1.21 / Best Of: Year One

The First Year

By Patricia Maloney August 18, 2010

Part One

The decision to end our first issue year in mid-August has little to do with the prevailing weather conditions this summer in the Bay Area. The persistent gloom and cold could easily be mistaken for early December, but it might actually be warmer here during that time of year. Instead, we decided to coincide our schedule with the annual exhibition cycle of the galleries. We’re taking our hiatus alongside theirs, returning rejuvenated in a month for the start of the academic year and the fall season, freshly sharpened pencils in hand. 

For the past ten months, the lives of the editorial staff and the writers have followed a much more compressed calendar than the traditional lunar one, each cycle instead lasting two weeks, with a nine-day sprint between the date that drafts are first due to our announcement that the new issue is live. A herculean effort on everyone’s part, but it is hard to imagine a longer duration that would grant us the same relevance we possess now.

By any quantifiable standard, it’s been an ambitious and rewarding first year. Five partnerships; twenty-one issues; twenty-five regular contributors (an additional sixteen occasional contributors); forty shotgun reviews; forty-two features; 106 reviews; up to 1,100 daily page views; over 1,400 subscribers; and 1,500 weekly visitors. New visitors make up 47 percent of our readership in any month. About 20 percent of our regular readers hail from outside the Bay Area, from cities including Los Angeles; New York; Chicago; Albuquerque; Philadelphia; Houston; Austin; Portland, Oregon; and internationally from Canada; the UK; Germany; France; Denmark; Sweden; the Philippines; Australia; Italy; Puerto Rico; the Netherlands; Spain; the Czech Republic; India; Brazil; New Zealand; Belgium; and Hong Kong.

But such statistics do not offer the entire picture. In truth, the story of Art Practical to date has been one of the people involved: their investment in the project, the ownership they’ve taken, the efforts they’ve made, the protests they’ve voiced, and the work they’ve produced. I have asked some very smart and talented people for their time, and then I asked them for more. It is telling of their generosity that they have said yes again and again. The end result has been a consistently rigorous, informative, and multifaceted reflection on the events, exhibitions, and artistic practices in the Bay Area. 

Other factors have contributed to their participation, including the dearth of other locally focused journals—Artweek ceased publishing in June 2009 after a long slide into irrelevance; Stretcher has been on hiatus for well over a year—and the economic wreckage that has left too many people unemployed and at wits’ ends. A writer recently told me that my invitation to contribute came at one of her lowest moments, when she had never felt so alienated and uncertain. I understood immediately. When Scott Oliver and Joseph del Pesco invited me to take over Shotgun Review, the site from which Art Practical originates, I had just received an email regarding yet another potential job that had been eliminated because of budget cuts. This is not to suggest that Art Practical is a means of salvation. We are a product of this particular moment in time, and these factors gave —and to continue to give— us a sense of urgency and purpose.

We are a collaborative endeavor, despite my dictatorial tendencies—I will freely admit my desire to one day be given dominion over a small island nation—and the processes and schedules that ensure things get done when they need to. The individual motivations for participating in Art Practical vary from contributor to contributor and partner to partner, but there is a shared belief that what we are doing is absolutely necessary.

Part Two

Nothing was more interesting than our discussions, with the perpetual clash of opinion. They sharpened one’s wits, encouraged frank and impartial inquiry, and provided enthusiasm that kept us going for weeks and weeks until our ideas took final shape. One always came away feeling more involved, more determined, and thinking more clearly and distinctly.

 —Claude Monet, 1900.

While I think Monet’s recollections of his evenings spent at the Café Guerbois are a bit rosy-hued, I am struck by the “perpetual clash of opinion” that marked the early gatherings of the École des Batignolles. I lifted the quote from a wall text in the Birth of Impressionism exhibition currently on view at the de Young.  

The show creates a trajectory that pits the dominance of the rigid, academic styling of the Salon against the heterogeneous impulses and eventual triumph of Impressionism. It underscores the political and market powers the Salon had over artists’ careers and the Impressionists’ continuing quest for acceptance in that forum. What I relish is the notion that even as these artists struggled financially and against precarious positions within the mid-nineteenth-century Paris art scene, they argued with each other. They disagreed, repeatedly and often, and the end result was that it made them more determined.

