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The following is an exchange conducted by email discussing the art critic Matthew Collings’ recent experimentation with analysis of paintings online using Facebook photo albums (see screenshots). Shaun Belcher: My feeling is that we are at a watershed moment in the art world and that visuality is not looking, making and time based to the same extent it once was in the Artscribe era. This is the magazine you once edited, originally founded by James Faure Walker. Fragmentation is an aspect of globalisation and the rise of the Internet may also mean a fragmentation of values as you hint at in the online ‘picture debates’ you have set up on Facebook. Could a magazine like Artscribe exist now at all in the same ‘moral’ and ‘tightknit’ way it did between the 1970s and 1980s when it ring-fenced not only a seriousness about painting etc. but also a fairly coherent worldview and small set of tuned-in artists? We live in a ‘bigger’ art-world but not necessarily a more serious or a more productive one. Was Artscribe a magazine dedicated to ‘visuality’? Matthew Collings: Well ironically Artscribe was very much a visual celebrating mag under the editorship of James Faure Walker, but when I took over, in 1983, it became much more oriented to bringing news to the UK of international trendy developments, and ultimately to airing information about those developments back to places where they originally came from. I say "ironically" because although I'm very interested in the visual side of art, and I express this interest in my Facebook threads, I wouldn’t say the ethos of the magazine in my time was at all like the things I say on Facebook. This is because my true interests, in how paintings are made, how the past connects to the present, and so on, while they were always there, were a bit buried in those days beneath my drive to make the magazine buzzing and powerful.
SDB: Do you think there is a current magazine that caters for ‘visuality’ and here I am using the term loosely to denote contemporary visual art where the emphasis is on ‘object-hood’ or thing-ness', both unsatisfactory terms. Do you think that the decline of the visual object can be arrested or has the very nature of what counts as
contemporary art shifted? James Elkins published a book called 'Why Art Cannot Be Taught'. Should a modern book of art criticism be called 'Why Art Cannot Be Seen'? From Adrian Stokes through Patrick Heron to Peter Fuller there was an emphasis on what was 'seen' and physically encountered. Should we abandon 'looking' and as critics just theorise about 'meaning'? MC: I don’t have anything to do with Peter Fuller's ideas. You may imagine something different because I write for Modern Painters. But I started that as a gag. It was the spot in the magazine that was obviously against everything else surrounding it. It was about goings-on on the hip international art circuit. I continued under innumerable later editorships and changes of editorial direction -- so that the magazine is now the same as any other cheerfully consumerist enthusiastic monthly guide to contemporary rubbish -- only because I was paid well to do so. I would never dream of reading Modern Painters or Art Review, or any of the magazines I'm in. I'm too old for that kind of thing. (I should say I was very sad when Fuller died. I liked him personally.) I am not familiar with Adrian Stokes' thought, except indirectly through other writers' references to him. I know Patrick Heron's writing on art very well. What I respond to in it (the earlier phase, where he's basically reviewing) is the painterly observation and the utter confidence and effective impact of the language: and that pretty much defines the kind of writing about art I like, whether the art under consideration is very visually oriented or not. But your other questions are about this "visuality" notion you're struggling with, object-hood and so on. These are terms that have theoretical positions attached to them. Or else they're attributed to bodies of work, which are not in themselves necessarily theoretical in the same way that the attributing agent, as it were, is theoretical. For example, the recent decision to reclaim Greenberg as "visuality" or "medium specificity," so that his ideas about modernism can be discussed in current theory terms -- I'm familiar with it but I don’t have any deep interest in it. The reasons to like Greenberg are many: fluency, eloquence, wisdom, humanity, cleverness, respect for history, interest in politics, a wide range of cultural interests, not to mention wittiness, humour based on understatement, confidence in dealing with enemies. I don’t think about him in a theoretical way but a practical one. His ability to put a point about aesthetic meaning clearly and well helps me. followers are philistines too. Whereas somebody like Rancierre is genuinely a great read but ultimately he's a visual philistine, and his art I mean, Greenberg is encouraging -- he cheers me up. So "visuality" is not a buzzword for me. I have some of Elkins' books but I don’t particularly relate to them. They are about art historians having very self-conscious discussions with each other. I actually do think art can be taught, or at least certain aspects of it. (In fact it's impossible to get much from art let alone do it seriously
without this kind of education, whatever way you go about acquiring it, and regardless if its acquisition is systematic or haphazard.) Not how to hold the brush or whatever. What can be taught is the formal way that art hangs together, why it looks good when it does, if it does. A student can learn about colour, about organization, about formal ideas generally. I wish I'd had that kind of teaching myself. My interest in painting comes from being able to do it from an early age, and being too lazy or arrested in later life to develop different interests, at least not ones that caused me to be fundamentally distracted from that one. In fact all my other ones tend to come back to it. This was still the case even when I was editing Artscribe and trying to make it glamorous. My interests from childhood inflected and shaped the way in which the material Artscribe was dealing with, in my time as editor, was dished out. In my TV work I've tended to try a bit harder when the subject fitted with my interests and be more careless or offhand when it didn't. I don’t know of any magazine that exists at this moment that reflects these interests.
