Industry voices: Tabish Khan - the people's art critic

HomeMarket reports

1. Hi Tabish, could you introduce yourself and tell our readers a bit about your activity within the art world?

Hi, I'm an art critic specializing in London's art scene and I believe passionately in making art accessible to everyone. I visit and write about hundreds of exhibitions a year covering everything from the major blockbusters to the emerging art scene.

I've been visual arts editor for Londonist since 2013 - writing about all the art exhibitions that can be seen in London, and occasionally beyond. I'm also a regular contributor for FAD Magazine with a weekly round up of top exhibitions to see in London and a column called What's wrong with art. Additionally, I featured on radio, television, and other publications talking about exhibitions. 

Alongside my writing, I'm a trustee of ArtCan, a non-profit arts organisation that supports artists through profile raising activities and exhibitions.

Photo courtesy of Tabish Khan.

2. As an art critic, what do you seek the most in exhibitions? Is there something that you keep missing in the current art scene?

It's wonderful living in London as there's so much art going on that one person can't see it all, despite my best efforts to do so. I never run out of exciting new art and artists to discover so it's never a case of anything being missing – more acting as a filter for my readership so that I recommend a diverse range of exhibitions.

I want to ensure I promote exhibitions that I think people will enjoy whether that be because they are challenging, aesthetically pleasing, intellectually stimulating, or all of the above. Accessibility is key so I need to write about exhibitions that are still open so readers can go visit them. I want to make sure it's not just the blockbuster exhibitions that cost £20 to visit, I also want to recommend lots of shows where you don't have to pay an entrance fee.

3. Could you describe the process of critical writing and critical thinking? Where to draw a line between individual taste in art and professional approach to the works in the context of various values, norms, etc.?

With a medium like art where subjectivity is such a huge part of it, it's impossible to not let some biases creep in. I try and approach each show with a blank slate so that I don't prejudge it on whether I know the artist or gallery, or what medium the works are made from – e.g. sculpture vs video art. 

However, I'm just as flawed as anybody else so other factors will naturally hold sway. If I'm visiting a show after a day of exhibitions then my mental capacity is limited and therefore more is needed to make an impact on me at 4pm vs 10am. If the artist or curator is there to show me around the work and they speak particularly eloquently about it then that's also likely to sway my opinion. I try my best to negate the impacts of these factors but it's unrealistic to think it doesn't have an effect. 

I also don't have a lot of space to be critical as I see hundreds of shows and can only write about a tenth of them at most. Therefore I have to choose shows that I recommend, as writing about shows that I'm suggesting people don't visit is a waste of online ‘column inches’. The exception is the big blockbuster exhibitions where they are large enough that people will hear about it whether I cover it or not, so it's important to add my voice to the discussion particularly when it's going against the grain. 

Photo courtesy of Tabish Khan.

4. You are a regular contributor for FAD with weekly top exhibitions in London and a column called What’s wrong with art. Do you think this title considers what is happening in the art scene, are we constantly looking for what is wrong with art? How to improve the art, and does it even need improvement. Shouldn’t it be dependent on personal decisions and open to diversity in approach?

My what's wrong with art column is of course critical of certain practices but it comes from the desire to improve upon the status quo. I love art, but that doesn't mean it can't be a lot better than it is. 

The items I flag as 'wrong' are often in place because it's how it's always been done and nobody steps back to think whether it's right. For example, many people in art, including me, revert to calling openings 'private views' when most don't have a guest list. All that does is make an event feel inaccessible to those who aren't familiar with the art world and how it works.

Likewise, with artspeak, nobody enters art wanting to use liminal in every statement but they often feel they have to because it's used freely in the world they've entered. 

Just as our lives are a journey of self-improvement so must we all want the same for art.

5. What is your approach to art criticism in the context of mediums, such as social media? How it’s getting more and more accessible those days to have various public opinions, comments, and therefore select the ones worth reading?

It does feel like everyone’s a critic these days and you can find lots of people online enthused about work and a significant minority ready to tear it down. With few in between, which is logically where the majority of opinions really should be. 

