PRINT December 1989


NOT LONG AGO, WHEN I was visiting the Hermitage in Leningrad, I came upon something that astonished me: a medium-large painting by Claude Monet was framed in a cheap, nonreflecting glass that, with a sort of milky effect, filtered away almost half of the image. On my trip to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow I again found these panes—this time over portraits by Dutch masters—which transformed these masterworks into what resembled poorly reproduced plates from a calendar.

Of course, behind this act of passive massacre there stands the honorable intention of protecting the work of art. But in the presence of these silent, blind works there seemed to me—the astonished visitor from the West—to be a symbol, as evocative as any others I had observed, of the impediments to free communication and cultural access in the Soviet Union. How else to explain that an institution with an average of ten thousand daily visitors each year can go unpunished for using these “sight suppressors”?

Yet the screen as metaphor: how well it corresponds to all sorts of existing and still-developing phenomena and tendencies of our Western—or, better, our Western European—art industry. For here too the free exchange of creative energy and imagination is hindered; the work we must do and the tools that we need to do it are unable to meet unobstructed. Here, too, the new, upcoming idea on the horizon eludes us as the sheer quantity and broadness of innovation overwhelms us. Certainly the “sight suppressors” in Western European culture are of a different nature from those in our neighbors to the east, but they’re well worth examining.

The noncentralized structure and the various languages in which Europeans must carry on the art debate have always required a strong commitment from the participants in order to guarantee and maintain an all-encompassing discourse. And postwar activities in Europe have always been informed, at least to some extent, by an acknowledgment of the pitfalls of tunnel vision (watch out: important signals might not be perceived; something might peter out prematurely; the domination of the local scene might be blinding; the conditions for understanding in the neighboring country, in another continent, might be entirely different, etc.). This deeply felt—and often useful—sense of instability intensified as the dazzle became more glamorous at the other end, at the opposite pole, New York City, the epitome of the superefficient art-distribution machine, in which everything is utterly professionalized and institutionalized, and apparently moving toward its goals with not much emotional wear and tear.

Yet the dichotomy between Western European and North American structures and conditions in the mediation of art has become more and more problematic in the general discussion about post-Modernism and Modernism, internationalism and regionalism. In Europe, settling accounts with dogmas and personalities à la Clement Greenberg is a far less central day-to-day issue. Europeans concentrate far more intently on two other issues: the uninterrupted struggle against provincialism, against local obstructors and levelers; and the hazards of an international mainstream discourse, with its inherent effects of reduction. And yet each individual somehow feeds on the notion and the necessary faith that he or she is, fortunately, involved in a vast, wide-meshed network of hard-working cultural laborers.

In West Germany, Walter Grasskamp has just published a book entitled Die unbewältigte Moderne (The failure to overcome Modernism, 1989). Dealing with the history of the art institutions, which, during the late 19th-century, first began systematically organizing the large-scale circulation of art, Grasskamp studies the Nazi defamation of Modernism in the 1937 “degenerate art” show and then traces its impact on postwar West German cultural politics as well as on the canonizing of Modernism. Sharing responsibility, then, in “creating a living climate”1—this is one impetus that has frequently lent wings to European art critics. But just who are the protagonists of a European art criticism, and what instruments are available to them?

Take Switzerland as an example. For some time now, the Swiss have accepted the commonplace that real art criticism is done, or rather can be done, not so much by the journalists who write under that designation for daily newspapers, but by the directors of exhibition spaces or certain museums, as well as—and more and more frequently now—by freelance writers who also organize exhibitions. This model offers us the art critic as a driving force in tracking down, picking over, and pulling out “the best and the brightest” from the endless array of art producers. What he then puts forward with his commentary becomes part of the risky hunt for a relevant discourse of the age. This is also the arena for expressing “civil disobedience,” for acting on the courage of one’s convictions. We can list a number of internationally renowned Swiss who have risen to this challenge admirably. And not coincidentally (thus my choice of pronouns for this paragraph), they are usually men; for they have been obliged to play the role of generals. Standing on hills throughout Europe, they must be farsighted enough to make out the vast lines of movement; but they have also focused on what’s nearest at hand, and been ready to engage in the hardest close combat.

Working with artists, then, regarding oneself as their partner, and regarding oneself as a kind of intellectual relay station that transmits challenging impulses to artists as well; one who views local matters on the same level as international issues, albeit at times with the attitude of a “Doctor Christian Barnard, who, right after a heart transplant, has to lance a boil”2—such is the makeup of the professional art critic, or at least such is the ideal that has developed here during the past two decades.

