Art Writing and Criticism | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Art Writing and Criticism

Art Writing and Criticism date for the most part from the 1950s.
Canadian Art Cover
Designed by Thorla Macdonald, 1927.

Art Writing and Criticism

Art Writing and Criticism date for the most part from the 1950s. A distinction must be made between art criticism, which is a qualitative judgment of works of art, and the philosophy of art, which is concerned with interpreting works, with discovering the nature, significance and symbolism of art in general. There is, however, reciprocity between art criticism and the philosophy of art: every evaluation of quality always includes an explicit or implicit interpretation of the meaning of the work, and every interpretation implies a previously formulated qualitative judgment.

Art criticism can address various aspects of the visual arts such as qualitative judgment in public and private collecting, architecture, the decorative arts, patronage of artists, art dealings, conservation of art and organization of exhibitions. Much Canadian art criticism has been of a fairly documentary nature. The vast increase in the number of artists, public and commercial galleries, and art patrons since WWII reveals an expansion of artistic discernment. Written art criticism has increased at a comparable rate.

The first art writing and criticism in Canada was published as short articles in daily and weekly newspapers or general interest periodicals. The earliest of these periodicals included the short-lived L'Abeille canadienne, a Montréal fortnightly published 1818-19, the Halifax Monthly Magazine of 1830 and the Upper Canadian Literary Magazine of 1833. Later La Revue canadienne, The Week, Foyer domestique and the Canadian Home Journal devoted regular columns to art. These articles usually examined current exhibitions, discussing the works in fashionably flowery language in relation to Victorian ideals rather than pictorial qualities. By the end of the 19th century, longer studies, such as Sherwood's chapter in Hopkins's Canada: An Encyclopaedia of the Country, made an appearance. However, it was only in the 1920s that books devoted exclusively to art were published, including those by Georges Bellerive and Newton MacTavish. Despite this interest, neither authors nor critics could make a living on art writing alone.

In the early 20th century this economic factor continued to affect the types of authors who published. A considerable number of authors were artists, some were curators employed at public galleries and a few were professional critics. Practicing artists such as Arthur Lismer, Lawren S. Harris, C.W. Jefferys and John Lyman produced important articles; Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, added writing to his many duties, a practice continued by Donald W. Buchanan, a co-editor of Canadian Art and later staff member of the National Gallery. Robert Ayre furthered the tradition of spare-time writer; while fulfilling his duties with the CNR Public Relations Department, he wrote for the Montreal Standard and subsequently the Montreal Star. Some professional art journalists did exist. One of the earliest of note was Hector Charlesworth, who wrote on many subjects, including art. In the post-WWI period Jean Chauvin contributed perceptive pieces in the French press, as did Pearl McCarthy in the 1950s and early 1960s at the Toronto Globe and Mail. Journalists such as Newton MacTavish and F.B. Housser wrote some of the few early books on Canadian painting. Little effort was made at dispassionate, rational criticism, with the notable exception of those such as Ayre and McCarthy, who wrote regular columns.

The first changes, evident in the 1950s, occurred as a result of the expansion of public galleries (see Painting). At that time these institutions experienced a considerable growth in number, staff and programs. A greater interest developed in historic overviews, especially in book form, through the influence of research-oriented curators such as R.H. Hubbard, Gérard Morisset and J. Russell Harper. Their books on the history of Canadian art were characterized by the use of extensive primary materials; they revolutionized the field, opening it to serious study. Within a decade other surveys and specialized studies appeared, such as Alan Gowans's Looking at Architecture in Canada, F.M. Gagnon'sPremiers peintres de la Nouvelle France and Jean Palardy's The Early Furniture of French Canada.

Themes were enlarged to include more thorough studies of the arts of the Native peoples of Canada. Marius Barbeau's and Diamond Jenness's pioneer works on Canadian Native people were expanded by scholars such as Wilson Duff. The art of the Inuit, having been seriously neglected, was first promoted by James Houston and then analyzed by George Swinton. After 1960 contemporary art began to have its advocates, too many to be listed; approaches tended to be formalist and sometimes Maoist. These studies, however, are only the beginning, for many areas remain untouched; we lack informative studies of Canadian sculpture, Maritime architecture, patrons, dealers and critics, and most of the decorative arts.

The second dynamic expansion in gallery activity, occurring in the mid-1970s and caused by an injection of federal funds, garnered an increased public and stimulated art writing. Galleries themselves were becoming more numerous and more specialized. Viewers could attend public or commercial art galleries and artist-run spaces, all producing exhibitions and, potentially, catalogues (see Art, Contemporary Trends). These new shows in turn provoked reviews and articles in newspapers, general periodicals and specialized art journals. In the popular press, the amount of space devoted to the visual arts remained relatively small and the level of reportage remained descriptive. Museum newsletters became more numerous, influential and diverse. ArtsAtlantic (1977) introduced the concept of co-operative sponsorship, for the publication is supported by 11 Maritime galleries and museums. The Vancouver Art Gallery's Vanguard began in 1972 as a tabloid newspaper, but in 1979 changed its format to a magazine style and extended its scope to the national scene. Vanguard ceased publication in 1989.

