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Positions of Art Criticism: art as commodity and/or political propaganda


Rotterdam Dialogues The Critics

I'd like to respond to Thomas Berghuis' latest entry 'Time will Tell', in which he asks 'Do we need art critics to establish a dialogue about contemporary art? -- The recent forum at de Witte de With in Rotterdam may provide some answers (see: http://www.wdw.nl/project.php?id=183). I am hoping to hear/read more.'

Rich Streitmatter-Tran and I both took part at this symposium. Rich took part at discussionpanel in day 3: 'What can D-I-Y Criticism offer?' I was the host for the day 2: Positions, outlining the theme of the programm and responding to the various contributions during the day. As a first response to Berghuis' request, I'd like to post my introduction talk which relates a lot to some questions Thomas Berghuis posed, hoping it will provoke others to join in!

The programm of day 2: POSITIONS

What happens today?


Ingrid Commandeur, editor-at-large,

Metropolis M 1:45 p.m.

Lecture: Super art for the Super Critic?

Achille Bonito Oliva, art historian, critic, curator, Prof. La Sapienza University, Rome

3:00 p.m.

What kind of value is judged by the judgement of value?


Diedrich Diederichsen, critic, Prof. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna; Isabelle Graw, critic, founding editor, Texte zur Kunst, Prof. Städelschule, Frankfurt

4:15 p.m.

Does the market control criticism?

Panel discussion

Eric Troncy, curator, founding editor, Frog; Eva Karcher, freelance journalist, Vogue,

Monopol; Michal Wolinski, founding editor-in-chief, Piktogram; Pelin Tan, sociologist,

art historian, Istanbul Technical University, co-editor Muhtelif [moderator]

How do Critics work?


Jennifer Allen, critic, Artforum International, frieze; Dominic Eichler, curator, artist, writer, frieze

7:00 p.m.

Introduction to the theme, Ingrid Commandeur

Today’s focus will be ‘Positions’, which evolves around the main question: how did the cultural position of art criticism change during the last decennium? This sounds like an impossible question but it can be easily narrowed down by just naming a few important developments that most of you have allready heard or read about: 1. the rise of the so-called critic-curator or starcurator; 2. the transportation of knowledge-production from the written media to the art-institutions; 3. the competition for audiences in an ever more crowded media landscape; and 4. importantly the incorperation of contemporary art within a world wide booming artmarket.

Within the context of the current kreditcrisis this last aspect looks more urgent then ever.. It’s usefull in this respect to note that art is not an ‘innocent bystander’. On the contrary: the ever growing global artmarket is a side-product of the very economical, profitdriven system of speculating with symbolic capital, that has led to the current down-fall of the financial world.

In his recently published book: 'The 12 million dollar Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art', the economist Don Thompson states that ‘the art trade is the least transparant and least regulated major, commercial activity in the world.’ Given the fact that at on of the peaks of the kreditcrisis, Damien Hirst sold his ‘Golden Calf’ for 10.3 million pounds at Sotheby’s, the end of this development is in not insight yet.

Surely you didn’t come here today for a lecture about art & economy, but to learn more about the current status of art criticism. The reason that I bring the entanglement of art with the artmarket up at the beginning of today’s program, is because it has become clear that exactly these kind of developments influence art criticism as an industry and profession more then ever. But allthough this is widely acknowlegded I think we all still tend to place it outside the ‘vulgar’ economical realm. Afterall isn’t art only about reflecting societal issues, offering new insights and perspectives of reality, seeking truth...... certainly not merely about seeking profit?

In his widely praised book ‘Art Power’ Boris Groys irononically states that ‘art criticism is not necessarily written to be read; it merely adds a “textual bikini” to art-market commodities.’ If you find this a gloomy perspective, his statement that art functions either as commodity or as political propaganda, might strike you with even more bewilderment. But a simple example of daily artpractice and criticism might prove otherwise.

