Marek Bartelik, President of AICA International, about art criticism today: "In the era of growing presence of social media, art criticism is often either reduced to a type of entertainment or it takes the form of heavy-duty academic writing. I would like to see more “grassroots” criticism, with a global outreach, written in language accessible to as many readers as possible, and, of course, with a greater diversity of voices than we have today."
Marek Bartelik: From the questions you submitted by e-mail, it is quite clear to me that AICA International is unknown to you, and most likely, it is unknown to your readers as well. This is, in fact, not uncommon; I hear it often when I mention AICA. The art world is global and new art organizations are mushrooming, making it impossible to follow their activities.
With a membership of over 4500 art critics in 63 national sections around the world, plus the Open Section, to which those without a national representation belong, AICA is the oldest and largest international association of art critics. It was established as an NGO over sixty years ago, in the early years of the Cold War, under the patronage of UNESCO in an effort to promote and strengthen the international exchange of ideas among art critics, art historians, artists, and the public at large around the world. Originally an organization centered in Europe and the US, we have grown to be a truly global one, with sections in such diverse places as Paraguay, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast, Cuba, Armenia, and Belgium, among others. In fact, the very first President (between 1949 and 1957) was from Belgium—Paul Fierens, who was Chief Curator of the Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels, a professor of aesthetics and the history of modern art at Liège University, an art critic and a poet.
Artdependence Magazine: In which parts of the world do you see AICA being underrepresented?
Marek Bartelik: Africa is the area that is represented the least. We need urgently to reach out to the critics there. This is way overdue. We have already had a president from that continent, Yacouba Konaté, from Ivory Coast, who preceded me as President, but unfortunately we failed to increase our membership in that region under his presidency. Asia and the Middle East are underrepresented as well and we still have yet to elect a President of AICA International from that important region. We have a very dynamic section in South Korea, but no presence in China and India. I am working hard to make sure that our contacts with those countries are closer. For the time being, we are in the process of creating a section in Bangladesh, which I visited a few months ago. Bangladesh has a dynamic, quickly growing art scene, with many talented artists and critics, who are eager to raise their international profile. Elsewhere in the world AICA is more of a presence, at least in terms of its membership. But we also face a serious challenge throughout the world: we must attract younger critics to our association from every part of the globe. Otherwise, we will be further marginalized.
AD: What have you already done to attract younger art critics to your association?
MB: We are in the process of restructuring AICA, so it is premature to list tangible results. Apart from organizing annual AICA congresses and symposia—which do attract some younger critics—we have redesigned our website, www.aicainternational.org, giving to it a more attractive visual presence than before. We have also joined Facebook and Twitter, where we post information about current events related to our activities and to our daily life as art critics. The next step will be to have a platform on the Internet for our members to express themselves regularly, run discussions and forums, and to post their texts. Attracting younger critics to our association is a long-term goal, which will take several years to accomplish, for we need to raise sufficient funds to support our programs and built our online visibility. In the meantime, we review those programs with an eye to making them more current than before, searching for topics that concern younger audiences. Finally, AICA awards the Incentive Prize to Young Critics in conjunction with our annual Congresses; so far, three critics, from Brazil, Germany, and South Korea, havereceived it. The Prize’s aim is to reward our younger colleagues for their critical thinking in writing about current exhibitions. This is what AICA International does. In addition, the national sections conduct their own activities, be it the AICA France Prize, the last edition of which was held at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris a few weeks ago (http://aicafrance.org/prix-aica-france-de-la-critique-dart-2015-laureat-klaus-speidel/), or the Young Art Critic’s Mentoring Program run by AICA USA in collaboration with Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation (http://www.aicausa.org/news/2014-creative-capital-warhol-foundation-arts-writers-grant-program).
With Daniel Buren (left) and Orlan (right) during the 2012 Prix AICA France at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
AD: Could you tell us about yourself and your involvement with AICA.
MB: I was born in Poland, studied in France and the US, and have resided in New York since mid-1980s. As an art critic, I began to write in my native language for a small émigré newspaper in New York soon after arriving there. In the early 1990s, I started to contribute to Artforum International, for which I have written reviews from over 25 countries around the globe. I am also an art historian specializing in modern and contemporary art with a number of years of teaching experience at Yale, MIT, and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where I currently teach as a Visiting Professor.
I became involved with AICA in the early 1990s, first as a member of the Polish section, while living in the US. Later I transferred to the US section, and eventually became President of it. In 2011, I was elected President of AICA International during our Congress in Paraguay, and was reelected to a second term last year during our Congress in South Korea.
