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|Art Critics in Albion
by Phyllis Tuchman
|Almost 300 art critics, with day jobs as journalists, curators, art school teachers, college professors and art magazine editors in more than 40 nations on six continents, gathered in London earlier this year for the 34th Annual Congress of the International Association of Art Critics. The British Section of AICA, in partnership with the visual arts department at Goldsmiths College, convened a three-day symposium, held in a plush all-red auditorium as well as a more workaday glass-walled conference room at the Tate Modern, around the topic, "Visual Art, Visual Culture?"
A more apt title could have been appropriated from the summer-long exhibition mounted at the National Gallery of Art in Trafalgar Square, "Encounters: New Art from Old." With the new Tate, the brand new Jubilee Underground Line and Sir Norman Foster's futurist Southwark stop and the not-yet-operative Millennium Foot Bridge that runs between the Tate Modern and St. Paul's Cathedral, one and all had eventually to grapple with the notion that they were visiting a quickly modernizing, international city whose address should also be updated to "London 2000."
Consider the scene at the Tate Modern. Visiting critics joined the throngs pouring into the Bankside building Herzog and de Meuron converted along the banks of the Thames. With its downward ramp leading into the vast hall of the former power station, the entrance resembles the walkways from the Flushing Number 7 line [see www.johnrocker.com] to Shea Stadium and the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, N.Y. Though docile, the mob is so vast it resembles the hordes at rugby matches. No surprise, then, that the Tate has registered 2.5 million visitors, meaning that in only four months the Tate Modern had surpassed its projected attendance for a year.
The AICA Congress itself got off to a slow, lumbering start. On Monday afternoon, several prominent commercial galleries in the West End greeted delegates with wine and water receptions. However, their new shows, slated to open that Thursday, had not yet been installed in their clean white boxes. Still, the offerings in several back rooms, such as those filled with masterpieces from the 1960s and '70s, including important works by Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly, reminded Americans, at least, that a lot of good stuff simply never leaves Europe.
A reception in the evening for "Ant Noises 2," an anagram for "Sensation" and the latest hang at the Saatchi Gallery, near Abbey Road, did not fare much better. While there was more wine and water, grumbling was heard about the lack of food, including the kind for thought. This was a hard crowd to please. The understated installation with familiar art by the YBAs was seen as the same old, same old. Wasn't the Jenny Saville just larger, the Ron Mueck more maudlin, the Damien Hirst more clever? More than one critic complained that Saatchi was the ultimate adman getting a lot of mileage from hardly any petrol.
The next morning after independently touring the Tate Britain with its boldly reshuffled collections -- a mini-display, for example, pairing the craftlike weightless constructions of the contemporary artist Richard Deacon with the between-the-wars heavy stone carvings and cast bronze of Jacob Epstein -- and its underutilized skylit galleries, among the best in the world, delegates boarded buses to visit the nonprofits and artists studios which have created an East End scene. An unexpected highlight was the chance to pass by the first crime scene where fingerprints were used to solve a case. As for the "Encounters" theme, within moments, buses passed the Millennial Dome as well as Indigo Jones's great Banqueting Hall.
A reception early that evening at the Deutsche Bank in the City introduced the hardy crowd of critics to outstanding prints by German artists who dominated the '80s and '90s. Once again this was unfamiliar work which has not traveled to the shores of the USA. Matched with sterling editions by English masters, it was all jolly good.
Wednesday was travel day. Some visited Henry Moore's home and studios in Perry Green, Much Hadham, an hour outside of London; others had a day long tour of Richard Roger's Millennial Dome; and a few traveled to the Goodwood Sculpture Park in Sussex. Moore's greenswards, understated exhibition spaces and sheep filled pasture (www.henry-moore-fdn.co.uk) were a reminder to art critics who chase cutting edge art that the past survives in unexpected ways. Moore's place was edenic. Would you rather spend an afternoon among grass lawns and shrubbery and beautiful bronzes or get hassled in a city setting by intrusive walls of steel?
Finally, on Wednesday night, Charles Jencks stepped to the podium in the gold toned auditorium of the National Gallery of Art and courted controversy with his subject matter and turn of phrase. Thank heavens. It was getting a bit dull. Jencks, an architecture critic who may have coined the term "postmodernism," addressed the way the analysis of museums resembles a tower of Babel. With the opening of a Guggenheim branch in Spain, he opined that "discussions of contemporary museums can be called 'Bilbaoism'."
