find quality art criticism on the web, as it is to find cat videos in You Tube.
Considering that so much of the world now has access to the internet, the question now remains, why art criticism and journalism has not taken up the challenge and opportunities of video rather than the written word (Rubenstein, 2019, p. 19). Surely, as indicated by the growth and interest in such outlets as You Tube and Vimeo, and the option for inclusion of video in digital ‘newspapers’ art criticism can find a new ‘voice’ and way of educating and informing the public about the visual arts in a contemporary manner suitable for the zeitgeist of the 21st-century.
4.4.13 John McDonald
One promising example is the web site of art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, John McDonald. Using the ability to link to the newspaper from his personal web site, McDonald has the “best of both worlds”. As a graphic artist, as well as fine artist, interestingly, I find McDonald’s web site superior in design to the newspaper’s because of its clean and easy to follow layout. As a visual medium, and subject, the use of high quality images as “leaders” into a story work for me, and the user interface loads quickly so that you can get to the story without annoying delays. Of more importance is the quality of his writing. I particularly enjoyed his review of the book about Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi by Mary Garrard. In it he “showed” the reader, not just told them about the topic of the book, and the quality of the research by the author, with the support of additional images of Gentileschi’s paintings. The article was informed and engaging adding to my understanding of a great female painter. This, in my opinion, exemplifies where the mass media in print and digital format can work “hand in hand” with blogs and professional personal web sites like McDonald’s to reach a broader audience, if all participants are willing to provide space to highlight the arts for their readership.
4.4.14 Radio and television
Another method of bringing art and art criticism to the attention of the public is via popular mediums like radio and television. Whilst the use of a purely audio version of communication may seem contrary to the best methods of communicating about a visual medium such as visual art, it can be argued that along with well-written text, an engaging writer and presenter can help listeners to visualize as they read or hear them. Faraday (2021) spoke about this issue, citing examples of highly successful series that explore the lives and work of historical figures in the world of fine art such as Jerry Brotton’s 2021 series Blood and Bronze on BBC Radio 3. As Faraday states, “ Research in the field of sound studies has shown how auditory stimuli can alter an audience’s engagement with artworks, suggesting that ‘soundscapes’ may be a useful tool both within and beyond the gallery (2021, p. 7). Implying that how something is written and presented, by dramatization, creative use of natural sounds, and music for example can enhance audience participation and “internal visualization” of the topic.
Based on my experience, television, in contrast to radio, as a visual medium lends itself more to the ease of discussion and critiquing of art, but as with other forms of art criticism, it relies on the expertise of the presenter and the support staff that produce the final product for viewing. Just as an editor for a print newspaper can cut down an informed critique to fit into column space, a video editor can cut out segments to fit within a timeframe. Given these issues, I have witnessed examples of engaging arts programs presented by informed presenters who have expertise and involvement in the visual arts.
Two are art critics are discussed in this paper, Australian Robert Hughes (1938-2012), and British critics Waldemar Januszczak. Another enthusiastic arts writer and presenter from Britain that I have followed is Andrew Graham-Dixon who, at the age of 25, was appointed chief art critic for the Independent newspaper and won Arts Journalist of the Year from 1987 to 1989. Graham-Dixon, Hughes and Januszczak have produced interesting programs that inform without using language that “spoke down” to the average viewer, allowing art to be appreciated as a part of humanity’s cultural growth and contemporary society rather than merely an interest for the socially “elite”. Hughes hosted several arts-based programs both in Britain and Australia, the most notable being The Shock of the New in 1980, which was accompanied by a book of the same name (Jones, 2012, p. 1). Januszczak has produced approximately 35 arts programs and series screened via the BBC, Channel 4 Britain, and the Discovery Channel, several which have been seen in Australia. Graham-Dixon wrote and presented the television mini-series Renaissance in 1999, which I have seen, and nearly 14 other series that covered topics about visual art from around the world.
As the quality of televisions has improved over the past decade, allowing for higher resolution images with more colours represented, the opportunities for this medium to reach the public with visual art-based content, I believe, should increase. It is, therefore, up to the art critics and journalists to write and produce more engaging content, like the examples I have included in this paper. It is also up to commercial and government-run stations to recognise that a broader range of content, other than sport and “reality” shows will encourage and invite more viewers with different tastes. This includes actively promoting such new content, and airing the programs at times when average people are likely to see them. To date, in my experience, I have never found any of the programs by the critics discussed in this chapter as a result of it being promoted by the station on which it appeared. It has always been as a result of searching through late night or weekend day time programming listings, out of “prime time”, and finding them “by accident”.
