Art criticism discussion with artist Roger White

Nina Oleynik

Courtesy of Rachel Uffner Gallery

Artist and critic Roger White joined Visiting Associate Professor of Art Daniel Harkett’s Writing Art Criticism class last Tuesday to discuss his book The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World. Professor Harkett’s students are tasked with writing the exhibition catalogue for the Senior Exhibition, on view in the Colby Museum of Art starting May 10. The essays that accompany each image of student work speak to their senior show as a whole. In their critique, the students attempt to capture the essence of their exhibition as a whole in various ways: through poems, dialogue style manuscripts as well as more traditional catalogue essays. White joined the class in an attempt to impart advice on students that could be helpful for this type of writing, and beyond.

The bulk of White’s advice was straightforward: writing about art can be a hard, thankless job. To be a successful and interesting writer in the contemporary art world, one must bring the utmost passion to the table. In our ever-increasing digital landscape, where art writing is now accessible to a wider audience than it once was, it is especially important to find your voice as an art writer and commit to your craft. Art criticism students have familiarized themselves with a wide range of writing styles and tactics over the course of the class, looking to art publications such as Hyperallergic, Mousse and the Art & Design section of The New York Times.

As the editor of Paper Monument, a contemporary art journal, White has the unique task of bringing his artist’s perspective into editing. Editing artist’s writing is a task that he finds somewhat difficult as artists are not used to being told how to create, or used to being edited down. This multi-role existence is common for critics who freelance in addition to holding down other jobs. When asked about striking a balance between making writing about art accessible to a wide audience and avoiding being reductive, White said that he aims to say something that’s hard to talk about in the clearest way possible. He says he wants his writing to be for everyone, but also understands that it isn’t always.

In a lot of ways, The Contemporaries does just this. His quasi-ethnographic approach to exploring the art world illuminates parts of professions related to art that might not have been accessible to some. He tours Jeff Koons’ “factory” and explains how Koons employs hundreds of assistants to work on his large-scale works. The fact that White himself is an artist is useful for unpacking certain interactions in the art world which can often seem elitist and aloof. White brings us to art world to us in an easily accessible and relatable way, in which we don’t feel quite like outsiders.

Following the meeting with Professor Harkett’s students, White gave a lecture to members of the Colby community. In this talk, he gave a broader history of art criticism and the changes he has seen in the field. He argues that today, critics are more reticent about passing harsh judgment on works, and rather they aim to help readers understand works and come to their own conclusions. As this style of criticism has become increasingly popular, White urges young writers to engage in swaying readers opinions, to make statements.

White’s book The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World which was published in 2015, by Bloomsbury, USA.