Art criticism moving forward!

From Konstperspektiv 2002/3

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Charlotte Bydler, art historian and critic, and Christian Chambert, chairman of Svenska Konstkritikersamfundet

Lately we have seen how cultural journalism has been scrutinized in media. Konstperspektiv met with Charlotte Bydler, art historian and critic, and Christian Chambert, chairman of Svenska Konstkritikersamfundet, to talk about the status of cultural journalism with a special focus on the art criticism.

KONSTPERSPEKTIV: What differentiates art journalism from other forms of cultural journalism?

CHARLOTTE: Before answering that question you need to be aware that art criticism looks different in different media. But they have certain things in common, for example that they usually discuss news of some kind. The criticism is by tradition evaluating, but it has also a strong pedagogic task in introducing and presenting art and artists that are not immediately spotted.

CHRISTIAN: It’s no coincidence that the criticism is debated right now. Culture journalism is in a crisis, and is struggling to find a new audience. This has led to the critical coverage becoming mixed with other material, and sometimes it can be hard for a non-initiated reader to decide which genre a text belongs to. I think that art criticism, especially during periods of crisis, should take the offensive in telling what is worth our attention.

CHARLOTTE: I’m not sure I agree that this is a problem. Maybe for the critics and the artists, but not for the reader who gets the chance to read more texts which eventually can lead to a visit to an exhibition. KP: Most people probably like to read positive texts that encourage to see an exhibition. But how about the critical and assessing texts – are they threatened?

CHRISTIAN: I would say that it’s the art that is threatened. Many critics want to support new art because it’s supposed to be endangered. That’s understandable, but the consequence can easily be that the critical scrutiny is overlooked inspite of it being important.

KP: Isn’t there a risk that close personal contacts blunt the critical sharpness?

CHARLOTTE: I honestly don’t know how, as a critic, you can avoid getting to know artists. After all, they are the most important source of knowledge about the works. Of course there can be an unintended influence, but that’s someting every individual has to be observant of. Maybe we should do as in scientific journals where the writer always has to state the personal relation to their subject, for example who has financed the research. This kind of ethics is missing completely in the field of art.

CHRISTIAN: It is common, for young writers especially, to write about artist-friends in the same generation. I don’t see anything strange in that. Neither is it unusual today that the artists themselves write about their own and their colleagues’ works, often in a very inspiring way. But I agree that it is a question of credibility that the writer is clear about his role when writing a certain text.

KP: Sometimes you hear, especially from artists, that the critics have got too much power.

CHRISTIAN: It’s probably the power of the media they mean. And they have definitely got a lot of power. But you have to remember that there will never be as many critics as artists. Therefore there will inevitably be a power relation, which I think is less palpable today than earlier since the number of media and writers has increased.

CHARLOTTE: Of course it can be tough to have work criticized without being able to defend it. However, we shouldn’t forget that the art criticism isn’t about the relation between artists and critics only. Most important is the audience, and if we want the art criticism to develop we need an open discussion about it where all parties can have their say.

KP: Is it a problem that the art criticism only seems to adress its traditional audience, the educated middle class that no longer exists?

CHRISTIAN: I don’t quite recognise that description. Undeniably a lot has happened. Today several papers have writers of different ages and with varying background. And new writers are recruited all the time.

CHARLOTTE: We can be happy about the proportionally large variety in Sweden’s limited art life. But still the critics in national media comment on more or less the same exhibitions. There is still only one “system” to work within so to speak. Everyone agrees that the criticism should single out the important – but the question is for whom? The art with an international focus in the cities has a completely different audience than the local art that exists both in cities and in the countryside.

KP: Is the selection for the art criticism too narrow? Is too much left out of the coverage?

CHARLOTTE: I think most of today’s critics are pretty familiar with new media. They know less about all the subcultures that we can see on the art scen today. It would be good if media could use different writers for different kinds of art, more like the case is in music criticism. There’s still this old idea that art kan be evaluated according to a common standard, but it cannot and because of this a lot of art is considered uninteresting or irrelevant.

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Christian Chambert and Anders Olofsson

CHRISTIAN: We shouldn’t forget that the art scene has changed quite dramatically since the mid 90’s. It used to be less common that foreign artists were shown in Sweden. Today almost always some are here, and Swedish artists exhibit frequently on the international arena. It’s nice, but at the same time it has become more difficult for the critics to follow what’s happening. For the artists there is a well developed system for grants which makes the participation in this international exchange easier, but for critics there’s no equivalent. That is a big disadvantage.

CHARLOTTE: And often it’s only possible to read about Swedish successes abroad. It’s very provincial. KP: Are we really that uninterested in the rest of the world? After all a lot is written about foreign art in Swedish press.

CHARLOTTE: That’s true. But most of these texts describe what is happening on the cosmopolitan art scene, on the big international exhibitions like all the biennials. Very few critics take an interest in local phenomenons. And that uninterest applies to both Sweden and other countries.

CHRISTIAN: Yes, we mustn’t loose the local perspective. After all the local level is where the audience is. We also have to realize that to audience and artists in many other parts of the world, in for example Turkey, Cuba, India or Eastern Europe, the possibilities of travel are not as good as here, and the big international exhibitions are often their only chance to get a glimpse of the art outside their home country. But still the biggest problem is that the criticism is still too narrowly focused on western art, and shows very little interest in exhibitions in the third world.

KP: Finally, what do you wish for on behalf of the art criticism in the future?

CHARLOTTE: Most of all I would like to see a division of the critics into different special fields, so that all kinds of art expressions can be handled with the same competence.

CHRISTIAN: Since the conditions of the art criticism ultimately is a matter of resources I would also wish for more generous economical frames, so that the critics can develop in their professional roll. I’m mainly thinking about means for travels and furtherance and money for penetrating articles that take longer time to write.

Text and photo: Anders Olofsson

Facts: Svenska Konstkritikersamfundet is a voluntary organisation and the Swedish section of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art). It’s an organisation under the umbrella of UNESCO and has ca 250 members. Read more about the association and its activities on http://www.aicasweden.org/

Translated from the Swedish by Carina Ode