Art Criticism in the Netherlands in the ‘80s and ‘90s and the role of AICA

Door Antje von Graevenitz en Din Pieters

AICA International bestaat 70 jaar. Vanwege dat jubileum doken Antje von Graevenitz (voorzitter van AICA Nederland van 1987 tot 1995) en Din Pieters (secretaris van AICA Nederland van 1989 tot 1995) op verzoek van AICA International in de archieven van AICA. Hieronder publiceren we het artikel dat ze hierover schreven. Over de kunstgeschiedenis in de jaren tachtig en negentig. Over de intrede van post-modernisme, Malevich, globalisme, de opkomst van de nieuwe media als veld voor de kunstkritiek en de relatie tussen kunstkritiek en curator. En uiteraard over de rol van AICA hierin. 

(We publiceren het in het Engels omdat de auteurs het in het Engels schreven/redigeerden voor AICA-International, op https://aica-international.squarespace.com/blog/category/70+years+of+AICA staan de andere jubileumverhalen)

It is rather complicated, looking back at a significant phase in one’s life during which, as an art critic, one has tried very hard to take in the important topics of the day and, at the same time as a member of the board of AICA The Netherlands, to confront one’s fellow members with these topics by organising debates, lectures and conferences. Perhaps it is even impossible, as after such a long time one’s head fills up with only one thing: fog. Some people may crop up in one’s memory, but their statements are inaudible, or forever forgotten. A sense of atmosphere from those days gets blurred, but may still be recalled.

Queries sent by mail to the people concerned have generally produced very poor results. They, too, struggle with the same problem. Forgetfulness has struck them, as well. Luckily, however, the AICA archive that is stored since 1997 at the Netherlands Institute of Art History (RKD) in The Hague, provides something to hold on to. And books and magazines that have dealt with art criticism of the 1980s and 1990s have also been of great help. 1 Still, how one wonders how reliable and comprehensive these publications are, when dealing with the events that AICA had organised. Although a smoke-screen may hang over these meetings, it may be still be worth asking oneself, in general, what kinds of development professional art criticism was undergoing in those days.

The symposium „Writing about Art“ organised for the AICA together with the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 30.11.-1.12.1991: From the right: Ulrich Loock, Dirk van Weelden, Saskia Bos (moderator), Antje von Graevenitz (foto: Peter Cox)

Important revolutions do not take place in 1900 or 2000, but develop over time. In hindsight the 1980s and 1990s may be seen to have been a period of great change, to which art criticism was not immune. Art critics are well informed and their subject is the present. From the second half of the twentieth century onwards, art historians, too, have increasingly dealt with present-day reality, as they have become aware of it, because of their growing awareness of the hermeneutic position of their field of research.2 They have taken to writing art criticism and to joining the editorial boards of art journals, and AICA has started to attract art historians as new members. AICA, for its part, has increasingly invited art historians to appear as guest speakers.  In the same way that a culture processes all kinds of change, as a seismograph registers shocks, the texts of art critics reflect these changes, often clearly, whatever the apparent differences between them They emphasise certain aspects, investigate new art theories and standards, and consider their validity.3 In doing so, they encourage debate and enhance their readers’ perceptions of cultural change. The AICA International, of course, coordinates these things as well, and presents them for debate at its international congresses. At the same time the national sections also have a role to play> They, too, promote debates and present topics that may clarify certain things, or prove to be inspiring and stimulating in a general cultural environment.

How did AICA in The Netherlands respond to all this? Documents from the end of the 1970s show that it saw itself foremost as a club of lobbyists. Important topics, for discussion by only a handful of members in a small room high in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, included, for example, the issues of copyright and fees. The recruitment of new members was often discussed: How should we get in touch with young art critics? Might they permitted to pay a lower membership fee? How could we encourage contacts with foreign colleagues, such as Polish or East German art critics, who were AICA members? Who was going to attend AICA’s annual congress? Who was going to speak there? And would we, perhaps, be able to get some funds from the government? Some of the older members had experienced forms of anti-Semitism, persecution of the Jews and witch-hunts for communists during the German occupation of The Netherlands in 1940-45 and were very anxious to discuss moral and philosophical topics. Someone like Mathilde Visser, for instance, (1900-1985, an art critic in De Waarheid and Het Financieele Dagblad), as a former communist, would use every AICA meeting as an opportunity for vociferously pointing out that art critics had the obligation to keep an eye on politics, and not just cultural politics. The president of the  Section, Hans Jaffé, held a lecture for AICA members about his trip to China, and  later another lecture at the Art Historical Institute of the University of Amsterdam, in which he spoke in moving words about Max Beckmann’s exile in Amsterdam during the Second World War.4 On that occasion not only art critics were present, but also some artists, Armando among them. Sometimes, it felt like being a member of some secret society.

