Rahel Aima on Criticism That Faces a Different Way

The art critic describes her woes with the state of the industry.

Art critic Rahel Aima will join Study Hall on June 23, 2022 to lead “The Soft Power of Art Writing,” a seminar where she will discuss the role of critics in the art industry. You can find more information about the event and tickets here

On March 16, 2022, Rahel joined Study Hall for an AMA session where she spoke about the state of arts criticism. You can find a summary of that conversation below.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

What feels most important to you right now about the state of criticism? 

Trying to move out of what feels like an unsustainable future. It’s a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately. 

As everyone’s probably aware, many publications have folded or drastically reduced their publishing. The budgets of culture sections have been hollowed out. Staff critic positions barely exist anymore. And when their current occupants retire, it seems extremely unlikely someone new will fill their place. Criticism is not financially sustainable, and it doesn’t feel sustainable as a career either.

 

So you feel like there isn’t much left to do or aspire toward? 

I can’t speak for everywhere, but in the US, definitely. At the same time, I don’t know that I’m being challenged anymore. Not as I once was. 

After you get the Arts Writers Grant, it really feels like that’s…it? At least as far as benchmarks or milestones to aspire to. Until you get to the point where you are being awarded grants through no doing or direct application of your own. After that, writing criticism feels like treading water forever, hoping something falls out of the sky before you get too tired and drown. 

And where do critics end up? They get out of criticism. They become curators and consultants, or just pivot entirely. Art is an industry with a lot of money — just not for writers. 

 

Is that the thinking behind BXD, your “postwestern” magazine project?

As most things do, BXD came out of a general sense of frustration. I wanted to think about criticism that doesn’t necessarily have to run on this feedback loop through New York and London with its particular proclivities and sensitivities. Criticism that is, in terms of audience, facing a different way.

To paraphrase a now-disgraced writer, only when you are with someone who shares your particular background do you stop holding a kind of power and legitimacy as an expert and really become vulnerable, become able to be challenged and grow. I’m probably misquoting this, but the same principle applies to editorial relationships. And the primarily white makeup of editorial staff at pretty much every Western publication makes that vulnerability difficult to obtain for nonwhite writers.

 

Is that the problem in a nutshell? 

Another problem is that, as little as they pay, the Western art publications pay the most. European publications (not institutions) pay particularly poorly and don’t tend to be suffused with white liberal guilt found in their American counterparts. And it’s not that there aren’t arts magazines elsewhere in the world — they exist, though often within a much more precarious ecology.

In the Middle East, where I live, another factor comes into play. Art criticism is at the bottom of the priority list. Access to resources is based on nationality, being a Gulf citizen, for example. Or your ethnicity. Resources here are often only open to Arabs, which is maybe fine and good in a world where people still live in the same country or area that their genetic ancestors did. But the world doesn’t look like that anymore, at least not for large swathes of people. 

Perhaps I’m projecting here, but I also think we’re moving away from an age of critic-as-expert. Me, what do I know? Myself and my lived experience. That and context are what matter. 

 

How has your craft as a writer changed as you’ve developed as a critic? 

It took me a long time to learn that everything needs a peg. This might be obvious, but I truly thought this was only the domain of journalism and reporting, which you will do sometimes as an art writer. But, no, everything needs a peg. 

I didn’t realize this until the first year of the pandemic, which was a weird phrase, wasn’t it? I actually reported out a short piece for Study Hall about how grim things were for art criticism. One Artforum editor at the time said something about how, with no exhibitions happening, there’s no peg. I forget the actual quote, but that was a lightbulb moment for me. 

For reviews, it’s easy. This thing is happening now and it will stop happening soon, so this is the window. The peg is inbuilt. Features can be pegged to the news cycle (and the art publishing world has a truly gruesome ability to find the most tangentially related angle), but very often they are also pegged to shows. A big institutional (rarely commercial gallery) solo show, participation in a major biennial, etc.

I’m not sure criticism needs a nut graf, but even within the space of a very short review, say an Artforum critic’s pick, you can still do almost anything — there’s just less room to do it. To that end, I use catalogue essays and exhibition texts to publish fiction without having to interact with the literary magazine world. In my opinion, that side of things seems especially unconsciously exploitative and extractive. But what in publishing isn’t? 

I think as any kind of freelancer (writer or otherwise), you practice by doing. Beyond gaining confidence, you also have to decide when to say no and learn when to walk away. 

 

Any closing thoughts? 

I keep coming back to something Sky Goodden of Momus said offhandedly at one of the emerging critics residencies (which I recommend!). “Who’s the criticism for?” Sky described reviews as something everyone resents while at the same time being the transaction, the ads4reviews-hinge that keeps art mags going.

In addition to who you’re writing for, it’s important to ask who’s doing that writing. Staff writers — or whatever The New Yorker calls its adjuncts these days — build audiences over time. Shticks, too. Not to point to Jerry Saltz but . . . 

I came to art writing five-to-six years into working as a writer. I had confidence in my prose or ability to write nicely, stylishly, and that’s often a crutch that masks a lack of rigor or application, at least for me. 

What I wasn’t confident about was the art world. I didn’t know Western art history beyond the broad strokes. I had worked at a gallery basically copywriting about ~ art ~ I didn’t know. But that’s why I tried to see literally every exhibition I could, and I was lucky to live in NYC where there’s a lot to see at any given moment.