Critics' Q&A with Paddy Johnson

Critics' Q&A with Paddy Johnson
(Paddy Johnson, editorial director of AFC.)

ARTINFO Canada continues its Critics' Q&A series with Paddy Johnson, the editorial director of the much-read and well-regarded art site, Art F City. She is Canadian-born, but has resided in New York City since 2001.

Standing somewhat outside of it now, what do you think of the current climate for criticism in Canada? What needs work, and in what ways do we succeed?

The biggest issues I see for art criticism in Canada are two-fold; one, there’s not enough of it; two, there’s not enough celebrating of the talent we’ve got. (I’m an ex-pat, but I’ll use “we” here, since I do feel like I have a stake in this.) The first problem is difficult to solve; art press in mainstream media has been shrinking for years and that’s a reality for everyone. The problem is compounded by the Canada Council for the Arts's arts writing and publishing sectors, which are hopelessly conservative and don’t seem to fund anyone taking real risks. Of course, that’s minor trouble relative to the larger political picture. If Canada wants to preserve the arts funding it has, its citizens needs to fire Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The only good thing he’s done for the arts was inadvertent: he inspired Hooded Fang’s “No One Dances Like Michael Ondaatje.”

The second problem — reluctance to celebrate our own talent — may be culturally embedded. Take RM Vaughan, the former Globe and Mail art critic. He’s easily amongst the top five art critics working today, but when he left for Berlin last year, all I saw were a few sad comments on his Facebook page. Granted, as I understand it, he’ll only be gone for a year, but it’s a loss, and it would have been good to see someone say so. I’ve seen Vaughan turn phrases that have the forcefulness of Christian Viveros Faune, the plainspoken insight of Dave Hickey, and the lyricism of Peter Schjeldahl. Vaughan should never have to do anything but write.  

As for successes, while Canada may not have a lot of critics, the talent pool does seem to be extraordinary. Only a small percentage of us enter the workforce talent fully formed; the rest of us have to work like hell to develop the skills we have. Perhaps the great, uncelebrated success of Canadians is our willingness to accept our own mediocrity, and nurture it into talent that exceeds its own promise.  

What has been your experience working in the US? And what do you see being the main differences in our critical approaches, our criticism’s readership, et al?

I’ve lived in New York since 2001 and I like it because, in this culture, hobbies that don’t inform your work are usually frowned upon. I’m not sure that’s so great for art — it’s an increasingly insular field demanding behavior from professionals that will make it more insular — but it works for my personality. I’m not a dilatant. I have one interest, and pretty much always have. It’s art.

I bring this up because it seems like that kind of immersion doesn’t define the Canadian art culture to the extent that it does here. I can’t remember a time in NYC when I’ve participated in a panel discussion or gone to an opening and not gone out for drinks or food afterwards. When I’m in Canada, it seems like only a fraction of the participants of any art event want to hang out afterwards. That’s a bit of a drag.

I’m not sure how much that has to do with critical approach — frankly I’ve never read with the intent of parsing out the differences, so it’s hard to identify them — but since a lot of my ideas come out of conversations, it’s probably not wholly unrelated.

Who is your favorite critic, regardless of nationality, and why? And is there a particular Canadian critic and/or publication you see ‘getting it right’?

RM Vaughan, obviously. Also, Howard Halle at TimeOut. He’s direct and incredibly smart. I wish he could write more, but I get the sense TimeOut is trying to turn his art section into a giant “listacle.” I read Jerry Saltz, and probably relate to him the most of all the critics. I don’t feel like either of us are writerly writers, but we care more than most. I get the sense that Roberta Smith might be a little more worldly than her husband, and since she’s a clear-spoken, phrase-turning machine, I love her too.

As far as publications go, I like Filip and am pretty excited about the existence of BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada. I do wish some of the fashion content could be cut on the ARTINFO site though. It’s hard enough to navigate as is!

Finally, I know this is a plug, but I personally believe some of the best critics working today work at AFC. Whitney Kimball, Corinna Kirsch, and Will Brand regularly impress me and that makes my job one of the best there is. 

You’re known for promoting an approachable and yet critical voice in what can be both an approachable and critical medium — online publishing. What is your stance on negative criticism? And how do you perceive yourself attempting a different course, in the critical field would you agree you’re forging a unique trajectory?

Talking about art like a normal person is essential if we want to participate in a healthy, growing field. I love that there’s been a change in art writing as a result of blogging, but online publishing comes with its own set of problems. Blogs and websites have huge content requirements, so critics often find themselves writing without anything to say. It’s amazing to me that I can receive link tips from bloggers whose job it is to create discussion, but if you send them an email back with an actual thought, it’s never returned. I suppose we’re all pretty busy, but faux-interest in conversation is an ugly reality of the business.

Having said that, I think it’s important to acknowledge that part of the job is knowing that some of your best thoughts are going to come out of attempts to write about subjects you may not have a clear position on or have thought about much. Obviously, we’re not always going to succeed when we do that. The point is, though, you have to at least try to think.

In our case, I don’t have writers rewriting press releases and creating endless re-blogs for AFC. That’s not to say I think the practice is purposeless — it’s useful to have a press release in a form someone might want to read — but it’s not part of our blogging model. For me, it’s essential that everything we publish is honest and thoughtful. Negative criticism is obviously a part of that. Oddly enough, I do think that makes us distinctive.  

What would you change in the Canadian realm of art criticism, and how would you go about it? Can you extend the same question to the US realm?

This is rather specific, but I’d like to see the Globe and Mail put a little more resources into their art criticism. You get the feeling there’s an editor somewhere reading American papers and telling writers to write up the same stories for publication three days later. I don’t want to read old stories about New York news. I want to read about what Canadians have to say about themselves.  

On that note, I’d like to hear less about what Americans think about themselves. People here know about the city they’re in and whatever the largest art center in the country is. For years that’s been New York, and thankfully that seems to be changing. What’s not changing though, is America’s self-interest. That’s got its pros — no one champions themself better than an American — but a broader vision of the world around them might be nice.  

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