Our current view of what took place more than 35 years ago has been coloured by our memory, the choices we now make and how we judge the facts. We, Antje von Graevenitz, president of the section from 1987 to 1995, and Din Pieters, general secretary from 1989 to 1995, are trying, however, to describe AICA’s history. We owe much to the support of Tineke Reijnders, who was first a member of the AICA board, until she succeeded Von Graevenitz as chair, in 1996. Our point of departure for our description of the section’s history has been the many events that it has managed to organise over the years.

One of the first events that the new board held in 1987 was called Art Tourism – Art on Location. It fitted in with a debate about democratisation that was very topical at the time, and focused on the question of how to open up our ‘elitist art temples’ to a larger public. Exhibitions such as Chambres d’Amis. in Ghent, curated by Jan Hoet, Skulptur Projekte in Münster by Kaspar König, Sonsbeek ’86 curated by Saskia Bos, and Century ’87 Today’s Art Face to Face with Amsterdam’s Past, curated by Sjarel Ex, Nicolette Gast and Els Hoek, were looking for a different kind of environment in which to show contemporary art. Speakers at the AICA meeting were Sjarel Ex, Jan Hoet, Saskia Bos, Philip Peters and the artists Niek Kemps and Willem Sanders.

The symposium „Writing about Art“: From the right: Marlene Dumas, Ludger Gerdes, Frank Lubbers (moderator), Niek Kemps. Juan Muňos (foto: Peter Cox)

‘The Engima of Postmodernism’

A complete U-turn in our thinking about the Modern in general presented itself already in the 1970s and early 1980s, when articles were published in France about Postmodernism and the role of art criticism. The ‘death’ of modernism provided a new freedom of thought, in which contradiction, plurality and hybridisation played important roles. For a large part, these were themes that had been presented earlier by Roland Barthes in 1966 in his book, Critique et verité, where he pointed out the necessity of using a pluralistic language. Early on in this, he stated that, instead of holding on to a strict normative and moral framework, one should strive for agreement and consensus. In the same vein, Peter Sloterdijk, in his long book Kritik der zynischen Vernunft of 1983, stated that he wanted to replace the wrong consciousness of the norms of the Enlightenment, as he saw it, with ‘the Enlightenment as conversation’. During the 1980s in our country, foreign authors, such as Jean Baudrillard, were offered a platform in the magazine Museumjournaal, (this magazine existed from 1955 to 1996 and was founded by the Dutch museums of modern art) when an AICA member, Paul Groot, was its editor.5

Was there a noticeable influence of these new ideas on our choice of topics to be presented for discussion? And have our discussions had a subsequent influence on art criticism? Using the philosophical arguments of Baudrillard and the artist who influenced him, Marcel Duchamp, the AICA member Frank Reijnders published his dissertation, Art History. Appearance and Disappearance (1984). Reijnders argued in his book that art history would disappear in its old form, and nothing could prevent its re-emergence in a new guise. ‘Consequently, a constant mirroring back and forth between image and notion will ensue, and the new will blend with the false – because anachronistic. The avant-garde has always wanted to ignore tradition, because this form of denial constitutes the engine and justification of its own existence. However, the author insisted that history still provided the framework for its identification, because ‘there reigned a perfect promiscuity of art-space […] This blending resulted in a hybrid order of forms, uncontrolled proliferation of signs, an endless variation of “signifiers”.’ Reijnders held a talk for AICA members in 1987, at which his book was debated extensively.

