When We Idolize Art
Art criticism in Slovakia is arguably reminiscent of a laboratory in which individual experiments, independent of each other, are pretty much predictable based on an awareness of the evolution and patterns of critical thinking and how it is put into practice in Western countries. Yet art criticism here reflects a singular evolution, which occurred in our country during the 1950s. Even though, back in the old days, literature had a dominant position compared to visual arts—the same goes for writing about it—nowadays the vividness and sheer number of venues for art criticism prevail throughout the entire culture. For a relatively small state, three specialized journals (Flash Art CS, Jazdec, Profil) and a number of columns in other cultural journals are a clear sign of a thriving discourse, which is even able to balance out the usual indifference of mass media toward this topic (with the only exception being the tabloid press). The generous state support for the 46th AICA International Congress in 2013, held in the cities of Koice and Bratislava, serves as further proof of the importance of art criticism in Slovakia.
Essentially, there are three generations of art historians apart from the doyens of the entire field who have made this upswing of art criticism possible. It is important to bear in mind that in Slovakia, historians, critics, curators, and theoreticians fulfill similar roles, though they are distinguished by their backgrounds, resources, and motivations.
First, a generation of 50 and 60 year olds has devoted their time to classifying their theories, which emerged after the Soviet regime collapsed in 1989. At the same time these critics are trying to formulate an objective viewpoint concerning the history of art prior to the fall. Fundamentally, it is an attempt at purification. The reason for their approach is that they have experienced the shift of authority from the modernist critic to the curator, while the tools of the given authority have seemingly remained unchanged. Over the last two decades, these persistent attempts categorize the current state of criticism as Euro-American in its lineage and standards. This might be considered a utopia, but it is very appropriate for our time period, as this tendency had experienced a certain type of neo-avant-garde epilogue in the 1990s. It was and still remains a necessary way to cope with the disinterest of art historians toward art during the time of State Socialism, because this is a very important starting point when talking about free and restricted cultures of making art. This is especially true for younger professionals. This older generation of art critics has played a crucial role in defending the principles of professional freedom in public cultural institutions, especially those collecting actual works of art. The most important of them have even lost their jobs. Some more than once.
Second, the current generation of 30- and 40-year olds, to which this author belongs, can be defined by an attempt to revise the canonized theories of art. This group is strong in number and made itself known around the year 2000. These critics assisted in bringing forth an equally strong generation of artists, whose work was able to create a level playing field for both the popular and underground means of expression, painting in particular. Because we disclaim the dogma of originality, some of us believe this is the transition to a postmodern way of thinking about art, going so far as to put the perception of art into its “year one.” This reassessment of theory is being carried out very closely between the curators and the critics. Until now there have seldom been any attempts at scientific analysis or generalization. As we can see, the process is still underway. Nonetheless we can already be at ease, for many gaps in our history have been identified and simply defined by means of confined conceptions given by curators. So far, these conceptions have been characteristic of this generation.
Third, the youngest generation of critics have some very hard times ahead of them as they become professionals in the field, since the environment is extremely competitive and their elder colleagues have already taken up most of the institutional positions. As their present contributions go, we can primarily see a different assessment of the current situation. They, for once, are not burdened by animosity or struggles from the past, and they take the status quo as a given. Their activities reflect the fact that after 2004, the rapidly evolving market is slowly but surely starting to understand, use, and even abuse (!) the status of criticism. Evaluating value will probably be the biggest challenge the current generation has to face. But we can be certain that they will also be able to create a valid scale which will meet all of their necessary criteria.
The current state of art criticism brings forth a new set of interesting confrontations. What was the domain of a very narrow community of artists and professionals, for which the “immature” market showed absolutely no interest for a long period of time, is now becoming a hugely valued commodity. The strategic use of art historians by galleries has automatically made them viable for the commercially sought-after positions of committed critics. This phenomenon can be viewed as a conflict of interest, due to an absence of impartiality. Because of this, some private gallery owners had stopped writing critical reviews, which was very common until that point. The given paradox had also influenced the focus of criticism. Criticism now addresses the conceptions of curators, while the works of different writers, viewed as gallery and auction commodities, remain critically untouched. This form of idolization has shifted the value of works of art.
Instead of art standing face to face with competition and seeing how well it can hold up to the test of time, an immediate commercial relevancy is now far more important, which leads to favoring the fashionable compared to the authentic and timeless. The manner in which these two different paths fuse and will keep on fusing in many ways reflects the pros and cons of the burden left by experiencing State Socialism. For in those days commercial meant worthless, and if something happened to have commercial value, it wouldn’t be presented or gain any success. Such chaos in priorities, to first acquire success on the market and then take your worthy place among the ranks of historically acclaimed artists, has driven many talented young artists to the edge of their very own limits. Now they would be very happy for any kind of negative, or rather honest, critical debate, because that would help them move forward. Sadly, there are no critics in sight willing to take this upon themselves.
The disadvantage of the fast-paced development of our society, which has taken place over the last 25 years, is the previously mentioned laboratory approach. Criticism during this time had only been getting used to the multitude of different strategies which had begun developing throughout the world as soon as World War II came to an end. It is simply impossible to avoid some basic starting processes which lead to the formation of a pluralistic and marketing-based type of art. Maybe that is why we had to wait a relatively long time to see the first significant achievements of Slovak visual artists. Today it is fairly obvious that artists such as Július Koller (1939 – 2007), Mária Bartuszová, (1993 – 96) or the younger ones like Roman Ondák (born 1966) and Lucia Nimcová (born 1977) will play exactly the same role in our country as the composers Bedřich Smetana and Leo Janáček, whose work has greatly contributed to the international awareness of Czech culture in the last century. Our artists have access to the greatest institutions around the world. In a certain sense it is good that we have just now started to form our own identity concerning art throughout the course of history on an international scale. A seeming delay might be an advantage, because today we have the necessary means for a critical approach and we will be able to grasp opportunities, thus leading to a well-suited dialogue. And if the dialogue is well-suited, we can avoid the usual mistakes and lack of contextual background. Furthermore, from this point onward criticism will have the chance to once again be considered relevant among the cognoscenti.
RICHARD GREGOR (born 1974) is a historian, curator, and art critic who studied at Trnava University and at Charles University in Prague. He has worked as chief curator at Nitra Gallery and Bratislava City Gallery, lectured in the Department of Art Theory and History at the Academy of Art in Banská Bystrica, and served as an independent expert on questions concerning galleries at the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic. Gregor has curated more than 30 exhibitions at home and abroad and has written numerous reviews and essays. Founder of the journal Jazdec - a noticeboard for current activity in the arts, he is also the creator of the web-archive www.artdispecing.sk. A former president of the Council of Slovak Galleries, as the vice president of the Slovak Section of AICA. Gregor was co-organizer of the 46th AICA International Congress in Slovakia in 2013. He regularly participates in conferences and seminars, has lectured in Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and the U.S.A., and has had stipendiary stays in the U.S.A., Great Britain, Denmark, and Israel. In 2008, on his initiative, the Cyprián Majerník Gallery in Bratislava (originally founded in 1957) was re-established. Gregor's book Haberernová´s Eye: Post-Informal Figuration in Slovak Visual Art of 1960s was published in 2013. Since 2014, he has been the chief curator at Dom umenia / Kunsthalle Bratislava.