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Words JJ Charlesworth
Photography Kelly-Rose Hammond

JJ Charlesworth talks criticism and censorship

Could anonymity—or disguise, or masquerade, any means of concealed identity—guarantee a more fearless, uncensored art critic?

JJ Charlesworth is an English art critic, academic and the associate editor of ArtReview, the highly addictive international art title launched in 1949. In his columns he is principled and fastidious. On the cultural boycott of Israel: “perhaps the most dismal aspect of the call to boycotts is how complicit these campaigners have become (whether they realise it or not) with the mood-music of condemnation that flows from mainstream politicians”; on the sale of Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) for US $58.4 million: “If buying into artworks like this is seen as an ‘investment,’ then it is based on a very degraded notion of investment: degraded because it’s based on turning a profit on the scarcity of things, rather than investing the capacity to make more of those things available.” Alongside his writing, Charlesworth has taught at London’s Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins College and the Royal Academy Schools.

“Being a critic means you have to put your name to your opinions, stand up for them, be accountable for them. Most writers who write art criticism don’t have to worry too much, since their opinions are so harmless that no one ever gets offended by them anyway. Of course, part of that timidity comes from thinking that being a writer means being nice to people you write about—being helpful, constructive, supportive—and worrying about what people will think about you if you criticise them in print, or whether you’ll get invited to their parties anymore. But that’s just mixing up having a social life with writing criticism. Upsetting people is an occupational hazard for a critic (or it should be), and while it’s no doubt true that it affects how people write, the only honest response is to pull yourself together, take a deep breath and decide whether what you’ve written is legitimate, fair and well thought through.

With the advent of social media, and the new online journalism that is tuned in to getting a social media-driven rise out of its readers, we’ve become more used to the experience of anonymous comment. Many people think its OK to hide behind an online identity, a pseudonym. It means that all sorts of abuse and ‘hating’ gets flung across comment lists, Twitter and so on. But hiding behind online identities is for cowards. In the real world, if you said the kind of things people say to each other online you’d get a smack in the mouth. It’s childish and petty, but it’s harmless enough since it betrays how weak and isolated you are—that you’re happy to vomit your opinions into the public arena from behind the safety of your moronic online name. At the same time, the floods of self-righteous scorn that gets poured on anyone saying anything slightly un-PC or off-message only makes people more scared to speak their minds, so while top-down censorship is sometimes an issue, self-censorship and ‘bottom-up’ is actually a bigger problem for writers today. We live in a culture where people are too quick to take offence, and refuse to have a reasoned debate when they are. Still, whether you’re a troll or a Twitter lynch-mob, if you haven’t got the courage to put your real name to what you write, why should I give a shit what you think?

But perhaps what’s worse than the trolls and the Twitter-mobs is those self-appointed ‘radicals’—like Anonymous, amongst others—who really believe that anonymity is necessary to protect themselves from persecution. Recently there was a call for a cultural boycott coming from a group of artists, who wouldn’t publish their names since they feared ‘reprisals.’ Were they being serious? Anonymity is nowadays claimed by those who fantasise about being dangerous political activists, but who really are just the same lame-arses as the rest; amateurs who want to complain in public without taking the heat for what they have tosay. It’s arrogant and conceited, and who’s to know Anonymous, or whatever, aren’t just a front for precisely the powers they claim to be opposing?

This interview appears in the High Flying issue of Museum. You can order a copy here.

Anyway, the art world isn’t exactly a scene from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The idea that you could be so worried about the consequences of your criticism that you’d need to go undercover is hilarious. Nevertheless, people in power do hate being criticised in public, and they will do what they can to marginalise their critics behind the scenes. But in that situation, the best support you can have is from your readers—that’s to say, by building a public that follows you and values what you have to say. Public scrutiny is always the best check against private interest—in the art world or anywhere else—but building a public doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a bit of bloody-mindedness and persistence. And I could have made more money by going over to the dark side, but where’s the fun in that?”

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