As far back as in 1983, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard had written in his book, Le Différend, that the modern had been pregnant with the post-modern for quite some time, because resistance against the existing order was inherent in both. The process of remembering could not be suddenly swept away by the avant-garde. Reconsideration of what had existed earlier – a main characteristic of postmodernism – remained important; otherwise it would be impossible to know what model one is opposing, and resistance was useless. Thus, gestures were ambiguous: repression of the old went hand in hand with openness to the new; the same went for for memories, and then  there was the question of patience, as well. What was created in this way, as an image of what had really happened in the past, might be truthful; and then a re-writing of the modern might be possible, too.

Not only was Frank Reijnders’ lecture a consequence of AICA’s discussing the topic of Post-modernism; other events in the same spirit took place in the AICA programme somewhat later. On 22 May 1987 a discussion was held in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam with the title The Enigma of Postmodernism, at which talks were given by Jan Middendorp, Paul Groot and Adi Martis. The subject remained in the focus of AICA’s attention. And some time later, in February 1993, the same topic was again debated by lecturers from Belgium and The Netherlands during the conference, Beyond Art – Art Criticism in a New Phase. Lectures were given by Bart Verschaffel, from Antwerp, and Lieven De Cauter, from Louvain. Together with other guest speakers, including Marianne Brouwer, Paul Groot, the poet K. Michel, Dominic van den Boogerd and Let Geerling, there was a lively discussion among those present. The history of architecture was another inspirational source for art criticism. At the beginning of the 1970s architectural historians, such as Charles Jencks and Heinrich Klotz, applied the term ‘postmodernism’ to architecture. Philosophers and curators embraced the notion wholeheartedly, because now they could explain why architects such as Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson threw over their inhibitions and set about incorporating historical motifs into their designs for new buildings – something that wasabsolutely ‘not on’ in modernism. History became a much beloved source again. Architecture, art and music no longer had to fight bourgeois culture, as if they were revolutionary. But another kind of terminology was now needed. So, in 1993 AICA invited architectural historians Ole Bouman and Roemer van Toorn to come and talk about their forthcoming monumental and labyrinthine book, The Invisible in Architecture (1994). They told their audience that ‘oppositional thinking must make way for complementary thinking’. Architecture was about the connection between the visible and the invisible, and by accepting this, ‘intimate’ and physical values, such as the role of architecture in people’s public behaviour, received attention for the first time; and this, in turn, created to the need for a new set of criteria in our assessment of architecture. Both authors tried to create a new kind of terminology for this process. One happy outcome of this was that it led to a very lively discussion between the authors and two other architectural historians, Bart Lootsma and Joost Meuwissen in Zaal De Unie in Rotterdam.

Asking questions: The Political Context

The 1980s and 1990s were also a time of far-reaching geopolitical changes that nobody could have predicted, and that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Changes in historical circumstances that started in Eastern Europe forced art critics to become more conscious of the ideological foundations of their judgments and they had to start thinking about the criteria and language they were using, when formulating their criticism. In art history research is generally based upon connoisseurship, and detailed comparisons of style, signature and technique. Later on, in the 1970s, analysis of the artist’s biographical circumstances and intentions in a socio-political context became increasingly important. This all fundamentally changed art historical research and, as a consequence, art criticism too. Social and political influences on art were suddenly seen to be dominant forces, and it was recognised that artists were not excluded from them – and so were all of us. Artistic motifs, signs and the choice of subjects in their works were now seen to be more or less consciously connected to these forces. ‘Context’ sometimes seemed to be the stern teacher that guided the hand of the artist, when painting or chiselling. And context dictated, as it were, the meaning of a work of art, while the importance of the artist’s personal contribution and choices had moved into the background. It was a process of abstraction, in fact, as society and collective creativity were given absolute status. At first, this new kind of dogmatic thinking was highly exaggerated, and it still exists of course, but it no longer belongs exclusively to the domain of art historians. Suddenly, art historical publications had to start with a description of the historical context, and most often ended there, too; but context still played a creative role and sometimes even came to be seen as a decisive factor, as well. The dependency of culture, and especially art, had to be demonstrated time and again. This dominant way of thinking also determined the art critic’s point of view, and looking back, we can conclude that these developments had a great impact on art critical debate in The Netherlands.

