Staying alive

Issue no2
April - May 2020
Fluïde monumenten

Art criticism in times of internet, non-stop dissemination of information, economic crisis, budget cuts, twitter, 2-day/5 panel conferences and Prizes for Young Art Critics. 

When art itself has to justify its very existence to governments - and artists often become teachers or community workers - a growing self-consciousness is only natural for a figure as ambiguous as the critic.

Usually pictured with a necktie and a monocle, sipping red wine and indulging in polysyllabic exercises, the actual condition of those critiquing the arts is far from the stereotype. Hardly making a living from writing alone, the critic is usually a perfect example of precarious intellectual worker, somebody who is very often a failed artist, a part-time curator, a journalist, an academic, or a combination of the above. Somebody, to phrase it differently, who is most likely in it for individual passion and the respect of a community of peers.

The symposium that took place last week between the Witte de With art center in Rotterdam and Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum was precisely about such a community. The event aimed at breaking down the situation of the practice both in universal terms – who is the critic after all? - and in light of the issues affecting it today, in times of internet and economic crisis.

The first day kicked off on quite a pessimistic tone at Witte de With. The keynote by Jörg Heiser used super-nerds like Julian Assange and Marc Zuckerberg to exemplify the contemporary obsession with networking and the uncritical circulation of information, which according to frieze's editor currently affects art writing as well. As the light grew darker outside, though, the following panels – centered on universality, audience reach and independence - painted a more nuanced picture.

On one hand, none of the speakers could deny the dramatic change in a figure that used to be considered a beacon of authority in quality and taste, now transformed into an opinionated journalist at best and an exhausted biennial-goer at worst.

On the other hand, though, the audience – sitting on an informal yet less than comfortable staircase, padded with synthetic grass – witnessed a sharp polarization when it came to taking stock of the current state of health of critique. Predictably, confidence (and familiarity) with the internet and social networks seemed to play an important role in such dialectic, with newspaper critics like Anna Tilroe and online journalists like Hyperallergic's Hrag Vartanian standing on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Still, as introduced in Heiser's presentation, being increasingly embedded within a homogenous art market - as a result of financial precariousness and informational overload – proved to be a diffused concern on both sides of the fence. Seemingly equidistant from both poles, e-flux co-founder Brian Kuan Wood pointed out that, rather than placing the blame on the market or the internet, a critic's duty is most of all to be alive and, perhaps, to make the complexities of the art ecology apparent to the public.

In terms of independence, maybe Ahu Antmen's formula was the most convincing: the Turkish critic would rather write for free and get her money elsewhere.

Market aside, another axis of discussion was the position of the critic between the artist and the audience. How close to the artwork should we be, and is it a good thing art criticism seems to have been replaced by art journalism? And if we write at all, who is entitled to judge a work of art?

Once again polarization ensued, around famous quotes: Oscar Wilde saw the critic as an artist, but Godard said the former needs to bring the evidence to the latter and really provide a feedback that is necessary for the betterment of art. Unsurprisingly the speakers at the symposium were also divided on the subject, with Ali Akay and Marc Ruyters arguing there is a need for writers to go back to the basics, while Carol Lu and Quinn Latimer seeing critique as literature, something as personal and vulnerable as art (a position I find myself much closer to).

Overall the symposium was dense and the issues touched were wider and more complex than this modest summary can tell. While no faction was able to prevail concerning the good or bad influence of the web - even though I bet the event generated more buzz on Twitter than on printed media - I was glad to hear one of the three categories of the Young Art Critic Awards that were assigned on day 2 was Internet Critic (congratulations to Marieke Ladru). As for the future of critique, we'll have to read and see.

All photo's by Kirsten de Graaf / courtesy Witte de With

I am for an Art Criticism that...
Day 1 Witte de With, Rotterdam, 28 November
Day 2 Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 29 November

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2020