joanne lee


unprofessional development

This text was commissioned by a-n Interface as part of a series on critical writing. It was accompanied by photographs of my other amateur activities - including allotment keeping.

According to the art historian James Elkins, art criticism is in worldwide crisis. He says that there is more of it around than anyone can read, and that it is ‘massively produced’ but yet also ‘massively ignored’: its readership is ‘unknown, unmeasured and disturbingly ephemeral.’ In his pamphlet Whatever Happened to Art Criticism? Elkins wishes instead there was more interaction between contemporary criticism and the ‘serious’ work (he means the kind done within universities and academies) of art history, art education and aesthetics. Criticism, he seems to believe, ought to be something best left to professionals of a certain stripe, people who can be trusted to do it properly. I’m not sure I agree: rather than pursuing Elkins argument about the relative quality of journalism or academia - both of which seem dogged by the repetitions of already familiar positions - I want to step sideways out of the fray in order to recognise the virtues of critical writing done by those who do not want to consider themselves professionals of either field. Here I find a more improper criticism, one that is unafraid of the partial and temporal, and one able to amplify the pleasures and possibilities of real-life critical conversation, as it takes place in studios or across dinner tables.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan suggested that the professional tends to ‘accept uncritically the ground rules’, remaining ‘contentedly unaware’ of the all-pervasive environment in which these have been established. By contrast, the amateur is not constrained by the prevailing purview, and so is potentially able to operate beyond such norms. This can simply be because, as historian Daniel Boorstin once recognised, an amateur ‘need not be a genius to stay out of ruts he has never been trained in’, but this kind of benign ignorance need not be the only rationale for such a position: instead it could be that amateurs are able to risk doing things differently, to think in alternative ways to the acceptable mainstream, because they can afford to fail - after all, their professional ‘career’ isn’t on the line.

Of course, just because amateurs can do this, it doesn’t mean they will: many unpaid contributors to blogs or zines are simply wannabe professionals, their output mirroring existing conventions and essentially indistinguishable from mainstream publishing of various species. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s an internship of sorts, but to me - perhaps a little counter-intuitively in relation to an amateur activity - it suggests a lack of ambition, one that intends only to produce more of what is already known.

I don’t want to suggest the breaking of rules will in itself result in interesting criticism - willful avant-gardism can easily be as tedious and critically unproductive as the most formulaic essay - but what interests me about the possibility of the amateur critic is that someone might be driven to explore their response out of a sense of personal necessity rather than professional obligation. In my nuanced definition of amateurism, the issue is not so much a case of remuneration as one of philosophical stance: an amateur is someone who primarily pursues an activity because they want to, rather than because they must for reasons of money or career. (The word derives, after all, from the Latin amator, a lover.) By taking such an approach, I wonder if the critic (and thus criticism in a broader sense) might be able to explore less familiar paths and, as a result, enrich future experiences of art and the languages with which we might discuss them.

I think my desire for amateur criticism stems in part from a reaction to the punditry within contemporary culture, which seemingly discourages active critical response by ‘ordinary’ people (the audience… the artist… the community of interest…) In his book The Imaginative Argument, Frank Cioffi recognises just how often the media tells us what to think: ‘after every speech, after every play in every game, an ‘expert’ is on hand to explain significance.’ And yet at the same time this eradication of the ‘amateur thinker’ as Cioffi terms it, is now increasingly matched by concomitant demands for our interaction and participation: to turn on the radio or read a paper (whether online or in the ‘real’ world) is to be prompted for one’s opinion on the latest debate. Rather than active engagement, I view this for the most part as unpaid labour, whose outcome is simply to create ‘content’ for someone else (broadcaster, publisher or institution). Useful discussion can sometimes be had via such fora, but very often it simply feels too much on someone else’s terms: the debate is top-down, dictated by the already established, and usually channeled along predetermined routes.

Although amateur writing has long existed in self-published zines and similar forms, thanks to the web, this criticism can now emerge into a broader public realm, potentially resonating much further than would once have been possible with the limitations of independent distribution. But just because this material is online doesn’t mean that anyone will necessarily read it: if the amateur critic wants to involve others in their conversation, in addition to writing well and offering their distinctive insights, they have to be canny about building their (social) networks. It goes without saying that this can be a very time-consuming activity, and it reeks a little of the professional networking so beloved of cultural policymakers. At its best, however, this can be a method of developing genuine and critical friendships, which support and challenge the activities of artists and critics alike. With such sociability at its heart, and the confidence to create one’s own contexts in this way, perhaps we might come to have more surprising and more engaging writing about art.