The large-scale changes began in the 1980s in the Soviet Union. This geographic and political world power was beginning to show signs of economic cracks: shops were becoming more and more empty. The economic downturn was followed by a political downwards spiral. The then president, Michael Gorbachev, from 1985 onwards, was leading a process of spiritual and social reform. The terms glasnost – openness – and perestroika – political and economic reform – were the slogans, and received a warm international welcome. It looked as if society and the cultural scene, in general, had been waiting for this. But it was all to no avail – Gorbachev had little chance, and because of the ongoing political and economic crisis his power diminished rapidly. His successor, Boris Yeltsin, did not succeed in solving the problems and as a consequence the once mighty Soviet empire fell apart, as the various countries that formed the Union began to demand independence. Only the German Democratic Republic did not want any of this, their economy did not leave any room for independence; and Erich Honecker, its president, and his government put their trust in the protection the still big communist state would provide them. But eventually, through the ongoing economic, democratic and cultural crisis, Honecker, lost his grip on the developments in his country. The intellectual elite, and large parts of the rest of the country (‘We are the People!’) wanted a different kind of policy that allowed people with different ideas – the opposition – a chance in society and politics, but still within some kind of socialism. Gradually an alternative solution presented itself – the reintegration of the two different Germanys – and this, indeed, was achieved. Almost fifty years after the separation of the two German states into a capitalist state and a socialist state, a unified Germany was established in 1990. These events evoked feelings of great sympathy for the people in the East who were fighting for their freedom – as did the tragic and bloody end to the protest of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which was forcefully ended by military intervention in a single night.

Now people in the art world in the West were beginning to ask questions, such as: What are our criteria, now that our view of European/American art no longer seems to be the dominant force? Art in Eastern Europe was no longer isolated from the rest of the world, and perhaps there might be similarities between the East and the West, for all the apparent differences. This international context had a great influence upon AICA’s programme.

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall we invited the art historian Andreas Thielemann, who taught at the University of Cologne, and who had been an East German citizen in the past, to deliver a lecture on the theme of Art from the German Democratic Republic – an Inner German War of Images, in which he offered AICA members some new insights into the gap that existed in the GDR between adaptation and resistance. That same year we also were lucky to receive a talk by the Russian art critic Alexander Yakimovich, who as a witness to the great changes between East and West developed many contacts in the western art world. He had initially offered to give us no fewer than twelve lectures on the subject (!), but we only took one, in the event. In 1992, his lecture Late Soviet Civilisation was published in the Dutch magazine Kunst & Museumjournaal(vol. 3, nr. 6, pp.18-23) and it is about the differences between East and West. The earlier controversy between the official, communist art and art history of the authorities and that of the underground artists, writers and intellectuals, had now been replaced by a new duality: looking narrowly at Soviet-style art or looking at it in a broader sense. The narrow look had become the more familiar, also in the west, and was based upon the neo-romantic idea of an ‘isolated élite that has its orientation towards the West, and the rest of Soviet reality.’ In contrast, followers of the ‘broad view’, such as Boris Groys, did not detach the ‘real art’ of the non-conformists from the rest of Soviet reality. They were interested in the Homo Sovieticus in a wider sense. In other words, Yakimovich wondered, how would the artist respond to the Soviet universe and how would it be reflected in his work?

Yakimovich went on to state that, while in the West, writers such as Baudrillard, Derrida and Barthes were attempting to find a solution to the ‘problems and paradoxes of a society of plenty, production and pluralism that for the most part were dictated by laws of consumption, communication and tolerance’, people in Russia did not have the slightest notion of these things. Still, he could see similarities between the ‘desperate spirit’ in the East, and that in the West, although the causes were completely different. In the West, freedom, democracy and abundance lay at the heart of our confusion; in the East, the harsh totalitarian society and the ultimate collapse of the communist system were the main causes. Without the assistance of Derrida, who called for caution when using sets of opposing notions, in Russia the fundamentally antithetical concepts of ‘truth and lies, reality and fiction, religion and atheism, progress and decline’ fell apart, of their own accord. According to Yakimovich, Russian culture ‘had always had its own national kind of eschatology that can already be found in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.’ And the theories that Kasimir Malevich formulated were of a more or less eschatological nature, too. A permanent feeling of disaster in the Soviet Union was always unavoidable. Art critics in the West were talking about a ‘happy apocalypse’ in modern art and they thought that the only way out was to ‘amuse ourselves to death’, but in Russian art, Yakimovich concluded succinctly, only the first half of that statement was relevant. There was no alternative: ‘there is no Utopia (…) Cultural representatives in the west quite rightly guessed that we have common basic problems regarding the relation between man and the world, but they did not recognise the differences.’