We have to trust people will look to trusted sources to decide what’s worth seeing and I hope I am that to a lot of people. The plurality of voices also means you don’t have to focus on one voice and you can sample a few to ensure you have enough voices to make your own opinion. We haven’t quite got there with art but aggregator sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes guide viewers towards films so they aren’t simply informed by one opinion, but several. Though there may not be enough art critics to get to that stage, it may be too niche.

Social media has done a wonderful job of giving voices to the voiceless but it’s also opened it up to those who abuse that privilege and unfortunately, nothing draws viewers like a toxic discussion. Having said that, I am happy for anyone to disagree with me and voice their opinion as long as it isn’t abusive or purposefully offensive. Social media can be a space for rational discussions and I’m fortunate that the art crowd on platforms like Twitter and Instagram are largely a mellow mix of those willing to share their thoughts.

Photo courtesy of Tabish Khan.

6. In one of your reviews, you mentioned that there is a rise in avoiding bad criticism, partly because of commercial reasons. It seems that it is unavoidable in every sphere of life. However, in the art world, it creates a different meaning. If this rise will continue it seems that we are losing our ability to express what we think and say. We became a specific part of the system that has a role and needs to be done. How do you reflect on this topic?

It’s tricky as I understand why a young publication wouldn’t want to publish anything negative, as they are growing and are reliant on advertising revenue from those they review. Also, a glowing review will be shared on social media by those institutions and galleries thus helping that publication reach a wider readership. 

So we end up in a world where only major publications such as the broadsheet newspapers feel like they can give out negative reviews. 

Art is also not immune to the polarisation we see in the world around us in that people gravitate towards the glowing or the scathing review, very few people want to read a three star review. Which is a shame, because naturally, most exhibitions will naturally sit somewhere in the middle. 

I’ve also noticed that nobody seems to mind when you give a five-star review but I’ve had emails of complaint to my editor about a one-star review. I’ve often said that anyone can give a five-star review, but it takes bravery to give one star as you really need to back it up.

There is some room for criticism but it seems like it’s very niche, within the already niche world of art writing. It’s a small niche but it’s a strong one. One that I sincerely hope will continue going strong for years to come. 

7. In addition, you mentioned how critics often get paid for writing a good review or even are hired for a gallery to write positive reviews on daily basis. Similar opinions are spreading around the art world. How people, readers can gain trust if they are faced with many situations that are just easy to write words for a payment? 

I’ve heard about paid-for reviews and it’s not something I agree with as it feels wrong to me. However, a lot of writers get around this by writing something without an opinion in a paid-for role. I understand the latter as writing reviews is very poorly paid while items such as catalog essays for exhibitions are often much better paid. So that’s one way a critic can make an income while retaining their integrity.

I also can’t be too judgemental around the choices other writers make as there’s very little money in writing, and a lot of writers are struggling. I have a corporate day job so I don’t need to chase after money from writing, so it’s a lot easier for me to have a critical view that doesn’t require me to sacrifice my integrity. 

Publications also establish a reputation for honest reviews, so readers know that a review in say The Guardian or Londonist is something they can trust as being an honest view - even if they don’t agree with it.

Photo courtesy of Tabish Khan.

8. Did you ever have a situation that a gallery or museum offered you a paid position to write positive reviews for future exhibitions? What to do in those situations, say no and ignore the offer, maybe write a statement that would question the future publications for these institutions?

I’ve never been asked to write a paid-for positive review so I can’t comment on that. I’ve had people try and push back suggesting I change a review - i.e. the overall star rating I’ve given is three, and they think it should be four. But I always hold firm on that and have the full backing of my editors in doing so. Though I’ll happily correct it if there’s an inaccuracy in a piece I’ve written. 

The only time I’ll take paid work to write something positive is from an artist that’s commissioned me to write something, e.g. for their website. But in that case, I’d only accept it if it’s an artist whose work I already admire or own and that’s normally why they approach me. That still has integrity for me as I’m simply echoing what I’ve already said in a past review or on social media. If an artist approached me to commission some writing and I didn’t think favourably of their work, I would politely decline. 

Written by
Jagienka Parteka