Raphael Cuir Interview by Tania Mouraud

Tania Mouraud: How would you describe your practice and the issues that you raise as an art critic?

Raphael Cuir: Recently I was consulted for a children’s book, intended for 9 to 11-year-olds, about careers, which includes a section on the career of the “art critic” (Fil à fil CE2, Lectures et mise en réseau, Istra/Hachette, 2013). In that book, criticism is described as specialized journalism. That’s fair enough, and fine for a brief presentation for an audience of this age group, but it’s rather reductive. Especially in some contexts, the practice of art criticism often does resemble “specialized journalism,” but it’s also an expert skill—I think of something like expert interpreters, because art critics are interpreters of artworks. A critic is also an author, in the literary sense of the term, specifically an author who specializes in the interpretation of art.

Tania Mouraud, "Once upon a Time," 2012. Video Projection City Hall, Nuit Blanche, Toronto.

Today, we have perhaps lost sight of the central issues of art criticism. With the weight and importance of the art market, we are expected to believe that we no longer need criticism. In fact it’s entirely the opposite: there is a need for specialists to help us choose, in what sociologists call a “structural excess of supply.” Each and every day, we receive too much information and too little time to sift through it. The role of art critics is something like a filter: they choose works that they believe in and uphold, promoting them and explaining why they are interested in those works.

When we consider that the art critics of today are establishing the foundations and sources for the art history of tomorrow, the task becomes enormous. Just think of Diderot, or Baudelaire, or Louis Vauxcelles’s criticism on cubism and fauvism, and more recently Pierre Restany on the Nouveaux Realistes, and Germano Celant on Arte Povera.

Mouraud: What strategies do you use to counteract sexist and colonialist thought in what you call the “filtering” of art criticism?

Cuir: I consider it an obligation to counter sexist thought. I am even tempted to say that for me it’s a natural reflex, if “natural” makes sense in this context. I mean to say I take it for granted that we should consider that female artists are many. Regrettably, that’s not the case for everyone, and I remember being shocked, in college, that certain students around me didn’t believe this to be the case. They didn’t believe or understand that art history has been written by the “victors,” which is to say men. This same phenomenon was repeated before the opening of Elles@centrepompidou: there was massive denial that there was such thing as sexism in the fields of art and art history. The success of the exhibition then largely silenced its detractors.

This is why we have been able to speak about strategy. When we launched the first annual AICA France prize, it was on the occasion of Women’s Rights Day—March 8 (2013)—and certain feminists started an unfortunate controversy, either out of rejecting the notion of “women’s day,” or because the format we selected, six minute and 40 second profiles, was supposedly too abbreviated and thus insulting. However, the result was that we profiled seven woman art critics and one man who discussed the work of eight woman artists. Anne Tronche won the AICA prize for her remarkable presentation on the work of Laura Lamiel, which launched an exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-étienne, for which we also published a catalogue featuring texts by Tronche and an interview that she had done with the artist. Art press also published a text by Anne Tronche in the May 2013 issue. AICA France thus verifiably valorizes art and art criticism by women. We continue to develop each project with rigorous attention to parity. It is, I believe, an essential aspect of engaging with art criticism. People say that there is no commitment today, but that basically is false since we’ve addressed it in this way. Personally, I often write on artists who are women—Lee Bul, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Niki de Saint-Phalle, or on exhibitions that promote them, such as Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution (Art press 336), elles@centrepompidou (Art press 359). As you know, I had the opportunity to write biographies of women artists—Rebecca Horn, Frida Kahlo, Berthe Morisot, Nicola L, Kara Walker, and your own entry—for the Dictionnaire Universel des Créatrices (Editions des femmes Antoinette Fouque, 2013) and for me, to participate in such projects is a militant act.

Regarding the colonial and the postcolonial, the problem is far more complex and I will say at the outset that I do not have a comprehensive view on it. The subjects of inquiry that I choose—art and anatomy, cyborgs—keep me somewhat removed from this issue, but I always run into it sooner or later in my thinking on representations of the body. We attribute to France a great lateness for postcolonial studies, but we have perhaps approached the question of critiquing our colonial history differently, simply not giving it the title “Postcolonial Studies.” Michel Leiris provided an early example of interrogating his position as a citizen of a colonial state as compared to those he rubbed shoulders with the colonial powers in Africa, and with his praise of ethnography. Furthermore, Jean-Hubert Martin had also adopted a postcolonial approach—though not by name—with the exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre (The Magicians of the Earth), in 1989. In a country so characterized by the diversity of its population, we should be exemplary in this domain, and there is still a long way to go, but we are on our way. Young academics like Elvan Zabunyan are interested in these questions, as are independent intellectuals and curators such as Aliocha Imhoff and Kantuta Quiros among others. Also, spaces like Bétonsalon have notable programming characterized by its treatment of this problem. I wonder whether AICA France should organize a roundtable on these questions sometime soon.