Let’s disagree more. I’m not suggesting argument for the sake of argument, but I'm proposing the idea that there is not enough frank assessment of the work that is produced in the Bay Area. When it happens, all too infrequently, its purpose and benefit often go recognized. Criticism is not a process of negation or dismissal. In James Elkins’ essay “On the Absence of Judgment in Art Criticism,” in asserting the need for an academic discipline for criticism, he also articulates what criticism itself does—it “puts two kinds of pressure on a practitioner: it compels an awareness of colleagues, and it instills a sense of history of previous efforts.”1 In other words, in order for an idea, a work, or a body of works to be critiqued, it must first be acknowledged. It is placed within an arena of other ideas and considered with or against them. It is taken seriously. Therefore, in asking for disagreement, I am suggesting that we take our ideas more seriously.

That is the challenge our contributors face and meet. Each of our regular reviewers writes with cognizance of the weight given their words, and with sensitivity to the vulnerable position in which artists operate. Our writers also find themselves vulnerable. It is difficult to put forward a detached analysis about someone’s work when you will see that person the following night at an opening. (You may have noticed that nearly every issue includes a disclosure that notes the relationship between parties involved, which is telling of the tightly woven connections within the Bay Area visual art community.) And while giving much more space to work they found successful, they have—sometimes with trepidation and sometimes boldly—called to task works of art that fell short for one reason or another. The reactions have been interesting, to say the least, and the site has a new (vastly underutilized) Letters to the Editor page as a result. My point is that we do not intend to be the final word on an exhibition; we hope instead to be the opening gambit in an extended conversation that includes the voices of writers, curators, artists, and fellow members of the arts community.

Many of our writers are practicing artists themselves. They consider the work of other artists as a means by which they might further examine their own and as a way to make this examination visible. There are painters, performers, and social practice artists; curators invested both in institutional spaces and public intervention; MFA students and their professors; individuals trained as historians, journalists, and philosophers; those who embrace theory and those who eschew it altogether. What we encourage them to do is make their subjectivity apparent, so that readers can align their perspectives in relation to their own. 

There has been some excellent writing on the site from the beginning, and there have been voices that have gotten steadily stronger as the year has progressed. In the other Feature for this issue, our editors take a closer look at some of the individual texts that have characterized our objectives to experiment; to articulate artists’ voices; to be self-reflective, evaluative, and adaptive; to best represent the practices of the Bay Area cultural communities; and to believe in the informed personal description of the encounter with an artwork.

A strong forum for art criticism will not keep artists in the Bay Area, but it will bring visibility to the local art market. In some ways that really count, things are not tenable in the Bay Area for artists; in other ways that also count, there are some groundbreaking things happening here that get overlooked. And while it’s not Art Practical’s explicit goal to keep artists living and working in the Bay Area, it is our goal to bring immediate visibility to and construct a longer view on the activities here. As I’ve noted elsewhere, in the short term, a review serves as a record of an event or exhibition: this artist was included in this show at this time in this space. Over the longer term, the assemblage of reviews and articles start to sketch out a picture of how the Bay Area visual arts community defines itself. We have the capacity to deepen an appreciation for the work that is produced in the Bay Area and further nurture its development, while placing it in broader geographical and historical contexts.

In the coming months, as our second issue year gets underway, those objectives won’t change. There will be a noticeable expansion to our activities and reach, though. Several of our writers are moving, and they will continue to contribute from further afield.  Talking Cure’s editor, Jarrett Earnest, has started graduate school, so we are re-thinking what our print presence will look like. We will produce two thematic issues, one on food, one on performance, in the fall and spring, respectively, which will include public programs. We are hosting a Critical Sources workshop on art writing this fall; participating in the upcoming Art Publishing Now Summit and Fair; convening our Advisory Board; and adding new partners. And most exciting of all, there will be new voices in the mix, contributing both Features and Reviews.

But for all our planning, there are outcomes that we cannot anticipate. We are in a moment when familiar forms and approaches are rupturing, so alongside everything the Art Practical team does is the reminder to experiment, evolve, be willing to discard, and, most importantly, always remain open to the question of how well Art Practical represents the Bay Area visual culture. The cusp between what we’ve done and what lies ahead is a challenging, intimidating, and thrilling place to occupy.  Thank you for bringing us here. 

Enjoy.

Notes

  1. James Elkins. “On the Absence of Judgment in Art Criticism” in The State of Art Criticism, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 71-96.

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