Art Criticism by Media Proxy: Reporting Deviance as Art News

Dr Judith Bernanke
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New Zealand’s participation in the 2005 Venice Biennale was met with a firestorm of mediatised criticism to a large extent fueled by an interview broadcast nation-wide on the prime-time current affairs show, Holmes, conducted by the popular media personality and host, Paul Holmes. Ostensibly, this live studio discussion held with John Gow, an Auckland art dealer, and Peter Biggs, Chair of the government-funded arts development agency Creative New Zealand, was an opportunity for the guests to defend the controversial selection of the artist collective et al. as New Zealand’s representative to the Venice Biennale. Instead, the programme became a remarkable media event featuring a performance of disdain as Holmes, speaking on behalf of “mainstream” New Zealand, sneered, rolled his eyes, interrupted and mocked his guests and the artists’ work. Subsequent media debates concerning contemporary art, arts funding policies and New Zealand’s participation in future Venice Biennales have centred on many of the issues raised by Holmes in his guise as critic at large.

This paper, however, focuses on the initiating event itself, examining the discourse of deviance displayed throughout the Holmes interview and considering how this key indicator of newsworthiness operates as journalistic art criticism pitched to the public sphere. Championing consensus values of mainstream New Zealanders and focusing on dramatic narratives of failure, Holmes takes the role of investigative reporter uncovering government corruption and the exploitation of citizens, the murky backroom operations of an elitist art world and pseudonyms and secret identities suggesting something clandestine or unstable. The outcome of this dramatic spectacle has been a sharply polarized public opinion and debate that ultimately may impact New Zealand’s participation in future international biennales. The Holmes broadcast as a catalyst for public outcry suggests the lack of a stable discourse of art criticism that can adjudicate cultural ambiguity and identity in visual representation, a void filled by the spectacle of “talk-back” media that fails as an appropriate forum for effective arts journalism and can only manipulate the reflex to the situation without clarifying any of its significance.

Keywords: Arts journalism, Art criticism, Visual arts criticism, Discourse analysis, Critic, public sphere, art and media, Venice Biennale
Stream: Constructing Art Worlds
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: Art Criticism by Media Proxy

Dr Judith Bernanke

Lecturer, Department of Communication and Journalism, Massey University at Wellington
Wellington, New Zealand

Judith Bernanke is a lecturer in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand where she teaches technical writing, cross-cultural communication and speech communication. She earned a Bachelor of Music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a Master of Arts in Fine Arts from Ohio University. Her research interests include visual rhetoric, arts journalism, as well as the interrelationship between a culture’s values and its expressive practices. She is engaged in doctoral research, a study of arts journalism in New Zealand, focusing in particular on media coverage of New Zealand’s participation in the 2005 Venice Biennale.

Ref: A06P0427