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On Criticism: Fostering a Constructive Dialogue for Dallas Arts

As an artists residency explicitly tied to a university system, CentralTrak provides opportunities that surpass in both quality and gusto much of the city's relatively comparable arts programming. It makes sense, of course, that many, if not all, of the panelists and moderators at any given CentralTrak event are not mere hobbyists or even talented autodidacts, but are instead academics ensconced in abstruse scholarly work, with a level of comprehension and dedication far surpassing even the most well-educated lay art lover. The conversations there, the exhibitions, the educational programming -- these are orchestrated purposefully and thoughtfully to raise the bar and produce analysis on the most meaningful level.

So, it follows that a panel hosted there, created, organized and moderated by Darryl Ratcliff, founder of Green Bandana Group, and designed to, in his words, "talk about what we can continue to do to grow our community, and how established, well-intentioned art patrons and institutions can help Dallas become a premier city for the arts" would contain as many answers as questions, substantive answers, provided thoughtfully by those committed to the city and its flourishing. Ratcliff's conception of the panel sprang from questions he'd posited while attending Radical Regionalism, and he proposed the idea to CentralTrak director and artist resident, Heyd Fontenot. "1.2 Stories: State of the Emerging Arts," featured four young, but immensely talented artists - Kevin Ruben Jacobs, Danielle Georgiou, Jerod Davies and Bryan Embry - who have made indelible marks on the community in their respectively young careers. It was everything that one might and should expect from a partnership between CentralTrak and such prominent emerging arts voices.

And, answers there were. Or, at least ideas. They were honest, they were analytical and they are at times difficult to hear. But, the resounding inclination among these artists - later echoed by the crowd - is that there is a fundamental problem when it comes to the way art is discussed in Dallas, a glaring, but not insurmountable complication that hinders the city's relationship to its underground and emerging artists and undermines our collective desire to see Dallas arts reach its potential.

"There's a difference between having an opinion and being a critic." says CentralTrak resident and Ph.D. candidate, Danielle Georgiou. "I think a lot of the [critical] work in Dallas lacks references; clearly defined relationships to other material; conversations with the artists, and it's missing background information. No one is saying 'Hey you missed this, or you should look into that if this is the practice you're going to work in.'"

She's right: a grasp of polysyllabic words and access to print does not a qualification make when it comes to art criticism. Opinions aren't enough. Feelings do not suffice. Based in subjectivity, those elements are not inherently meaningful. They become meaningful, however, when firmly rooted by cogent arguments, cognizant of counterpoints and within a global context. I, for one, cannot presume an authority toward visual, musical or performance art criticism anymore than I should attempt performing brain surgery or ballet. Instead, I think there is a certain and productive role that reporters can play in diluting or simply conveying pedantic concepts in order to expose our readers to significant cultural events in an unbiased manner, outside of authoritative critique.

This is not a condemnation of thoughtful discussion or an attempt to censor. We should editorialize, inasmuch as we are transparent and intellectually honest about our doing so. Would should ask questions and forge new avenues in the conversation as long as we remain cognizant that our voices are not in a vacuum but, unchecked, have power to influence and foment inauthentic public reaction. Claiming the auspices of "critic" denotes a responsibility to both one's subjects and one's audience; it requires a tireless and near flawless commitment to thorough research, as well as a superior grasp of historical context and intellectual theory, in which a productive critique is almost necessarily founded.

My own background is in literature and creative writing, so I am intimately acquainted with the unique and inexpressible feeling of having one's deeply prided craft rightfully and reasonably picked apart by a harsh but benevolent hand. But, I've too unjustly suffered the remarks of readers who quite clearly misread or misinterpreted what a more careful reader would not have so easily missed. More specifically, a creative piece I wrote was once gently renounced by a reader who didn't care for "stream of consciousness."

My work may be called many things, some more flattering than others, but it would never be compared stylistically - even in the loosest sense - to The Sound and the Fury, Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses. Ultimately, the remark was useless to me. It might have been offensive in its ignorance had it not been so blatantly insignificant, and the initial feeling of disservice and of having been intellectually short-changed passed with little effect - good or bad - on my creative work. Quite luckily, I am however not without astute friends and colleagues willing and sufficiently able to abuse my ego for my own good.

For Kevin Rubén Jacobs, founder of Oliver Francis Gallery, publicity - both good and bad - is crucial to the gallery's survival, and unfounded critic is especially damaging. He says, "I live at home with my parents. I spend $495 on a space in East Dallas, and the rest of it goes to, shoot, student loans and beer and food. I don't pay for ads, if I had the money I'd definitely be in Frieze and Art Forum because I believe what I'm doing is really that important. [laughs] Kidding. But, no really."

Oliver Francis Gallery is a labor of love, or rather a high-risk, high-reward endeavor meant to revolutionize Dallas' relationship to art by increasing awareness to its place in an international context. But, the gallery survives only inasmuch as the community remains interested. Trenchantly researched critiques help push the fledgling space and its host of emerging artists to their fullest potential while also exposing types of mixed media visual art still new in Dallas. Jacobs says, "You're putting your work out and awaiting a bombardment of critical assessment which will hopefully help you acquire a skin. Taking offense to something really genuine and honest is, I think, probably a problem with you and your work rather than the other way around. I think if it's expressed responsibly, criticism helps the growth of the artist and the community probably more than anything else."

But, it is not about pandering to a false god. Each of the artists agreed that, with respect to their craft, it is not about being liked, but instead respected. A dancer and performance artist, Georgiou says, "In my practice, it's about creating an experience. If they don't like it, hey at least they came and something changed for them. You have to be gutsy and willing to fail."

Outside an installation or routine is where life becomes more complicated. She continues, "I'm in a very special situation because I am also one of those critics. I have professional relationships with other writers that are meaningful. So I have to be able to put my ego to the side and beg [other journalists and critics] to come see the work and grovel for attention. And, I'm really glad that I did because the artists that were involved HARAKIRI: To Die for Performances deserved every bit of the attention they got."

Women of Danielle Georgiou's intelligence and grace should not be asked to make such sacrifices. Her interview responses and artist statements are consistently thoughtful, engaging and fecund, pointing to larger questions and cultivating symbiotic exploration through her craft. Regardless of whether one chooses critique or disinterested reporting when it comes to talking about art, Dallas' writers owe Georgiou, and artists of her caliber, the courtesy of equal effort. Onanistic opinion pieces with little or no research or care fall woefully short of this standard.

But, Georgiou and Jacobs are no cynics. "I love this city," she says, "It's where I grew up. It's where I learned to make art. We can do wild art here because no one is going to stop us. People want to give artists opportunities. Claim this city. Experience it."

Jacobs adds, "Nothing's going to be given, so you've got to go get it. Go hard and go big with something energetic and worthwhile." He removes his blazer, stands and half-jokingly points to his red Nike shirt, which reads "Every Damned Day Just Do It."

Dallas arts writers might well heed his advice.

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Brentney Hamilton