Tabish Khan: 'Creativity will continue to bloom whatever the world looks like'
Tabish Khan is an art critic specialising in London's art scene. He talks to us about inclusivity, art speak, what art might look like post-Covid, his 3 second rule and dissecting cadavers.
How and why did you decide to start writing about the London art scene? I believe you were pursuing a totally different career before you became an Art Editor for the Londonist?
I had very little interest in art until my late twenties. Growing up I was always more drawn to the sciences and graduated in Biomedical Science. I specialised in anatomy so I spent a lot of time dissecting cadavers. I then fell into a career in energy, which is still the career that pays the bills. While commuting to my energy industry office job I would spot advertisements on the London Underground for major exhibitions and this got me interested as I had no knowledge of art. I started to visit some exhibitions and found it eye-opening and exciting. This interest accelerated and I started visiting more exhibitions, wherever I could find them. After a few months a cousin recommended writing a blog so I did and that got very little traction. When looking for a place to promote my writing I stumbled across Londonist who were a lot smaller than they are today, and were primarily volunteer led. I pitched myself to them and now 9 years later I’m still with them as visual arts editor. I also ran into Mark, from FAD magazine, at a gallery opening shortly after I’d started writing for Londonist and he proposed a weekly top five – and the weekly top exhibitions is a feature that’s still going. My reviews for Londonist now get mentioned on those same posters on the Underground that were my original inspiration, and it’s very rewarding to see my story come full circle.
What tends to spark your interest and makes you want to write about a show, an artist or a piece of work?
It can be a lot of things including recommendations from others but mostly it’s through images seen on emails and Instagram so it needs to be a strong lead image to grab my attention and make me want to learn more about the work.
For emails, I use what I refer to as my three second rule, which means an email has three seconds to have an impact on me or it gets deleted. I’d love to have more time but with the volume of emails I get that’s as much time as I can allow. There are a lot of other messaging tools right now but email is still best for me and I get a lot of Instagram messages that are often lost in the noise of an imperfect messaging platform.
I do try and cast a wide net so if there’s an exhibition that doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but happens to be near another exhibition I’m visiting, I will often drop in just to see if it feels different in person. It’s important to challenge yourself and visit as wide a variety of shows as possible just to get a feel for the wider art scene and discover new artists. Though often I take this too far, in 2019 I kept a tally and I had visited 1,168 exhibitions.
When it comes to writing it’s often what fits into what I’m working on, i.e. if I’m writing a roundup of exhibitions then it’s important to keep it varied and also to write about what I think my wider audience will be interested in, not just what catches my eye. As I only write online I can see via statistics how articles perform and what pique’s readers’ interest. I have a strong preference in writing about exhibitions that are open to view, whether in person and online, as I want others to see it. I find little appeal in writing about an exhibition that’s already closed or not accessible to the public i.e. in a private members club where access is restricted.
I know that making art more accessible really motivates you. I saw a recent tweet where you shared and criticised a job ad for an unpaid art internship. This type of exploitation to me is just another example of why only a certain type of people can really afford to break into the gallery environment and the art world in general. It starts at art school where only a limited number of students can now afford to do an art degree and saddle themselves with debt for a precarious creative career, then goes on with a pattern of unpaid jobs & success often depending on whether you have the right network of contacts or not. Why do you think the art world is still an elitist environment to some degree and what do you think we can do to address this?
I feel there are two major forces keeping art inaccessible to the wider public. One is people who have a vested interest in maintaining a certain mystique around art which keeps it exclusive and justifies the astronomical prices that art can sell for. These people do exist but I do think they are limited to a small minority in the art world. The second, and main reason is an inertia of continuing to operate in the ‘old ways’ with a view of ‘well that’s how it’s always been done’. Art itself may be dynamic and ever changing, but the world it operates in is very slow to adapt - largely because those at the top of major institutions and galleries have a very low turnover. Art is also a very small world so that having the right connections, which is an issue in all industries, is amplified within art.
The economics of various sectors is rarely correlated to merit, it’s more to do with industry norms as to what level of pay is expected. Unfortunately art has a history of catering to the middle and upper classes so employers often feel they can get away with paying less, or none in some cases. This is based on the knowledge that the types of persons they tend to hire can always rely on the bank of mum and dad until they establish themselves in the field, and so we have a vicious cycle of lack of diversity in hires from different socio-economic strata and racial backgrounds, with both these factors linked as persons of colour tend to hail from poorer backgrounds. It’s not helped by art degrees that often dismiss students who want to talk about monetising art as if that sullies it somehow and that ‘commercial’ is seen as a dirty word in art. It’s an element that’s holding back art from being truly diverse and it’s never discussed enough. I also find it bizarre how many art prizes for emerging artists are limited to graduates. While an art degree can be valuable to a lot of artists I don’t think it should be a requirement to enter.
Other factors include making a Master's degree a requirement for a job in the arts so that only those willing to saddle themselves with four years of debt can attain jobs furthering the concerns I’ve already flagged. For art jobs and art prizes I think any criteria need to be thoroughly challenged as to whether they are really required to do the job, i.e. a social media manager needs experience of managing social media, not a thesis on the Pre-Raphaelites. The poor pay levels are going to be much harder to address given museums and galleries are seriously suffering right now due to the pandemic resulting in further layoffs. This will only make the jobs market even more competitive and this can result in even lower pay levels being advertised.