Needless to say, in this boom time for artists and galleries, this brand of critic, if writing for a daily or weekly newspaper, could not possibly fulfill such a task. As a diligent “local” reporter, he or she would be easily overwhelmed by happenings on the home front. Oddly enough, the powers-that-be of the European mass media have recognized the necessity of getting their reporters covering the sports beat to the many distant arenas, stadiums, and tracks where the athletes actually perform. But the art critic is considered another story. He or she must stay bound to his home desk. Far from the madding—but energetic and illuminating—crowd, our resident art critic loses touch with the cutting edge of current art practice. He or she can only dutifully produce competent but uninspired copy for an ever-growing art audience. Collecting a good salary and building up a pension, he or she will, from time to time, rally a few freelancers who drudge away for symbolic fees, with no hope of recovering expenses for ardently desired and indeed crucial expeditions. A dismal situation!

This state of affairs perhaps helps explain why huge prestige exhibitions like Documenta, the Venice Biennale, “Westkunst,” “von hier acts,” etc., are still allotted disproportionate space in the newspapers. And they will remain so as long as most newspapers consider them the only “foreign” exhibits (which, of course, often means only as far as the next town) worthy of sending an art journalist to with expenses paid. Unfortunately, overall, the journalistic results remain rather meager, because, like a belated response to a joke, they mainly register the information lag. It is in this context that we must view the significance of the art academies, especially the German ones, and the exhibition catalogues (whose vast number and hefty weight often elicit complacent smirks in America). For after all is (not) said and (not) done, these must serve as the major instruments for stimulating discussions on a high level and assuring an immediate exchange of ideas between generations.

But what about the art journals and magazines? In his above-mentioned book, Walter Grasskamp also develops the thesis that the authority of the art critic and the art historian is no longer necessary in Europe, at least not for any contact between dealers and collectors. To illustrate his thesis, the author offers the following satirical parable:

[The booths of art journals] nestle like small parasites in the epidermis of the art-fair elephant, sucking its blood in order to absorb information and to get advertisements in more or less serious ratios, and riding and swaying along when the colossus moves, as if they were the ones fixing the direction that the elephant happens to take. Yet they are still there at the next change of direction and the next change after that. . . . The colossus doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t care one bit about the symbiotic contribution of the small travel group, which, with its usually droll financial volume, fits comfortably into one of his pores.3

Joking aside, there is sufficient reason to be pessimistic. And I believe it is time to apply all our energy toward providing a new prestige for art criticism. At this very moment, the above-mentioned European structural conditions make it incumbent on us to advocate financial support for freelance critics and curators: either with government grants, with subsidies for work, study, and travel; or with prizes and awards from private foundations that have yet to be set up.

I believe we’re past the time of relying purely on the strong hands of a few courageous men who buck the system. Didn’t Sotheby’s recent Moscow auction of current Soviet art demonstrate all too clearly that the market will intervene in events far more quickly and efficiently than any cultural politics? The term “corporate sponsorship” has infiltrated Europe as rapidly as the telefax, unexpectedly penetrating every last rustic nook. But since this area has neither a tradition nor modern experience with it, we can only expect the worst. Crude ingratiation, populist exploitation, and crass, vulgar tones are already ubiquitous.

THE CRITIC IS NEEDED as a moral and intellectual conscience. It is time, in this age of supreme mobility, to liberate ourselves from the overtly intense emotions with which we confront the polarizations between provincial and international experience. We have to discover and promote new forms for the professional practice of art discourse and debate, hybrid forms—perhaps some based on American examples? And women, too, have something to contribute. And that doesn’t simply mean running the next Documenta . . . !

Art has to be armed against even those clothed as its friends. It is vital that we further the discourse on art, but in such a way that this discourse remains a sharp instrument. Recall the late ’60s and early ’70s, when, in light of the generic term “performance,” art criticism overstrained and burst its conventional mediation channels by tuning into and drawing energy from utterances emerging from very diverse fields—literature, dance, music, theater.

Out of a utopian and visionary impulse, Joseph Beuys coined the term “social sculpture.” Yet it’s a concept we might want to plug into today when dealing with Jeff Koons’ works or the spectacles of a Prince. But who can explain this to us? Where is the energy to climb off the elephant’s back and meet the art we care about most deeply—with all the tools offered to us by Modernist ideas and all the fields of inquiry now opened to us by post-Modernist insights?

Bice Curiger is the editor of Parkett and the author of the catalogue Meret Oppenheim, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.



1. The phrase is Harald Szeemann’s, front an interview in his collection of essays Museum der Obzessionen (Museum of obsessions), Berlin: Mere Verlag, 1981, p. 79. And this is certainly what Sreemann sought to accomplish in his years as director of the Bern Kunsthalle.
2. Ibid., p. 78.

3. Walter Grasskamp, Die unbewältigte Modern, Munich: C.H. Beck, 1989, p. 64.