ON THE ESSAY, Elizabeth Hardwick once said, ‘it is nothing less than the reflection of all there is.’ The critic, essayist, and novelist writing in 1986 for the New York Times characterised the form, with her usual finesse, as ‘just thought itself in orbit,’ glossing its fugitive and digressive character, its mercurialness. ‘The essay is diverse and several—it teems,’ Brian Dillon wrote thirty years after Hardwick, who is something of an exemplar for his own limpid prose. In Essayism, his fragmentary book of vignettes touching on sundry topics, among them style, lists, and biography, Dillon extols the ‘capaciousness’ and ‘variety’ of the essay form—neither of which, he reminds us, entails formlessness. He goes on: ‘Imagine a type of writing so hard to define its very name should be something like: an effort, an attempt, a trial. Surmise or hazard, followed likely by failure.’ The essay, then, is well-placed as a vehicle for the divergent dispositions and attitudes a writer might assume towards a work of art and its maker; it’s an ideal form for the unruly and mercurial subject, such as both are prone to being. And so the instigators of ArtNow Essays have chosen to install it as the site’s cornerstone.
This is no home for the exhibition review, a form that is too often single-minded, plodding, and dutiful in its balancing of claim and counterclaim. Like the press release, it can so often be formulaic. Instead a critical outlook on the conditions of art’s production, exhibition, and reception is paramount, but not to uphold some false claim to dispassion or any pretension to impartiality. This is an approach supported by an eight-person advisory committee comprising museum and gallery directors, curators, and writers from across the country who also advise on matters of sensitivity and help to sharpen and broaden the scope of commissioned texts. They, too, in spite (or because) of their various institutional affiliations, will ensure ArtNow Essays remains independent and unbeholden to any single museum, gallery, or publisher.