The increasing exhibition activity was reflected in the expanding number of specialized art journals which, since WWII, have added important dimensions to the art field. Canadian Art, initiated in 1943 and renamed artscanada in 1967, was followed by Vie des arts in 1956; both publications concentrated on contemporary issues. In 1983 financial problems precipitated the demise of artscanada and artmagazine (founded 1969), but the next year, 2 new periodicals, C Magazine and Canadian Art, went to press. Only with the National Gallery's Bulletin and the 1974 creation of RACAR and the Journal of Canadian Art History have historical issues received continuing attention. Recently, numerous magazines written and published by artists have appeared. Many of these have emanated from artist-run galleries, including the Only Paper Today from Toronto's A Space, Centrefold from Calgary's Parachute Centre and Virus, published by Montréal's Véhicule. Others have come from art groups, such as General Idea's File. Some are broadly based, including Parachute, a magazine devoted to contemporary criticism. Specialized and more commercial publications such as Video Guide, Canadian Architect and Photo Canada are addressed to a restricted readership.

With this considerable increase in art writing came a change in the types of writers who published. The artist was still an important contributor, acting both as commentator and critic; the professional art critic, though often working part-time, became more prominent; and the university-trained art historian, a new generation of specialist, added considerably to the dialogue.

As catalogues became more common, they also became more varied and complex. Introductions gradually shifted from being straightforward biographical information to more probing analytic appraisals, complemented by an increasing number of reproductions. The approaches used are as diverse as the material covered. Alvin Balkind's soft-cover catalogue, 17 Canadian Artists: A Protean View, accomplished its educational aim through the use of many illustrations and an evocative text. Working with a more defined subject - David Milne's prints - Rosemarie Tovell effectively led the reader through the development of this important aspect of Milne's art (1980) while the authors of Joyce Wieland(1987) expanded the scope to consider the full range of this artist's creativity.

Exhibition catalogues, freed from some of the financial pressures of more commercial publications, now may exhibit a new daring in presentation, an aesthetic link with the work documented. Outstanding recent examples include the Oakville Galleries' Micah Lexier Book Sculptures (1993) and The Nickle Arts Museum's A Garden of Delights: 25 Years of Prints by Noboru Sawai (1994). More traditional formats, such as the Mendel Art Gallery's The Flat Side of the Landscape: The Emma Lake Artists' Workshops (1989) and the National Gallery of Canada's Land Spirit Power (1992), are both more informative and more analytical in approach than heretofore. Each contains essays by three or more writers who explore in depth different facets of the same theme. Unfortunately, in this the largest area of art writing, distribution remains a major problem; some galleries are experimenting with co-publishing catalogues as trade books through established publishers.

In books the trends are similar. Biographies are still favoured. These, including F.M. Gagnon's impressive Borduas, contain much solid research. A variant biographical methodology is illustrated by R.M. Vanderburgh and M.E. Southcott's A Paintbrush in My Hand: Daphne Odjig (1992). A considerable proportion of the books published are of the coffee-table variety, a format eminently suited to lavish and large colour illustrations and a moderate amount of popular text. For a while this trend was pushed further to the production of limited editions, collector volumes selling for thousands of dollars and dealing with well-known artists such as Christopher Pratt and Kenojuak.

The interest in exploring the philosophy of art exhibited in recent catalogue productions is newly present in books. Authors, such as Philip Monk in Struggles with the Image, Mark A. Cheetham in Remembering Postmodernism, Adele Freedman in Sight Lines: Looking at Architecture and Design in Canada and Linda Hutcheon in Splitting Images, often use postmodern techniques. Writers are drawn from the same pool that produces most of the catalogues and articles, with academics becoming considerably more involved.

Along with the increased amount of art writing and criticism being done in Canada, there is a new professionalism and an expanded range of approach. This is due, in part, to the recent attention universities and galleries have accorded Canadian art history. The erstwhile norm - nonevaluative, first-person documents and biographical data - is gradually being expanded to produce interpretive or critical catalogues and journal articles. While one single philosophy of art has not become dominant in Canada, imported concepts, such as American critic Clement Greenberg's formalist approach, have attracted adherents. Yet there is increasing examination of the politico-cultural nature of art and the global dimension of the contemporary artist's environment. Writers are acknowledging these individual and cultural values in particular works and they are more conscious too of current postmodern theories. On the whole, Canadian art writing is becoming more analytic and more critical, seeking both new interpretations and better methods of evaluation.

Further Reading