Posted on November 12, 2010


Writing a negative review is harder than it looks.

The Australian art scene is subject to at least 3 kinds of censorship. The first is editorial policy, a kind of pre-emptive censorial strike in which it is made clear that only positive reviews need apply for publication. It may not promote critical debate, but at least (as a writer) you know where you stand. The second kind is actual censorship, a sorry state of affairs in which an editor will change what a writer says to suit their (unspoken) editorial position. This happened to me recently. I wrote a balanced review, not 100% positive, and what was printed had most of the critical comments removed. I was furious, but not really surprised. I hadn’t realised that the publication in question was only interested in positive reviews. But I should have.

The third, most insidious, (and maybe most prevalent) kind of arts writing censorship is self-censorship. You wonder if you will commit career suicide if you stand up and say, “Hey, the Emperor has no clothes.” Will Gallery X ever give me a show if I say their artist is not so fab, will Funding Body Y black-list me, will Magazine Z, who just published a glowing advertorial, ever hire me again? It’s easier to stay quiet, to just ignore the boring, mediocre or even highly annoying stuff and concentrate on the genuinely good. Afterall, arts coverage is so thin on the ground anyway, why waste space on the dull and dissatisfying?

And as an artist, as well as a writer, the urge to self-censor becomes even more powerful tinged as it is by empathy. You know how hard it is to make art. You understand just what is at stake when you expose your vision to the world. You imagine the shoe on the other foot, “How would I feel if someone said my show was substandard?” Awful, of course.

But then, if praise is all there is doesn’t praise become meaningless? Do we really want to live in a culture where art criticism is governed by the motherly maxim, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”? I know I’ve raved about all this before in my earlier comments on Mimi Kelly’s last show, but fuelled as I was by a sense of righteous indignation it was easier. I really struggeled with this one.  I went to see a show this week at a prominent commercial gallery. The art wasn’t offensive. But it is wasn’t exactly art either.

It certainly looked like art, at least at first, but something was missing. It was big and shiny and pretty and nicely framed, but also clean, cold, calculated, totally obvious and completely closed; utterly void of that mysterious spark that makes art ART. And somehow, this made me almost as mad as the misogynistic porn.

I was just about to let rip, career suicide be damned, when it was pointed out to me that I couldn’t write about this show because I knew the artist. Not well, and we are not friends, but that was the point. Just as you can’t write about your boyfriend or best mate’s show (even if it’s the best thing you’ve seen in ages) because it will appear to be favouritism, you can’t write about the people you don’t particularly like either. Because it just looks petty. Freedom of speech is trickier than you might think.

Tracey Clement

Posted in: The Ugly