Questions to the Danish Art Critic Lisbeth Bonde
Posed by the Danish Artist Mikkel Carl
Mikkel Carl: You have been around for quite some time. From 1994 to 2002 you were the art editor at Information, a Danish daily, and for more than 10 years now you’ve been writing for Weekendavisen, a Danish weekly broadsheet. Among many other things you have also published the “guide-book” Manual til Dansk Samtidskunst (Manual to Danish Contemporary Art) along with Mette Sandbye. What has changed within Danish art criticism in your time as a writer?
Lisbeth Bonde: Two important parameters have changed radically from the time when I started as an art critic until now and both have had an impact on how the Danish art critics perform. First, the Internet revolution and second, the explosion of the Danish art scene with regard to the number of talented young and mid-career artists on the scene. Let me mention Olafur Eliasson, Tal R, Superflex, and Elmgreen & Dragset as some of the front figures who have had an impact on the “temperature” toward the Danish art scene from abroad, which in general has grown much more professional in my time. When I started as an art editor of the Danish left wing broadsheet Information, I could, without pushing myself too hard, see all the exhibitions in Copenhagen in one day riding on my bike. Today the number of exhibition spaces—both commercial and artist driven—is so big that no one’s able to dive and see it all. In the past 20 years, the Danish art critic has consequently changed from a more critical attitude toward contemporary art to a more informative one. Simultaneously, we have experienced a decrease in printed newspapers in Denmark, and newspapers generally pay less attention to visual art than to music, theater, and film. Luckily, the aforementioned Internet revolution has paved the way for three new online art magazines: kunsten.nu, Kopenhagen Magasin, and Kunstkritikk (the latter is Nordic).
Carl: And what hasn’t changed, even though it perhaps ought to?
Bonde: The need for a true art critic informing the audience of what’s going on is more needed than ever. Furthermore, considering the amount of art on display, there’s a need for an art critic that distinguishes between quality and non-quality as the professional gaze of the general audience.
Carl: Do you have a certain field of expertise, or do you feel confident writing about any genre or media?
Bonde: I consider myself an expert on Danish (and to some extend also global) contemporary art, but I also love to write about early modernism, baroque art, art from the renaissance, etc. I write about art mainly because I love it, but also because I think it’s a challenge to find the proper words in order to “transform” a generally wordless media such as visual art and give the audience an opportunity to grasp it in words.
Carl: Seeing as it is derived from the word “crisis” (krisis in German), meaning the turning point in a disease, it’s an etymological fact that to criticize something isn’t simply the expression of negative judgement—though the word is often colloquially misused. So, I guess a show needs to be “bad” in a specific way for it to merit going through all the trouble of explaining to people why it is bad. On the other hand—though bad publicity is supposedly better than none—a review isn’t simply free advertising. How do you decide which shows deserve a review and on the basis of what criteria?
Bonde: A very good question indeed. When I see 15 exhibitions, I generally write about one or two of them. But I’m the type of art critic—working mainly as a freelancer—who prefers to write about art which interests me or thrills me or perhaps even provokes me in a fruitful and eye-opening way. I have often claimed that we as art critics should sharpen our weapons every now and then in order to push the expectations of the audience and to make ourselves visible in the mass media. But to be honest, who wants to use our precious and often very little space in the printed media on something that is not of interest?
Carl: What does (art) critique mean to you?
Bonde: I’m a very curious person and every time I open a door to an exhibition space I’m hopeful and expect to be surprised. And as I already mentioned, I enjoy finding the proper words to describe the artworks that are on display so there’s more left after my verbal intervention than before, I want to make the artwork accessible to the audience and help them understand its many levels of significance.
Carl: Before Kunstkritikk, kunsten.nu, etc. came along in Denmark, art criticism was often on a daily basis limited to plain art reviews, and perhaps the occasional lifestyle artist interview. What’s the relationship between art criticism as a general notion and its potential sub-genres?
Bonde: The online art magazines have enormous potential to publish the news more rapidly. Furthermore, they can be much more diverse in genres, including comments, news from the art galleries, interviews, and portraits of artists and art historians in the museums and exhibition spaces—and of course reviews. It’s a great advantage for online art magazines which can also show many more photos from the exhibitions—and more and more people subscribe to these kind of art media which, by the way, are available for free.
Carl: Within the natural sciences, “objectivity” basically means that you must reach the same conclusion when you conduct an experiment once again in a similar way. Within art it’s quite the contrary. Any repetition necessarily means something entirely different. What criteria does this leave us with when it comes to judging between good art and bad art, or perhaps even between art and non-art?
