I so enjoyed reading the last column about becoming an art writer in a small town, and I have a follow-up question for you. I’ve written a few reviews of local art exhibits recently for an art blog I created. I’ve had a lot of trouble striking a balance between positive and negative criticism. I wrote a negative review about a show and received SO much backlash for it. I eventually had to take the post down. I feel like the entire art scene has blacklisted me now. I was just trying to be honest and objective. I didn’t like the work, so I said that! I need your help moving forward. How do I write negative criticism in a small, intimate art community without pissing everyone off?
Rocking the Boat
Thanks for writing in with this great follow-up question! I didn’t go into this in my last column, because it’s kind of a Pandora’s box, but I’m excited to dig into it today.
I’m going to be real with you about how I approach this, though I know it may not be the most popular advice. I came up against this very issue when I first started writing in Nashville several years ago. I published a review of a show I thought was shit. In Nashville, as I’m sure it is in your town as well, the art scene is still relatively small and tight-knit. A few people read the piece and were shocked, but a lot more people were really jazzed that I “called out” the bad work. Vox populi! Yes! Rawr!
But here’s the thing, at the end of the day, I felt pretty bad about it all, not because I expressed my opinion, per se — I was being honest — but rather about delivering the criticism in the way that I did: underhanded and without much explanation as to why the work fell short. I gave virtually no constructive feedback, and that made it a poorly written piece of criticism on my part. There was another factor that bothered me, too. I chose to review that underwhelming show instead of using that opportunity to write about a phenomenal show that was going on a few blocks away, which ended up not getting any press at all.
So, I made a decision. I decided that, whenever possible, I’d spend my efforts writing about art I loved, and I’d work to increase the diversity of artists getting good coverage in my town. If I didn’t like a show, I wouldn’t write about it. That’s how I chose to work, though that may not be the right thing for you or other writers. Perhaps your divine calling is the exact opposite.
In my opinion, an important step in elevating a smaller art scene is to first use whatever platform you have to point out the truly brilliant people working within that community — artists who are making great work and galleries that are curating compelling exhibitions. So many exhibitions go completely unnoticed in the press and blogosphere, and in my opinion, that’s a goddamn tragedy.
In a big city with myriad critical voices and publications, there’s room for scathing reviews, because there will likely be glowing reviews circulating as well, which provides a necessary counterbalance. However, in a small town, because there are often so few media voices, and most artists are lucky to get a review at all, a few harsh sentences can ruffle a lot more feathers than you might expect.
There’s something you should keep in mind: in smaller towns, what most people are really looking for in art writing is advocacy, not criticism. So don’t be surprised by the backlash when you write something negative. It’s going to happen, and you need to be prepared to stand by your opinion, which means think before you publish, sugarplum.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: but how is an art scene supposed to improve if no one is allowed to criticize bad work?
First, you can and should criticize bad work, but you must do so in a constructive way. It benefits everyone if you can find a way to be tender, helpful, and thoughtful when writing about something a person has created. Put yourself in their shoes. Making art is not easy. Give them a little credit for at least attempting to make something beautiful and worthwhile instead of spending all their time eating Combos and watching the Kardashians.
Secondly, healthy competition can up standards, too. When you start showcasing what others are doing well, people take note, and you can use that as a departure point to say “we need more of this stuff, less of that other stuff.”
That said, don’t be afraid to be less gentle when it comes to bigger issues and institutional critiques. Those, I think, need to be more acerbic to garner the wide-spread attention they need. A great example of this is Christine Kreyling’s recent Nashville Scene article about the lousy design proposal for the new Tennessee State Museum. She concludes, “It is architecturally possible to design a building that embodies Classicism’s formal properties in a contemporary idiom. Such a design would show respect for the state Capitol while simultaneously articulating that today we have our own aspirations. But that’s not what we have here. The new Tennessee State Museum design expresses no ambitions and no aspirations — and will do nothing to advance the cultural history contained within its walls.”
My final advice? Make sure you’re supporting your criticism not only with constructive notes, but a sensitivity to the artist’s intent. You don’t want to go around burning all your bridges. At the same time, every city needs a bold, thoughtful writer who is willing to take the time to seriously consider the art that is defining its scene.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.