Art criticism in practice: Art theory recycled?

The Lithuanian cultural press has become an organ of institutional politics and self-promotion, says art critic and curator Laima Kreivyte. It is not only art that has become commodified, but also art criticism and theory. Is there an alternative to this consumerist logic? The contemporary eastern European art critic must become an activist reclaiming public space for critical debate. Through their strategy of “Missappropriation”, a group of young women artists and critics are doing just this.

Art criticism in the new millennium encounters the great challenge of inventing a new mechanism of recycling art theories. The desire to bring “theory to life” or to make practical use of it is inspired by the cultural logic of late capitalism (culture should generate profit and sustain itself) and visual culture studies’ requirement that the position of the “ordinary viewer” be preferred over that of the “professional”. The urgent demand to be “more understandable” and “useful” for the mass audience effects both production and consumption of critical discourse.

But how is the desire to be useful and understandable compatible with the critical approach, which aims at bringing a discourse to its crisis? Art critics in Lithuania (and in many other countries of the former Soviet bloc) are often torn by a contradiction: on the one hand, they are the writers of optimistic and beautiful project proposals addressed to public and private foundations. On the other hand, many write elaborate critical texts to newspapers and magazines. But even there, art criticism is less and less provocative.

The problem is that there is no independent and strong cultural press in Lithuania. The largest daily has reduced its cultural pages, and short reviews of exhibitions look more and more like advertisements. The cultural press is closely related to the main art institutions: CAC, Artists Association, Writers Union, and Photographers Union. Some publications remind one of picture books, others of sophisticated brainteasers. But mostly they serve as a tool for institutional politics and self-promotion. Critics can express a critical opinion in a small cultural weekly and be paid nothing or a small fee, but because such texts are written in a hurry, squeezed in between “more important” jobs, profound analysis cannot be expected. Sometimes the reader can find texts in these journals praising a certain exhibition, and presume that this article has been ordered and paid for by some gallery or artist.

Nowadays we can talk not only about the commodification of art, but also about the commodification of art criticism and even theory. A professor from a university is conducting the semiotic analysis of advertisements for big companies; a curator is hired by a pharmaceutical company to make an exhibition about the loss of memory. Is there an alternative to this consumerist logic? Do we really need to measure the “practical value” of theory? How is that possible?

One alternative would be engagement in critical activism. Contemporary artists often describe their practice as a kind of social criticism. In a way, artists outrun art critics at creating the critical discourse – they engage in direct actions in the streets and other physical public spaces while critics remain safely in the representational space (a magazine, Internet, and a book). But I’m not sure anymore that we can describe the relationship of artist and critic as that of hero and poet, as in Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” – that the critics can only sing about the artists’ heroic deeds. Artists involved in what they call social critique often tend to relegate the visual aspect of their works to the conceptual aspect. Visuality for them seems vulgar. Conversely, art critics successfully appropriate visual narratives as their mode of critical production. For example, art critic and curator Anders Kreuger from Sweden presented a review of the annual exhibition of the Lithuanian Artists Association as a series of photos of famous artists, together with friends and flowers, at the opening. He has criticized the old-fashioned model of an exhibition formed according to institutional affiliation. The critic did not use pictures because he felt like a “speechless” outsider. Far from it – he is one the top experts of modern and contemporary Lithuanian art outside Lithuania, and speaks Lithuanian fluently. I would describe his strategy rather as a kind of art criticism after the pictorial turn. When politically and socially engaged artists use words to express their critical attitude, critics seek to re-establish the critical power of the icon.

Contemporary art critics can go even further and criticize the power structures of cultural politics. But it is important to do so not only theoretically, but also practically – speaking directly to the people and involving different groups of the society to open public debate. Why is it so important? Because in post Soviet countries, consumerist ideology and the neo-liberal vision of culture as a profit-generating service industry have completely overshadowed the freedom of expression. Public spaces are becoming private at the speed of sound. The former socialist society has turned into a consumerist one which is unable to form a civil society. Public space as a place for critical discussion is disappearing.

Therefore, not only reflection but also action is needed. I would describe a contemporary art critic (at least in eastern Europe) as an activist reclaiming public space for critical debate. From this perspective, artists and critics create together the space for critical discourse.

