Interview with Orit Gat

Bad at Sports

Interview with Orit Gat

By Bad at Sports October 5, 2015

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Duncan Mackenzie and Dana Bassett sat down with Orit Gat in May 2015 at the conference “Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age” at Walker Art Center. The day before their conversation, Gat moderated a panel titled “Credibility, Criticism, Collusion,” where her ability to confront subdued topics was beyond impressive. What follows is an abridged excerpt from their conversation about art criticism and working in the art world.

You can listen to the full interview on Bad at Sports, Episode 515.


Dana Bassett: The question I'm always curious about is how you can include other voices while not excluding other voices, and not turning around and committing the same injustices—do you have to displace someone else to have a spot at the table, or can the table get bigger? Not that that's a question I want you to answer.

Orit Gat: I keep hoping that the table is constantly getting bigger. I think that's a huge part of what we talk about when we talk about online publishing and about participating online, because I'm really hesitant to talk about democracy and such terms, which are so fraught and so often used in the online context. I think they’re used to mask power structures and hierarchies, but still, even without talking about democracy, there is more room. And there's also more room to set the terms of engagement online, even if you do it through a corporation, like Twitter or Facebook. It’ll be naïve to think that any space online isn’t corporate space. That said, we really need to translate—that doesn't even happen online most of the time—we need to translate that online activity to real life. It irks me whenever I see a panel that's all-male, or all panels almost, which are all white and all very hegemonic, which also relates to terms of privilege—which seems like something we're all really, really aware of in the art world and yet turn a blind eye to.

Duncan Mackenzie: I feel like we are all very aware of privilege in the art world. On the other hand, I feel like typically—in fact I feel terrified to actually even open my mouth at this point—I do feel like there's this weirdness where the art-world participants are self-nominating. We chose to work in the art world. We all chose to make less money than we could make somewhere else to do this. And yes, that's absolutely a privileged position because we got to make a choice, but it seems weird that we then castigate ourselves for the fact that the art world is made up of the people who chose to be in it.

OG:Well, yes and no.

DM:Because it's still a consumer luxury-goods market, right? It's still about servicing a luxury-goods market, and we reward those people who participate in a kind of canon of history more than other people who make things that are a little bit more derivative or kind of follow preexisting courses.

OG:These are two different conversations too. It may be a self-selecting thing or entity, and that the terms of engagement are really, really particular, and some people choose to participate and some people don't, and I'm not into the self-flagellation of “I hate the art world” and so on. These are your people, that is your community. I don't understand why no one at the conference talked about community in more rigorous terms, it seems like that's a term I use all the time. This is a commitment that I make to my community. This is who I write for. Who the hell is going to read my things if not people who are interested in contemporary art? That said, that also comes with a responsibility to that luxury-goods market, and that's a very different thing. I think part of the role of participating is also to be very much aware of this. To limit it to a certain extent.

DB:Thinking about community, I'm really interested to hear you talk about how you navigate doing what is often freelance work and maybe not the most rewarding type of writing in the art world. I know that you're also very interested in how negative—how candid reviews are—

OG:You can say negative.

DB:Or negative, but I don't even think negative is a good word to me, because I feel like even your reviews that I've read that have negative aspects are more just holistic about the experience of a show, and to me that seems like a very honest place to come from. Like, “This isn't good or bad, but it is what it is, and here is my opinion on how I felt about it.” That is cooler to me than saying it's okay to write bad reviews. I'm curious to hear you talk about what writing negative reviews is like, and also if you feel like there's a community of reviewers that look out for each other. You talk about specific broad community, but I'm curious about if you talk about these things with other writers like you.

OG:Yeah we do, first and foremost, we do. I definitely have a sense of community with other art critics and writers. I guess a lot of people self-define as art writers. I have very recently taken to saying “art critic” when I meet people because that seems like a really important position to take as a woman, since traditionally you’d associate this role with men, people with a really strong sense of authority. I actually think I talked about feeling privileged before, but also—I'm a woman, I'm foreign, English isn't my native language, it seems really important for me to claim that that's okay, that my voice is also really valid in this publishing scene. Hopefully. And I read magazines. I read magazines publicly with other people. That's also part of engaging with your community and having a sense of responsibility. Magazines are a resource.

DM:I feel like we as critics are always beholden to a representational project. It's the same as us, legitimizing us as artists in a certain way… Although I do feel like that brings us around to a kind of descriptive project. We are beholden to descriptive and post-descriptive logic.

DB:Or yeah, just what different vehicles are open to a writer in finding new ways to form meaning around work? I don't think that it's just how an image is placed on a page, but rather like the tone that you take or the angle that you're writing from—how much you're transparent about being a journalist or being accountable to these ethics or not.

