Interviews

Questions About Art Criticism for Three European Critics

by Hrag Vartanian on April 23, 2014

(original image via Jrm Llvr's Flickrstream)

(original image via Jrm Llvr’s Flickrstream)

On Sunday, April 27, an event jointly organized by AICA International and EUNIC New York will probe the realities facing art critics in Europe. Five critics, Dorota Jarecka of Poland, Marja-Terttu Kivirinta of Finland, Javier Montes of Spain, Jonathan T. D. Neil of the UK, and Tomás Pospiszyl of the Czech Republic will share their experience and tackle the questions of regional differences in the field, the role of social media in art discourse, the role of the art critic in shaping the identity of local art, and the changing critical landscape.

It is a fascinating topic for me, particularly since many people in the United States talk about Europe as if it was a uniform utopia of government funding and critical discourse, but the reality, as you will see, is very different.

Sunday’s event will begin with opening remarks by Marek Bartelik, president of AICA International, followed by short presentations by each panelist and a panel discussion moderated by yours truly. But before the in-person discussion begins, I wanted to set the virtual stage and ask the critics to answer a few simple questions about how they became art critics, the state of criticism in their respective countries, and the challenges they face.

Three of the critics were available to answer my preliminary questions, and in the meantime you can reserve your ticket for Sunday’s event online.

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Tomas Pospiszyl (Czech Republic)

89180004-320Hrag Vartanian: How did you become an art critic? 

Tomas Pospiszyl: Wrong answer: I wrote my first art review at the age of 22. It was about an exhibition I myself helped to organize and it was written under a pseudonym. I managed to get it published in a major weekly magazine where one of the editors had a crush on me. Subsequently he offered me a regular job. Since then whenever I am in need of income, I get employed by the media.

Good answer: I always had a strong interest both in art and writing. Written reflection of art turned out to be the right mix for me. Later, while studying in the U.S., I was lucky to have Peter Schjeldahl as my teacher. I still follow few simple rules I learned from him: Learn how to describe your experiences. Be honest. There is no such thing as writing, only re-writing.

Both answers are actually correct.

HV: How would you characterize the state of art criticism in the Czech Republic?

TP: Declining, as almost everywhere. Big newspapers and magazines gradually prefer to write about entertainment rather than art. In the Czech Republic, there are about four full-time critics employed by major media. Internet publishing still did not find a way how to fully replace printed media. A valuable art review cannot be squeezed in two paragraphs!

HV: What are the leading publications driving debate about art in your country?

TP: I wish there was a single publication capable of creating such a debate. Instead of that, we have several art magazines and none of them is perfect. Atelier has been around for 25 years and its readers are aging with it. Scholarly journal Sešit is published three times a year, as the Czech edition of Flash Art. For economical reasons, Art and Antiques has to cover diverse topics as contemporary art and furniture art market. Good reviews and discussions can be found in the bi-weekly magazine A2. Relatively fast and wide-read is internet-based magazine Artalk.

HV: Are there any models you look to as an ideal scenario or model for art criticism?

TP: The critic today has to write so that the general public can understand him or her. And still keep high intellectual standards. I also believe the critic has to be personal. There are so many reviews with many interesting points where I still do not know what the author actually thinks.

HV: What are the biggest challenges for art critics in the Czech Republic?

TP: One would think that the ideal position for an art critic is to be independently healthy and not to have criticism as a profession. Not that I have personal experience with independent life, but I disagree with that. Many critics in my country write only occasionally, they do not approach their readers on a regular basis. I believe there must be a consistency, regularity, and certain mass of writing to create a critical standpoint.

HV: In your opinion, what artist in the Czech Republic deserves to be better known in the rest of the world?

TP: They are actually all getting visible internationally: Běla Kolářová, Jiří Kolář, Jiří Kovanda, Ján Mančuška, and Eva Koťátková. One that I would add to this group is Filip Cenek.

Dorota Jarecka (Poland)

JARECKA--HYPERALLERGIC320HV: How do you become an art critic?

Dorota Jarecka: In my case it was pure chance. I had graduated in art history at the Warsaw University in 1989 — the eve of the political turn in Poland. I didn’t feel like working at any of the existing art institutions. They seemed to me to be old-fashioned and boring. But I needed money desperately. I knew I could write well, so I wrote something for a newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, that had just been founded by an independent publisher. They liked it. That was my beginning.

HV: How would you characterize the state of art criticism in Poland?

DJ: I am not able to make this kind of statement since art criticism to me has more to do with “process” than “state.” How can I evaluate the process I am part of? Ever since art criticism had first emerged, around 200 years ago, it was a subject of complaint and dissatisfaction. People say that art criticism nowadays suffers a sort of a crisis. I agree. Art criticism is in crisis and that is why I support it.

HV: What are the leading publications driving debate about art in your country?

DJ: Dwutygodnik [Biweekly Magazine], an online magazine dedicated to arts and culture; Szum [Noise], a quarterly published by an independent foundation with state financial support; Obieg [Circulation], an online magazine edited and published by the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw.

HV: Are there any models you look to as an ideal scenario or model for art criticism?

DJ: No. By nature I am not an idealist.

HV: What are the biggest challenges for art critics in Poland?

DJ: How to survive with a very low linage fee.

HV: In your opinion, which artist in Poland deserves to be better known in the rest of the world?

