Something Outside is a space for arts criticism. Specifically, 1000 word reviews of recent public exhibitions in Aotearoa. We are a group of young arts writers who believe in the importance of critical art reviews and share concerns for the health of this form in New Zealand.
The review—a unique form of arts writing with its own uses and histories—should be more than an appendage to a malfunctioning arts sector. At its best, the critical review is a tool for communication and context, a way to work through the historical or political implications of an artwork or exhibition. It isn’t a site for fawning puff pieces, but neither is it a place for personal attacks and bullying. The review doesn’t take a project at its word but asks what it hopes to achieve, whether it has, and whether it’s worth it. A healthy reviewing culture makes for a healthy arts culture by resisting inward looking, circular, and self-congratulatory practices.
We don’t have that right now. There are, of course, great arts writers producing great reviews, but this happens against the grain of structures that actively and implicitly discourage real critique and analysis. The reviews in our print magazines are mostly written for the galleries (public and commercial) that advertise in their pages. Many of us have first-hand experience of being commissioned by a gallery or artist to review their own exhibitions in New Zealand art’s legacy media—creating an implicit incentive to write favourably or risk not being asked again.
In the last five years, new media platforms have readily embraced sponsored content and paid partnership models to fund arts reviewing. Sponsored content and editorial independence cannot be reconciled, no matter how many times you put a rider at the foot of an article claiming to be free from influence. Our arts communities are so deeply attuned to the insidious nature of the relationship between money and creative or political independence—yet when it comes to arts writing, that critical focus seems to soften, with these arrangements ignored or brushed aside as a necessary evil. And worsening an existing trend, the institutions that can afford to pay for sponsored content are often in larger centres, widening a gap in arts coverage with the regions.
These financial arrangements, combined with the limited platforms for publishing arts reviews, have left us in an increasingly unethical, uncritical, and rapidly shrinking circle jerk. The same writers making the same bargains with the same galleries and institutions, limiting the capacity of critical reviewing and undermining its credibility as a form in Aotearoa.
Total independence is an impossible fiction, but there are ways to resist the worst of our current practices. Rejecting sponsored content and pay-to-play advertising is a start. So is letting writers lead the process of what and how they want to write about a project. Something Outside doesn’t exist to bag on the good work that is already being done, and it doesn’t pretend to be a solution for all the ills that plague contemporary art writing. Our aspiration is to be one contribution of many to a better way of producing art criticism.
All of the labour involved in Something Outside is voluntary. In the absence of remuneration, as we find our feet we have opted for the benefits of anonymity. This is a space for writers to experiment, to write critically without fear of professional fallout and, most importantly, to produce regular, robust, concise critical art reviews of recent exhibitions. All reviews have a 1000 word limit, are released in batches of four, and are each written by a different author but published under the collective authorship of Something Outside. Submissions are always welcome.