In Conversation with John McDonald

I’m an art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald & film critic for the Australian Financial Review. Beyond these gigs, I remain a freelancer who can write for any venue, except the Murdoch press. I do speaking engagements, act as a guest editor and have been curator. I also host art tours for the AGNSW Society and others, chiefly to China and Europe.

I was born in Cessnock, in the Hunter Valley, went to the local high school and then on to Sydney University. After travelling in Europe for a year at the age of 20, I came back obsessed with the visual arts. By the age of 23-24 I was senior art critic for the SMH. I’m in my third stint at the same job today, having taken two breaks: living & working in Europe from 1989 -1994, and working as Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, 1999-2001. I left the NGA job because I realised I felt much happier as a writer than an administrator.

Who (or what) inspires you?

I’m inspired by those great 19th men of letters, such as Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I admire their perfectionism & versatility. If you want to be a professional writer you have to be prepared to work anywhere, any time, to persevere stubbornly and love what you do. How did you get your first break?

I made my own luck, walking into The Australian at age 21, with a few articles from the student newspaper, and asking the Arts Editor, Maria Preraurer, if I could do some freelance work. She said, “Yes. What do to want to write about?” That’s a fairy tale nowadays, when no newspaper office would let you past the security desk or the HR department. I wrote for the Oz for about 6 months, and then secured a second-string art critic’s job at the SMH. When Terence Maloon left to work at the Art Gallery of NSW, I became senior critic.

Tell us what you are currently working on?

Aside from the weekly columns, which total about 3,000 words on 3-4 different topics, I’m writing a constant stream of catalogue essays, feature articles, book introductions, etc. I’d like to be working on the second volume of my art history, The Art of Australia, but I have neither the time nor the economic incentive at the moment. I’ve recently been asked to edit a series of new books on Australian artists, and to co-host an art tour to India in January.

Top tips for an aspiring art critic?

Art criticism in Australia is a game for few players. Most would-be critics fail because they lack nerve and conviction. You can’t be concerned about offending people or staying in with a particular crowd. Call it as you see it, and everyone will eventually come around.

Airy statements of opinion are a waste of time. A critic has to make value judgments, but those judgments need to be supported by an argument.

One has to read constantly, and not just in the field of art, but history, literature, philosophy, politics, etc.

Perseverance & fearlessness are the two essential qualities. It’s more important to write well than to have great knowledge. One can acquire knowledge, but writing is a lifetime study.

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