Tabish Khan is a London based art critic, who visits and writes about hundreds of exhibitions a year from the established galleries to the emerging art scene.
His path demonstrates that passion and curiosity can go a long way. He studied sciences and came to art later in life. He learnt about art by visiting art shows and learning little by little. This got him to be referred to as ‘the people’s art critic’ by his colleagues at Londonist and he shares that “I can observe, critique and write about the art world with one foot firmly outside it”. Tabish is a true supporter of artists through his writings and as a trustee of ArtCan, a non-profit arts organisation that supports artists through profile raising activities and exhibitions. He is now frequently solicited to be a judge for art prizes such as the Curious Duke Gallery Secret Art Prize or Art Rooms.
Recently, I had the chance to be invited by Repaint History to a webinar where Tabish was a guest speaker, sharing tips with emerging artists. I reached out to him and I’m grateful he agreed to share with me about his path and views on the art world in general and the role of an art critic.
You mentioned that you came “late” to art. How did it happen and what started your work as an art critic?
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 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 8 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 (now a top seven) – 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 do you like most about writing for the arts?
It’s great to see the public going to see exhibitions based on my reviews and recommendations. It’s extra special when that’s someone who has very little experience of the art world, as that was how I felt at one point. If I can encourage others to discover a new world like I did all those years ago then that’s especially rewarding.
In terms of supporting artists it’s great to see so many artists I know progressing in their career as I’ve been able to see them evolve and succeed over the years. I cover a lot of major exhibitions but I also cover some shows that nobody else does and that’s often a massive boost for emerging artists. Of course it’s a significant ego boost to be respected and for my words and reviews to carry weight.
However, ultimately I see my primary role as one of connecting art and artists to those who want to see and be inspired by art.
You cover a lot of exhibitions, do you have a few artists that you particularly recommend to follow?
I’m not sure I could pick out only a few, that would be like asking a parent to pick their favourite child. I would instead encourage everyone to get out and see as much art as they are able to — preferably in person but if that’s not possible then it’s never been easier to appreciate art through mediums such as websites, Instagram and now we’re seeing virtual reality versions of exhibitions that may be accessed remotely.
Everyone’s tastes are individual, but that’s what makes art great. I can love a work that you hate, but we can have a reasoned debate about it. I believe that seeing a lot of art that you don’t like can be helpful too as it lets you hone in on what you do like. Art has the power to inspire and evoke emotions in all of us and I’m grateful to get that feeling every week from lots of different artists.
This is still an issue I wrestle with. Most of my reviews are going to be positive because I see my role as helping people discover exhibitions – i.e. there’s no point me telling my readers about an exhibition they’ve never heard of, only for me to tell them not to go.
However, for exhibitions at major galleries and museums that people will hear about through advertising or word of mouth it’s fair game to give a negative review if that’s what I honestly feel about the show.
My concern in the article you referred to is many organisations and writers are discouraged from giving negative reviews as it may lead to lost advertising revenue or losing favour with the big galleries and museums who give them privileged access. I’m lucky to have an editor who will back me up when I give a damning review.
The art scene is so small that if you give an exhibition a negative review, you’re likely to see someone who worked on that show in the near future. This close circle effect also discourages people from writing and publishing negative reviews as they don’t want to upset others. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way as it’s a normal empathetic reaction, but ultimately I answer to my readers and I owe them an honest appraisal.
Anyone can give a five star review but to give two stars or one takes guts. Few people get upset with a five star but often they want to take you on if you give a one star. I’ve even had an email of complaint to my editor from a fan of an artist when I gave that artist’s exhibition a one star review.
That being said I’m opposed to those who slate an exhibition just for an ego boost or because they enjoy upsetting or dividing people. A negative review should always come from a place of wanting an exhibition to have been better.
Who are the critics that inspire you?
I do often read the words of other critics but I’m not sure any inspire me in particular. I admire Jerry Saltz for trying to demystify art critics and to make art accessible — which is what I’m trying to do in my role.
When I started out I used to read articles in newspapers like The Times and Guardian trying to see if I could copy their styles as I hadn’t figured out my own voice at that point. I’ve now realised that the fact I have a distinct voice is important as I’m not like most art critics — I don’t have an art history background and I’ve come to art relatively late in life.
The joke at Londonist’s office is to refer to me as ‘the people’s art critic’ as I haven’t studied at some highly respected art institute and I can observe, critique and write about the art world with one foot firmly outside it.
You wrote “The irony is there’s many people who work in art who will tell you that ‘art is for everyone’ and yet they’ll happily dismiss anything that has popular appeal. Then they’ll scratch their heads as to why more people don’t engage with art.” Art is often intimidating. Is there an initiative from an art institution or artists to engage people with art that you have particularly liked?
I stand by that statement and I genuinely don’t think it comes from a sense of malice or trying to be exclusive. It’s more a case that once you’ve spent a long time hanging around with other art literate individuals you forget what matters to those who are new to art or only occasionally step into galleries.
For example let’s take conceptual art, it’s been a part of the history of art since the 1960s. Yet there are still people who don’t ‘get it’ because they find it hard to access and understand. Many of us who are embedded in art take that for granted and so we end up with inaccessible exhibitions.
Simple initiatives can make all the difference like having the gallery door open to be more inviting, having a sign outside pointing out there’s a free exhibition inside and renaming private views to opening nights if there’s no guestlist. I take for granted that all exhibitions at commercial galleries are free, but I’ve seen plenty of the ‘uninitiated’ hesitantly step into a gallery and ask if there’s an admission charge.
My biggest issue is with what’s often referred to as ‘artspeak’. Even today I still pick up press releases filled with what I can only refer to as pseudo-philosophical claptrap. It’s not helpful to anyone and yet it persists. Everything should be written in plain english. As the physicist Richard Feynman once said “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t really understand it.” And he was dealing with far more complex concepts than contemporary art.
By addressing the issues I’ve highlighted it will encourage people who aren’t ‘in the know’ to feel comfortable stepping into a gallery and enjoying an exhibition.
What is your dream project?
I’m very fortunate to have my dream job, and if I could make it a full time career that would be amazing. Many people I know have asked whether I’d ever transition into being an artist, gallerist or curator but that doesn’t really interest me that much.
I’m now starting to branch out to cover shows outside London and I would like to travel further afield to see museums around the world. Thankfully I live in one of art’s global hubs so I’ve always got more than enough to see close by.