Under the Rose

Martin Johnson Heade, 1878.

Martin Johnson Heade, 1878.


sub rosa (adv.)

privately, secretly, Latin, literally 'under the rose', as a symbol of secrecy.

Email subject lines are odd creatures. Their nature changes depending on your relationship with the recipient. Family and friends put little thought into the subject line, while industry will be explicit or abstract in their messaging or manipulation. 

Your correspondent (me) received an email last week from another aspiring art critic (whom we will refer to as X from now on) with the subject line:

attempting to be a critic hashtag bricking it (this is not spam)

Art criticism is something you usually keep to yourself, like gambling or grief. But rolling the dice and feeling out loud is what art criticism is all about. So your correspondent – after reading your email subject line and following letter – is honoured to be your confession box; all devilishly knowing and angelically understanding of your critical vice.

Thing is we are all clandestine critics most of the time, wearing wings for horns and horns for wings. You've overheard your peers being critical of their peers' work. You've done the deed yourself under the rose. Even your artist-friends have received your snicker-snack tongue. Most of the time the tip is dripping with envy. But in rare moments the sub rosa criticism has a redness and sharpness to it that is calling for nib and paper. Eavesdropping under the rose you believe that there's redemption in words, in criticism, in art. 

But under the rose criticism withers to take root and spread underfoot our tiptoe natures. Because criticism is always personal, subjective and messy we store our thoughts and feelings in the attic of the art scene, where they end up scuttling around with two faces. So it's no surprise that you were met by "funny looks" when you admitted to your friends that you wanted to write art criticism. To be fair you had just dropped down from the attic wearing one face. 

Your email's subject line – attempting to be a critic hashtag bricking it – implies that you are experiencing anxiety in anticipation of the act of art criticism. But hold on to that, that is exactly where art criticism starts, and ought to start, between anxiety and excitement. And if you are not feeling the former then you are just out to offend, nothing more. So you are on the right track, feeling the normal feelings as you swerve toward where the gravel collects to lever over the cliff face and look down at the whooping Lemmings backing into each other in the valley below. 

You also admit to experiencing rejection in your email. You will learn that rejection is par for the course; from editors, artists, especially from your art writing peers, most of whom will practise criticism on you but not out there where it belongs, above the petals and thorns. More's the pity because their words are never as energetic and interesting and passionate when they are taking a swipe at you. 

Unfortunately, criticism starts where most adoptive love starts, at the moment of validation – like when your Mammy melted when she saw a drawing you made at seven years of age. Your correspondent's critical beginnings were fostered and nurtured by, of all professions, editors, who offered the second chances needed when yours truly was just an anagrammatic platypus.

Without former editor of Circa Magazine Peter FitzGerald's guiding hand and support at the very beginning, a decade ago now – when he was met in an email by an avalanche of opinion, will and words – he was there patiently waiting with the snow plough in the wings. Then there was the editor of Visual Artists' News Sheet, the late Jason Oakley, who softened my tone with a 'perhaps' here and a 'maybe' there, showing me there's value in lower case when you critique exclusively in CAPITALS. But don't make editors into your mammy or daddy forevermore. They'll just temper and guilt and validate you the way parents do, and we know how that ends up.

So, you're right, a personal blog is a good place to start. You can play there without your parents looking over your shoulder. You can love there, rage there, allow personal experience to colour and enrich your words. There you can sacrifice the rose; there you can source words that self repression and self protection obstruct. 

You are going to make mistakes. The bonus is you will find a voice that hasn't been conditioned too much by some art magazine's house style. Art critics should free climb to a self-made temperament that is mostly made of muscle memory. Temperament is something you have in you if you are contemplating being an art critic – it's in your email's verbs and verse. But to be honest, it's more in your email than your published piece. That's good. You can be both, do both. You need to be both if you want to sustain the other critic's temperament, a temperament that can grow sour without validation. 

There's also something about the timeliness of art criticism. Newspaper art critic Roberta Smith disclosed in a presentation that she felt depressed when she wasn't writing art criticism by the seat of her pants, and especially when her words were not part of the conversation due to being published long after the exhibition she reviewed was over. Criticism dies a death when it's late to the party.

Potential art critics are always falling by the wayside, getting caught up in notions of acceptance or career, or drifting into a 'way' of writing. Bottom line, the art critic is the mongrel you pick up from the pound, doe-eyed and drooling lips; eyes and lips that can grow sharper, depending on the rose garden that you have dragged her in to. But being a mongrel allows you to try everything out, every tone and every territory, prose and poetry. Play. 

Please don't ask yourself why you want to write criticism. Don't try to define criticism in the grand scheme of things. It's personal to you; fuck the critical gap! Don't even call it criticism; it's writing on art without limits. Artists most of the time don't know why they want to express themselves in the medium of their choice, so why should critics know why words need to be forged in the act of criticism.

But you need to build a fellowship, and it's never in plain sight. Sometimes you will receive an email filled with petals or thorns; other times you fall back on the critical writers you admire. Christopher Hitchens was one of my go to critics in the beginning: he shared this in an interview:

"...it's not for everybody, not everyone wants to always be an awkward cuss or out of step or against the stream, but if you do feel the consensus doesn't speak for you, if there's something about you that makes you feel that it would be worth being unpopular or marginal for the chance to lead your own life and have a life instead of a career or job then, I can promise you, it is worthwhile, yeah."

So. If you feel the consensus doesn't speak for you, that words become a little flat when your truth isn't being expressed, do what Sol Lewitt advised in the last line of an avalanche of words he scribed to his friend and fellow artist Eva Hesse in 1965.

Stop it and just

Safe Passage through the Artworld X.


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