Mouraud: You said that you are most interested in art and anatomy, and cyborgs. Do you think that criticism as a whole is sometimes used to parse and relay different disciplines that are of interest to artists and their potential publics, beyond the impact of fashion?

Cuir: As in most professions that lend themselves to it, art criticism never truly escapes the impact of fashion. This is true for artists, too. Some critics are followers, some try to see before the others, and some try to see distinctly above all. Many members of AICA France are at the same time critics and historians of art, and so they are also invested in long-term research. Such diverse personalities as Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Guillaume Désanges, Georges Didi-Huberman, Jean-Yves Jouannais, Florence de Mèredieu, Mathilde Roman, and many others are developing entirely singular approaches to the far-reaching effects of fashion, often at the intersection of the practices of writing, curating, and lectures/performances. This diversity tends to reflect the diversity of the artists they are working with.

One can also be overtaken by fashion. When I first became interested in cyborgs, for example, they were considered rather old-fashioned, despite the sporting feats of Aimee Mullins with her prosthetic legs at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. Since man’s first steps on the moon, following the economic crisis at the beginning of the ’70s, sending humans into space was no longer a priority for space research. With the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq, the need for more high performance prostheses to replace the lost limbs of soldiers has increased and revived the relevance of cyborgs and augmented bodies. It is true that on this subject I position myself more as a historian of culture, rather than as a critic of art, since my interest in cyborgs is ultimately that they traverse all creative fields: literature, the visual arts, film, cartoons, theater, fashion, and music.

Contributors

Raphael Cuir

RAPHAEL CUIR is President of AICA France and Vice-President of AICA international. He is the author of The development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism : da Carpi, Vesalius, Estienne, Bidloo (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009) and has edited and contributed to numerous books including Ouvrir-couvrir (Verdier, 2004) and Il corpo digitale : natura, informazione, merce (G. Giappichelli Editore, 2011). He is the editor of Pourquoi y a-t-il de l'art plutôt que rien ?/"Why is there art rather than nothing ?" an anthology of answers to the title question by famous artists, critics, art historians, curators and philosophers (Archibooks 2009, forthcoming new augmented edition, May 2014). He has been scientific coordinator for the Chair of Research in Creation and Creativity at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris, and a scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles where he taught at Otis College of Art and Design. In 1999 he created the first online art history TV channel. He is a regular contributor to Art Press magazine for which he recently edited a special issue on the theme of "Cyborg".

Tania Mouraud

Tania Mouraud was born in 1942 in Paris, France. Her initial foray into the arts was the auto-da-fe of her paintings (performance in Villejuif, France, 1969). She started to question the mechanism of perception by creating the Initiation Rooms, a series of white-lit sensory environments inviting musicians including Terry Riley and La Monte Young to play their music during the exhibition (Turin, 1971). With Memory of a Non-Existent Seeing (PS1, New York, 1977), Mouraud embraced the analytical tools of conceptualism: "The sentence forms in the mind as a result of grouping separate visual perceptions, and, as such, is never perceived but conceived. Once conceived it declares itself to be: memory of a non-existent seeing." In 1977-78, the City Performance No.1 was one manifestation of a universal form of protest. "NI" means both "neither" and "nor" in French. She had this word displayed in a very graphic black-and-white font on 54 billboards throughout the city of Paris. This was followed by black-and-white wall paintings and wood reliefs of the 1980s, which further engaged the responsibility of the artist, including the Black Power and Black Continent series, both exhibited at the Power Plant in Toronto in 1992. A wall painting now on permanent display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris states: “what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG, 1989-2007); another at the FRAC Lorraine in Metz asks, "How can you sleep?" (HCYS, 2005). Recently, photography, filming, and sound composition prevailed in Mouraud's work. Her recent digital series Borderland (2008) sign her return to photography, long after the early gelatin silver prints of the Made in Palace series (1981). Her most recent video and sound installations include La Fabrique (2006) created for Tri Postal in Lille, France; Ad Infinitum (2009) for the Chapel choir of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, France; Face to Face (2009) for the Musee Bourdelle in Paris; Once upon a Time, projected on the City Hall of Toronto for the Nuit Blanche 2012 From 1976 to 2005, Tania Mouraud was a tenured Professor of Intermedia at Ecole des Beaux-Arts (ERSEP) Tourcoing, France. In 2009, she was appointed to the rank of Chevalier in the Order of Merit by the French Minister of Culture and in 2013 to the rank of Chevalier Of the Legion d'Honneur.

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