Art Criticism in Hawai’i

Critics, for the most part, are not a beloved cohort. As an independent book critic, I can tell you that I’m always looking for the next literary classic, but I don’t hold my breath. Any good critic will tell you it’s a lot more fun to find nuance in the flaws. I get it. If you’re a curator, you might want to invite the art critic to your gallery, but probably not to your home, where she might see your personal collection and have something to say about it. When the good food critic enters the restaurant, refined heads are likely to roll. Perhaps that’s why the Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold made it his mission to visit the out-of-the-way restaurants in strip malls and food trucks; it’s a lot easier to enjoy what you’re doing from the perch of anonymity and from the humble linen-free table. And yet, with the collapse of local newspapers and features departments, most cities, and especially smaller towns, like Honolulu, lost their regular art critics years ago, resulting in a loss for the arts and a loss for appreciators of art alike. Years later, the vacuum remains. While cities like Los Angeles and New York continue to enjoy the benefits of having a (smaller) cohort of art and literary critics, cities like Honolulu still turn to these big city writers to get their critiques. In the Star-Advertiser, day in and out, virtually all the book reviews arrive via the New York Times or through syndication from the Associated Press. Rare does a local writer review art or literature. In Hawai’i, film criticism is the only exception to this rule. But I’ll argue that the stakes are lower in film criticism. With movies, we are content to be merely entertained. We almost expect movies to be bad. With literature and art we ask for more. As Wick Allison wrote in D Magazine, “The temptation, of course, is to be satisfied by mere entertainment. Our measure of what is good has been affected by television and film, where the standard is whether or not we squirmed in our seats. But art calls for a higher standard: its purpose is transcendence.”

This means that when it comes to local criticism, appreciation, and understanding of art and literature, in most cities, there’s a vacuum, and in Hawai’i, this vacuum is real. This vacuum hurts the visual arts most of all, but all forms of art suffer when a city doesn’t have a small cohort of critics to inspire, stir things up, and yes, sometimes make people angry.

Here, I think it’s important to pause to make a distinction between arts reporters and critics.

A critic is always biased; the features writer shouldn’t be.

Where I live in Honolulu, we have arts reporters, but virtually no art critics. Our newspapers and magazines may feature artists and writers as human interest curiosities, but few writers offer real criticism of the work being produced.

We should take a moment to consider what is lost when we lose local critics.

In a small town, there’s always a little discomfort in speaking uncomfortable truths because unlike a big city, where you’ll probably never see the artist (or chef, or writer) again, in a small town, everyone is connected in some way, and the chances of encountering a given artist in a small arts scene is all but guaranteed. And so I see so many critiques infected by the illness of puffery. By which I mean, when writers do venture into critical territory, the criticism is often in the form of another puff piece, not at all dissimilar from the many positive restaurant reviews found in Crave of the Star-Advertiser.

This is where the critic must have great courage, more courage I think than a critic must have in a big city. The ArtForum writers can perhaps find flaw, and then retreat to their social islands surrounded by the seas of people in New York or L.A. But when you live on an island, there is only the island. Small towns need rigorous critics as much as large cities, perhaps more so.

And there is a greater standard of excellence and integrity that an art or books critic must uphold when writing locally in a small town. The personal stakes are thrillingly high. A good critic can only be trusted in so far as she is willing to offer the good along with the bad and the ugly, and in Hawai’i, one would think everything excellent from reading local features pieces. 

Reclining Nude. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Reclining Nude. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Let me tell you this. Everything is not excellent. The arts scene in Honolulu consists of one group show after another presented by local artisan guilds at Marks Garage and the Downtown Arts Center. Coffee shops and bookstores also present single-artist shows, but these are hardly spaces committed entirely to fostering a singular curatorial eye nor do they have the acumen for sales and marketing of fine art. These are fabulous places for young artists to be discovered (and I’m grateful they exist), but there is nowhere on the island for these artists to go once they have been found. We have our Hawai’i Contemporary (formerly known as the Biennial) and Pow! Wow! but these pop-up events elevate the bar, only to leave artists with no space to reap the benefits of their often unpaid arts labor. And by reap the benefits, I mean, sell one’s art. In Hawai’i, we don’t have our equivalent of the Miami Design District (Miami being another city with a heavy reliance on tourism, its share of local political corruption, and terrible infrastructure to match), where gallery spaces offer new work produced by those near and far. 

Yes, there are many galleries on the island, but they are committed to showing and selling the kind of art that appeals to Hawai’i tourists looking for beach scenes, ocean photos, prints, antiquities, or Hawai’i landscape paintings—art that is more décor than fine art, that often depicts or promotes problematic stereotypes of Hawai’i as untouched paradise or beach haven, and not much in the way of the contemporary, or avant-garde. The only gallery committed to showing and selling fine art and blockbuster artists, the Park West Gallery in Waikiki, (currently showing Salvador Dali), is the same chain gallery that became infamous for controversy that followed its cruise ship auctions.

And then there’s the literary scene. While we have open mic spaces to foster young talent and spark discovery, our one curated reading space Mixing Innovative Arts hasn’t returned since the pandemic.

Literature is an art form that seems to have been able to almost always transcend space, time and long distance, but in Hawai’i, you’d think we were still publishing things by mail, boat, and wire. That is to say, on the mainland, the New England Review may publish writers from New England, but also include a robust assortment of writers from across the nation. This has the effect of elevating regional writers while also exposing major writers to a new cohort of local talent. This has a democratizing effect and elevates what would be a regional publication into something of national interest. Yet, in Hawai’i, the most important information about any featured author I’ve read about in the papers seems to be how long she has lived in Hawai’i and what high school she attended. This is not to say that these publications are completely opposed to outsiders; it’s just that I don’t see them seeking them out. For a small press to thrive it should strive for national readership. I don’t see that kind of ambition.  

Contemporary art and literature in in Hawai’i is alive. We are home to incredible writers like Paul Theroux, Kaui Hart Hemmings, and the home state of the remarkable Kawai Strong Washburn. The late W.S. Merwin created a conservatory on Maui. We are also home to fabulous journalists and essayists, many of whom write for Flux magazine. And wonderful poets like Jamaica Osorio and Craig Santos Perez.

Perhaps there’s hope for the arts scene. Before the pandemic hit, ArtNews reported that gallery owner, art historian, and critic, Maika Pollack would become the chief curator at the John Young Museum and University Gallery at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. This is no replacement for a curatorial eye independent of the university, but if she can inspire a new generation of curators and gallery owners on the island, there may be a future.

But all of this is pointless if we don’t have critics. I recently wrote about the late book critic Jenny Diski, and about the role a good critic can play in a culture. Jenny Diski wrote on a national level, but local critics are just as important. No gallery or small press can survive without a thriving critical scene to write about it. New media has enough room for independent bloggers and columnists alike. It would also be nice if the major media venues hired some full-time critics, and paid them for their work.

When the major media venues of a city don’t have critics, the arts die.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told by Jenny Diski at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told by Jenny Diski at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.