What the heck is a psychotope? I’m looking at a press release for an upcoming group show called Psychotopes at the YYZ Gallery. Not only is the event within the circulation area of the community newspaper where I work as an arts editor, but it looks like the subject matter might be local as well – a double score on a slow arts week. I ring up the gallery to find out more, and the receptionist puts me through someone named Katie.
“A psychotope is… um,” I hear pages rustling, “… a way to turn urban spaces into alternate realities.” Her voice reminds me of child at a spelling bee.
“Yes, that’s what the release said, but could you elaborate on what that means?”
“Um….” There is a long pause.
“For example, what will the pieces look like?” I prompt.
“Um… I….” Another pause follow by a deep sigh.
“Maybe if you could give me some background on the artists in the show?”
“Katie? Are you still there?”
“Can you call back tomorrow?” comes the now meek voice. “I’m having a bad day.”
o o o
Often looked down upon as frivolous by hard-news journalists, writing about contemporary art is a challenge precisely because of the discipline’s lack of cold hard facts. In the world of installations, video art and works most Canadians wouldn’t hang on their walls, what one sees and what it means are often two different things. Furthermore, especially where contemporary art is concerned, the curators and artists behind the exhibits, are often so mired in the realm of the abstract ideas behind the works, they make for lousy sources.
“You’re dealing with sophisticated people with very sophisticated ideas about what they are doing,” says The Toronto Star art critic, Peter Goddard. “There is a point where it is almost impossible to translate them.”
But, if a lay audience is to understand the works without being there, translate they must. Unpretentious newspaper critics like Goddard and NOW magazine’s art critic, Thomas Hirschmann, do this by side-stepping the academic jargon prevalent in most Canadian magazines about the art world. “No gargantuan words,” says Hirschmann. “If there is a theory I try to explain it in a direct way,” adds Goddard. Furthermore, each writer puts the works they review in a modern context, borrowing analogies from popular culture and showing how an exhibit plays into or doesn’t play into our society today.
Yet, with no hard and fast rules, how critics perceive the works they write about is subjective. In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the history of contemporary art and with it the rise of the art critic, the author argued that without articles to give abstract act credibility, it ceases to exist as art at all. But if the popular meaning of modern art starts with the critic where do the critics get their meanings from?
Goddard says the exhibits he writes about often already have a buzz about them within the arts community. “If something is taken very seriously by a bunch of people then you have to look at it,” he explains. “You don’t have to agree with its reputation, but you do need to approach it with an open mind.”
Most mainstream critics only write about a small portion of the total exhibits they attend – usually forgoing younger artists still developing their technique, for those who are more established. “It’s like sports,” explains Goddard. “These people are professionals. They know how to play the game.”
With technique and craftsmanship a given in their choice of subjects, what the critics write about ultimately comes down to how they feel about the works they are viewing. Nontraditional art often tests its audiences, not just intellectually, but often on the level of personal gut reactions. Unfortunately, few newspaper reporters, trained to stick to the facts, are comfortable writing about the murky world of their own emotions. Newspaper arts critics, especially those with backgrounds in some form of art, are the exception.
“When I was a kid learning classical guitar,” says Hirschmann. “I played with my heart more than my brain, and so it is with art.” Preferring to call himself a lay critic – “I hope my column is read by people that don’t usually care much about art. That’s its purpose” – Hirschmann believes that everyone should have an opinion about art, and “nobody should ever be dissuaded from engaging art because of a lack of education.”
Hirschmann came to the field from a non-theoretical background: he studied philosophy in university and began his journalism career as a business reporter for The National Post in 1998. His love of art, he says, stems from a high school class in modernism, some time in front of the contemporary collection of a friend’s father and a trip to Europe spent alone in galleries. Hooked on the subject, Hirschmann convinced his editors at the Post to let him write a weekly visual arts column to beef up the paper’s otherwise scattered coverage of the field.
Goddard, the Star’s art critic for the past three years, also came to the field from another arena of study. After completing a degree at the Royal Conservatory of Music, the now white-haired writer got a job as one of Toronto’s first rock critics. Art galleries were a way to kill time on the road. “I would interview The Who in Chicago at 11 a.m., but their concert wouldn’t be until 8 p.m.,” says Goddard, “so I would spend the day checking out the galleries in the city.”
Although Goddard had always had an interest in art – he has over 20 years of notebooks chronicling his thoughts on various pieces – a highly visceral experience encountering four large Picasso canvases during a visit to Paris’ Beaubourg Gallery made him realize there was more to this than he was aware of. “I went around the corner and I almost started crying,” he explains. “I’m not a Picasso fan, but it moved me. I can’t say how or why. This was pure me looking in it and it looking at me.”
And that, ultimately, is what good art should do. As Goddard says, “It engages you and creeps under your skin.” Its power lies not in the abstract theories behind it, or even on the lines of the canvas, but in how it comes together and affects its audience on an almost intuitive level.
Thanks to critics who make modern art seem more accessible, more and more people are being affected. As Hirschmann says, “the greatest compliment is when I hear that someone who normally wouldn’t be interested in art, went to a show because of my review.”
Still, not everybody understands that it is okay to trust their own perceptions when it comes to contemporary pieces. As for Katie? When I called back the following week, she had quit her job. Perhaps, even for her, the art had become meaningless without explanation.