Susana Gaudêncio interviews Lígia Afonso
Susana Gaudêncio: Who is currently writing art criticism in Portugal and how would you describe it?
Lígia Afonso: Art critics are now coming from areas such as journalism, music, philosophy of aesthetics—areas that could allow for a greater complexity of references and arguments concerning the art object. There are also some whose education and professionalization happened within the context of theory or art history. The main figures in Portuguese art criticism are not old, but have still occupied their positions for too long at this point. Their relevance tends to decrease proportionally to their degree of outmodedness and lack of engagement, regarding contemporary art production and its polemics. Presently, they favor the descriptive, neutral, or excessively syncretic argument. They reiterate the obvious, or what has already been said. With few exceptions, they were not capable of developing their own voice or a propositional and credible discourse because of their lack of involvement and the low quality of their literary and intellectual work, and therefore were incapable of attracting a demanding audience. The critics tend to lack curiosity and don’t provoke a crisis of critical thought. But this is also a cultural problem: in Portugal there is no infrastructure for an education in or the practice of critical thinking, we are not used to debating and tend to avoid conflict.
Gaudêncio: What spaces are there for art criticism in Portugal?
Afonso: There is not much space. The two art magazines that existed in the last decade, publications aimed at a specialized audience and whose sections comprised antiques auctions and contemporary art exhibitions, were discontinued. The decision was made by the bosses of the large media groups, and converged with the general “national” opinion of their lack of importance. In Portugal there are only two relevant newspapers publishing art criticism on a weekly basis. There’s also the online magazine Artecapital, but it lacks prominent writers and programmatic and editorial consistency. Still, there are some independent strongholds like Revista4 and the AICA project Jornal Falado da Crítica that survive within the context of “parallel economies” and may, eventually, find the support of a critical mass.
Gaudêncio: How do you produce art criticism?
Afonso: Like many freelance art critics and theoreticians, I try to assume a critical role in the conceptualization and development of curatorial projects, specifically by calling for an expansive discursive dimension that promotes critical thinking as dialogue in public programs, like I did in Curators’ Lab. I’m particularly interested in following and writing about the process of art work, and try to then publish my findings or present them at conferences. This feedback is essential to the artists, and its absence indicates a flaw in critical communicativeness.
Gaudêncio: Which is the most democratic, the role of the critic or the role of the curator?
Afonso: We expect the critic to be an independent intellectual and a mediator between art work and the audience. A critic should pay attention to their discursive construction and to the literary quality of their work, in order to produce substantiated judgments as sophisticated as the objects they analyze while, simultaneously, making them accessible at the average literacy level of his intended audience, which is usually broader than the specific audience that attends art shows. The critic has to bring the contemporary art debate into the public sphere; his goal should be to naturalize it therein.
Gaudêncio: What should the relationship be between objectivity and public discourse in the context of art criticism?
Afonso: Art criticism focuses on artistic phenomena, subjective by nature, which are the result of deep individual reflections that reveal one’s position in the world. The artist and the critic, like everyone else, are part of a specific context with its own cultural and historical references. It is neither possible nor desirable to dismiss these references in order to produce an objective, clear perspective of any given work. Criticism is always a partial, individual construct; one of multiple views of an object. Notwithstanding its duty to be rigorous, criticism should be self-critical and clear about the limits of its own authority.
Gaudêncio: What is the relation between the disappearance of the critic and contemporary economic and social circumstances?
Afonso: The demise of the critic’s voice is not only linked to the quality of the discourse now being produced. On the one hand, the role of newspapers and magazines is inversely proportional to the increasing importance of blogs and the Internet; the democratization of public opinion space has produced a global and banal space because of its super-abundance and immediateness. Nevertheless, we must also remember that the first objective of our current government was to extinguish the Ministry of Culture. This creates an effect of ideological mirroring, wherein the liberalization of the production of meaning and the delegitimization of the place of art in our society accelerate simultaneously.
Gaudêncio: What are the reasons for the replacement of the critic by this hybrid figure of the critic/curator?
Afonso: Curators are essential to the continuity of the system. They are custodial figures that mediate between institutions and artists, allowing museums to adopt an increasingly administrative role concerned less with the production of meaning. For a critic, taking on freelance curatorial projects is a more viable professional strategy than just writing, especially because private institutions with some degree of economic power currently offer more prestige than newspapers do, and allow for the development of a career.
Gaudêncio: Do you think that the critic’s diminishing importance is in any way related to the proliferation of degrees in curating?
Afonso: Those courses, while offering practical and critical tools essential for present and future curators, have glamorized the figure of the curator and made the quality of their interventions more banal. However, most amateur art critics writing now can be traced back to those courses, which have no real connection to the art circuit.
Gaudêncio: What is your opinion on the shift of artistic production to the area of critical theory and to analytical formats, individual or collaborative, that stem from discursive practices?
Afonso: This discursive shift conforms to an international art language, but developed very quickly in Portugal due to the lack of sustainability of the art market. It’s true that we are witnessing an increase in academic investigations by artists, both in thesis and project format. Some of these artists already depended on academia for their survival as teachers; others were financed by government scholarships which have been discontinued. From a theoretical standpoint, there is no longer a single position of authority; we conversely witness a convergence of the disparate qualities of critics, curators, and artists in one individual. This hybridization somehow minimizes the absence of art criticism.
Gaudêncio: How do you see this overlapping of roles in the practice of art consulting for collectors?
Afonso: Power is not a mode of thinking in itself, nor does it force you to act in a predetermined way. Everything depends on your individual ethical code and how you position yourself in different contexts. I do not think there is an inherent promiscuity in the overlapping of these roles, except in the case of management positions in public institutions. Given the precariousness of our situation, it is a condition for survival. Nevertheless, it implies that one must be more vigilant and demanding in what concerns one’s practice.
LÍGIA AFONSO lives and works in Lisbon and sporadically in São Paulo as a researcher, critic, curator, and editor, developing individual and collaborative projects.Susana Gaudêncio
SUSANA GAUDÊNCIO is an artist who lives and works in Lisbon and Oporto. She is currently completing her PhD in fine arts at the University of Lisbon and is an MFA professor at the Art and Design School, (ESAD), Portugal.