At the most recent Shanghai Biennial 'TransLocalMotion' one could spot the work ‘Express train’ by Jing Shijian. An entire trainway carriage was placed in front of the Shanghai Art Museum as part of an installation. The work supposed to symbolize the journey of millions of urban Chinese Youth to the countryside, ordered by Mao Zedong at the height of the cultural revolution in the 1960’s. But this friction or tension attached to the train car as an historical artefact was completely numbed down by the strict censorship at the Shanghai Biennial. Explanatory texts of the work of Chinese artists, also the one with Jing Shijians work, avoided every hint at a political distressing meaning, it basically avoided anything but stressing the Chinese politically correct vision of migration as a means of intellectual and economic growth in contemporary China.

How then can I judge Jing Shijians work, without partly seeing it as a form of political propaganda because of the context in which it was presented? And how can I judge the meaning and value of an artwork at the Art Basel, without taking into account it’s status as commodity when contemplating its meaning? It would be far too easy to call an artwork just a mere commodity or just just political propaganda, so in that respect I don’t entirely agree with Boris Groys, but in a critical review about artworks these are aspects that one has to take into account.

I think that they are still very much overlooked in art criticism. The reason for this might be we still can’t get a real grip on the complex relationship between art and the artmarket. How can we get our finger to this? What is really at stake?

Exactly these kind of questions will be discussed by Diedrich Diedrichsen and Isabelle Graw this afternoon in their dialogue. Both Diedrichsen and Graw have recently published books in which the value of art is examined, but which reveal different conceptions about art as commodity. For Isabelle Graw the classical art/market dualism is an idee fixe. The symbolic value and market value of an artwork are two sides of the same coin: they influence each other and are intrinsically bound to each other. In her book ‘Der Grobe Preis. Kunst zwischen Markt und Celebrity Culture’, which is to be released very soon, she tries to analyse the complex relationships beween art and market. But were Graw sees possabilities for the artist to surpass and overcome the domination of the art market and celebrity culture, Diechrichsen is much more sceptical about that. I’m looking forward what kind of debate will arise out of this!

There is one aspect that I didn’t touch upon yet: art criticism in relation to it’s former historical positions. I think if we really want to try to understand our complex, globalized and financialized contemporary artsystem, we cannot do so without looking back at the recent history. The first thing that comes to mind in this respect is the much repeated claim that the art critic has lost its position of acclaimed cultural critic to that of the starcurator. ‘Nobody fears art critics anymore which is a real danger for the profession’, was stated by former Art Basel director Samuel Keller. In the April issue of Frieze art critic Jenmifer Allen wrote a justly commentory to this: ‘what all these panels demonstrate is that we are mourning – or celbarting – the death of the critic who did little else but criticize. At the same time they fail to adress the birth of a powerful crossover in the form of the curator-critic.’

Jennifer Allen talks about the birth of the curator-critic, but it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. In fact today we have one of the most famous so-called critic-curators, who allready started his carrier in Italy the seventies, in our midst: Achille Bonito Oliva. In 1980 he wrote the world famous book La Transavanguardia Italiana, in which he contextualized the work of the painters Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi and Mimmo Paladino. As promotor of Transavanguardia he organized numerous famous thematic exhibitions, both in Italy and abroad such as Aperto 80, Avantgardia Transavantgardia and Minimalia. Next to that he wrote books like Super Art (1988) and Art Tribe (2001). He also directed the 45th Venice Biennale and was awarded the Valentino D’Oro, an international prize for art critic. Currentely he holds a position as professor of History of Contemporary art, in the faculty of Architecture at the University La Sapienza in Rome.

He will start of today with his lecture entitled ‘Super Art for the super critic’, in which he will adress the demise of the so-called ‘supercritic’ and the shifts in art that accompanied it. Who else but Achille Bonito Oliva, some-one who was taking part of in the very shaping of the historical figure of the critic-curator, can we entrust this task?


