AN INTERVIEW WITH SKY GOODDEN
Sky Goodden is the founding publisher and editor of Momus, an online art publication based in Canada. Since its founding in 2014 Momus has consistently supported nuanced and insightful writing on contemporary art, in the form of essays, reviews and interviews. Goodden also runs the Momus Emerging Critics Residencies and co-produces and co-hosts Momus: The Podcast. We wanted to speak to Goodden about her priorities in publishing, Momus’ origins and editorial approaches to the current political moment. In this interview, she offers a counterstatement to the continual talk of the crisis in criticism. We also touch on the collapse of Canadian Art, Toni Morrison, and International Art English.
CALUM SUTHERLAND: I’ve been reading Momus: A Return to Art Criticism Vol. 1, 2014-17. It’s great! The book compiles some of the best pieces that have appeared online for Momus over that period. It was published just after Trump was elected – one of the events seen as ushering in our current state of crisis. Did you feel a pressure to acknowledge that in the anthology? You touch on it in the editorial (‘toxic poles of elitism and populism’) and tackle it head on in your piece ‘Grieving in L.A.’, which comes at the end of the book. I just started reading Art Writing in Crisis, edited by Brad Haylock and Megan Patty, which places structural crises in art writing (lack of opportunity, systemic racism, the plight of print, and ‘fake news’) alongside the various aspects of the general crisis (climate, terror, xenophobia). I want to phrase this lightly as there is some melodrama to it, but is crisis necessary to undertake the task of writing, editing, publishing?
SKY GOODDEN: My mind runs to the people who wrote their way through a crisis, like Walter Benjamin or James Baldwin, and you think about how necessary it was for those writers to contextualise what was deadly obvious to them – the powers infringing on their ability to create or to live freely. Perhaps in the moment it can seem tremendously self-serving and redundant to extoll your crisis! [laughs] But you require those receipts as readers. So as a publisher and editor, I think we have a responsibility to mark the extremity of this historical moment. We should have some record of the shock. I read a quote by Toni Morrison recently (that is probably very well known, but was new to me), around insisting on the right to be shocked. (‘I insist on being shocked. I am never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.’ – interview with Jana Wendt, 1998.) I think we should continue to insist on our own right to be shocked by these circumstances, in order to best respond.
None of this quite connects up with the ‘crisis in art criticism’, which has been rehearsed and performed by the best-paid among us for far too long. Art Writing in Crisis, which is waiting for me at a local bookstore – I’ve read some reviews – seems to shift the focus from a ‘no one’s looking at us’ crisis in art criticism, to the ‘crisis of circumstances we’re writing against and despite’. Not as some barometer of our relevance or impact on the art world but as backdrop. That’s an important shift, even if I wish we could reach for new language than ‘crisis’, at this point.
Just to tie this into our landscape here in Canada for a minute, there’s this iconic, long-running magazine, Canadian Art, that’s just folded here. It had – seemingly – tons of funding, a foundation, an education program; it had been around in some form or another for more than a century. There’s been a bitter conversation since it closed. People will claim that they didn’t read it and they won’t miss it, or that it was for ‘other people’. But at the same time, without a publisher doing that act of witnessing – and committing that witnessing to cultural memory – there is this shadow that falls. It’s one that could potentially stretch over a generation of artists. Nothing to say ‘we were here’ beyond the press releases, right? That’s where the real bitterness lies. There’s work to do, to fill the gaps. You know I read a great piece of Lucy Lippard’s recently, that says ‘art that has no one to communicate with has no place to go.’ (‘Hot Potatoes: Art and Politics in 1980’, published in Re-Visions: New Perspectives of Art Criticism, 1991). I would like to attend to these more local gaps; to perhaps get back into foregrounding that more regional ‘service criticism’ – everything I came to resent [laughs] – but make it better. I do believe you can reach for something everlasting in the briefest forms.
CS: Tiny paragraphs. 50 words.
SG: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] Shotgun-review style. People love those! Maybe it’s all about what concision forces out, critically speaking.
Oliver Pitt, wad thin brim, stiffen sand sac, 2020, ink on paper, 15 x 11 cm.
CS: Does Canadian Art’s collapse also spark a thought about how you would start an institution like that again? Once gone, how does anything on that scale return?
