Teisipäev, juuni 28, 2011

Online Art Criticism: North

Artishok meets Mustekala

James Elkins was a little bit too dramatic when he said that art criticism was dying. It is not dying until we have civic society layered somewhere between the neoliberal market and the national state. Though the question is: do we? Do we still have argumentated opinions about art outside our personal conversations? Do we still use the four step thinking that consists of description, analysis, interpretation and judgment when talking about art in the public sphere? The disappearance of essayistic art criticism from the daily and weekly newspapers is something that Estonia shares with Finland. What is the state of Finnish art criticism now in the noughties? Is pushing aside "elitism" by the mass media justified when writing about art? Should we stop talking about the crisis of criticism and simply start writing brilliant essays? Liisa Kaljula asks Mustekala related Irmeli Hautamäki, Martta Heikkilä, Saara Hacklin and Anni Venäläinen about the state of art criticism in Finland.

Irmeli Hautamäki is the founder of Mustekala who teaches at the Department of Art Studies at the University of Helsinki, she is trained as a philosopher and specializes on philosophy of art and avant-garde art.

Martta Heikkilä wrote her doctoral dissertation about Jean-Luc Nancy and the limits of presentation and has, inter alia, given lectures on philosophy of art and art criticism at various universities in Finland. She is editing the first Finnish textbook on art criticism that will come out under University of Helsinki in the autumn of 2011.

Saara Hacklin is curating and writing about contemporary art, her research focus at the University of Helsinki is Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of art.

Anni Venäläinen is working at Pori Museum of Art and doing her post-graduate studies at the University of Aalto Art and Art Education Department on curating and pedagogy as artistic practices.

Mustekala is an art criticism blog that was founded in Helsinki in 2003. It is today supported by the state and brings together around 15 active writers on art. Read more about Mustekala from the interview by Maarin Mürk with Irmeli Hautamäki in 2009 from here.

Special thanks go to Carl-Dag Lige who brought Mustekala and Artishok together again.


Liisa Kaljula: We have heard legendary stories about art criticism in Finland in the 90s with critics taking planes to New York for an exhibition review. What is the state of Finnish art criticism now? In Estonia we have noughties that are not so naughty du tout...

Irmeli Hautamäki: The criticism is in crisis in Finland as well. The newspapers have diminished the space for criticism since it is not interesting for the larger public. The newspapers are run as businesses and must sell.

Saara Hacklin: I'm not the best person to compare the scene of the 1990s with today's situation, since I only started my career, so to say, in the 00s. Of course the story we younger hear is that things were better before, that back in the days the state of criticism was better, it was given more space in the media and also that all the exciting experimental things happened already in the 80s and 90s. It's hard to disagree as one cannot produce any other counter evidence than the alleged downhill of today's scene.

Martta Heikkilä: I have to say that I was still a student in the 1990s, and not so familiar with the scene of criticism at the time... The first half of the 1990s was the time of economic recession in Finland, but later on it may have happened that the Finnish newspapers had the money to send their critics abroad when something worthwhile was happening in arts. This was of course a great thing – and necessary to begin to gain an overview of the international art scene.
Nowadays the position of criticism is in many ways poorer in mass media, although the economic situation is not to blame. Critical reviews are often short due to newsprint demands, and they try to avoid the elitistic label. Thus, the essayistic style is hardly present in criticism published in newspapers. Even in Finland there is a lot of talking about the “crisis of criticism” (as you know, James Elkins is one of the greatest spokesmen of this phenomenon), that is, the notion that there is little room for criticism in newspapers and that the critics do not evaluate art as they should, or do not tell their opinions but are content with vaguely describing the works.
On the other hand, a great deal of criticism is still published, probably more than ever and a large part of it is accessible easily on the web. A distinct feature in Finland is that Helsingin Sanomat is by far the largest newspaper here, and the audience relies on it, so it is established as a kind of authoritative voice.

Liisa: What are the main venues for art criticism now? And can one talk about venue based genres in contemporary Finnish art writing? Like the witty daily newspaper criticism and the more argumentative art magazine criticism? Or the glossy catalogue criticism and the more independent blog criticism? Or would You draw some other separation lines (eg. academic and commercial)?

