Review: ‘Mass Circulation: Writing about Art in a Daily Newspaper’

In June 2015, Richard Dorment CBE retired from the Daily Telegraph, after thirty years writing for the newspaper as an art critic. His route into journalism was impressive yet unconventional: he studied art history at Princeton and at Columbia University, then held a role as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On Wednesday 18th November, Dorment was joined by Dr. Alexander Sturgis, the Director of the Ashmolean, to address an audience in the museum’s lecture theatre.

Mass Circulation was advertised as a ‘conversation’, but played out more as an interview, with Sturgis’ contribution confined, for the most part, to posing questions. With two knowledgeable art-world insiders sat in one room, there was the potential to debate the topics touched upon in greater detail, and the evening was a missed opportunity in this respect. The event’s subtitle proved similarly imprecise; rather than a discussion of how to write about art for a daily newspaper, the audience was given a retrospective that focused on Dorment’s personal experiences. This discrepancy may have been disappointing for some, but the result was enjoyable and highly informative nonetheless.

Dorment reminisced warmly about critics’ growing acceptance of contemporary art, which he suggested was spurred on by the founding of organisations and institutions such as the Turner Prize (in 1984) and the Tate Modern (in 2000). When Dorment first arrived at the Telegraph, the Turner Prize was remarked upon as ‘a bucket of spackle’, while many twentieth-century artists – Lucian Freud amongst them – were considered unsavory. Dorment’s focus on contemporary art was, at this point, met with staunch opposition from many of the newspaper’s other staff members. Indeed, much has changed in the past thirty years of art criticism, but not all for the better. Dorment noted that, while he was paid well and given journalistic freedom for most of his career, such comfortable positions are now rarer to come across.

After discussing Dorment’s own journalistic experiences, Sturgis invited comment on the role of the art critic more generally. Here, Dorment was at his most passionate, emphasising the ‘responsibility’ of the art critic to spend due diligence researching the exhibitions or artists being reviewed. Again, there was a tension present between his ideal circumstance, in which one is given up to four days to form an insightful article, and the current reality, in which turnaround time can be as little as two hours. Although he did mention the latter context briefly, it was a shame that Dorment did not reflect further upon the differences in output that this may have led to.

Most important, according to Dorment, is that the art critic should convey the emotional response that he or she has to experiencing an artwork in the flesh. In an age where much of the art we see is in the form of a reproduction on a website, in a magazine or in a book, the art critic remains an important mediator between reader and exhibition space. This, then, is the value of the art critic, and their significance cannot be understated. Yet given the nature of today’s journalism, when a two-hour turnover is expected for some reviews, are we at risk of losing the very essence of what makes the art critic such a valuable asset?

Years of experience, public validation, and a formidable reputation have encouraged Dorment to write candidly and confidently. After all, there are few who can call the curators at Tate Modern ‘cack-handed’ and not only live to see another day, but also have an audience who will faithfully listen. Considering his evident knowledge and conviction, Dorment could have used Mass Circulation to bestow motivation or encouragement upon budding critics in the room. Although those hoping for such advice may have left feeling a little deflated, Sturgis and Dorment provided their audience with an evening that was thought-provoking for some and pleasant for all.

Nirmalie Mulloli

Richard Dorment’s book Exhibitionist will be published in May 2016 by Bitter Lemon Press. For more information about events at the Ashmolean, please visit the museum’s website.

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