Second Chat With the Editor – “Self Expression is a Form of Narcissism”

September 15th, 2011  |  Published in Profiles, September 2011

Daniel Brown, AEQAI editor, is a writer, internationally known art critic, collector and curator, a positive stickler for clarity and above all, the objectivity that comes from true literacy. This is objectivity that flies in the face of what he sees as the present American preoccupation with “self”.

Brown feels that this is a big issue in literacy in general. He says that somehow, starting in the 70’s the “me” generation took over America, and art became known as self-expression. “I think it never was, and I don’t believe it now is. Self-expression is a form of therapy. Take surrealism for instance: if you are going to deal with your dreams either visually or verbally, you’d better have something to say. Otherwise, take it to your analyst, who is paid to listen. If the art doesn’t transcend the image and speak to human experience, is limited to the artist’s solitary experience, then I would refer to it as narcissistic. Primary narcissism is a big problem in this country. According to Freudian theory, for the first two years of a baby’s life the world revolves around it, and indeed in a functioning family, it does. This period is supposed to be gone by the age of two. It’s now lingering around until the thirties.” Thus Brown wants to make sure AEQAI as a publication does not let this tendency seep into territory where thoughtful criticism is required.

“If all we are getting is a writer’s self-expression, then we don’t get an analysis of the art and the culture from which it comes – how it all comes together. Criticism is, to me, a form of translation from the language of images (non-verbal) to the language of words. The critic needs to know a lot of art history, various critical theories from formalism to feminism to economics and cultural anthropology to aspects of fashion and popular culture. The critic then synthesizes aspects of these fields into an interpretive written review, which includes the writer’s own informed points of view. This is what we call critical thinking.

“I believe,” Brown continues, “that if people in the business community, for example, were trained to analyze artwork, their own ability to then analyze data through business theories would be more sophisticated and more nuanced. AEQAI’s mission, therefore, is a very large one.  So, this is our primary educational mission, what I would call general literacy. People are concerned about being computer-literate, Facebook-literate; I’m concerned about basic literacy, not the relatively easy to learn technical skills.”

Given a memory that can cite the chapter from which a quote derives or give you the phone number of someone he knew in college, Brown’s plethora of information has synthesized over the years into well-defined views on large areas of assessment. However, delivering complicated information, in Brown’s opinion, does not require convoluted language. “I try to avoid jargon,” he says. “Every era seems to have its theory of the moment, and we’re probably at the end of what is known as post-modern theory, semiotics, post-structuralism, other movements of that ilk. Writing for a magazine like AEQAI is not a PhD thesis. You try to write for interested parties, and the groups can overlap. You need to consider the informed, the generalist, the humanist, people in the corporate world who may be very interested in art, as target audiences as much as people in the media and art world. Artists will tell me they often don’t read much, because their language is visual. So, you have to have a broad audience. Education is a big thing for me. It’s number one.”

Brown says he intends to keep AEQAI local for the time being but not indefinitely. “I feel we’ve only covered the regional scene for a few months now, and there is a lot going on, more than meets the eye when you consider Kentucky, Miami and Dayton as part of the region. What we try to do with each issue is balance the coverage, so if there is a review of a major show at the art museum, I make sure we do a small gallery as well. Just because we get press releases from some of the major institutions and galleries doesn’t mean we don’t cover the others.”

Keeping a balance is primary to Brown, and he says that a new emerging non-profit gallery may have two or three people working, so for them getting the word out is harder. The next challenge is getting the right writer for the right show. “The writers have expressed some preferences, so we try to match those if we can. Once I get a feel for how people write, I can help them develop new areas. Some of this is a form of mentoring. We have a lot of very good writers, and I do try to bring out the best in them both in terms of how they write and what they write about.” Brown also looks for a certain passion in writers. “Writing can be dry, passionate or somewhere in the middle. It’s the same with works of art – sometimes they are well made but dull, and sometimes they are sloppy but passionate. I am drawn to the passionate side of things – that’s what makes it interesting.”

Brown’s view is that investigative reporting is not the mission of AEQAI. “We have one daily newspaper, a business paper, and one weekly alternative paper, all of whom could do that type of reporting. We are not a generalized newspaper. We are a specialized art publication.”

What does Brown consider good writing for a magazine format? The use of language is his first priority. Within that focus is the avoidance of clichés and redundancies, the most common detraction. “Redundancy goes back to college where the first and last paragraphs are the same thing. We don’t have to do that,” he says. He also looks for allusions and analogies to art of the past, art from other cultures, and literary analogies. “Art should tell us something about the period in which it is made. Writing strictly about art from the formalist’s point of view is to talk solely about how it’s made. There are magazines that do that well, like The Artist’s Magazine. That’s not AEQAI’s mission.”

Brown’s focus on context is wide angled. He continues, “Feminists, Marxists, Freudians – known as interventions into art history – brought totally new points of view to literature and art. Feminism began as a social movement, but there are writers writing from that point of view and looking at how gender may make a difference in how art is made, what is exhibited, and who gets a show. Right now we are in a period of interest in gender studies, both from a male and from a female point of view.” He adds that diversity, too, has brought new audiences, new perspectives, from what used to be known as ‘underserved’ populations.

“And,” he continues, “there are also new ways of looking at things; you really want to include those when you can. This is where the selection of writer and topic makes a difference. What is known as ‘new media’ – videos, installations, uses of computers in art – are getting more common. Some people have a prejudice against new media, so to write a review about why you don’t like the electronic media is not the point. Instead, you need to find someone who is at least knowledgeable and even sympathetic to its use, otherwise you are doing just another Luddite column.”

The big mission, the overall focus of AEQAI for Brown, is helping the humanities and liberal arts return to the forefront. “Informed citizens make better decisions.” He concludes.

(To be continued next month)

– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin

Comments are closed.