Reviewing the Critics

Great to read more about the recent discussions on the 'Critics'. I must admit that I find it difficult to see any art criticism these days. Most of what is published in art magazines and art journals seems to be based on reviewing, rather than criticism. I think that it is necessary to redefine the difference between an art/exhibition reviewer and an art critic. Most of what I see appear today in art magazines reads more like a review. It shows a close cohort of artists, curators, and writers working closely together to circulate a few 'new' practices. Much of this operates on popular demand, which is mainly driven by the market (ie. after China it must be India)

Knowledge has certainly become less important than access. It takes a lot of time to examine Chinese art - including reading Chinese text on Chinese art, understanding its history, the art world, the art system... On the other hand, it has become easy to get access to the popular sites of Chinese art - the biennale, the gallery, the market... Outside China, Chinese art is too often known only in popular terms - the avant-garde, unofficial vs. official, censorship, politics, money. At best, most people outside China know Chinese [see: art only as 'cynical realism', 'political pop', 'gaudy art' - leading to the popular demand for a few 'stars'.

It is interesting to see some attention was raised to Jing Shijian, although I must say that I am a bit worried by the approach that is sought here. What exactly is meant by 'judge'. Much of this (including the interpretation of 'political propaganda') seems to be based on the 'Eye of the beholder'. Here, I have become somewhat critical of the way the popular discourse of Chinese art in the West (Europe and North America) has become so closely linked to the popular development of the Chinese avant-garde, which relies too heavily on the distinction between 'unofficial' and 'official' art. This notion has been challenged by many writers in the past, and should make it clear that the distinction cannot be made in such simple terms.

A critical analysis of the work requires understanding the complexities that lie behind it, including an understanding of the art system in China. I wonder if the description in the context of the exhibition maybe kept simplistic for the general audiences, in a way that doesn't seem too different from standard gallery practices -- making it suitable for general audiences. Surely, almost anyone can read through this first layer, don't you think? The 'context' you describe comes across as somewhat subjective. The artist may see it as a way of raising serious discussions on 'migration', whereas you see it as 'propaganda' on the basis of the context in which you see the work is being exhibited.

Indeed, to me the more pertinent questions are those that look at the shifts in the relationships between artists and curators, curators and institutions, institutions and collections, art works and art market. The role of the critic seems hard to find in all this, and the art historian is nowhere to be seen. In 2005 Mark Spiegler asks this in essay for the Art Newspaper, 'Do Critics Matter? - noticing that "on the day in 1969 when Harald Szeemanm went freelance by leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, the wind turns against criticism." David Levi Strauss in his essay on 'The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps' (read in Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating, NY: apexart, 2007) uses this to point at the shift from 'criticism to cultural rhetoric.' Isabelle Graw points at 'a general shift concerning the relationship between art and the market, and this shift is reflected in the market's increased power of definition over what is regarded as a meaningful work of art' (Artforum, Roundtable on Art and Its Markets, April 2008).

Indeed, as you ask 'Whom do we entrust?' The critic, the curator, the artist - they are listed as 'three of the central protagonists', but are separated by title, time, and context of three different sessions. The 'art historian' is not even considered. I see the value of proposing the 'curator-critic', particularly in looking at Achille Bonito Oliva. However, what will be next, the 'artist-curator', or the 'artist-critic'? What about the critical-artist, the critical-curator, critical-critic, or the critical-writer? What ever happened to being critical, rather than taking the title of a critic?

Hence, judging from the above discussions art criticism has been replaced curatorial rhetoric, and the evaluation of a meaningful work of art (formerly part of art history) is determined by the market. ' Based on what I see gets published in the majority of art magazines we can find a lot of reviews, mixed with curatorial rhetoric and some discussions on the market (Artforum is a good example and Art Asia Pacific is maybe the worst). Although, I do trust some magazines are genuinely concerned about art criticism, I feel that many more are after satisfying their sponsors.

Let's be clear about this: 'Chinese art is run by the market'. Anything that would offer more critical or insightful analyzes are not suitable for wide-spread dissemination, until the market starts demanding access to such information. The demand for more insight, knowledge, and experience already comes from some of the major art institutions and private collectors that now hold major collections of Chinese contemporary art. Melissa Chiu (Asian Society Museum) recently published a book on 'Chinese Contemporary Art, - '7 Things you need to Know' (NY: AW Asia, 2008). I can only see this as an attempt to consolidate the market and (at best) the popular 'image' of Chinese contemporary art, at a time that its popularity maybe challenged by the demand for more critique and insight.

