One of my big complaints about art magazines has a simple solution.
There’s something they all get backward. When young writers start out, they are usually given assignments on the smallest possible scale, and then gradually, they work their way up to bigger things. This sounds reasonable, but it’s really self-defeating. Take Artforum, for example, where I write and where I do some part-time editing. Typically, we will try a new writer out on the website, artforum.com, where they will write “Critic’s Picks,” brief review-like blurbs of about 300 words. Eventually, they may graduate to the print magazine, where they can stretch with exhibition reviews that are typically about 550-600 words, and then even a longer “focus review” of a major exhibition that’s given a whole page or even two in the magazine. Only a few reach the pinnacle of being allowed to write a feature article. The other art magazines all bring their writers along in a similar manner, as far as I can see. But really this doesn’t make sense. Why? Because in order to write a short piece that has any critical depth, you need to pack a tremendous quantum of implication and inference into it. You need to know a lot more than you’re explicitly saying, and also to have sufficient writerly skill to make sure your readers are catching the drift of what you’re not explicitly saying. In other words, the brief review is like an iceberg—almost entirely below the surface. And an inexperienced writer is likely to crash into that iceberg. But unlike the survivors of the Titanic, he or she may be entirely unaware of the disaster. Far better would be to have new writers produce long essays in which they’d have to make explicit all that they know (and don’t know) about their subjects. Having done that for a while, they’d then be in a better position to master the art of insinuation that is essential to writing brief reviews that have substance. I hear a voice saying that there’s no room for all these long articles—who’d have the space to publish them? But in cyberspace, there’s room for everything. No, if my proposal has a problem, it’s about time, not space: Who has time to edit all those long essays? Okay, so maybe the solution is not so simple after all.
BARRY SCHWABSKY is art critic for the Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum.