The Current State of Art Criticism in Poland
The famous Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki once said that there is only one section of the newspapers that is more boring than obituaries—the art reviews. This is not to say that he was not interested in art. His sarcastic comment reflects an opinion shared by the majority: that there is a self-contained art system that exists outside of reality, an “art bubble” with exhibitions addressed to art people and art criticism that is dedicated to the museum and gallery people.
Currently it would be impossible to hear an opinion of this kind, but not because art reviews have turned into exhilarating entertainment. Just the opposite. They simply disappeared from the mainstream media. One can even say that in the face of today’s economical crisis, there is only one newspaper section more repulsive and gloomy than obituaries—that of Business & Finance.
What has happened to art criticism? It is a peculiar and interesting process. In Poland, there have never been as many people involved in contemporary art as there are today. The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, which opened few years ago in a temporary building, is one of the most visited art museums in the country. There are plenty of small institutions promoting contemporary art, such as galleries and foundations. This creates an interesting paradox: art life in Poland is proliferating while art criticism pulls back. That is why it is better not to talk about the state of art criticism but rather about the process. We experience a paradigm shift that conservative critics deplore as a crisis. What is this change about? It is about contingency and instability. We see curators assuming the agency of the critics and writers assuming the role of the curators. We see artists becoming critics and curators. The artist Artur Żmijewski is emblematic of this change. In 2007, Żmijewski, himself a very interesting video artist, wrote the most discussed text of the decade—a manifesto of politically engaged art entitled “Applied Social Arts” which was published in the left-wing magazine Krytyka Polityczna. In 2012 he co-curated the 7th Berlin Biennial of Contemporary Art and in 2013 he was awarded the Jerzy Stajuda Prize for art criticism. Needless to say, institutions are also in the process of a similar transformation; museums are assuming the role of universities, cinemas, or theaters; theaters are hosting art exhibitions. To be an art critic means to be active in various fields—to curate, to teach, to write. I am also part of this process. The profession of an art critic has been in decline. Still, one can find some form of traditional art writing. Online, I like to read Dwutygodnik, published biweekly by one of the government agencies dedicated to culture. It features articles, editorials, interviews, and exhibition reviews by two excellent writers—Karol Sienkiewicz and Stach Szabłowski—among others. It is an interesting phenomenon, due to the economic crisis: art criticism almost disappeared from privately-owned media, but it is still supported by state- or city-funded magazines. One of my favorites is Notes na 6 tygodni (6 Week Notebook) published by the Foundation Bęc Zmiana in Warsaw and distributed for free. Also, one has to mention Magazyn sztuki (Art Magazine) published by the Academy of Fine Arts in Szczecin, Artpunkt by the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Opole and MoCaK Forum created by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow. All of them have a small circulation and are addressed to professionals. All of them are lacking pronounced opinions. They supply art writing, but avoid art criticism.
A couple of years ago, Ben Davis, associate editor of Artnet magazine called this process an “eclipse” of art criticism by the rise of art news in the era of social media. There has been a parallel discussion in Poland about art criticism being replaced by mere reporting, gossiping, blogs, and Facebook posts. A year ago as a result of these discussions, steered by critic Jakub Banasiak, we saw a new art magazine emerge in Warsaw called Szum (Buzz). It was founded by Banasiak with the art critic Adam Mazur and it is aimed at creating a platform for professional discussions on contemporary art. Published every three months with state subsidies, it has quickly become Poland’s most vivid and popular art magazine. What sets it apart is the amount of space dedicated to discussing the very language of art criticism: how far we can go criticizing the artist, what criteria should we apply, can we offend or just ridicule? Szum has made an effort to reconstruct the notion of an art critic. However the “real critic” has not arrived yet. And he or she will probably never arrive, since the authority of the traditional critic was destabilized long ago. It is like Waiting for Godot. Do I, constantly disappointed by the “state of art criticism” in Poland, contribute to this waiting too?
As Griselda Pollock once noted, the history of art has to be replaced by histories of art. The same is true of art criticism. We need a new model. Every effort, like the new magazines, discussions, and articles mentioned above, seem to brings us closer to it.
DOROTA JARECKA is an art critic and art historian based in Warsaw. From 1996 to 2012 she was a full-time journalist at the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Since 2012 she has been a freelance writer. She organized the Critics and Critics program and the art writing workshop, both at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2011-12. The following year she ran the series Marxism and Art, also at the Museum of Modern Art, in cooperation with Warsaw University. She was co-curator of the show Erna Rosenstein. I Can Repeat Only Unconsiously at the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw in 2011, which will be followed by the book of the same title to be published this year. She is co-editor, with Wanda Siedlecka, of the publication Krystiana Robb-Narbutt. Drawings, Objects, Studio (Warsaw 2012) and the author of the book Let it be. Dorota Jarecka talks to Anda Rottenberg (Warsaw 2013). She is a member of Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej (Citizens Forum for Contemporary Art) and the International Association of Art Critics. In 2012 she received the Jerzy Stajuda Prize for Art Criticism.