Kasimir Malevich in the Stedelijk Museum

AICA The Netherlands was able to play a considerable part in the growing interest in the history of Russian art. When the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam organised a large exhibition of works by Kasimir Malevich in 1989 – the first ever of its kind in the West, AICA held a conference about his art, in which the speakers were Hans van Dijk, Bazon Brock, Marga van Mechelen and the Swiss Malevich expert Felix Philipp Ingold. Ingold’s talk was primarily about the Black Square. In answering our questions about this in 2020, he writes that he cannot remember much about what the lecture was about specifically, but that ‘it certainly was about the contradiction between all and nothing, and fulness and emptiness, and how Malevich presents them in text and image. Taking as an example the Black Square that he developed from 1913 to 1915 from the set for Krushenik’s theatre piece, Victory over the Sun, (…) Black unites different colours and eliminates them at the same time (…) And when one sees it as text, the same thing happens (…) One can put a countless number of texts on top of one another and the result will eventually be an impenetrable black square. In the end we may say that everything is there, but intangible and incomprehensible.’ Hans van Dijk’s lecture was primarily about Malevich’s suprematist architectural designs that he made with his students. Marga van Mechelen’s focus was on the question of whether Malevich could be seen as a semiotician avant la lettre. In this regard, could he be put on a par with Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky? She very much had her doubts. After comparing the texts of Malevich with those of other Russian formalists, she discovered that the latter viewed the relationship between form and content in a different way from that of semioticians, later on. Formalists saw content as form, as well. Malevich belonged neither to the formalist school nor to the semioticians, Van Mechelen concluded. Malevich’s main interest was to find a new way of imbuing the non-mimetic elements of a painting with meaning. The lectures of both Ingold and Van Mechelen were complementary in a surprising kind of way, and the conference in general was important for our AICA members and other people present. It provided an opportunity for rethinking the differences between East and West.

Magiciens de la terre: Globalism

Even before changes in the cultural relations between East and West had become an interesting topic, the growth in global trade, or more generally ‘globalisation’, was leading to the question of how this process would influence art and culture. It did not remain just a question, as many exhibitions, manifestations and publications were giving a prominent place to this topic, and were investigating how global artistic creativity could be impartially presented and judged. One of the most surprising, and controversial, exhibitions that came out of this, was organised in Paris by Jean-Hubert Martin in 1989, under the title of Magiciens de la terre. The curator’s central point was that artists in the West played a similar role to that of shamans in non-western cultures, and the term ‘artist’ would disappear completely, or in any case change its meaning fundamentally. In 1991, AICA The Netherlands invited the New York based art critic Thomas McEvilley to present his views on globalism and art. His lecture, entitled Contemporary Art in History. A portrait in a Global Frame, was also published in Kunst & Museumjournaal later that year (vol. 3, no. 2, pp.1-10). McEvilley saw modernism as an ideology that tried to maintain a complex of social values such as class differences, colonialism and imperialism, stating that the concepts hierarchy and centre vs. periphery were characteristic of modernism. In fact, these terms were a justification for imperialism, and one might think of Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, as a prime example. According to McEvilley, the distinction we make between centre and periphery, higher and lower art, Western and non-Western depended upon, or was syntactically connected to, the distinction between nature and culture. And he maintained that post-modernism had been trying to turn these values on their head, at least in its early beginnings. Art history had always been an exclusive western domain, and all other cultures were disregarded. For McEvilley, the end of art history also meant the end of the view that there was only one, narrow and separate trend, perhaps even only a main trend that we have to study, and he stated that in a ‘global village’ the concept of a single or main current was no longer tenable. The most important question now, he declared, was whether it was any longer possible to formulate transcultural judgements. Only through self-reflection, the development of a sense of perspective, and the use of common sense, could we support our attempt to become global in a practical sense, instead of universal in a metaphysical sense. And what about the mixture of cultures? Was that a real possibility, or would it have irrevocable, destructive consequences? This conclusion sounded unfortunate, McEvilley complained to his audience, as it held onto the notion of ethnic purity. He would rather argue for an openness to other cultures and reach the conclusion that thinking your own concepts were universally true was, perhaps, one of the most characteristic of all particularist simplifications.

