Lately, I have been involved in an ongoing discussion about a crisis in contemporary criticism, and perhaps properly so, after assuming in 2011 the position of President of AICA International, an art critics’ association with a membership of over 4,500 in 63 national sections worldwide. As we are increasingly having a hard time finding places to publish our writings in printed media, we are being asked, more and more frequently, to self-analyze ourselves and redefine our roles in relation to the changing configuration of the international art scene. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.*
For a long time art criticism was perceived as a form of “privileged consciousness,” reflecting an insight into the art that required a special eye for it and, some strongly believed, a passion for writing. The traditional art critic, whether professional or dilettante, performed a regulatory, introspective, and proscriptive function for the circulation and reception of art. Artists usually viewed his or her opinions as useful, insightful, or instructive, but sometimes also as speculative and even suspicious. We know words and images do not necessary go hand-in-hand; nevertheless, artists and critics/writers formed alliances and partnerships. Today, that informed insider has been largely replaced by a fast-moving, semi-professional, often freelance, critic-curator-art agent (sometimes also an artist), who pursues a career that might or might not last longer than a few years, depending on the rapidity of the success of his or her program. To be just called an “art critic” is to be relegated to a narrow subcategory.
Assessing the current state of art criticism in his book What Happened to Art Criticism? (2003), the art historian James Elkins laments its decline in these words: “In worldwide crisis … dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural crisis … [art criticism is] dying … massively produced, and massively ignored.” Elkins’s concerned, anxious voice joined those of others who had already proclaimed an end both to art and to history. The anxiety persists, becomes omnipresent. “Does Occupy signal the death of contemporary art?” was a recent headline in the BBC News online magazine, referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its use of visual art as a form of protest. While faced with the changing aspects of art and life, we seem to be getting increasingly nervous about the hollowing out of art and art criticism in the present world.
Perhaps it is not a paradox that the present instability of the political, economic, and cultural situation is what is keeping the heated debate on both the future direction of the world and the arts alive around the globe. But one might argue that this coincidence has exposed as much the fragile state of current life as the gap between what the art world and the rest of the world thinks art is, or appears to be, or should be, although both “worlds” might agree that increasingly it looks like a form of entertainment.
We attempt to pinpoint the sources of the “crisis,” search for explanations, and nourish our own version of hyperreality—to use a term that seems to be out of fashion today. In Travels in Hyperreality (1986), Umberto Eco observes that a simulacrum not only produces illusion, but, in fact, stimulates demand for it. We justify the need for simulacrum by talking about it endlessly. Eco associates this type of “decline” of Western culture with the way art museums (“culture industry”)—in the United States, above all—select and display art. “This is the reason for this journey into hyperreality,” he writes, “in search of instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred, the art museum is contaminated by the freak show, and falsehood is enjoyed in a situation of ‘fullness,’ of horror vacui.”
One must object to Eco’s bold simplification of “American imagination,” presented as a barometer of what happens in the art world, but this is not my focus here. The expression that caught my attention in his sentence was the Latin horror vacui, meaning “fear of empty space.” It stands for a phenomenon that is universal and timeless. Parmenides first postulated that “nature abhors a vacuum” around 485 B.C. to say that a void or a vacuum cannot exist in nature, an observation that consequently led to some important scientific and technological inventions. The meaning of the void has been debated ever since. (Some recent scientific theories have reconfirmed the thesis that an absolute void is indeed impossible.) In art this term is usually applied to works with an extreme accumulation of details. Mario Praz famously used it to describe the cluttered interior design of the Victorian age, but it has also been applied to, among others, Medieval illuminated manuscripts and some Islamic art, which in the thinking of some belong to the dark ages and civilizations. It has also commonly been used to speak of the art produced by schizophrenics, which, it has been argued, offers a particularly deep and dense insight into the subconscious. In the visual arts today, horror vacui keeps manifesting itself in, for example, a resurgence of surrealism, which I have called “post-9/11 surrealism.”
