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What makes an art critic?

by Lorenza Mezzapelle November 20, 2018
What makes an art critic?

Saelen Twerdy talks internet, archives and dematerialization

“I grew up in a cultural vacuum,” recalled Saelen Twerdy, a Montreal-based writer, editor, art critic and PhD candidate in art history at McGill University. His increasing desire for culture was fueled by this notion. Growing up in a small, exurban town in British Columbia, his initial exposure to critical literature was through video game magazines like Gamefan.

Twerdy considered himself a “video game snob,” because he preferred to read about video games rather than play them. Although these magazines sparked Twerdy’s interest in criticism, he said the internet is what truly served as a “gateway to experience the outerworld.” It allowed him to develop an interest in music and, ultimately, spend a decade as a music journalist writing for publications such as Color Magazine and Discorder Magazine.

On Nov. 9, Twerdy was featured in Conversations in Contemporary Art’s fifth lecture series held by Concordia’s studio art MFA program. The series provides the opportunity to hear a variety of artists, writers, critics and curators discuss their practices.

Twerdy’s talk, “How I Became an Art Critic,” discussed the internet’s role in developing his curiosity of the digital world and his understanding how culture is consumed. His current fascination is the dematerialization of art since the 1960s, which refers to how art has become increasingly computerized, leading to the replacement of its physical form.

During his studies in art history and film at the University of British Columbia, Twerdy retained an interest in art and technology. His curiosity of how people determine the definition and value of art led him to write about it.

I did not understand how to appreciate this work of art,” Twerdy said, referring to Rodney Graham’s Millennial Time Machine (2003).

This was the first piece he remembers coming across in a gallery and not grasping. Attracted to works that demonstrate some sort of analysis or reaction to society, he became frustrated and confused; he wanted to understand what he was looking at. What Twerdy learned from Graham’s piece was that he really needed to push his critical thinking. The ability to observe art critically changes the way a person experiences and engages with it, he said.

By studying how critics and artists research and analyze the way ideology circulates in a culture, Twerdy realized that in order to fully grasp art, he needed to study this particular phenomena. Thus, his desire to learn about the status of art and how conceptualism relates to dematerialization developed—conceptualism being an idea of an abstract object, and dematerialization meaning how an object becomes immaterial.

What is art and where [does it] belong?” Twerdy asked.

“Coming to art through criticism, as opposed to criticism through art, had an influence on my work.”
Steven Shearer, a contemporary artist from Vancouver who uses archives as a point of departure in his work, is a key figure in Twerdy’s research. Archiving and the inescapability of the internet piqued Twerdy’s curiosity. “If you want to talk about archive, you have to talk about the internet,” he said.

The internet was certainly a recurring topic in Twerdy’s talk. He recalled creating his Tumblr account in 2008, which filtered the way he experienced and engaged with art. It allowed him to witness the emergence of online art through viewing and being a part of its changes, which he said changed his perception of conceptual art and its relationship to the past.

“[I am] attracted to artists who work like critics,” Twerdy said, and laughed as he explained that he has always loved reading books about books and observing artworks about art, because it allowed him to think about creative works differently. This essentially described his curiosity about theory, specifically theories surrounding the notion of art as influenced by technology and its place in our world today.

According to Twerdy, critiquing art is less about the artwork itself and more about its place in society. Simply writing about art does not make someone an art critic. Stemming from general intrigue, criticism requires analysis, evaluation and thorough knowledge of the matter at hand, rather than a simple explanation of why a piece is of interest. Twerdy’s talk made the difference rather simple: art critics dive deep and take no shortcuts, while arts writers are all about generalization and promoting simplified, easy-to-read versions of complex artistic ideas.

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