Anni Venäläinen: I can mention a couple. Magazine: Taide. Newspaper: Helsingin Sanomat. It is supposed to be powerful, quite strangely because it is very limited and not at all profound with critics on art exhibitions. They give lots of space mainly for shows that they are collaborating with. I believe Mustekala´s possibilities to get growing attention in the near future. There are magazines like Taide & Design which is somewhere between commercial and serious art criticism. Also so called women`s magazines and lifestyle magazines write short „criticism“ about shows they think would be interesting for their readers. Suomenkuvalehti writes about art sometimes.

Irmeli: There are several magazines on specific art forms like Teatteri magazine for theatre, www.Liikekieli.com for dance, Nuori Voima for literature and poetry, Niin & näin for philosophy, Taide for Art and so on. Many of them also have websites which publish criticism. All these publish considerably good criticism to my understanding. The problem is that they all write to small special groups of readers. They are not very influential.
Some bloggers like Otso Kantokorpi’s Alastonkriitikko on art and Maaria Pääjärvi’s on literature are quite influential. Only www.mustekala.info has a larger group of writers on different fields of visual arts and the writers usually have academic background. The newspaper literary criticism has been collected to a web portal called www.kritiikkiportti.fi

Martta: Finland seems to follow the international patterns, as far as the types of writing and sites of publishing coincide. I mentioned the influence of the largest newspaper in Finland. The art magazine scene, in the field of visual arts, is rather constrained. There seems to be more overlap with academia and more accessible critical writing in the field of literary criticism.

Saara: For sure there are different venues for writing, yet I do feel that the scenes are unfortunately quite small, in a sense that there are only few places for each kind of writing, for instance one main journal... But maybe this is also changing. One of the aims of the net based publication I am involved with, Mustekala (www.mustekala.info), has been to open possibilities for more experimental writing that would mix the genres and even create new ones. I think it has been relatively successful in this, since we have different kind of writers, and hopefully we see in the future even more manifold art writing both in Mustekala and elsewhere, as there are also other new publications such as Esitys magazine who are aiming to challenge the traditional criticism.

Liisa: Who are the people who write art criticism in Finland now? Are they art historians? Or are they freelance creative writers?

Irmeli: I don’t think that academic art historians do write very much criticism. They have thought a new academic website www.TaHiTi.fi. The first issue of Tahiti will be published in September 2011. There are a few freelance writers like Erkki Pirtola in Voima magazine.

Martta: As far as I know, the situation varies. In Helsinki many of the critics are art historians or come from the field of art research (aesthetics, literature studies etc.) or are artists themselves, but I can’t really say about critics in more provincial newspapers. They may have education in arts or they are just general journalists with varying backgrounds. Also, they tend to employ a lot of freelancers whose background can be just about everything.

Saara: As far as I understand, the field is pretty diverse and since many of the writers are freelancers their situations may vary from time to time. A year ago I read a column by Paula Holmila, art critic and journalist, who accused those writers who also do curating (this includes me) threatening the credibility of art criticism. Her point was that these writers are too afraid of being genuinely critical towards, let`s say, big museums, as they wish the next moment to collaborate with the institution etc. Of course there is a point there, but then again A) In the neoliberal world & in Finnish art scene this kind of “occupational purity” is an economical impossibility – there are very few critics who can earn their living by writing. B) Moreover, I think the “purity” might not even be good content-wise, on the contrary, it could do you good to change your position at least sometimes. My own experience is, having worked as a guide and being currently a PhD candidate, curator and art writer, that all these have taught me a lot.

Liisa: Who are the people who read art criticism? Is it a game for the insiders? Does it hold any popularity among daily and weekly newspaper readers? Or are the newspapers counting their clicks and pushing cultural criticism aside as it has pretty much happened in Estonia?

Anni: I am not sure how it is really. It is possible however that for example Helsingin Sanomat is calculating how many people would be interested in this and that show. I think they can also contribute when trying to make a show big, especially if they have collaboration with that given institution, museum etc. Newspapers in other bigger cities give actually more space for the art criticism, and press coverage for the art shows.

Irmeli: Probably the insiders read the criticism, people who are involved or work in the art field. The daily newspaper criticism is not very popular any more.