The New Media and the World Wide Web

Art critics have been confronted with radical changes from within art itself. Since the 1960s artists have been eagerly experimenting with new technologies, such as video, but the subsequent introduction of new digital media has directly influenced the critic’s profession. Without the intermediate stage of newspapers, journals, catalogues and books, information has begun to spread with tremendous speed throughout the global art world. This has led to questions such as: ‘How and what do you select from this increasing flood of material? How can you deal with the copyright on illustrations? Can you counter manipulation? And does the ”perfect” work of art still exist?’ In an attempt to find answers to these compelling questions, AICA organised a conference about the role of The New Media, in 1996. Geert Lovink, the founder of the Institute of Network Cultures, talked about the daily practice of the net critic and copyright, and the writer Arjen Mulder’s subject was The Ideal of Meaningless-ness. A round-table concluded the day, with Tineke Reijnders as chair and with the participation of Jorinde Seijdel, Dorine Mignot, Jouke Kleerebezem and Toine Ooms. As a curator for video-art at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Mignot spoke about the artistic use of the new media, while art historian and critic Jorinde Seijdel drew the new media in a wider social and cultural perspective. When we asked the artist, Kleerebezem, about this, he remembered these ‘exciting’ days as follows: ‘The ‘90s were very productive. The attention of many artists, designers and also “hackers” – originally in a subcultural setting, shared by social scientists like Mulder and Lovink – was directed towards the internet and the World Wide Web. We saw a newly emerging space for expression and participation, where new circumstances of production, presentation, reflection and education applied.’

The symposium „Writing about Art“: From the right: Bice Curiger, Alain Cueff, Stuart Morgan, Tineke Reijnders-de Groot (foto: Peter Cox)

A Burning Question and Two Conferences

Next to these meetings, AICA The Netherlands – with outside support – organised two public debates about the changing nature of art criticism: Are they Writing like Mandarins? (in 1988) and Writing about Art (in 1991). Articles with the proceedings of both meetings were published in Museumjournaal (vol. 33, no. 3, 1988, pp. 139-162) and Kunst & Museumjournaal (vol. 3, no. 4, 1992, pp. 1-61). These conferences can be seen in the context of a wider debate that erupted in 1983 in our country about unreadable art criticism that was set off by the poet and writer, Gerrit Komrij. In an article in Vrij Nederland (issue of 2 October 1982), headed The Burning Question, he attacked art critics who emulated the artist Joseph Beuys, in producing ‘mystic sentences’, ‘would-be profundities’, and ‘secretive twaddle’. The Museumjournaal took up the challenge and devoted an entire issue to the state of art criticism (vol. 38, no.1, 1983). The article by the poet K. Schippers, who regularly wrote about art – and still does – posed the question of why it was that art so often led to weighty nonsense. The art historian and artist, Franck Gribling, in his contribution stated that writing about art should not be a job for specialists, and the critic, Cor Blok, also disassociated himself from the use of a secretive language when dealing with art. In his view, the work of the then fashionable ‘Neue Wilden’ (‘wild painters’) suffered from too much self-expression, but he warned critics not to express their revulsion against it in the same way as critics in Nazi Germany had been doing, when they had criticised expressionist and abstract art, as being ‘entartet’ (degenerate). The main function of a critic was to provide information, Cor Blok added. The art historian, art critic and artist, Carel Blotkamp, praised K. Schippers for the way in which he shared his sincere amazement with his readers. The art critic, Lily van Ginneken, criticised Komrij’s view that art was supposed to be beautiful. The art critic and exhibition curator, Saskia Bos, distinguished between three kinds of art criticism: an impressionistic one, that emphasised personal impressions; the intentional one, that launched a statement up-front, but that also had recourse to irony and ambiguity; and, finally, the intrinsic one, that linked an objective point of view to a formal analysis of the artworks in question. The art critic, Walter Barten, took up a position that might be characterised as the most ‘postmodern’ of them all. He said that there are no longer any strict, universal standards for judging a work of art: ‘My judgements are changeable and subjective’, he concluded.