4.5. Results and Findings
While the quality and number of methods of “publishing” has increased in recent years, via the internet, higher quality televisions, and the introduction of pay per view and digital television for example, I argue that the quantity and quality of freely available content has not been reflected in visual art-based programs. Neither has it improved, in my experience, and from the research I have gathered, in a substantial number of print and internet-based news outlets, with only a handful in Australia being the exceptions.
The level of tertiary education in the arts by the most recent journalists in contrast to the earlier examples indicates an underpinning of criticism and commentary skills with valid evidence and scholarly methods. For example, Lionel Lindsay attended the Gallery School in Melbourne which taught art history and practice (drawing, painting, sculpture), but this cannot be equated with a current university level fine art degree. In contrast Sebastian Smee holds a BFA with 1st class honours, which is a four-year undergraduate university degree, and Matthew Sharpe holds a PhD (Arts), and a post graduate degree.
Data in the table on pages 46 and 47 yielded information that supported findings in the case studies of arts writers that earlier critics and art journalists were mostly practicing artists without tertiary education. In contrast there are a number of recent high profile art critics and journalists who hold arts degrees, but the hiring practises of newspapers like The Guardian, indicate that this is not a priority in their criteria for hiring arts journalists.
Research also indicated a trend by newspapers in Australia and overseas merging arts reporting into general news duties for reporters without specialist education or interest in the arts at the expense of those with specialised expertise. Examples provided by Jaakkola hinted that broad coverage under the ‘umbrella’ of ‘cultural news’ or ‘entertainment news’ was overtaking and replacing arts reporting (Jaakkola, 2015a, p. 383). This reflected a perception by newspaper publishers of a readership that is more interested in movies, celebrity gossip and popular music than the arts.
Information gleaned from the case studies indicated that where current art journalists have higher education in the arts, the writing expressed less gender, racial, and creative bias than artists examined who were working as critics in the early 20th-century. The case studies noted two exceptions which were Gertrude Langer, whose PhD aligns more with current journalists’ education, and current critic Neha Kale, whose degree is in writing rather than visual arts. Research also indicated instances where social and cultural stories are creating an environment where the ‘high’ or fine arts, such as painting, are seen as an elitist pursuit (in contrast to sport), instead of an important cultural foundation for Australia. This point was discussed in the literature review in pages 21-23. Overseas examples also supported this issue indicating that ‘cultural’ and ‘entertainment’ news was overtaking specialist art critiquing and reporting, as I stated in the literature review in pages 9-11.
The following table provides a quick overview of how articles differ in consideration of timeframe, gender of the author, and priority given by newspapers to arts-based stories. This is not, however, a thorough or in-depth indication of the gender of current cultural or entertainment journalists. Anecdotally during this research project, numbers of females writing in these genres have been noted to have been increasing in the past two decades. In addition, gender inequality was not included in the focus of this research.
|Name of Author||Date Published||Position in papers||Word Count||Gender of Author||Number of Images||Digital and/or Print|
|Streeton||1934||General News||2140||Male||1 Black and White|
|2008||Arts||2710||1 Black and white|
|Sharpe||2020||Arts Page||1483||Male||8 Colour||Digital|
The above table indicates that until recently there was a trend for male critics to be given more space for articles, as indicated by the word counts, and that during the past two decades, art has been increasingly subsumed into entertainment news.
4.6 Final Discussion
According to Howard, “Australia’s culture of arts criticism is broken and there’s no way to fix it” because of the rapidly disappearing informed ‘conversation’ in the media (Howard, 2016, p. 1). She says that “criticism works in conversation”, it is between the critic and the art, and the critic and the reader. The critic, therefore, builds a dialogue that creates a ‘picture’ of what an artwork ‘really’ looks like (2016, p. 9). Unless this dialogue is continuous, she suggests, it fades and dies, and so does any awareness of the art that it should be talking about. As Howard sees it, that is not happening, and in fact, it is “spiralling down” at a rate where she doubts it will recover.
Looking at critiquing in the United States, veteran literary critic Cynthia Ozick, now 88 years of age, is described by Fulward as “an appreciative critic of critics” (Fulford, 2016, p. 10). Ozick, he says, “shows no mercy to professors, rich in honours, who can’t bother to write a sentence in clear English. One of which was awarded first prize in the ‘Bad Writing Contest’ for a sentence clotted with incomprehensible barbarisms” (2016, p. 2). Although Fulward continues on to later say that there have been good examples of critics during the 20th-century, this remark is qualified by adding that there hasn’t been very many. A disappointing opinion, considering the considerably larger art market and number of news outlets in the United States in comparison to Australia.