In my recent review of '7 Things' (reviewed together with Melissa Chiu, 'Breakout', Charta, 2007) for the Australian newspaper I am I become somewhat critical, as the current field of Chinese contemporary art clearly demands a critical discourse (see: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,24496205-5003900,00.htmI). However, I can see how many maybe worried about criticism, especially as it doesn't aim at consolidating the market, nor does it conform to becoming popular, or becomes concerned with merely reviewing/referencing/circulating each others work. The field of contemporary art requires a critical discourse, especially in Asia.

I am curious what came out of the session titled 'Does the market control criticism?' (and also a bit surprised that 'Vanity Fair' was not part of this session). Also, I would have like to see a discussion emerge on the possible role n.e.w.s. can play in the world of contemporary art? Was there any discussion of n.e.w.s. in Rotterdam?


Critic and Critical

Thanks Thomas. I feel I'm a bit over my head here. To begin at the end, n.e.w.s wasn't publicly discussed at the Rotterdam Dialogues, though I did mention it during our panel on DIY Criticism. I felt, perhaps even more so than the other panels, our time was limited and we were expected to finish on time. Our scheduled panel time had been changed to occur directly before a performance. Most of the discussion concerning n.e.w.s happened privately between Renee, Ingrid and I. There was no space to discuss n.e.w.s within the structure of the programming and it would have been unnatural to do so. Through email, Renee and I earlier agreed that we didn't want an introduction of n.e.w.s to seem like a promo plug and from my recollection, I now wonder if my mention of n.e.w.s within the flow of what I had to say seemed like one.

I am an artist, I've never claimed to be an art critic. I am critical about my work and the issues the inform it. But I don't think the hyphenated artist-critic accurately describes me, though as you point out, a critical artist might. It's a good distinction. I think at least one of the organizers on more than one occasion commented that many of the participants did not consider themselves proper critics. On one hand, it could be said that the assemblage of personalities may have given the term some flexibility and on the other it may have further solidified identification (and criteria) of absolutely being one or not.

I agree with you that being critical might suffice. But how each of us expresses that criticality and in what language/discourse concerns me. I am also not an academic. The hierarchy of critics was tangible at the symposium and I felt that the DIY critic was on the lower rung of that ladder. I don't want to feel that way here. Hopefully there's a way that we can expand n.e.w.s in directions that continue to be open to critical people of all sorts.


reply:awareness of institutional/political context of biennials

Dear Thomas Berghuis,

A somewhat late response, to your last comment but nevertheless, I feel compelled to react.

You wrote the following:
> 'A critical analysis of the work requires understanding the complexities that lie behind it, including an understanding of the art system in China. I wonder if the description in the context of the exhibition maybe kept simplistic for the general audiences, in a way that doesn't seem too different from standard gallery practices -- making it suitable for general audiences. Surely, almost anyone can read through this first layer, don't you think? The 'context' you describe comes across as somewhat subjective. The artist may see it as a way of raising serious discussions on 'migration', whereas you see it as 'propaganda' on the basis of the context in which you see the work is being exhibited.'

This answer sounds very familiar to me but because since i have been interested in Chinese contemporary art (since 2003 i visited China, particularly cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, but also Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo to see in comparison how the contemporary art scenes were developing there) i have stressed exactly the same things. So needles to say or to conclude that contemporary Chinese art is still met with a lot of ignorance. We can easily agree on that. Bit i certainly don;t want you to put me in the position of the ignorant art critic who travels from biennial to biennial and comes up with easy conclusions not knowing about the context in which the artworks are presented. From all my exteensive travel and research experience with Chinese contemporary art I am very well able to judge and see through the context and conditions in which the artworks are presented. The example of the Shanghai Biennial came up in my talk, not to bash Chinese contemporary art, but because it was just one of my most recent viewing-experiences. It could also have been an example of say the Art Basel or art in public space in the Netherlands which is often also highly policitized. You almost want to handl the presentation of the Chinese artists on the Shanghai Biennial as such a delicate matter that no art critic, not even one who has invested profound time and study in it can judge the inherent political context in which artworks are placed!! Both the selection of artist ( no experimental young artist presented not even the talented and internationally well know Shanghainese Yang Fudong, how could he not be invited?!! His new film was on view at his gallery in Shanghai during the biennial and struck me ten times more the the whole timid selection of Chinese artists of the whole biennial together)
I did not just visit the biennial by the way, i talked to lot of artists (who all talked about the problems with the censorship-committee. To Dutch artists got their visa drawn back) I spoke to the curators, I attended an international symposium in Shanghai about biennials as world-wide phenomenon and another symposium on research and art in public at the Shanghai Art Museum, from which the inherent political stance of the Chinese curator towards migration became all the more clear. And how can it be otherwise in one of the most state-run museums in the political centre of China during the Olympic Games? Being realistic about the context, is being able to realize just that! How is it possible to make a truly international, critical exhibition in such a context? It's almost impossible i think. That the Guangzhou Triennial proved otherwise, has everything to do with the fact that it is situated in the historically political more free South of China... But also to the fact that it took the inherent political context of a lot of biennials as its main theme.

