Field Notes on Paddy Johnson’s Talk at Seed Space Event

Yesterday, Paddy Johnson gave a talk at Nashville Public Library as part of Seed Space’s Insight? Outta Sight! series. Johnson is the founding editor of the New York arts blog Art F City. She’s a sharp, pull-no-punches critic, and the blog is smart, hip, and bold. The talk comes on the heels of Seed Space’s Insight? Outta Sight! talk with Hyperalleric editor Hrag Vartanian. Here’s what Holland Collins had to say about both in NYT:

“Regular gigs in mainstream print journalism have all but dried up, but the Internet offers ambitious options in a growing number of blogazines including Art F City (edited by Paddy Johnson) and Hyperallergic (edited by Hrag Vartanian), which combine criticism, reporting, political activism and gossip on an almost-24-hour news cycle.

“And although both are based in New York, they include national coverage and in a feisty mix of voices, a welcome alternative to the one-personality blog of yore. That mix would probably be even more varied, and transcultural, if a few forward-thinking, art-minded investors would infuse some serious capital into such enterprises so they could pay writers a living wage and make online freelance writing a viable way of life.”

Johnson began Art F City as a single author blog ten years ago. She opened the talk by describing these humble origins, admitting off the bat that in the beginning, she feared being discovered as a fraud. “When you talk sometimes it is from a point of ignorance.” You have to do the research, and sometimes, it’s on an entirely new subject or artist. She added that there is still agency in that, and that it’s not all that unusual. “Ignorance takes courage,” she said, and her courage has paid off. When reading Johnson, I’ve always pegged her as a formidable expert on all things art, and all things culture, for that matter. But she does the legwork like anyone else and has trained her eye over the past decade.

Nashville arts writer Sara Estes commented that while she sometimes researches an artist deeply before writing a review, other times she wants to write from a blank place, allowing the work to work on her without prior conceptions. Johnson stressed understanding the context of an artwork; yes, she reads the artist statement and press releases. Yes, she tries to see if the artist’s intentions match the output. “Understanding art is understanding context,” she said. She also noted that learning about art does change your taste, and a way to get sharp at writing criticism is to practice in comments sections and on social media. Engaging in discussions teaches you how to think.

Mainly, I appreciated Johnson talking about the vulnerability in writing about art. I think that we (rightly) see that in artists themselves: putting out work that is important to you, that is in fact an extension of you, is hugely courageous. But just as courageous is writing about art in a way that “adds something more and better,” as Gilda Williams writes in How to Write About Contemporary Art. Nashville arts writers get knocked all the time for not dissing work enough. A Watkins student was just complaining about Scene coverage at Johnson’s workshop for the NFA program. But there are very few writers here and a lot to cover, and sometimes, it’s more useful to cover the stuff that’s worthy of consideration and let the rest be at peace in the shadows. This can totally change, as so much else has, but I love hearing successful critics talk because it makes us realize that excellent art criticism is a craft in itself that is difficult and scary, takes constant honing and practice, and requires natural talent. Kind of like making art, right? (So artists, give us a break.)

Art F City is funded in part by ads, mostly through grants, and through an annual benefit and silent auction. (Tickets are on sale now!) It was an inspiring talk, and like her writing, Johnson was honest and forthright. Laura Hutson has more takeaways on Country Life. Nashville artist, writer, and maker Megan Kelley has been documenting artist talks and events in her sketchbook, and she gave me permission to post her notes from the talk here. I’m glad Kelley is documenting what’s been happening in contemporary art in Nashville. Check out her notes from Hrag Vartanian’s talk as well, in case you  missed it. 10985033_10101990674749052_8084869732963067557_n

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