I don't like getting so personal in my criticism, especially when it concerns someone's career and livelihood, but after reading Aidan Dunne's article in last Satuday's Irish Times (about an artist called Elizabeth Peyton) I just can't hold my tongue any longer. For years now I have been flabbergasted by just how bad is his writing, how weak is his thinking on visual art as it comes across in the writing (and by association, therefore, much of the Times' too), and how little editing he gets in what is meant to be a quality newspaper.
In order to avoid getting upset and avoid feeling impelled to write such a pointed critique, I have mostly avoided his articles altogether in the past few years. But last Saturday I found myself with some time to kill on a bus and decided to revisit his work. O, how I wish I had not had time to kill that day!
In an ironic coincidence that could hardly be neater, the article was headlined "Drawing on words to paint a picture", something that Aidan Dunne is not, unfortunately, capable of. He is not a gifted writer and though he has had lots of practice down the years writing about visual art, he has failed with experience and hard work to make up for the lack of innate talent. But he could be forgiven that, because it is so rare a thing: a command of language that can deliver to the senses. If only he could just write clearly and intelligently about the subjects he covers, he would be up to the job of being the art critic in an under-resourced newspaper published in a relatively poor country. Alas, no, he cannot and is not:
"What’s remarkable is that, rather than playing a role that we, the viewers look at as one might a piece of theatrical entertainment, the subject of a paintings when reading or writing points us to an interior world, an inner life with which we can identify but which we cannot see."
Ideas fall apart in Aidan Dunne's clause-happy style. He may have some valid thoughts on what he sees, but he usually buries them in piles of twisted words, pat phrases, and unnecessary qualifiers. His ignorance or ignoring of grammar doesn't help. "This is so particularly when the reading and writing involves personal concerns, rather than, say, making a religious or political point." Agreement is fractured twice in that little beauty! And again a few long sentences later: "Peyton’s circle of subjects also include the director Francois Truffaut and Bob Dylan."
But you don't have to be an Eats Shoots and Leaves sort to have problems with Dunne's writing. Give him all the benefit of the doubt you wish, all the patience and understanding you have in your thought processes, and you will still be hardpressed to understand one full paragraph of his unstructured nonsense, I assure you.
It is disgraceful (not to mention how contemptuous of visual art it seems, too) that the Times prints passages such as: "She identified with sporting heroes and with royalty – including the British royal family – and she drew wistful pictures of them. In a way, that’s what she’s been doing ever since, but in her mid-teens her interests expanded when she first heard The Clash and other contemporary music groups. And, as her IMMA show demonstrates, the range of her references have continued to expand."
Even now my blood is starting to boil and I haven't even started to discuss his lack of attention to structure and logic. I would be wasting too much valuable time if I was to go through each sentence and show how badly he gets the writing wrong, and how in that mess the weak thinking is mirrored perfectly such that the only thing the reader sees is that understanding was clearly absent in the first place. (That's me trying to emulate!) All I would really have to do, though, is point you in the direction of the article itself and ask you to paraphrase it for me, but I want to spare you that. How about just the second last sentence: "Equally, Peyton’s critical admirers have tended to over-praise her, partly because of the palpable sense of relief that greeted a resurgence of aesthetic values in an art world that had diversified into all manner of abstruse theoretical practices devoid of any visual element whatsoever." Devoid, is right. Try paraphrasing it!
Writing about art may well be difficult, but it doesn't have to be replaced with waffle. In a second irony, a superb writer and thinker, a journalist and author of the highest standards, Fintan O'Toole had an article in the paper on the same day directly under Dunne's and it was about visual art. It had, in fact, a much more challenging subject (James Coleman's work) than Dunne's piece had, and yet O'Toole managed to be clear about the ideas, clear about his own thinking, and readable throughout.
Aidan Dunne needs to deconstruct his writing, and I mean that in the pedestrian sense: take it apart completely and start again from the most basic principles of the English language. Subject - verb - object ... et cetera. Until that process is complete, The Irish Times needs to edit his work with a fine-tooth comb or stop printing it altogether and find a new visual art critic until Dunne can prove himself to be up to the job with the necessary penmanship to elucidate in words the dynamics of the art he encounters.