To me as a art critic to recent scolars/critics/art historians that were the most inspiring to me are: Isabelle Graw, whose new book about the relation between the art and market is to be published soon.(‘Der Grobe Preis. Kunst zwischen Markt und Celebrity Culture’) and the debate issued by the curators of the Guangzhou Triennial: Sarat Maharaj, Gao Shiming and Chang Tsong-zung. Together they open the debate to the two most pressing issues of today: the increasing hegemony of the art market within the art world which is a result of the neo-liberal society and economies. And as result to that the political and financial stakes for contemporary art that go along with this, in other words its widespread financial and political usefullness, which is unprecented in the history of contemporary art (prestige, city promotion, hedge funds investments, political tool et cetera)!!!

Gao Shiming wrote an excellent essay in the catalogue about the theme of the exhibition 'Farewell to Post-Colonialsm', Chang Tsong-zung wrote a beautiful essay in which he connects the theme to the historical context of modernity and development of contemporary art in China. (I have Shimings essay, so i will try to bring it in as it also provides much interesting information and debating subjects to our Asian Biennial-debate.)

A quote form curator Gao Shiming in the exhibition catalogue:

'Post-colonialism had earned a place in the enclosed and dominant
worldview hisory of nation-states. It has been integrated with various
social movements in the past 40 years ans cleared new critical and
narrative ground. Its merits are ob vious in literature, the arts and
politics. However, there merits have quickly degenerated to routines
within within the last 20 years. For instance, we often see and hear
symbolic forms of cultural critique in various international exhibitions
and seminars labeled with key terms like: 'identity', 'migration',
'diversity', et cetera. Today (...) these concepts and ideas that once
possessed revolutionary critical force have become another form of
dominant power discourse, this time in the name of political correctnes.'

Which means that the "farewell to post-colonialism" actually means a
farewell to the inherent politicised international art exhibitions, that
are somehow the heritage of the post-colonialism-debate. The triennal
advocates a strong return to the individuality and creativity of the

This also fits in much larger discourse, namely that of a general feeling
of being tired of the theme-exhibitions and theorectical frameworks and
feeling an urge to go back to the individual creativity, the monograph and
the single ouevre exhibitions... this might the wider issue to be debated
in the context of the Guangzhou Triennial.

Anyway Gao Shiming also states in his article: 'After post-colonialism,
the main task for the artist is to espace from over-politicised
international art sites.'

One of the questions he raises is; "Has art activism degenerated into a
"pseudo-representative regime" in major international art exhibitions?'
I think this would certainly be an interesting question to raise in our

As part of the lecture series 'Now is the Time. Art & Theory in the 21th century', that my Magazine Metropolis M organizes in cooperation with the university and some art institutions, this week Hou Hanru and Julian Stallabras came to Amsterdam to debate the topic of the globalisation of art. Lots of more to say about this. But suffient to say here that the solution for the above described problematic context is not easy. Stallabras defended taking in a counterposition, Hou Hanru as a curator wanted to operate in a way as to make make the problems visible through the way artists react on it (in his case privatisation fof public space, politics of the spectacle in China).