Of course, AICA became involved in the discussion. On the initiative of Tineke Reijnders, with the support of the Museumjournaal, an encounter was organised, in which a number of critics from both abroad and The Netherlands were invited to take part in a colloquium. The title of this, Are they Writing like Mandarins?, was coined by AICA member Magda van Emde Boas, and illustrated the problem very well. Within AICA there was a growing concern that art criticism had become ever more dependent upon the critic’s intellectual abilities and way of thinking, and that the role of the critic, as an intermediary and provider of information, would suffer, as a result.

A number of international critics, Peter Schjeldahl, Pier Luigi Tazzi, Germano Celant and Wolfgang Max Faust, together with Paul Groot, Marianne Brouwer and Anna Tilroe from The Netherlands, gave talks and also debated among themselves, and with the audience. The event was chaired by Saskia Bos. Some of the participants in the conference did not submit their contribution for later publication, among them Donald Kuspit, Thomas McEvilley, Pat Steir and Marie-Pascale Gildemijn. Some speakers limited their contribution to simply offering an overview of the history of art criticism, without getting involved in the polemics of the debate. Some sad minds took the floor as well, but some gave humorous advice, such as Peter Schjeldahl, who suggested that if art critics started writing as sports reporters, they would surely attract a larger public. Marianne Brouwer gave a description of the powerlessness of art criticism, because the moment some kind of ideology was ascribed to artworks it was immediately taken down again by art itself. Art criticism would always be overtaken by events. As a sad mandarin, Pier Luigi Tazzi closed his contribution, a poem, with a celebration of the small fantasies, enormous vanity and large uncertainty of the critic. Stuart Morgan confessed that a critic in the United Kingdom was seen as an idiot, while Germano Celant saw himself not as a mandarin, but rather as a samurai, a fighter whose projects could exert some influence on culture. Anna Tilroe adhered to a definition by Peter Sloterdijk: ‘Working as a critic is practising an intellectual freedom, as art is as well.’ They were equal, but not identical. Art criticism indeed was a specialism, according to Anna Tilroe, but not for the sake of that specialism.

Four years later, in 1992, AICA The Netherlands, together with the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, organised another conference about art criticism, entitled Writing About Art, which offered an interesting comparison with the earlier conference. Bice Curiger, editor of the magazine Parkett, expressed a feeling of uneasiness about the growing power of gallerists, art dealers, museums and, as she put it, the ‘quick art collector’. The art critics came out worst. She underlined the importance of independent criticism and pleaded for more support. Paul Groot, in his contribution, emphasised the importance of connecting works of art to ‘a certain kind of independent thought’. He saw himself mainly as a critic, ‘because of his own creation of language.’ What strikes us now, when reading the proceedings of this conference, is that the threat to independent art criticism might also have been coming from a totally different direction. European and America art historians and critics, Carel Blotkamp, Bice Curiger, Charles Harrison, Dan Cameron, Alan Cueff, Stuart Morgan and Paul Groot, were sometimes heavily attacked by well versed artists, such as Joseph Kosuth, Ludger Gerdes, Marlene Dumas and Juan Muñoz. The British art critic Stuart Morgan did still see a role for critics as double agents in the territory between artists and audiences. That position, however, led to a situation of distrust on both sides, he said, and he asked on whose side the critic was, in any case. He then went on to declare that there was only one possible answer: his own! Morgan’s fellow countryman Charles Harrison, as a member of the collective Art & Language, said he was closer to the artist, for which he was heavily criticised by Joseph Kosuth. Marlene Dumas, too, was very clear about the relations between artist and critic: ‘I write about my own work because I want to speak for myself. I might not be the only authority, or even the best one, but I want to contribute, in writing my own history.’ The closing discussion, chaired by Saskia Bos, with the art historian and critic Antje von Graevenitz, the writer Dirk van Weelden, Ulrich Loock, the director of the Kunsthalle in Berne, Switzerland, and Denys Zacharopoulos, art critic and co-curator of Documenta IX took a closer look at the relations between the art critic and the artist, and the critic and the work of art. The discussion produced a whole range of different opinions and contradicted some things that had been said in the previous lectures about the existing gap between the artist and the critic. Ulrich Loock cast doubt on the artist’s authority, because, he said, ‘when the work is finished, the artist’s relation to it is the same as that of any stranger who looks at it.’ He had had fierce discussions and arguments with some artists, he told us, but some, on the other hand, found it interesting. Loock liked the idea of ‘creating a distance’, as he put it, ‘and creating a space in which the work can reveal itself, and where it can be free enough to function as a catalyst for the development of meaning.’ When we asked Saskia Bos what she remembered of this, she recalled that she had posed the question of whether curators and artists still saw their contributions to an exhibition or project as something strictly separate, or whether it was a process of give and take, and more a kind of ‘boxing contest’ between ‘sparring partners.’ Loock went further, and said that the artist and curator had now turned into accomplices. Some art historians and critics contested this view, but they also did not want to blame a curator, for showing the ambition to act as an artist’s accomplice.