SG: Absolutely, though I don’t know that’s the direction we need to be going in with art publishing right now. We probably shouldn’t be trying to recreate institutions on that scale. Why do we associate size with stability? I’ve only seen it go the other way, honestly. And those are the losses we’ve seen in the last couple years – major art magazines that got away from themselves. When an institution takes on an administrative bloat, where there are more people being paid to apparently sustain the thing than there are people making the thing, I worry that the ‘editorial content’ becomes a critical decal. It’s just the shiny thing on the hood that pulls money in a bit closer. Most successful art publishing in the past five years is happening on a small scale. Smaller and leaner and online. I think there’s a tipping point – I don’t know exactly where it lies, but I fear it – where now you’re fundraising to fundraise. Shudder!
CS: And at that point the writing becomes directionless and inconsistent. There is a line in N+1’s ‘Hindsight Issue’ (40) about book reviews that draws out some other pressures on criticism. ‘The main problem is that the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition – for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay.’ What gets commissioned? What do people want to review and why?
When you read a few of those pieces, eventually you find yourself fairly unhappy. [laughs] You get frozen in crisis talk. Following his passing, I read a couple of interviews with Sylvère Lotringer and some of the conversation was similarly negative, really despairing about the age we live in.
SG: I had a similar thought about Dave Hickey, who recently passed away. He was meaningful to me. I interviewed him a few times when I was starting out, and then we would just get on the phone together. Early on, a lot of those conversations that I was bringing to him and that he was engaging with were around crisis. But I noticed when revisiting some of his work that he almost buttered his bread by grousing about it. He’d say, what’s the point of writing the ‘con’ review for Artforum if they’re going to commission somebody else to do the ‘pro’? Or, I was really trying to model a way of doing art criticism and obviously it failed because no one took after me. And I thought, well, that’s not true. They just didn’t do it as successfully as you, but your singular ability should not then be considered a failing, right? You were unmatchable!
The fact that we haven’t had a lot of anthologising around art criticism itself – the health of it, the relevance of it – since James Elkins and Raphael Rubenstein and company were throwing up their hands in, like, 2003, shows we have some inventory-taking to do. A lot has changed since then, and while the crises may simply have shifted rather than dematerialised, the language that we continue to use has a waving-your-hands-when-nobody’s-coming-for-you quality. This constant complaining about industry neglect as though we’re dealing with a bunch of bad students who won’t sit down and fold their hands in their laps – that is not going to reignite a larger audience’s interest! [laughs] We have to bring quality to the matter of reflecting on contemporary art in order to inspire readers to spend time with us.
There was a piece a couple years ago by Rubenstein (‘Where is the Audience for Art Criticism Now?’ Art in America, October, 2019) and he was just banging the same old pot. Nobody reads, and these kids today… I do these MFA visits and oh boy, are we in bad shape, if that’s the future… I don’t think people like Raphael are aware of just how much activity there is online – how many of these small publishers are taking up space and happily reaching audiences there. The space that used to be inhabited by, say, Artforum is now ARTS.BLACK or Burnaway or Spike or The White Pube, and so it should be.
Do you remember this moment in 2012 where David Levine and Alix Rule published ‘International Art English’? And that was like a lightning rod for the entire discourse. You had the October school coming out in defence of theory-driven art writing that required specialised knowledge to read. And then a bunch of artists and writers lining up to support the IAE argument, saying, there’s an impermeability to what we’re doing that excludes even us. Those camps were forming at that moment – and that’s 10 years ago! We’ve come a long way since then. At the time I just thought, what about the third option, which is just make better writing! [laughs] You can introduce complicated thinking if you pay more attention to execution, pacing and voice. That is the work of producing good writing, and it sounds dead simple, and of course it isn’t – but somehow it became secondary for art writing to be good writing along the way. And I think online readerships especially are shifting us out of that now. They don’t stick around for that which doesn’t compel them. As online publishers you can’t ignore what’s working – or what misses – and in my experience it has to do with how well the writing swings. And that doesn’t mean it’s light or easy, what the subject is. But it means you go with fourth, fifth, or seventh drafts. You make it good.