DJ: Young Polish artists manage very well on the international level and are part of the global art system. Older artists, who started their career in the 70s or 80s, find it more difficult to achieve international acclaim. I wish they will finally get it.

Marja-Terttu Kivirinta (Finland)

AICAMarjaTerttu-320HV: How do you become an art critic?

Marja-Terttu Kivirinta: I really became a art critic: it just happened during my studies at the University of Helsinki. I studied art history, history, ethnology, and literature and wrote the reviews, mainly of books, asked by some periodicals and newspapers

But my faith was the biggest daily newspaper of Finland (and in those days in the whole Scandinavia), Helsingin Sanomat, at first with a need for a freelancer art critic. I started there in 1978 writing criticism about museum and gallery exhibitions in Helsinki and other parts of Finland, then also in Europe.

Besides that, to earn the money I had to do all kind of work for art historians, be a guide in museums, be a secretary for exhibitions or art prize competitions. I used also to teach art history, in those days at the University of Theater. My life changed totally in two years when the boss of the cultural section of Helsingin Sanomat asked me to join the staff of the daily. Then I started to work there with a monthly salary – and I ended that after nearly 30 years when I returned to the University to finish my studies of art history for a Ph.D.

At the daily, I had done all kinds of journalistic work besides the criticism. I also wrote news and interviews, and I did editorial work as well. After my work in daily journalism, I have written some art reviews for newspapers, periodicals, and for some art magazines. Now, I write also for an internet cultural magazine AKKU (accumulator) that we publish in Finnish and distribute on Facebook.

HV: How would you characterize the state of art criticism in Finland?

M-TK: When I started my career as an art critic in the late 1970s cultural criticism was an evaluated genre of journalism. In Finland there were several newspapers and numerous critics writing for them as well as for the periodicals and art magazines. People, at least most of the middle-class people, read and subscribed to many newspapers and magazines often because of the culture pages. Even I, still a student, had subscribed to two daily papers not only in order to compare the art reviews, but also mostly because of the culture pages.

Nowadays this is hardly the case. Finland, with its little more than 5 million people and Helsinki with its 600,000 inhabitants, has a lot of economical difficulties that have grown immense in the last five years, particularly in media business. Because of the difficulties and commercial competition many newspapers have laid off staff journalists, which was impossible a few years ago, even as an idea. To my mind it has had its consequences for the quality of the press — for instance the evaluation of art criticism is low even among newspaper editors. Some of them claim that people are not reading the reviews. They say that subscribers want entertaining stories of people, and instead of art, the artist is talking, not about art but about himself.

At the same time many journalists have left the existing press and founded their own magazines of ‘slow journalism’ on the internet. They are working without salary getting the money from people who buy the articles, one after another. Some of the critics are publishing their reviews of exhibitions and of the art scene on their blogs, nearly free of charge.

HV: What are the leading publications driving debate about art in your country?

M-TK: Talking about Finland it is difficult now to name the leading publications. With its cultural pages Helsingin Sanomat, where I used to work, was a leader and a quality paper before. Today, it has a lot of problems with its cultural journalism, although there are still some really professional journalists at work. But the staff is now so small and busy, and everybody is doing everything. Sometimes a person that is a specialist of literature or of music is writing about art. Some of the articles are not reliable any more. The critics are mostly the critics of their own field — but sorry to say, it happens many times that I am not satisfied. There are also art magazines, mainly published by artists or artist organizations, like “Taide” (=The Art), and with good professional writers following critically national and international art scene but the editors of the magazines work with low budgets and maybe that’s why, also with little ambition. It is not easy, I know.

HV: Are there any models you look to as an ideal scenario or model for art criticism?

M-TK: Because I will be coming to New York, I decided to mention just one critic, an ideal professional for me. He is Holland Cotter from the New York Times. Before my trip I have read recently many of his articles about the museum exhibitions, and I have enjoyed them. Cotter is an intelligent, interesting, and critical writer whose reviews I read and I enjoy the style. It is the art of writing with a lot of knowledge that challenges surely everyone who writes about art.

HV: In your opinion, which artist in Finland deserves to be better known in the rest of the world?

Oh, there are so many good and interesting artists in Finland, and many who needed to be better known abroad. In New York, I will show the works of four artists in connection with my presentation at the panel. All of them have worked and exhibited already there, and they are quite known in Finland and some also in Sweden: photographers Jaakko Heikkilä and Kari Soinio, painter Mari Rantanen, and then is Marja Kanervo with her site-specific art.

Besides them are so many others I should add, but I name just the two female artists: Hannele Rantala and Ulla Jokisalo. Both are using photographs in conceptual ways but differently. Rantala’s art is performative and she is also making performances about absence and exile for instance. The roots of Ulla Jokisalo’s playful and poetical art are in surrealism. The frame of the materials she uses is her personal background: scissors, thread, silhouettes, tintamarresques, and laterna magica.

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Walking in the Air: Art Criticism in Europe” panel discussion about the current state of art criticism in Europe will take place Sunday, April 27, 2014 (3–7:30pm) at the Cervantes Institute New York (211 East 49th Street, Midtown, Manhattan). You can reserve your tickets online.

The event is organized by AICA International and EUNIC New York members: The Czech Center New York, Finnish Cultural Institute in New York, Spain Culture New York-Consulate General of Spain, and The Polish Cultural Institute New York in collaboration with AICA-USA and The Cervantes Institute in New York. The media partners are Hyperallergic and the Brooklyn Rail.

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