Questions by Alan Phelan to Ciarán Bennett
Alan Phelan: The recession in Ireland has brought with it many cutbacks in cultural funding. Many institutions had to adapt or die. In 2009, Ireland’s main contemporary art magazine, Circa, ceased publication. What outlets for critical writing now remain?
Ciarán Bennett: Circa, which claimed to be the only contemporary art magazine on the island, despite the existence of some glossy art and antiques publications, often published serious commentary. Its demise was unfortunate but possibly inevitable. Despite policy changes and a major redesign, the magazine had a very small audience and its coverage was somewhat inconsistent. I often found the content relatively narrow and at odds with a broader sense of critical discourse. Museum catalogues, which have become less common, had always been the major outlet for art writing here. This phenomenon is worldwide, and has been explored at many symposia and conferences. The major newspapers have also reduced their interest in complex matters in the arts, so places where there used to be some kind of serious criticism have now become essentially lifestyle journalism. Art reviews on TV and in magazines are rarely more than extensions of the press material issued by galleries. The economic reality of the country has also transpired to leaving most of this work very poorly paid or completely unremunerated, which requires critics here to work outside the country.
Phelan: There was an attempt at purely online activity at Circa’s online site, with a series of articles on art criticism, actually quite an open and varied debate which is still partially online. But in the vacuum that it left, a whole new range of publications have emerged online. How do these continue the legacy of art criticism in Ireland?
Bennett: Several graduates of masters programs set up blogs to continue writing about art after graduation. I don’t think they saw themselves as art critics, but they were clearly interested in many of the prevailing discourses in contemporary art which are manifest in local exhibitions. Some examples would be James Merrigan’s +billion- blog or Adrian Duncan and Niamh Dunphy’s Paper Visual Art Journal. Interestingly, despite being set up as discursive spaces, they both adopted the moniker of “journal” and quickly became treated as sites of critical review and discussion. Coming from a blog tradition meant that the writing was highly subjective and at times naïve, but as places free of editorial constraints, the writing has actually flourished. The intuitive response to work and exhibitions, which characterized much of this work, was in fact a relief.
Phelan: These blogs have also produced editions in print, not forgetting Enclave Review from Cork which publishes quite regularly, now with wider international coverage. The public funding for art writing has been project based, which was short term, like that for Fugitive Papers and Paper Visual Art which may have now both ceased or are hopefully only on hiatus. Do you think there can be a good critical debate without public funding?
Bennett: When in print, these publications were essentially self-published and self-distributed. Because the market for these is small and dependent on art institutions, the distribution can be quite simple; still, it is important to recognize that this is a very specialized field and maybe it is impossible for them to reach a wider audience. Even Circa only had a 2,000-copy print run and it was distributed into the main book shops and newsagents. Visual Artists Ireland, the representative body for artists here, does however produce a Critique section with a circulation of 5,000 copies per edition in their bi-monthly News Sheet paper, which reviews exhibitions throughout the country. When I think of the international art magazines, like Artforum, Frieze, or Parkett, the content often appears subservient to advertising—this could never happen here as the Irish art market is so small. Irish work does appear in these publications either when connected to institutions outside of the country or through the ambitious efforts of individual artists to get their work reviewed. There are regular contributors to these magazines like Declan Long, Gemma Tipton, and Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith who do cover important Irish art work. To answer the question, I think the self-published model works well for the moment here, but the lack of any philanthropic or limited patronage in our culture means that this can only sustain itself for a limited time, as is already evident.
Phelan: Another interesting and recent development in critical writing has been an attempt to move the notion of text into different formats. +billion- has taken to video interviews with artists, a project for EVA International, and Critical Bastards has a recent issue that was audio only. What do you think of these emerging or alternative formats?
Bennett: The +billion- video interviews are curious as they are almost uncritical and merely allow the artist to ramble on for 30 to 40 minutes in response to questions from Merrigan. The result is a mixture of muddled thinking with some moments of clarity, which does give a better impression of their practice. Of course, similar interviews in print are highly edited, but there is something to be said for concision. These new approaches only mirror what is happening elsewhere on the web with larger sites and institutions.
Phelan: Do you think there have been any literary influences on art criticism considering the strong tradition here in Ireland, or are there other major discourses that have prevailed in writing?
Bennett: I would like to say that there is a direct line of literary brilliance between Baudelaire as the first modernist art critic and poet, and Derek Mahon, the most significant Irish poet of the second part of the 20th century. Seamus Heaney was the most significant agrarian poet of the latter half of the 20th century, but Derek Mahon was the most cosmopolitan poet.
But unfortunately, the obscurantics of poetic language are often just another way to obfuscate the limited nature of an artwork. It is obviously a charming idea to attach such international masters as Joyce and Beckett to some local writing scene, but both of these writers left here for good reason. There has always been a symbiosis between art criticism and poetry, or when novelists are asked to apply their often excellent descriptive abilities, to essays for art exhibitions. I often find their complete disengagement with the actual mechanics of visual art tends to bring a freshness of approach, which might relate to aesthetics, but is not necessarily critically coherent.
Ciarán BENNETT Born in Dublin and graduated in Fine Art in 1979, postgraduate studies in Bath, Paris, and Florence, lived in Asia for some years. Became art critic for the Irish Architect in 1994- journal of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland, and joined AICA Ireland, elected president in 2006. Received Pollock Krasner Research Fellowship 07-08, for his project on James Johnson Sweeney. Curated various exhibitions, at museums and galleries, including curatorial panels for European art projects, while being a visiting tutor at SVA in New York.Alan Phelan
ALAN PHELAN studied at Dublin City University and Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. He has exhibited widely internationally including BOZAR, Brussels; Whitney Museum, New York; Chapter, Cardiff; SKUC, Ljubljana; Feinkost, Berlin; OK11, Helsinki; Eastlink Gallery, Shanghai; Galeria Del Infinito Arte, Buenos Aires and Treignac Projet, France. In Ireland exhibitions include the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Golden Thread Gallery, Oonagh Young Gallery, Mother's Tankstation, Dublin; MCAC, Portadown; Limerick City Gallery of Art; Solstice, Navan and The Black Mariah, Cork.