Is the Artworld Too Nice? Martin Herbert, δημοσίευση ArtReview [27/2/2023]
Why the lack of upset over negative reviews – and the corresponding infrequency of art critics ‘getting dachshunded’ – might actually be a problem
When I moved to Germany a decade ago, I was immediately advised to purchase a dachshund. The reason being that it’s standard behaviour here to rub dachshund poo in the face of someone who’s slighted you – and, indeed, walking around Berlin, you see it happening almost daily. The British press, however, appear unfamiliar with this quaint national custom, hence all the recent column inches over Hanover State Opera’s ballet director Marco Goecke delivering a wiener-shit facial to critic Wiebke Hüster after she’d called a production of his ‘boring’ and ‘disjointed’. This smear for a smear, or classically literalist German demonstration of ‘giving a shit’, led to Goecke’s suspension and a police investigation. British commissioning editors, unable to contact Gustav the Dachshund for his thoughts, spun out the story by recounting earlier revenge tactics by affronted artistes (novelist Jeanette Winterson doorstepping some critics, or actor/dramaturge Steven Berkoff threatening to murder others). But, with the exception of The Guardian’s Adrian Searle, who recounted receiving a ‘turd in a jiffy bag’ and some menacing phone calls, tales of revenge tactics for bad exhibition reviews came there none.
This, of course, isn’t entirely surprising, and a few rationales suggest themselves as to why. First, when negative art reviews are written, people in the artworld don’t tend to get upset. I can recall, distantly, the late and short-fused London gallerist Leslie Waddington phoning Time Out’s arts desk to specifically request my head on a plate after I panned a show of his, and there was that time I suggested in Artforum that Susan Hiller maybe wasn’t godlike or even particularly original, so her courtiers swept in to clog up the magazine’s letters page for a month or two. Paul McCarthy was apparently depressed for a fortnight after I extended the thought ‘used to be good, isn’t any more’ over a thousand words, but he didn’t mail me any ketchup-covered beard clippings. In a few cases where I’ve given artists sweepingly unenthusiastic reviews, they’ve offered to buy me lunch and try to talk me round. One or two have passively-aggressively sent me art.
The first reason for the general indifference to negative art reviews, when they happen – and the infrequency of art critics ‘getting dachshunded’ – is that art criticism is notoriously unread, even when it’s not unreadable. The authority that art critics used to have in determining what’s good and bad has long been ceded to the market and, a bit, to curators. Similarly, a lot of art reviews come out after the show has closed, so they’re not going to affect footfall, and one suspects that for many galleries the general, non-collecting public is largely an inconvenience. A high-profile slamming of a restaurant, by contrast, can decisively affect trade; a bad theatre review can diminish ticket sales. By the time a persnickety exhibition review comes out, the work is probably sold and the gallery’s next show is up.