By Samantha Mitchell
Note: This is an essay by Title editor Samantha Mitchell on her experience with critical art writing and working with writers and artists. Title is in the process of restructuring, and a new team is pulling a fresh incarnation of the publication together. We invite you to participate if you feel moved to. Please think about contributing your thoughts, your writing, your vision, or your time to this publication. Be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s a distinctive dynamic at play between artists, writing, and writing about art.
Our culture relies on critical writing to elaborate on or explain what art means, or is supposed to mean, and most artists recognize the importance of an external dialogue beyond the bounds of work speaking for itself. Many artists who want to read about art and engage with critical writing themselves are frustrated by restrictions within the medium. A need for writing that provides both guidance and validation, combined with an absence of freedom with the craft, creates an awkward tension. This is felt especially acutely in our current cultural climate, which offers little tangible support to developing writers working in the arts and a surplus of unconsidered content freely available on the internet.
I often encounter art students who resent being required to write about art, who see their entire reason for being in school as being able to make art without other distractions. While their thinking typically becomes more nuanced over time, many artists still feel that their expression is completely embodied by their craft, leaving little to work into words. Other artists who value critical dialogue are frustrated by the lack of writers to engage their work. This is particularly true in Philadelphia, which is teeming with unengaged, deeply labored product.
To some extent, all artists thrive on the obscurity of their works, as it can allow for an openness to interpretation. But as fully realized and comprehensive as any one artwork may be, critical dialogue and analysis is essential to providing context to an artist and their work, to fostering relationships with other artists and institutions, and from a practical perspective, to helping the public and galleries connect with artworks more deeply.
I began to write about other people’s art because I felt moved to; I saw so much exciting work that was not being engaged with at all, entering and leaving exhibition spaces month after month with great individual response but little lasting notice. In a place like Philadelphia, home to five strong art schools and countless art spaces fed by this creative energy, so much more happens than can ever be properly documented, let alone appreciated. Yet the ability to grab hold of one specific exceptional experience, explore its structure and significance, and share the experience in a way that outlasts the timeline of an exhibition felt gratifying and important.
I was asked to edit for Title in 2013 and happily took on the task, feeling this was a way to engage with the art community in a broader and more useful way than writing alone. For the most part, the experience has been incredibly rewarding – I love working with both experienced and new writers to clarify their arguments and ideas, bringing their pieces to a new level that can be appreciated by both casual and dedicated readers. It is no surprise that many artists have unique and deeply incisive perspectives on artwork, and their critical writing can often be more satisfying to read than that of an outsider or connoisseur. I had often thought of starting my own critical art and writing publication, and working on Title embodied much of what I wanted to be doing in this field: helping support a platform that brought good work to a wider audience.
For me, the main difficulty in editing came from Title’s lack of editorial vision. The publication, by definition, avoids any specific agenda or institutional affiliation, which is a useful launch point for a resource in a city with such potentially polarizing local institutions. Yet it lacks a specific editorial goal, a clear purpose for existing beyond offering space for dialogue. This made it difficult to reject or solicit work, either for its content or for a lack of objective distance (in the case of artists soliciting and/or paying writers to cover their exhibitions). It also meant that some exhibitions that were truly remarkable were still not being covered, as the responsibility was entirely on writers to volunteer to offer their time to cover things as they saw fit.
An artist myself – with a full-time and part-time job – finding the time to visit exhibitions, write about them, and engage in a back-and-forth process of editing the work of others was a challenge, but one I was happy to take on when I felt good about the work and supported by the other editors. This became increasingly difficult as the number of editors dropped, slowly, down to one. In May, I met with Kirsten Gill and Jacob Feige, the last Title editors, to discuss the future of the publication. After five years, Jacob needed to take a step back, and Kirsten was on her way back to New Orleans. This left me (and Natalie McGarvey, our talented and tireless web master) the entire publication, both its strong legacy of quality writing and its potential for future development.
Knowing the effort already involved for me to edit as a team of three, I balked at the task of taking the entire thing on. Working for Title is an outwardly thankless job. Editing often involves terse, stressful email exchanges filled with miscommunications and hurt feelings, and I would like to be able to devote what little time I have outside of work to being in the studio. But when I considered what it would mean to let Title disintegrate completely, to disappear into the ether of countless failed artist-run experiments that this city has seen, I decided to try and move it forward. I personally feel that the lack of critical art writing in Philadelphia is a massive void, something I am unwilling to participate in, passively or actively.
Out of necessity, Title is entering a new phase of existence, one that hopefully involves a dedicated and diverse community of people working on, with, and around the content we provide a platform for. Building on a solid foundation – five years of strong, thoughtful writing – the new Title will honor its legacy while developing into a more actively engaged resource. This change will also bring with it a new transparency of process: a clear editorial objective (which will remain independent and flexible), and an understanding that we are all laboring unpaid because of a shared desire to elevate our collective art community. Philadelphia is a city of artists who are doing it for themselves, so to speak – we are the curators, the collectors, the teachers, and the audience. We see voids and we fill them. From its un-affiliated, artist-run perspective, Title is uniquely poised to advocate for contemporary artists. Besides straight criticism to supplement the lack of critical art engagement in Philadelphia, we work with artists to develop and publish their own writings, presenting new perspectives on exhibition experience without the need to have the work fit into a typical art critical mold. We also offer a platform for artist projects, an exhibition space for digital work. Interviews between artists open dialogue about work and practice. We host essays, personal narratives, and conceptual explorations of influence and signification in contemporary work.
Now that I’ve described what Title looks like from the inside, I want to ask for your feedback. Consider the value of Title – writing engaging with a variety of media, held to a high editorial standard, providing not only space but critical support for artists and writers. What do you want a publication like this to be? What does it need to be? And in what ways can you contribute to its ongoing presence in Philadelphia?