The “fear of empty space” has produced another unexpected result. Today’s art scene resembles a giant stage densely populated by artists constantly on the move, but who, unfortunately, seem to experience difficulties in participating in global communication in a meaningful way, and, in fact, by participating in the existing mainstream system of dissemination of art, may be failing to challenge what in the long run hurts their interests. While the global population of artists increases, their conditions often worsen. Artists, like the rest of the population, might be divided between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. That division threatens to obliterate the middle class among them, e.g. those artists who once comfortably functioned in a local context, where they had their public, their galleries, and their collectors. To maintain an illusionary lifestyle based on fame and money—which, contrary to what we are being told, is not a matter of individual choice, or absolute individuality—art is promoted and advertised, advertised everywhere, because—as the Paraguayan art critic Ticio Escobar (the recipient of the 2011 AICA Prize for Distinguished Contribution to Art Criticism) explains: “The global society of information, communication, and spectacle aestheticizes all it encounters, which is everything.” In consequence, the global spread of biennials, exhibitions, and galleries, as well as the unprecedented production of art for commercial consumption—“massively produced, and massively ignored”—keeps feeding horror vacui.
To return to the alleged death of art criticism, which is the subject of my sketchy reflections here, I would define today’s “crisis” as a slow and open-ended testing time, rather than a fast and conclusive emergency event or an exit. Artists still make art, we are still writing about it. I would like to conclude by paraphrasing how the Paris-based Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag commented on the statements regarding the “end of literature” during a panel discussion held at the New York Public Library on November 16, 2012: “A procession of small men climbs a hill, one following another. The first man reaches the edge of a cliff but keeps walking; others follow him. A question: Why do the men follow the first one if they know that it is impossible to walk in the air, that going over the cliff means dying? The answer: Because they do not know that we have reached the end of [art criticism].”
* This article is based on the talks Bartelik presented during various conferences on art criticism, in Asunción, Paraguay; Oxford, England; Havana, Cuba; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The entire text is being prepared for a publication in France.
MAREK BARTELIK is an art critic, art historian, and poet. He taught modern and contemporary art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York from 1996 to 2012. Universities he has taught as Visiting Professor include Yale and MIT. Bartelik was a Graduate Critic-in-Residence at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (2006 2011). Between 2008 and 2012 he served as President of AICA-USA, and currently serves as the 15th President of AICA International (International Association of Art Critics), which gathers over 4500 critics in 63 national sections worldwide.
His books include: The Sculpture of Ursula von Rydingsvard (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), co-authored with Dore Ashton and Matti Megged; To Invent a Garden: The Life and Art of Adja Yunkers (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2000) for writing of which he was awarded a Judith Rothschild Foundation grant; Early Polish Modern Art: Unity in Multiplicity by the Manchester University Press, Manchester, England, November 2005 (England), December 2005 (USA) - for which he has received PIASA’s 2007 Waclaw Lednicki Humanities Award; and GDR/DDR: Contemporary German Painting from Portuguese Collections (Lisbon, Portugal: ARTing, 2008). His debut volume of poetry, East Sixth Street: 50 poems, was published by 7Letras in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in December 2006. His first book in Polish, Lagodny deszcz (Gentle rain) was released in Poland in December 2010 (the book’s English version is scheduled to be published in 2015).
His articles have appeared in, among other magazines and newspapers, CAA Art Journal, Print, Culture Politics, Paletten, Dare, Obieg, Brooklyn Rail, Art in America, Bookforum, and Artforum - for which he has written exhibition reviews from more than 20 countries on four continents. He has written about, among others, Cai Guo-Qiang, Ilya Kabakov, Boris Mikhailov, Dmitri Prigov, ORLAN, DUST, Anna-Bella Geiger, Pazé, Nan Gonzales, Oswaldo Vigas, Miguel Palma, Grimanesa Amoros, Isabel Rocamora, Christopher Mir, and Yuhee Choi.
He curated, among other exhibitions, Adja Yunkers: To Invent a Garden at the Bayly Art Museum in Charlottesville, University of Virginia (April-June 2000); POZA: On the Polishness of Contemporary Polish Art at Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT (October 2006 - January 2007); and Mark Rothko: Paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington at the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland (June - August 2013).