THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
While many newspapers have shown their art critics the door, the most exciting news in the field is occurring on social media platforms and, in the case of MOMUS, outside the U.S. in Toronto, Canada. Sky Goodden founded the online publication nearly four years ago after leaving her job as the Canadian correspondent for Blouin Artinfo. She spoke with Examiner editor Tom Mullaney, highlighting MOMUS’s record of success against current critical orthodoxy and identifying online publishing’s remaining challenges.
TM: When did you found MOMUS, and what made you feel the need for such a publication?
SG: I founded MOMUS in October 2014 to address what I perceived to be a dearth of evaluative, brave, accessible, and accountable art criticism. I wanted to contribute an online publication to the field that helped “slow down the internet” and compelled readers to engage deeply with issues of integrity in contemporary art and its criticism. It’s a corrective to a conversation that had skewed too populist, or alternatively, deadeningly academic—and the merits of real evaluation in contemporary art, for analysis and consideration and larger contexts, stakes, and historical consequences—were being flattened into punchy provocation, at best. Mostly I was seeing a sea of description, or “art writing,” that reads dangerously promotionally.
As I write in the introduction to our first print anthology, which we put out last year: “Our vision from the outset was to provide a reprieve from—and rebuke against—the toxic poles of elitism and populism that frame so much public conversation. We advanced a mandate of “a return to art criticism,” seeking to contribute skepticism without cynicism; accessibility without infantilism; and an imperative, both aesthetic and political, to read a cultural text more deeply.”
TM: MOMUS is classified as a for-profit entity. Does support mainly come fromsubscribers, grants or the group of “Patrons” listed in the Momus 2017 anthology?
SG: Support for the publication comes mostly from advertisers. We have had a thread of support, as well, from patrons, which has been meaningful in manifold ways in these first fledgling years. In Canada, we’re very lucky to have (fairly) healthy granting bodies in reach. MOMUS has received grant support for the podcast we put out, and we hope to be greeted with more for the publication in the coming years.
TM: Your editorial motto is “A return to art criticism.” What do you define as your critical standard? Is it writing that you have mentioned as “brave, evaluative and accessible”?
SG: There’s nothing that standardizes art criticism, especially not in this time of proliferating and experimental approaches, though evaluation is essential to it. Beyond that, we are simply looking for a writer to say a thing that needs to be said. Something that adds value, whether to a historical or emerging discourse on art, or to the forms that criticism can take.
To our “mantles” that you point out, yes, we like to see our writers demonstrating bravery—there should be a stake in the writing, even if it’s aesthetic. And we’re seeking accountability in evaluation: can you support what you’re seeing and writing? These aspects are crucial to what we look for as well. Then there’s that tricky word of “accessibility,” which we don’t like to put too fine a point on, as contemporary art has a vernacular like anything else, except to say that these conversations should be inviting. The writing shouldn’t be bricked up with references or exuding a self-pleased opacity. The texts should breathe and flow and feel good to read.
TM: How do you ensure that writers produce evaluative writing?
SG: You ensure evaluation at the pitch level, with a writer. You insist, as editors, on making clear not just the “hook,” but the value judgment in a forthcoming piece. And I’m not saying that every single piece will have one–we do publish a few authors who fall under the larger canopy of “art writing,” and we work with them because we love their form. But by and large, our motivating question is, what needs saying and how well can you say it?
TM: Do you agree with writer Saelan Twerdy’s observation that “a return to art criticism” implies it has been in decline and marginalized? To what forces do you attribute that decades-long decline?
SG: Yes, of course, it’s implicit in our motto. There are competing arguments about why there was a decline in art criticism-in its proliferation, remuneration, and its discursive value. These are all well documented by [James] Elkins himself, of course. They include the rise of a theory-led discourse in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the surge of the market’s influence and, tied in with that, the speed at which art was moving from studio to gallery to auction block.
It didn’t leave much space for the evaluation of art, or at least not one taking the form of criticism. It helped propel more promotional “art writing,” and we began to see a punched-up and commercially purposeful kind of noise. Word counts got shorter, attention spans were deemed to be declining. With all this, there was the economic shift of print to online publishing, and the diminishment of staff positions at papers and magazines.
This wasn’t helped by the web’s proto-publishing days in which pay rates were utterly devastated. There are a lot of contributing factors, and many critics disagree on the leading cause—but, in hindsight, it can be seen to be a moment of tectonic plates shifting, after which we have begun to see a revitalized moment emerge.
TM: What gives you grounds for optimism that evaluative writing is enjoying a resurgence? What publications do you see as part of this insurgency?
SG: In their rhizomatic reading habits and relative impatience, online readers essentially demand better writing; writing that has a point up top and a strong, clear voice. Criticism should have a sense of urgency, some stakes, an angle–and also great pacing. We’re seeing publications heed all this, with a lot of their best art writing being published in their online iterations over print. We’re fans of 4Columns.org, among others.
TM: Do you feel there is more receptivity to your ideas on criticism and MOMUS’s mission in Canada than in the U.S.?
SG: No, not really. The issues endemic to a weak discourse are international. However, Canada is a smaller art community and one with its unique and affecting conditions, like an influential granting body and the absence of a market. So we need evaluation here to keep conservative–or just plain boring–art at bay. We need it to hold one another accountable, instead of letting these conversations drive underground and rot the house from beneath.
TM: Since descriptive criticism is now the overwhelming norm, how well do you think you are faring in your crusade for a return to more evaluative writing? One of our writers, James Elkins, says he finds many of MOMUS’s articles more descriptive.
SG: I’m surprised to hear him say that; I’d venture that he hasn’t been reading enough of the publication. As I mentioned above, we work with a few writers, like Andrew Berardini in Los Angeles, whose target isn’t evaluation but experimentation with the form. He pushes for intimacy and does a gorgeous job of elevating the diaristic approach in art writing to something that feels encompassing–something that, as it is quite rare in recent decades, approaches a subjective universalism. That collective “we.” But I’d be curious to unfold that conversation with Elkins. I’m curious how he feels after his alarm-bell ringing of the early aughts. Where are we now? Is the crisis over?
As for the “crusade,” MOMUS is happily one of several publications striving for a better discourse in art criticism since our inauguration. We’re in the midst, and I’d like to think leading, a repopulating field that generally shows its strength online. The online platform is still young, and so, while publishers were quite cynical out of the gates, I think, with “clickbait” and cheap news-cycle mirroring, more of us are beginning to appreciate that readers want value over volume.
Further, that the most urgent conversations happening in criticism happen across social media now, which can naturally extend to, and be in discussion with, and take its start from online publishing. So for critics, the speed at which we’re able to talk to one another, now—and hold one another accountable—is thrilling. Our overhead is low, our fluidity and ease-of-motion and real-time thinking [is] better than ever. And there’s been a healthy democratization to the form.
The only major thing that still needs addressing in the contemporary moment of art criticism is remuneration. Online publishing needs to begin stepping-up its appreciation for “content” if we want the conversation to continue elevating. It’s time to invest in this model more meaningfully.
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