Bonde: First of all, you have to use your perception as a person—using your senses without any prejudices—when you experience the work of art. Secondly, you have to use your knowledge of art in general—i.e. the art history—which allows you to compare the artwork with previous art. There are no objective criteria in art criticism, but there’s honesty and a sensibility toward your own perception and knowledge about how the artwork is constructed, the significance of it, and so on. Of course as a professional you have a bigger basis for comparison than the audience in general and you have to make your criteria for judgment explicit for the audience.
Carl: How do you learn to make the essential distinction between what you simply don’t like and what is truly bad art?
Bonde: It’s also a very good question. First of all, as I mentioned before, I use my knowledge which I’ve collected during my studies not only at the university, but also at the many biennials, art fairs, art events, and exhibitions in Denmark as well as abroad to compare the actual artwork with other works of art in order to distinguish if it’s just a work of art which imitates and tries to play a role as art or if it’s the real thing. Generally it’s not that difficult to distinguish between serious art and art which doesn’t possess the depth and seriousness required to define it as such. I also try to test myself to find out if the artwork is only responding repulsively to me as a person and not to anyone else. Then I’ll try to find out why—and I’ll explain this as part of the review as a whole.
Carl: During the last couple of years the Danish art scene has witnessed a proliferation of artist run spaces. As most of them are financed by the Danish Art Foundation I’m not bringing this up to romanticize the so-called underground, but as these exhibition spaces have no obligations regarding the political demand of a never-ending expansion of audience, nor do they have to facilitate any sale, they tend to put up shows that are a little more “advanced” than most public institutions and galleries. The potential downside of this, though, is an even further segregation of the Danish art audience, since these shows very rarely qualify for a newspaper review. How do you feel about primarily reviewing the institutional and commercial “safe bets”?
Bonde: I try to see as many of these important exhibitions as I can, but it’s hard to find the time. I voluntarily gave up my job as an art critic at the Danish broadsheet Weekendavisen after 10 years to become a freelance critic at the online art magazine kunsten.nu. I think that it’ll be a way out of this dead end considering that Weekendavisen’s new editor only wanted reviews of the exhibitions on display at the museums and main exhibition places.
Carl: In general, what’s the relationship between the art scene and art criticism in Denmark?
Bonde: Denmark—where the absolute art center is Copenhagen—is a very little art scene and there’s only one full time critic left in Danish art criticism. That means that nearly all of the critics are wearing many hats: we work as art critics, curators, helping galleries and artists, we show people around in the galleries, we give lectures, etc. Consequently we are in touch with the artists on a personal level and the artists sometimes play the role of employers and are objects of our more or less “cruel” reviews as well. It’s a risky business for both parties: the art critics may sacrifice their critical punch because of this and the artists risk not getting any reviews due to the fact that many art critics refuse to write about them because they feel too close to the artists and therefore fear they will be biased. This is a difficult balancing act.
Carl: In the daily press in Denmark art takes up very little space compared to literature. I guess it has got to do with the fact that very few books are in fact “literature” if you use this term as you would the notion of “fine art.” But what other reasons could there be? Do Danes—perhaps for historical reasons—fundamentally prefer words above images?
Bonde: No, I don’t think that’s true. The editors haven’t found out that contemporary art (as well as art from the past) has a bigger audience than ever. But hopefully on some levels the online magazines will compensate for this big mistake. The crisis of the whole printed press in many Western societies depends, inter alia, on the fact that the editors still think that it is important to bring news, not paying attention to the fact that news is old stuff when the newspapers are published. Instead they should rearm with articles, interviews, and reviews of art in general and at the same time publish articles which analyze the background, context, and interconnection between phenomena happening in society.
Carl: Finally, can you tell me, do you have any regrets concerning some of the reviews that you have published? Were some of them too harsh or perhaps too permissive in retrospect?
Bonde: Yes, of course I have. Some of my worst nightmares are about not being able to grasp the many significant layers in a work of art Or that I simply haven’t understood it. But honestly I don’t regret having been too harsh on any artist. I always try to play with open cards making my values of criteria visible to the audience—and to the artists themselves.
Lisbeth Bonde has an M.A. in art and literature, she is based in Copenhagen, and is the chair of Danish AICA. She was the art editor of the Danish daily newspaper Information from 1994 - 2002 and was an art critic/cultural journalist at the Danish weekly broadsheet Weekendavisen from 2002 - 13. Today she writes for the online art magazine kunsten.nu and the design magazine Bo Bedre. She has written several books on art including Bad Nerves, about the Danish painter Lars Nørgård, and Manual to Danish Contemporary Art (2007) in collaboration with the art critic Mette Sandbye.Mikkel Carl
MIKKEL CARL lives and works in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has a B.A. in philosophy and an M.F.A. in visual art from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He works concurrently as an artist, writer, and curator.