It is slowly changing but you only need to look around at art events and listen to the accents to know there’s still a long way to go. I know many institutions are looking to rectify this but it starts by making roles open to all by only listing the critical requirements and ensuring the final selection of candidates is diverse, and having the courage to re-advertise if they can’t get a diverse pool of candidates. I feel like there’s an essay in itself on this topic and I’ve only covered a small part in this answer.
What do you think will be the long-term impact on the art world of Covid-19? Will we see a permanent move to online art fairs and exhibition? Difficult economic periods can also often lead to more creativity and experimentation. We saw that happen with music for example and I keep hoping that the crisis will give art a much-needed spark of ‘’rebellion’’ and everything will become a little less safe and predictable…
I think online exhibitions will become part of the normal process so that physical exhibitions come with an online version - it opens up exhibitions to so many more people, not just those who can travel to the physical location. Personally I hope the jet-setting habits of the art world will be vastly reduced, I find it bizarre how there’s a ‘travelling circus’ of individuals who are constantly hopping around the world from art fair to art fair - journalists included.
I’m not so sold on art being less safe, economic downturns often see conservatism so I think we may see art becoming more safe as artists stick to winning formulae and experiment less. I’m hoping there will eventually be a post-pandemic boom and that’s when we may see radical changes in the art world as new models emerge. Experimentation has always been there in art as there are always artists trying new ideas and mediums, it’s often the close knit art world that fails to recognise it and keeps them out. We only need to look at how photography is still excluded from art in certain circles and how street art has often been kept at arm's length by many of the art world’s gatekeepers. Creativity will continue to bloom whatever the world looks like and I look forward to seeing what new work and ideas artists put forward.
I think you share my dislike of the wordy, pompous, art speak heavy exhibition press release and artist statement. Why do you think so many galleries and artists still seem to think that any communication they put out must read like some opaque philosophy thesis?
Definitely, liminal and ontological need to be binned. It ties into an elitism around art that it has to sound cerebral so that it can justify the lofty place it holds within the wider societal view of art and it can justify the price tags.
Art schools also have to bear a responsibility as I’m seeing fresh graduates using these terms and they definitely didn’t speak like that before they went into art school. The system goes all the way to the top with many commercial galleries often publishing opaque press releases, though I’ve definitely seen improvements in a lot of museums.
The corporate world may have its flaws but art could definitely learn from it on how to keep things succinct. Personally, I love a press release with simple language and bullet points. To quote Einstein: ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you probably don’t understand it yourself.’
What tips and advice would you give artists who are starting in their career?
Be visible, be succinct and don’t take anything personally.
People can only find out about artists if they make themselves and their work visible, whether that be exhibiting their work and entering competitions. Neither needs to cost the earth and it can be a massive boost to be seen. It takes courage to put your work out there to be judged but it’s those artists who do persevere who often get noticed. You can’t be discovered if nobody knows where to find you.
Critics and journalists are overwhelmed with emails and now thanks to social media direct messages are another item we have to keep track of. So nobody should ever take it personally if they get ignored as it’s often the only way to keep on top of things from my end. Also be succinct as I only have a couple of seconds to digest an email so keeping it short with strong images is most likely to catch my attention. Not everything is going to appeal to my personal taste but I’m not the only person out there so if there’s no traction from one journalist, then move on to another. At the same time do keep journalists and critics in the loop with how your work is progressing as you never know when they may change their mind as your work develops.
What artists, galleries or shows are inspiring you at the moment?
Too many to list here, which is why I love being an art critic and writer. So instead I’ll pick a few examples that may be less familiar to those reading this interview. Arebyte and Block 336 are two art spaces that put on truly ambitious exhibitions that are worth making the trip to London City Island and Brixton respectively.
In terms of the more traditional gallery model Rosenfeld Porcini is a gallery with a brilliant stable of artists across various media.
I’m a proud trustee of ArtCan, an artist collective working together to put on exhibitions and support each other. It’s a fantastic model that shows you what can be done by placing an organisational structure over an artist collective, and it continues to go from strength to strength.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
It’s a cliché to say follow your own path but it’s important to remind yourself of that and to remind yourself why you do what you do. Mine is to make art more accessible to everyone and to support artists. Sometimes I lose my way, don’t we all, and I have to remind myself of my core values.
I still consider myself a work in progress and I’m constantly learning from others. It’s an important balance to have the confidence to stand behind your opinions but also to have the humility to know you don’t have all the answers. It’s a balancing act I wrestle with a lot of the time, especially when I review an exhibition and all the other critics go the opposite way -- which happens more than you’d imagine.
We can all get sucked into seeing someone earning more or having more social media followers, and then getting anxious as to why you’re not on their level. We all do it and it’s important to remember that everyone is on a different journey and you shouldn’t measure yourself against anyone else - though that’s often easier said than done.
If you could own one well-known artwork what would it be and why?
I would love a Yayoi Kusama infinity room, a TeamLab room or a Chiharu Shiota installation for whenever I need a pick me up, everything always feels more magical inside all three of those works. Or a massive Anselm Kiefer painting, though no idea where I’d have the space to keep either of them and that’s before we even think about the cost.
Thankfully I live in a flat with over 200 artworks and they all bring a smile to my face, both because I love them and the memories and stories attached to each one.
(Image: 'Me somewhere else' , Chiharu Shiota, installation view)
For more information about Tabish and to read examples of his art reviews and other written works: www.tabish-khan.com