CS: Do you follow November? It’s an online publishing project edited by a crowd that has splintered from Artforum. Their writing and interviews touch on some of those legacies in art writing – poststructuralism, Georges Bataille, Hal Foster, Howardena Pindell, Hito Steyerl. It was interesting to read Joseph Henry’s essay in the Momus anthology, ‘The Suffering Body of 1993: Whatever Happened to the “Abject”’ which traces some of the same legacies, too.
SG: I hadn’t! But wow. That’s interesting. We’re still turning over the compost heap of the last generation. All this re-soiling. I was just rereading Arthur C. Danto’s book After the End of Art – talk about accessible writing introducing complex thinking, he’s one of the best for that – and he’s writing about how contemporary art had its own expiry date baked into it. And that, since then, artists have just been sort of floating away from any known gravitational centre…I could recognise that art criticism is very much doing the same thing. A lot of turning over and trying to deduce meaning from that which was metabolised too quickly in the first instance.
CS: Maybe it is a good moment to ask, how did you begin doing all this? Did these arguments figure in that decision? Or perhaps a better question is, how did Momus start? You were working at Blouin Artinfo before.
SG: Do any of us start in a noble way? [laughs] Blouin Artinfo was a lucky gig in a way because I was so young and somebody was giving me a salary – not a very good one – but I could focus on being an editor full-time, and a critic. I had a budget, basically, to produce a lot of art writing for their Canadian site and work with a cast of writers. I was personally putting up between 3-6 pieces a week and editing/publishing about 5. Just going for it. I did three years of publishing there at a moment when Canada was feeling stale, and where online art publishing hadn’t been explored at all yet. I just thought, okay, let’s attend to this. And people like Joseph Henry, I mean, I was 27 when I started at Blouin and, crucially, Joseph was six years younger, or whatever – meaning he was connected to generational shifts that even I wasn’t. He wrote brilliantly about Cory Arcangel as the ‘depressive art bro,’ a new category within a late generation of Net Art. It was fun to be commissioning pieces like that – to work with new insight, bravery about naming the new.
The experience taught me several first principles, some hard-won because of Blouin being such a disaster. Like, pay your writers on time, for fuck’s sake. But also: work with emerging talent, and have some critical stakes.
CS: The relative stability but also the pace of the job allowed a little bit of risk-taking, experimentation?
SG: Yeah. It’s crucial when I’m talking about how I started Momus to pay some deference to that situation because it meant that I was able to test my own voice and my ability as a publisher-editor and know there was some mettle there. The years I spent there were enough for me to know that there was an audience for this. We were seeing huge readerships arrive to the Canadian site from elsewhere. I think that was a really important thing to know in launching Momus because I knew the conversation we had been resigning ourselves to, before then, was overly provincial and falsely fuelled by this notion that we mustn’t criticise, we must only celebrate. When Blouin fell apart, Momus emerged about six months later.
CS: To end, it would be nice to touch on the Momus Emerging Critics Residencies. How have those been?
SG: It’s been brilliant. I really feel amazed by the demand for it, and the impact in such a short time. I’ve been running these since 2019 and we’re about to host our fifth. I went through a Master’s programme in criticism where, by the end of it, I was like, ‘I still don’t know how to pitch an editor!’ [laughs] So mentoring emerging critics and editors on the practical aspects of entering the field, and bringing in some of the leading critics and art writers to discuss how to assert yourself, negotiate for what you want and need – especially if you’re a person of colour, which is increasingly the conversation we need to be having – it’s just overdue, and people are really into it. We’re also keen on offering this through mentorship, and not an MFA you know? We cover everyone’s tuition, and meet virtually so you can be joining us from wherever. Our Residency next week takes place across several time zones, centring Indigenous leaders and residents. We’re seeing results and it all stems from asking, like, how does one enter into art criticism? Asking that question out loud ultimately changes who enters.
CS: It’s important that it’s grounded.
SG: Yes. And, having said that, you’re never only talking about the practical bits – it’s constantly swelling into larger conversations around the health of the discourse, its potential and risks. I can’t tell you how much of a fire it’s lit under us in terms of what we’re doing this for. I really want to see us replant the forest. We shouldn’t only be talking about crisis. We should be talking about what is possible in this space that’s sparking with new energy, so that art has more people to communicate with.
Oliver Pitt, smith waft fan, insist card bend, 2020, ink on paper, 15 x 11 cm.