The Swiss Art Scene and the Role of the Art Criticby Patrick Schaefer
To map the situation of the artistic production in Switzerland in relation to the art critic, you could limit the survey to publications in newspapers, dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies. It is more relevant, though, to adopt a wider point of view, looking at all the institutions, associations, and galleries that support contemporary art. It is impossible to make a complete inventory of these here. Nevertheless, one should keep in mind that there are several hundred such institutions dedicated to art in Switzerland. These places are often dynamic, and well organized: they produce exhibitions as well as catalogues that present artists with critical texts.
Decentralization and subdivision are two basic keywords for anybody who wants to understand cultural activities in Switzerland. There is no central vision or any national institution which is materialized in a building for fine art. There are national history museums located in Zurich and Prangins, but Switzerland has never wanted a national gallery for fine art. Initiatives in this field have always been local, very often private, or coming from the city and then supported by the local state and sometimes the central government. Over the years though, systems of support from the central government have been developed. They help with production, teaching and developing public collections, research and publications, through a very complex and subtle network. But to map and appreciate the Swiss artistic scene, one should always keep in mind that it cannot be understood globally, due to a very fragmented structure based on cities, and don’t forget that there are also four linguistic regions. One should consider that the population is limited; for example, there are less than two million French speakers living in seven very different states.
The Place of the Art Critic
and Art Criticism
It is a fact that the space dedicated to art information and commentary in the press has drastically diminished in the last 20 years. This decrease dovetails a process of consolidation in the media. Until the 1980s, anyone who felt inspired to write about fine art and was able to express themself correctly could easily find a newspaper to publish their articles. This is no longer the case today. One can wonder if the vivid activity on social networks, sometimes harshly criticized, is not fulfilling this function now. This observed evolution corresponds to a professionalization of the press. Most people would agree that the art critic is no longer in a position to do or undo an artist’s reputation, but on the other hand, he serves several purposes. He can be a curator, a mediator, a professor, an artist, or a writer. If we think of the large number of institutions mentioned above, the position of the art critic is probably not as bad as we might fear given the evolution of the press.
Let me mention a few examples of Swiss art reviews. The Kunstbulletin, with 10 yearly editions mainly in German (with a few French and Italian texts), has managed to get advertisements from most galleries and institutions in Switzerland. It offers a very complete art agenda and articles about contemporary artists and exhibitions in Switzerland and abroad. In the French part of Switzerland, I can mention Artpassions: Revue suisse d’art et de culture, which appears as a quarterly and is rather conservative and traditional, but shows clear literary ambitions. Etienne Barilier, one of the most famous Swiss-French novelists, was among the publication’s regular contributors from the beginning. This publication has in no way the same echo as the Swiss German Parkett, which is published twice a year in Zurich, in German and English. In fact, it is so famous, that most people probably don’t even consider it as a Swiss art review.
As far as books and exhibition catalogues are concerned, I will mention three examples that have had quick, dramatic development over the last 10 years. Published since 2000, Art&Fiction, has editions created by artists and writers in French, with more than 120 artists’ books that associate literature and visual arts. Since 1997, Pro Helvetia, a federal institution, has published about eight first monographs on young artists each year. JPR/Ringier has published, often in association with institutions, about 500 titles, exhibition catalogues and monographs, in 10 years. In addition, new initiatives have developed. The federal office for culture gives yearly prizes to artists, and for a few years now also to mediators of art and architecture. More recently a Swiss Exhibition Award was initiated and gives a prize of 40,000 francs to an institution that presents an original exhibition during the year. For the last two years the art fair artgenève has given a prize to young critics. The winners were published in Parkett in 2012 (#91 pp. 236 – 245) and will be published in the Kunstbulletin this year.
What Could the Future of Art Criticism Be?
There is no doubt that paper media is suffering terrible frontal attacks and is really challenged in its existence. I think that we could sum up the problem by contrasting the notions of the art agenda and literary writing. Newspaper editors have noted the success of TV magazines and thought it would be good to do the same with cultural information, creating nicely colored magazines with slight information, many photos, and a lot of full-page advertisements. Unfortunately for them, those paper magazines are really becoming irrelevant, unless they are given for free. Anyone who is familiar with the web can build up his own specific agenda, using social networks and websites. This evolution will still take time but the future of printed media seems doomed. We can also remark that radio still appears as a good alternative, providing regular daily information. In the French part of Switzerland, we have the state radio station Espace2 that gives a good summary of the art scene. On the other hand, there is no doubt that everyone concerned with visual art still expects well-informed, personal, and well-written texts about art. These articles should focus on an artist, an exhibition, or maybe develop some general question.
But for now, the question is, who will publish them and how will they get funded?
Patrick Schaefer has been a freelance art critic and art historian since 1998 and has edited the website art-en-jeu.ch since 2001. He studied art history at the University of Lausanne and has been active as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, as well as the Revue LOeil (1985 - 88). Schaefer was the assistant curator at the Fondation de lHermitage in Lausanne from 1988 - 1993 and the curator at the Museum of Fine Art in Lausanne from 1993 until 1998. His main focus is Swiss art from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.