OG:I think that Ben Davis is an amazing writer and that that talk didn't actually do justice to what his project is, which is build context that's really political to the way we talk about art. I don't really understand why that didn't come up.

DM:A lot of that crept in at the end of his talk. His keynote was called “Post Descriptive Criticism,” and he was trying to get his hands around how we do art journalism or art criticism after the advent of technology—you can find 100 images and then your text, although I still feel like when we step out to do criticism, we are responsible for in part describing—like it's partly a service role and it's service to the audience. When we read the New York Times in Chicago, we are not going to see most of those shows. And if we don't have a description, we can bring up images online.

DB:There is this idea that there are things that you can't see if you look at a jpeg, and that a critic’s understanding of those things is what you’re bringing to the audience. There's this pedagogical intention, which I don't know how I feel about—is this my responsibility to educate you about the work, or is it just some part along the way?

OG:I think we all end up dancing a lot around description—also, just because there are too many descriptive reviews that are basically a shopping list of what's on view. That is the real problem with description. I don't think that classic structure of the art review—here's the artist, here's what's on view, here's what it means, A, B, C—is actually that bad a structure. I just think it's about time we meddle with it a little bit. I wouldn't mind—if someone would publish it—I wouldn't mind writing a review that only talks about ideas and never mentions what's in the space.

DB:How do we get there? Just in my limited experience as an editor, it's hard because my writers are coming to me with that structure of review and I think it's a little insulting to be like pushers: push yourself to think more critically about this thing. But maybe not.

DM:I think it depends on the audience. I feel like it totally depends on who you're writing for. I go to work to try to be challenged, and I go to work to kind of have those new experiences and work through those ideas, and that's the part that's super fun, that's the part that keeps you coming back. On the other hand, it's like cement, you need to be able to share terms with whoever is reading your piece to actually get to unpacking it and kind of explode the thing as a potential for learning or explode its potential for learning, or explode its potential for meaning.

OG:I think that goes back to that conversation about community versus public. I think Christopher Knight was really interesting in the way he talks about writing for a general audience, for example. He understands a certain responsibility about how you promote the discourse around art and culture with an audience that's interested in it but isn't necessarily professional. When I write for Frieze I know exactly what kind of people are reading the magazine. That's my community. Those are my people. So I think part of that is that I can also challenge them a little bit with the way I write. At least try. I don't do that very often too because I'm a freelance writer who writes for Frieze like six times a year. It's my favorite magazine: I also want to play it safe sometimes. I'm not saying all reviews shouldn't mention the art object, I'm just saying if what is interesting about the art object is the kind of conversation it promotes, why are we talking about the art object as just a part of a list of what’s there in a space? The really important thing is the conversation.

DB:This is my anti-capitalist mode.

DM:Unless all we do is have the conversation. I always think about who is coming to what we produce, who comes to what we write, talk, think, and on what terms are we meeting them? How generous are we being to them? How do we open ourselves to our audience and make sure that they're with us, you know? 

OG:First of all, I think good writing is the key to that. If you're a good writer people will read what you write. If you don't just name-drop or use complex words. People will read what you write even if they don't know anything about it because they'll be taken in by the writing. But also, once again, let's talk about Frieze, they ran a survey a couple years ago titled “Who do you write for?” And they asked a number of freelance newspaper critics, freelance journalists and magazine writers, and other editors about who they write for, and almost none of them talked really in terms of public and community. They talked about their one editor or the letters to the editor, or something like that. I think that is a really, really valid question. If we're talking about representation in terms of engagement, can writing open that up? Can writing bring someone in, convince someone to go to art school (which, granted, is already a weird decision to make)?

DB:When you're writing something that is commenting on these different communities and different publics, do you think about who is the recipient of this, or even if tying it into these more open cultural communities can bring in new people? Like if comparing our criticism to Yelp can interest someone who is a Yelp fan.

OG:I think a lot of what I end up doing is reflecting on what's happening. So a lot of my writing talks about structures and what they are and what they could be, and thus I don't actually write in a way that gives a lot of access. I haven't thought about this a lot. Because I write in a way that wants to change structures and make them more open—another really complicated, loaded word, like “democracy.” So in a way, my sense of an audience is one that’s already committed to that conversation. But I’ve been told before that I elevate “conversation” too much. Maybe that’s becoming a loaded term, too.


Orit Gat is a writer based in New York and London. She writes about contemporary art, publishing, internet culture, and different meeting points between these things. Her writing is published regularly on Rhizome, where she is a contributing editor, and has appeared in a variety of magazines, including FriezeArtReview, the White ReviewArt Agenda, and the Art Newspaper.


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