A good example in Lithuania is an anonymous group of young female artists and critics, Coolturistes (the title refers to cool, tourism, culture, and female body-building), who produce provocative public art by recycling ideas taken from psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, neo-Marxism, and postmodern feminism. They formed spontaneously in 2005 as a team of activists that critically analyze the public discourse. Their first piece, “National Male Awards”, unmasked in numbers and words the imbalance in the rating of art made by men and by women: in the 15 years of Lithuanian independence, the National Award in Culture and Art has been given to 110 men and to only 17 women.

Coolturistes put up a poster in the disused St Catherine’s Church in Vilnius which read “Vilnius in Your Stocking”, in which they suggested putting “the phallocentric rhetoric of power into the stocking”. Why stocking? While the reference to a guidebook (“Vilnius in Your Pocket”) reveals the consumerist logics of the tourism industry – you can have a whole city as a wallet in your pocket – the suggestion that monuments be put into the stocking has a different connotation. A stocking has direct contact with the body and acquires the shape of a leg. A call to cover the monuments of state power and importance emphasizes the relationship of the Symbolic Order represented by the phallus and bodily experience. It is a call to protect the public space from hierarchical totalitarian thinking embodied in monumental verticality.

The new project by Coolturistes is questioning the strategies of appropriation. Appropriation means not only borrowing the work of art or its segments for one’s own needs and putting it into a new context. Appropriation is an act of will (and power) giving new meanings to common objects or works of art. At the same time it is a social, political, and economic gesture changing the perception of art and the everyday. Some art historians see the beginnings of appropriation in the works of Leonardo da Vinci; others start with the collages by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, in which fragments of reality intruded upon the work of art. The title of the “Father of Appropriation” is most often given to Marcel Duchamp, who brought a mass-produced urinal (though new research shows that it was, actually, non-standard and non-functional) into the art gallery. The contemporary “Mother of Appropriation” is Sherrie Levine, who photographs photographs by others. These days everything is being appropriated – objects, people, ideas, fragments of soap operas, communication systems (mail has already been appropriated by fluxus).

Coolturistes turn the appropriation strategy inside out. This is not only appropriation, but also misappropriation, exposure of an error, seizure of publicity by using one’s own weakness – “Miss”. Why is “Mis(s)” so closely connected to “absence”, “failure”, and “loss”? Missappropriation is a female appropriation, the subjection of hard male buildings to soft female materials (net fabric). Misappropriation as “wrong” appropriation: subjecting architecture to textile, textile to photography, photography to sculpture, and vice versa. The green or blue fabric covering the buildings under renovation is no longer auxiliary but principal – no longer covering, hiding something, but an artwork itself. A temporary surface is no less important for Coolturistes than what is underneath it. Covered buildings photographed in Vilnius and Kaunas become art objects. Photographs on show in Kaunas Architect’s House gallery legitimize their status and return the appropriated beauty to the public. From now on, every building covered in green will become a work of art, regardless of whether somebody documents it.

The misappropriation that has been started by Coolturistes will inevitably become a part of global “folk art”. In order to make it feel more local, a sudden twist in the cool detachment appeared. The Man, erected at the end of the 1980s by Petras Mazuras at the Zilinskas Gallery, has been chosen as the symbol of “Mis(s)appropriation”. Coolturistes have given the sculpture some swallows, just as in First Swallows by the 1960s sculptor Juozas Mikenas, but made out of soft pink fabric. Gender and “feminine” values are also constructed and interchangeable. Just like a female figure becomes an allegory by adding some serious things. By giving the swallows to the statue of a man, Coolturistes have turned a naturalist sculpture into an allegorical figure. Sculptural misappropriation is, at the same time, institutional, building a bridge between the main art galleries of Vilnius and Kaunas and playing with the popular idea of bi-polis.

I would like to conclude with the words of Audrey Lord, which I always remember when dealing with art criticism as artistic activism: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I believe that even the master’s tools could be good if they were misused. Maybe this could be the task of art criticism in eastern Europe.

This paper was presented at the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) Symposium “Art Theory and Art Criticism in the New Millennium” at XXXIX AICA Congress in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 18-23 September 2005.

Published 6 February 2006
Original in English
First published by Kulturos barai 1/2006 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Kulturos barai © Laima Kreivyte/Kulturos barai Eurozine


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