Jencks pondered whether the success of the latest art institutions will last beyond three years, the usual attention span for such things. According to Jencks, when officials in Bilbao cite record-breaking crowds, they "flash statistics to disarm critics" who might take a dim view of the art or wonder about its potentially overblown architectural context. Most visitors to Gehry's building are tourists, and Jencks emphasized that all these museum visitors represent an investment strategy more than anything ineffable like a public good.
Having evolved over centuries, museums have fulfilled various functions. Initially, preserving artifacts, they were practically "parking lots for statues." Their polychromatic stage sets were "close to a Hollywood spectacular or at least, a Baroque church." By the 18th century, museums educated people and passed on moral values.
During "the 1850s, the museum became a substitute cathedral with quasi-religious values." With the rise of the market, the spiritual building was replaced by one representing esthetic values. It makes sense, according to Jencks, that Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright resembled priests in their dark clothes, while also looking like Chicago gangsters.
Jencks noted that even though "Walter Benjamin predicted the end of art in the mechanical age, it hasn't turned out this way at all." Eventually, the museum emerged as "a place of entertainment for the whole family," engendering "a dramatic impact on the way museums are designed." And the blockbuster, shopping and the million-dollar painting have further transformed museums into "shopping centers and a place for marketing connected to the blockbuster."
Lately, the museum has become "a site of the industry of culture and a mini-university." In a time of runaway growth, we don't have more great artists, merely more critics, art journalists and other explicators. We now get media events built on the validation of traditional institutions. "No Royal Academy, no 'Sensation'."
Jencks believes, "It is no secret that in London, [Royal Academy curator] Norman Rosenthal, [Tate director] Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi create the [art-market] Fortune 500 through their nominations and need to keep stocks high." At the Tate Modern, "architecture [belongs to] the tradition of grand spectacle." His dire conclusion? Absurdist "Monty Python thinking" now prevails.
The next morning, in his talk at the Tate Modern, the culture critic Norman Bryson came on wearing a tight black t-shirt carrying a gym bag like a briefcase. While the audience marveled at his butch appearance, he suggested that "how viewers manage attention to works of art is one of the last subjects to be studied."
Photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, he explained, "had introduced the principle of 'negative attention'." When photographs are "represented in series, side-by-side, you are not taken by their presence, but by their differences." After all, "with the paradigm of presence, looking was an easier affair" as you proceeded from the most striking to the smallest details.
Now with "anti-presence," there are strategies of interruption and "cultivation of enigma." Bryson finds "a semantic blank is filled with details." For artists like Los Angeles-based Sharon Lockhart, who has done a series of color photographs and videotapes focusing on adolescent Japanese girl basketball players, "the gaze has been brought to catastrophe."
And with that, Bryson lost his audience. It turned out that one of the hippest theorists around, a lecturer students and young artists turn out in droves to hear, wasn't as popular with this audience of practicing art critics. They simply did not like Sharon Lockhart's two videos -- which were more boring than Minimalist -- no matter what Bryson said about them.
How practical are AICA members? Very. They want explanation, not obtuse theory. Everyone listened intently as Iwona Blazwick, head of exhibitions and displays at the Tate Modern, described how her team devised the current hang of the collection. It took almost a year of give and take. They knew did not want to base their efforts on the "flow chart" devised by Alfred Barr, Jr. in 1936 and a long standing guide at MoMA. For Blazwick, Barr's paradigm emphasized "form rather than content."
At the Tate Modern, an institution its staff views as a new museum, they wanted "the historical in dialogue with the contemporary." Besides scrapping an idea for representing history on a global scale, they nixed defining pivotal moments based on the important exhibitions of the day. Ditto using cities as centers for crosscurrents. So too to strategies of making with an emphasis on process.
In the end, said Blazwick, "all proposals folded into our final methodology." The Tate Modern "decided to focus on subject matter, a classification almost as old as art itself." Imagine how strange it seemed then, when journalists last May emphasized how "the works in the collection were curated, as if it had never been done before." How's that for an "Encounter?"
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and the Lancet.