When we look back, we may now say that the cross-over between artist and curator was essentially the result of a process that started with the emergence of conceptual art, when art was no longer the visual materialisation of the artist’s imagination, and artists were allowed to function in a wider cultural and art-philosophical area. The curator, at the same time, was now liberated from the role of artist’s lackey. The art critic, for his part, was beginning increasingly to view his own work as philosophy, or art, and/or as literature.

The subjective perspective

During the 1980s and 1990s AICA, acting sometimes in cooperation with various institutions or magazines, organised numerous lectures and meetings about the foundations of art criticism at a time of tremendous cultural and political change. Not only our colleagues’ benefited from these, but also a wider audience of interested people. Some topical subjects had been left out of account, of course, because we had not felt obliged to deal with everyday cultural events in the same way that newspaper criticism did. Also, the position of the art critic in the press had gradually and fundamentally changed over time. In newspapers and weekly magazines short profiles, interviews and reports were given more space, while traditional art criticism received less and less space. Written pieces of a more theoretical, philosophical and formal nature appeared in exhibition catalogues and specialised art magazines. And on the whole, faith in the critic’s opinion was diminishing, now that his criteria for evaluating art had been muddied by post-modernism and globalism, and were often written off, as ‘subjective’. Those with the final say about the quality of art were increasingly swayed by matters of connoisseurship and persuasion. Were we really convinced by a work of art? And did we believe in the intentions of the artist? Yet it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that the Dutch members of AICA had been afflicted by a narrow vision. We have tried to respond to developments of the time, but wanted to provide some theoretical depth, too, and have tried to develop a fitting terminology for the art critic’s professional status.

  1. Schumacher, Rogier: Neo-avantgarde in Nederland. Museumjournaal als forum van eennieuw kunstbegrip. Amsterdam University Press 2010; in a series about criticism in the Netherlands a book by the same author has been published as: idem: Kunstkritiek als exactvak? De kunsthistoricus als criticus 1960-2005. nai010 uitgevers. Rotterdam 2015 (in: Kunstkritiek in Nederland 1885-2015. Ed. Peter de Ruiter en Jonneke Jobse)
  2. Just to remember some of them: Jetteke Bolten-Rempt (Director of the Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden), Liesbeth Brandt-Corstius (chiefeditor of the Museumjournaal 1974-1980,  director of the Museum voor moderne Kunst Arnhem), Rudi Fuchs (successively director Stedelijk van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam),  A.M. Hammacher (director of the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo), Reinilde Hammacher van den Brande (chiefcurator modern and contemporary art of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), Paul Hefting (curator Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo), Hans Hoetink (director Mauritshuis, The Hague), Hans Jaffé (Prof. Modern art history, University of Amsterdam), Ellen Joosten (curator Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller,Otterlo)
  3. Besides  articles and books for scientific purpurse, they wrote also texts for books, catalogues, journals and magazines in a mixture of art historical and art critical style.
  4. Following the exhibition Max Beckmann. The Triptychs. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 1981-1982.
  5. Paul Groot and Frank Reijnders met Baudrillard in 1988 during the AICA-congress in Buenos Aires as Groot told Rogier Schumacher in an interview: ‘Als je het expliciet maakt, dan is de waarde weg’. Gesprek met Paul Groot over het postmodernistische discours. In: De Witte Raaf, jan.-feb. 2012  pp. 22-23

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