SB: So, ignoring for the time being the rather academic positions re 'object-hood' and 'visuality,' would you say that your criticism arises implicitly from your practice as a painter? And here I mean the physical involvement with the application of paint to canvas and drawing. And do you see yourself as part of a tradition of artist/critics, which includes Heron and many other British critics of the last 50 years? I remember an exhibition of critics who painted some years back, which illustrated the depth of this. If that is the case do you think that there has been a change in the nature of criticism -- with the inexorable rise of the profile of curators who can now equal and in some cases surpass that of the artist? For example, 'Altermodern' -- are we are entering an era of criticism not informed by ‘practice’?
MC: On Facebook my critical thoughts are shaped by the context. People comment out of all sorts of motivations but I try to direct everything anyone says back to my theme, which is the history of forms. But yes this Facebook project directly relates to my studio practice. To the abstract paintings I do with my partner Emma Biggs, which we exhibit and sell under the name Biggs & Collings. I post albums of images of art from different historical periods, sometimes contemporary, and try and encourage online discussions about formal meaning. In any other critical context, writing articles and reviews, being on TV, I try to bring everything back to the principles I work to in the studio. But the rationale and method are complicated. If it's a programme about Piero della Francesca, say, I will have chosen that subject because I connect it to my painting interests. I'm interested in his forms. So my formal insights about his work in the programme will be connected to my own painting practice, which is a double act with Emma Biggs. But when I'm relating the story of his life, of course, or the background political and social history, then I'm thinking
about how to make a TV programme work, how to add different dimensions to this formal analysis, or this celebration of forms, in a way that is least distracting. For example, how do I find really succinct ways of getting across complicated ideas about cultural difference, different expectations about what art is for and what it can do, for an audience that is not particularly interested in art in the first place, whose interest, naturally enough, is passing, not constant or urgent? These other narrative dimensions are not directly connected to Emma and me endlessly changing the tonality and intensity of little geometric shapes in our paintings, but to wider cultural ideas, and also to the grammar of TV. I don’t see myself as part of a critical continuity, no. Criticism for me has been opportunistic, just something that came up as a way of making a living. It was never a decision for me to do it, as it was for, say, Adrian Searle, who started out as a painter and made a positive decision to drop it and be a critic instead. But to return to Patrick Heron, since you bring up his name again, he writes critically in a very different way to me. More responsible, careful, more respectable, really -- I don’t possess those abilities, or skill set. I have different skills, which mark me out as not at all kosher. Although I would say I'm often very clear and articulate about what exactly it is that makes something in art succeed or fail. It's just that there's nothing normative about my writing generally. It doesn't support or continue a sort of art critical institution or discipline. I don’t know about the other things you're asking. You mention Altermodern. I think it's a good example of the curator being more articulate, educated and generally intelligent and witty than the artists. But that's got nothing to do with me. I couldn't care less about any of the art in those shows, or the witty thoughts of curators.
