Art Criticism in Europe Today
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson ask Nina Power
Libia Castro & ólafur ólafsson: Of how much importance to art making, and to any debate on visual art, would you say that art criticism is in Europe today?
Nina Power: Art criticism and the making of art are inextricably intertwined. The whole system depends upon a set of relations that link art materials to artistic production to art promotion to art criticism to the market. The nature of this critique or criticism is in constant question, however, and depends upon an unstable internal split between criticism and promotion (or writing in the name of promotion like press releases and puff pieces.) Like much other journalism, the question of time and vested interest is problematic for the expectation of a quick article turnaround: it takes real time and money to send reviewers to a gallery, and then to be able to reflect on the art. On the positive side, I think there is much more awareness of the symbiotic and interdisciplinary relationship between art-making and art-writing, and there are those, of course, such as Hito Steyerl who expertly practice both. I currently teach in an unusual but very exciting and successful master’s program at the Royal College of Art in London entitled Critical Writing in Art and Design, which makes explicit the relationship between art criticism and artistic production: that critics are never merely passive receivers, but active participants, if not artists themselves.
Castro & ólafsson: How do you think feminism has contributed to criticism in the U.K.?
Power: A complex question: certainly there is more awareness of feminism, feminist art, and art criticism that takes up feminism as one of its main strands. But while it has an impact on some levels and in some spheres, we are still bombarded by shows that are premised on the overwhelmingly singular model of the male genius: the recent and current Tate shows for example—Hamilton, Matisse, Klee—have all switched back into this mode. The feminist art critique and art writing that currently exists in the work of Marina Vishmidt, Linda Stupart, Hannah Black, etc. is extremely exciting: this is art criticism that is genuinely groundbreaking in terms of how we think about work, gender, race, and the future of art itself.
Castro & ólafsson: Do you think art critics in Europe are happy with their profession?
Power: Is anyone happy in their job, assuming they have one?! I’m not sure I know many people who are just art critics. Most people who write art criticism—reviews, catalogue essays, more experimental work—are also lecturing, or making their own work, or looking after children, or doing boring admin jobs, always doing several things at once. I suppose there might be a few people who get paid solely to write about art, but I don’t know who they are. I think it is very easy to tell, though, when someone is really moved, one way or the other, about their subject and when someone is just writing because they have to, because they received a certain commission, and so on. But there are worse jobs out there, for certain.
Castro & ólafsson: How do you think it would affect art making and the art world if all art critics in Europe stopped writing and publishing any art critiques for the next three years?
Power: Well assuming you mean art criticism that wasn’t puffery, then I imagine artists might feel an enormous relief, but also a slight sadness. I imagine artists would start making work that would become directly critical of each other, to overcompensate. But what would the critics do in the meantime? Found community gardens? I do hope so.
Castro & ólafsson: Since, obviously, art critics have been influenced by artistic concepts in their writing and vice versa, and artists write critiques, and critics have become artists, can you imagine how they might resist the “normalization” and “homogenization” created by the general working conditions and the influence of the market? Duchamp said that in the future artists that would matter would have to go completely underground.
Power: I doubt most will be able to “resist”: but what we see is a proliferation of styles and an experimental blurring of the boundaries between formerly separate disciplinary practices. Why can’t a piece of writing be a show; a film, a text; a painting, a critique? All of this has already happened, but the same material questions permanently hover in the background: who will pay you, and for what? I don’t think there’s a lack of ideas out there, just a ridiculously extreme expanse between rich artists and writers, and the poor ones. The underground is no longer possible in cities which are so expensive that people cannot afford to be poor in them.
Castro & ólafsson: How much time do you get to write an art review for a newspaper or an art magazine, and how much of a fee do you receive?
Power: It varies extraordinarily. Sometimes you get nothing for something that takes months, sometimes something short will pay surprisingly well. All I’ll say is that the art world has infinitely more money than any institution that presents itself as more straightforwardly political or philosophical.
Castro & ólafsson: How has the context of art criticism in the U.K. changed since the turn of the millennium?
Power: Well, fewer writers are probably worried that the Y2K bug will wipe out all their saved files. I think the sheer proliferation of galleries, biennials, and online portals for criticism means that there is a lot more art criticism than there used to be, and some of the old hierarchies regarding being reviewed in the “right” magazines might have broken down. I think Internet art, or whatever you want to call it, has also done something weird to what we used to call “postmodernism.” Phenomena such as vaporwave have created a kind of flat internal nostalgia for the Internet itself, and it’s interesting to think of aesthetics being internally displaced and disturbed on the exact same level as the form itself, but in multiple, infinite ways. In this sense, deconstruction has become less of a critical practice than the form out of which all criticism proliferates.
Castro & ólafsson: Do you think social media has influence on art criticism in contemporary Europe, and if so, how?
Power: If everyone is an artist, then everyone is an art critic. I’m not always sure the desire that galleries have to engage constantly with social media (by filming everything or hashtagging it, for example) works—though I understand the democratic impulse—simply because not all events translate appropriately to the morbid flatness of the Internet. Some events might be atmospheric in person but deadly boring on screen. I think people are reading differently too, picking up on keywords rather than letting longform pieces of writing resonate on a deeper level. On the other hand, when pieces are shared around what one otherwise might not have seen, this can only be a positive thing.
Castro & ólafsson: How do you think art criticism is coping with the vast and diverse use of media, formats, and disciplines of artists today? Could this complexity lead to criticism sometimes written in groups, as we see happening in journalism?
Power: I think there are already quite a few critics who operate as collectives or anonymous commentators. There is a lot to recommend political models of writing—the communiqué, the manifesto, the screed—in this regard. There are those whose entire group practice is one of critique—think of Guerilla Girls for example.
Castro & ólafsson: How do you think we may see art criticism and its context change or develop in the next 15 years?
Power: I think we’ll see more art criticism that is aware of its own complicity and context within the broader art world and financial market. This is likely to make for some quite explosive work! We can only hope.
ContributorsLibia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson
Libia Castro and ólafur ólafsson's artistic practice, executed across media and a variety of genres and disciplines, concentrates on the phenomena of transition towards the post-fordist phase of political, social, and cultural development. Exclusion, exploitation, and emancipation appear as main issues in Castro and ólafsson critique and reflections on flexible subjectivities, under pressure of the decline of the nation-state and the rise of global markets and corporations. Castro and ólafsson collaborating since 1997, are based in Rotterdam and Berlin. Their recent exhibitions include Asymmetry, TENT, Rotterdam, 2013, curated by Adam Budak, The Unexpected Guest, 7th Liverpool Biennial, 2012, curated by Lorenzo Fusi, Germans, Speak German! Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, 2012, curated by Mother Tongue, Under Deconstruction, Icelandic Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennial, 2011 curated by Ellen Bluemenstein, and Principle Hope, Manifesta 7- European Biennial, Rovereto, IT, 2008, curated by Adam Budak.Nina Power
Nina Power, based in London, is currently Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University, and a popular commentator, and hosts the radio show The Hour of Power. She writes for Frieze and the Guardian on topics related to philosophy, law, protest, and feminism. She is currently working on two publications on the theme of work and the relationship between the public and politics.