As most of this criticism occurred in print, the question of internet-based art criticism may well be asked, and how this may facilitate a transition to inclusion of visual art critiquing into ‘mainstream conversation’ (Frost, 2019, p. 37). Frost says in response to this that although there have been studies of “independent print-based arts publishing, online art production, and electronic literature, there have been no histories or in-depth analyses of online art criticism” (2019, p. 37). While there has been an increase in new online journals and magazines, there is evidence of more stablished ones gradually disappearing. This is possibly due to a lack of accessibility to online archival storage, or ‘direction’ and planning for the form future online arts criticism may take. It could also be that because of the sheer size of the internet in recent years, and amount of content, that online publications are just getting “lost in the crowd”, especially if promotion to a broad range of viewers is also being overtaken by “popular” or “trending” topics such as entertainment or celebrity news.
The significance of such research is that it establishes an understanding of art criticism and how it has changed during the past century. Not only has the way arts journalism been written changed, but also the formats, as print has gradually given way to web-based publication. In addition, education has changed, with the availability of tertiary degrees and post-graduate research for potential critics and art journalists. Higher education like this enables analysis of how cultures are understood through their art, architecture, philosophy, beliefs etc. For example, in Australia such analysis discusses evidence of the development of its culture and folklore in visual art, what was written about it at the time, and its reflection of Australia as an emerging independent country.
From my perspective as a practicing artist, issues raised in the case studies of arts writers reflected my disappointment with the sensationalist practices exhibited in arts journalism that uses generalist news values in place of rigorous analysis. What I seek in art criticism and journalism is strong, eloquent and informed writing that leaves me changed or “better” as an artist and art-enthusiast. I admire critics that understand art from the artist’s point of view and adds context and cultural elements of significance without fear or favour (Cohen, 2018, pp. 18-20).
The good art critic not only describes art, they help readers to understand a broad range of artists’ intents, techniques and influences, historical contexts, and how to engage with artworks. The studies of Streeton and Lindsay whom I admire for their artworks, however, proved that they failed in these areas because of their ‘selective’ and biased critiques. In contrast, the examples of work by current writers Neha Kale and Matthew Sharpe left me informed, engaged and entertained by inclusion of rigorous research and artistic discernment without the need to fall back on self-service, bias or negative emotive rhetoric. These were findings that I did not expect at the beginning of my research, that leave me with more questions that need to be resolved.
4.7 Future Research
This research project has been limited, to enable a deeper investigation into certain historical and current practices by a selection of art critics and journalists.
It has not thoroughly explored the practices of various newspaper publishers in regard to informed visual arts reporting, in contrast to entertainment news, or sport, for example. Therefore, to understand better why visual art and criticism is highlighted in papers like The Guardian for example, whilst being nearly impossible to locate in the Melbourne Herald-Sun, further research is required.
Several well-known art critics were also omitted from the case studies which would have broadened the scope regarding some high-profile Australian and international critics. These include Elizabeth Fortescue, reviewer for the Melbourne Herald-Sun and Sasha Grishin who writes for the Canberra Times as well as Helen Musa writer for the Canberra CityNews and online and Guardian reviewer Andrew Frost. These can be included by further research in the future where the topics covered in this paper can be expanded upon.
In addition, the public impression of art beginning with education in primary, secondary and tertiary levels, to better understand the perspectives of students, teachers, and other cohorts in other disciplines needs analysis. This may help to uncover if the lack of coverage in all forms of news publication is driven by public opinion and tastes, or if it is because of the biases of news publishers, that assume visual or fine art is a pretentious pursuit only of interest to academics, artists and the ‘socially elite’.
Another aspect worth considering is if Postmodernist philosophy, exemplified by the writings of Walter Benjamin (1970, pp. 299, 301) that argued against “high-art” and artworks as solely the original product of a creative artist may have a significant role to play in how art is perceived in contemporary society. Therefore further research into Postmodernism’s thinking, that says nothing has meaning without context and yet everything is tainted by context in visual art and art critiquing, may yield as yet unidentified players. The notion of anything being labelled as art as long as the artist calls it art, and the lowering or dismissal of “high art” or “fine art” and the impact of such actions on art critics, is an important part of this discussion and worth exploring.
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