SB: You return again and again in the debates online to the materiality of the object but, if I read correctly, you do not see yourself as particularly aligned to the ‘new aesthetics’ debate presently happening? This may simply be coincidental but that correlation exists as theorists and ‘self-conscious’ art historians unpick these ideas. I was drawn to your Facebook debates as you are engaging with an ephemeral medium, a non-academic forum, yet using that very ‘temporary’ ‘cyber’ space to delve into deep ideas about the materiality of painting. There is a degree of paradox in this i.e. using virtual means to examine the ‘real’. Does your statement above explain your use of the web as part of a personal drive to ‘explain’ and understand painting and as such does it relate to your T.V. and writings as part of a ‘populist’ art criticism as opposed to that rather dry theoretical ‘cul-de-sac’ you mentioned? You are probably more aware than most of the rise in textual analysis and explication of artworks. Do you regard this as an inevitable consequence of the mass production of artists that has gone on from our art schools. Your analysis of 'Altermodern' suggests that you may feel the good curator worth as much if not more than some contemporary artists and their ‘pronouncements’? MC I think the curators are as irrelevant to anything important that ever happened to art in the past as the artists whose stuff they're hustling; it's just a new little trivial selfcontained circuit that doesn't relate to anything significant. The replies to my Facebook postings seem to be entirely from artists or would-be artists. Among the regular repliers are a handful of serious people who can communicate ideas.
Sometimes there's a nutter; I mean literally mentally unhinged. Then there are many repliers who are just well meaning arty people who aren't on any particular high level of professional standing or achievement. Most of the repliers seem young, art-education graduates, they may have read something by me or seen me on the BBC programme about Saatchi finding new art stars. Very occasionally someone replies who's academically informed. In each case I reply back pretty much in kind. I mean I use terms that I feel will be understood, just as one might engage with anyone. But I hardly ever drift off my FB theme, which is as you describe, looking at the material reality of art, and pointing out how forms work, what a form is, what a history of forms might be, what visual content is, and so on. I don't know how "populist" this could really be said to be. I'm not talking about a subject that is of the remotest interest even to the majority of hard-core art-world professionals, let alone the broad cross section of amateurs and occasional insiders I've just described. So while I might have an ability to communicate, and I enjoy communicating, I don’t have any interest in communicating the kinds of vapid contents that are usually associated with the notion of populist "explanations" for art. "Academic" has certain associations for me. I read a lot of academic books about art history, and other aspects of history, the historical Jesus, social history, the history of this and that, and certainly including the history of aesthetics. However, I don’t have any academic background, I don’t teach in a college, I don’t do any professional academic work at all, and I've never studied art or art history on an academic course (only painting at the Byam Shaw and later on the Goldsmiths MA, neither of which were academic in character). So I'm not contemptuous towards these studies of visuality and medium specificity, and so on, so much as simply distanced from them. But if there is a touch of dismissal, it's because I don't relate to the actual content. It's not that I despise the mode so much as that I don’t believe in what is being said. I think of art as connected to something more or less biological that makes us like patterns, symmetry, riffs on symmetry, and so on. I think bark painting designs by Aboriginal tribes-people are good in a surprising sort of similar way to designs in medieval mosaics. I suspect they both have to do with visual metaphors for light. In art, as in nature, colour is light and light is colour. I don't think it makes any difference to the richness of Titian's 'Tribute Money' in the National Gallery if you know the saying "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" or even if you know it's Jesus in the picture. That painting looks good anyway, and it is in fact good. It's good because of its abstract values, the way the surface has been treated, the disposition of forms, and so on. And I don’t think it makes any difference to the sense of visual richness that a bark painting design has, if I have failed to understand the original cultural context that produced the design. Whether it's figurative or abstract, art is better when it has more visual substance and richness and worse when it has less. I like the kind of writing about art and art history, and how the present responds to the past, that can elaborate on these visual themes in a humane sounding way, which is why I like Greenberg, rather than the current recasting of him by Thierry de Duve or whomever, which is well meant but incredibly turgid to read.
SB: Thankyou Matthew. Do you think there may be room for a new ‘Journal of Visuality’ on or offline and how may this experiment feed into that?
I don't know! A magazine requires many writers sharing a similar world view but I don't know anyone who thinks like me and Emma. We have friends who are artists but they're baffled by our interest in the past. They think contemporary art has its own rationale. We think a rationale based on obsessing about the present is too weak to bother with. (word count: 2828)
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