4. Paddy Johnson: An Art Critic You Don't Want to Punch

Paddy Johnson is probably the single most influential art critic in the world today. I am totally intimidated to be writing an intro to an interview with her,  knowing that the brilliant mind behind the NY based art blog Art Fag City might possibly be reading my words. Her deceiving casual tone and distinct contemporary voice is backed up with an intense, expansive understanding of art, making her intelligence sit silently below the surface of what seems like a simple, one sided conversation. Apart from just plain skill, Johnson has her own thoughtful reasons on why art is important and, often, it feels like no other arts writers have even ever thought of the importance or meaning of art as an aspect of their job; others tend towards only comparing art to other art as opposed to holding art accountable to the world at large. So, without further ado (or my own sad attempts at writing) I present: Paddy Johnson! (Please note, pull quote boxes provide links to recent articles by Paddy Johnson that the quotes are taken from! Huzzah! Also, links within interview added by me after the fact.)

1. Blogging is such an accessible platform that there isn’t really an academic precedent for it and I often wonder how bloggers end up there, especially given the fact that is has become such a strong arena for female writers trying to break into a sustainable career. How did blogging come about for you? What did you study in school? (Side note: if the internet tells me right you attended Rutgers the State University of New Jersey! Woot- lifts up shirt like proper girl who also attended Rutgers!)

I did my BFA at Mount Allison University and my MFA in sound art and painting at Rutgers University, so my background isn’t in writing but studio art. I moved to New York with the dreams of any artist who moves here; to make their mark on the art world (and hopefully beyond). My studio was large and I shared it with many of my friends from grad school. The first five years here were miserable; I was making art, mostly in isolation. Working for galleries was something I found I didn’t have much aptitude for -- I couldn’t force myself to care about someone else’s business -- and as time went on it was increasingly difficult for me to do these jobs. I got fired from nearly all of them. Eventually, I wasn’t able to explain why I kept getting fired from these jobs in interviews and I had to find something else. For lack of anything else to do, I started a blog. 

2. Despite large followings and other validations it seems hard to navigate what space blogs occupy in the media, a lot of time Bloggers seem completely unaware of their impact.. I mean, at what point did you recognize an audience? Were you specifically writing to one from the beginning? Or were you just chronicaling your own navigation of the art world? I guess I find your voice to be so strong, accessible and personal, like many bloggers, that I wondered how it is you first approached writing on such a wide-open sea of internet users (how did you internet?) especially on a topic so seemingly chummy & self obsessed (neither of which you are of course!)?

I don’t know that this is something one should freely admit, but I took to blogging naturally because I craved an audience. I used to send out emails to everyone I mentioned letting them know I’d written about the work, and I watched my incoming links hawkishly. I thought people would read me because I would say what no one else would say, and leave behind all the bullshit academicism that plagued the field. Those thoughts were arguably a little naive -- I didn’t read enough criticism at the time to have any idea about what people were and weren’t talking about -- but that too was its own force. I wanted to make something I wanted to read. I slept 3-4 hours a night, teaching myself how to write and how to think.

A lot of people have described my critical voice as strong and opinionated, and while I strive for that in my writing, it’s also a quality I think is less unique than it might have once seemed. People will say pretty much anything if you give them a platform, and the hope that someone might listen to them. I try to distinguish myself by looking at objects longer and harder, and being as critical as I can. I’m not concerned with being nice so much as I am true to myself and others. It’s important to me that what I contribute to the world, reflects the kind of world I want to be in. 

3. In your writing you understand all of the complexities in the art world and in art history that are inherent in the work but you are also bringing a life to it distinctly from outside of it: you are critically addressing pieces not from an art standard alone. It seems you are inhabiting these spaces, critically taking in what is in front of you, and then taking everything else outside of gallery to your opinion of it, do you feel you approach things this way? Do you think most art critics do this? Do you think exclusionary art jargon helps anybody?
Truth be told, I am too much of an art nerd to have a general knowledge of virtually anything else. I make a point of having friends in other fields so I’m not a social cripple at parties outside the art world, and since I’d rather talk to more people than less, I try to make my writing relatively accessible. If you think you might have cared about an art work once in your life for two seconds, I want to talk to you about that.

I’d say e-flux Journal publishes its share of exclusionary art writing, but since most of what they produce is so smart, I’m happy they exist. I’m not happy about the ridiculous amount of art jargon that seems to coat the world of commercial galleries. No collector is going to read that shit and it only exists to make people feel good about themselves. There are better means to that end. Do some charity work, read a book, donate to a kickstarter campaign. 

4. I always find your criticisms of the art world progressive. The things you support or believe in have a purpose far beyond just technique or visual presence or trend. What is it that makes a work successful to you? What is it you want from art?

I like art that teaches me about the world in some way. It tells me something I didn’t know already, it shows me how to look in a way I hadn’t thought of. It opens my eyes a little wider. Good art is a rush you never grow accustomed to.

5. The more I think about it the more you’re kind of like a DIY cultural anthropologist more than a journalist- you just did this album (vinyl only!) fundraiser that compiled the sounds of different art spaces where kinetic sculptures & video art were on view (a soundscape of a contemporary art experience if I get the descriptions?) and you are constantly publishing art related content in all kinds of media and you lecture a ton and panel a ton and even curate sometimes. Do you think all critics should expand their scope in a similar way? Do you think the accessibility of media (on the journalistic side) has changed the New York art world?

I think my background as an artist has influenced my career as a critic in the sense that I rarely work in one medium, but I wouldn’t necessarily prescribe the quantity of things I do to anyone else. It sits well for me of course, but I work far more than most people would ever choose, and that isn’t something that’s right for everyone.

To answer your question about the accessibility of media, though, I think that has changed the New York art world, and I hope that will continue. There are too many ways it’s affected the professional world I know, but to cite one of the more interesting changes I’ve noticed recently has to do with video. Over the last two years, I’ve visited a lot of schools, and many of the teachers have been telling me that their photography students almost inevitably switch to video. I suspect that medium preference is the result of accessibility but it’s an exciting change because it means art will look very different 10 years from now. I’d guess that means that we’ll see narrative take a greater role in art, but it’s hard to say so early on.  

Ultimately, the hope is that all these new communication tools will result in better art making. Some days I couldn’t be more certain that it will. There are just as many days though, where I’m convinced it will just result in more facebook liking. 



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.