I consider serving as President of AICA International to be not only an honor, but also a duty, one that I take very seriously. Being President of AICA is a mission for me: I would like art criticism to be globally respected and, equally important, to be relevant to the lives of many, not just a few. To accomplish this, we art critics need to strengthen not only our relationship with each other but also with artists, to make it a true partnership of creative individuals. We should also rethink our relevance to the society at large. In the era of growing presence of social media, art criticism is often either reduced to a type of entertainment or it takes the form of heavy-duty academic writing. I would like to see more “grassroots” criticism, with a global outreach, written in language accessible to as many readers as possible, and, of course, with a greater diversity of voices than we have today.
Courtesy of AICA South Korea.
AD: What is different in art criticism today compared to 50 years ago?
MB: A few years ago, I started to prepare a syllabus for a course on the history of art criticism, which I still need to develop further. Art criticism has a long history that reaches back to the ancient Greeks and Romans: Herodotus, Thucydides, Vitruvius, and Pliny the Elder all wrote about art. The Renaissance gave us Vasari, Alberti, and Brunelleschi, who contributed to the development of modern art criticism, which the Enlightenment transformed into a “discipline,” both as a form of writing and, more literally, as a form of power. Historically, I divide art critics into categories such as philosophers, scholars, activists, poets, and the like. Looking at art criticism panoramically, I have come to a realization that although producing art criticism requires a solid knowledge of art history, its strength comes from the fact that it is an expression of the writer’s conviction that art matters to all of us on a daily basis, and what it really means needs to be constantly debated.
In the last 20 years or so, art criticism has been undergoing a rapid transformation, in part due to the changing means of communication, which have contributed to its homogenization, but also to its marginalization. Today critics in Belgium, the United States, India, and Brazil usually write in their native languages, but their “method” or “methodology,” their way of thinking, all too often seems to be much the same. I am afraid we allow ourselves to continue to be “disciplined” in the name of some abstract lingua franca. Although I acknowledge the necessity of global communication, I find this phenomenon unfortunate, because it shifts attention from the creative (opinionated, might be a good word too) and informed approach to writing art criticism to a focus on an informative, factual approach to it; it also moves our thinking toward speculation and gossip. That shift has, in fact, contributed to the phenomenon of critics-provocateurs, who have become celebrities (“bad boys” and, not so often, “bad girls”), not necessarily because they have anything particularly unique to contribute to our understanding and appreciation of contemporary art, but rather because they confirm what we already know, and (occasionally) fear. Such critics must know well how to entertain to produce a discourse dedicated to instant gratification. The ultimate master-provocateur Oscar Wide wrote in in The Critic as Artist: “It is to criticism that the future belongs,” but I doubt that what we see so often today is what he had in mind. In fact, much of contemporary art criticism is not even serious journalism, which requires thorough investigation, mobility, and editing. Instead, it often takes the form of a sort of a personal column in which what matters most is who says something rather than what is being said. To a certain degree I understand the need for direct conversation, Facebook or Twitter style, with readers—especially because what we often consider serious criticism with the academic credentials has been hermetic and even self-indulgent—but there is still plenty of room for thorough, direct analysis of a work of art, an exhibition, or a deep conversation with an artist or curator, without succumbing to academicism. As I argue in the book I am working on, we need the “eye” to meet the “I.” There is no need to lament the current state of art criticism though. No one can access it correctly, because it is practiced in many places and many different languages simultaneously while evolving constantly. All I can expect from myself in this situation, and perhaps from others too, is not to be completely passive, not to turn into an averist or a nudnik, someone who stands on the side,takes advantage of the privileges and mocks everything new. This kind of fear of the person I may become motivated me to become involved with AICA International and to work toward improving our situation as art critics. I quickly learned how difficult such a task is, how much diplomacy, patience, humor and imagination it requires.
AD: What are you working on when not involved with AICA International?
MB: I teach a class at the Cooper Union in New York. I lecture on contemporary art and art criticism, most recently in Dhaka and Santiago de Chile. Unfortunately, I have less time to write art criticism, except infrequently for the on-line Polish magazine Obieg. From time to time, I curate exhibitions. For example, I curated a small retrospective of Mark Rothko for the National Museum in Warsaw in the summer of 2013, which gave me great satisfaction. Today, I devote the rest of my free time to finishing my new book, which is entitled “Gentle Rain.” It is a collection of essays on art, modern and contemporary, which contains several pieces that could be called ficto-criticism or paraliterature. The book is a meandering travelogue that originates in Paris, my first magic city where I lived after leaving Poland in the early 1980s, and takes me to Rio de Janeiro, another magic place that I have been fascinated with since I first visited it some ten years ago. I also pause to glance at my early life in a provincial Polish city, my hometown, called Olsztyn, which is where my fantastic journey with art originated a long time ago.
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