Martta: At least the newspaper criticism is aimed at the general audience, so no “insider” knowledge should be required. This type of audience is supposed to be interested mostly in already known artists and exhibitions and other phenomena within art (gossip, scandals, awards…), so the choice of topics is fairly conservative, accordingly. Newsprint media is in general scaling down their cultural output and the role of criticism is diminishing accordingly, even though I think people are still interested in reading about issues of culture.

Saara: This depends a lot on the medium. If one thinks of Mustekala or Taide magazine, I assume the readers are relatively interested in art, so in that sense insiders. Concerning the readership of the big journals, we have the same discussion you have: why is art and criticism pushed aside? The journals often prefer to report a “phenomenon” or interview somebody who`s made a “breakthrough” or report on political or financial matters of the cultural world – as an example, Guggenheim or the so-called crisis of book publishing world – rather than give space to criticism. So yes, many have commented that the position of so called traditional criticism has weakened.

Liisa: I have been taught that to get a review in Helsingin Sanomat is a bless. Is there elitist cultural criticism in Finland? Something that puts an artist to the art history shelf right away or visibly influences the art market?

Martta: There is certainly something right in your intuition, but I really would not put it in such strong terms. Even a review in HS does not guarantee anything to a young artist or to an artist of any age, for that matter. But it is true that a review in that paper can give one visibility otherwise unattainable. A favourable criticism can bring you audience but another prerequisite is often an established venue, that is, a well-known gallery or a museum that is familiar to those with the money and/or the power to promote an artist’s career. But, to sum it up, no single art critic is – hopefully – potent enough any longer.

Anni: There used to be some powerfull critics, like Marja-Terttu Kivirinta, but at the moment I don´t know who it might be. Names like Otso Kantokorpi, Pessi Rautio, and Timo Valjakka seem to be respected.

Saara: For sure a good review in Helsingin Sanomat is a very nice thing for the artist, as is attention in general. In the eyes of the big public a big review might mean a lot, but of course the professional audience can judge themselves. There is an anecdote of artists-readers who, after reading a really bad review of an exhibition in HS, would know immediately that an exhibition is in fact great...
Today, I would not combine HS with elitism, on the contrary, I think they have worked a lot for making culture more accessible. This aim is good in general, but sometimes I think that the measures “avoiding elitism” take is one of the big problems of the discourses around art. Besides journalism, a banal example of the fear of elitism can be seen in the advertisement campaigns for art: they seem to be continuously avoiding the substance, as if it is something that should be hidden from view in order to seduce the audience. This fear is a tricky thing. It is as if “everybody” supposedly knows how contemporary art is hated as elitist or feared as incomprehensible by the “public”, and thus things have to be toned down, “translated” etc., but one never actually meets that public, it remains imagined...
What comes to the art history shelf, I assume that it takes a bit more time than one review, yet these things – visibility and art market – go together as they have done in centuries: being seen and valued gives you more opportunities, even though it might not take as extreme forms as in the big art centres.

Irmeli: Helsingin Sanomat gives the best visibility for an artist or an art work. This is true. But too often the quality of the HS text is a disappointment for the artist. HS also sells. There is cultural elitism in Finland. But to belong to the elite is negative. Mustekala has often been mentioned as an elitist group. I am not joking. We are the forerunners. We even have a slogan ‘Art follows Octopus’. You know “art” is “taide” in Finnish so the slogan implies that Taide magazine follows Mustekala… ; )

Liisa: James Elkins starts his book on art criticism with the words: „Art criticism is in worldwide crisis... it attracts an enormous number of writers, and often benefits from high-quality colour printing and worldwide distribution... but invisibly, out of sight of contemporary intellectual debates... it`s dying, but it`s everywhere...“ What Elkins is trying to say is that art criticism, though seemingly flourishing, is becoming powerless and insignificant. Do You think art criticism in the meaning of the 19. century independent connoisseurship is about to leave the stage?

Anni: Yes, it seems so. This is due to the current development that elitism in art is considered not to be tolerated, and everybody´s opinion is equal. It is the same thing in art museums as well. Critics and museums are addressing the big audience. This is both good and bad. It is good that there is more space for different views, but at the same time it is not good that knowledge is not valued anymore and newspapers are going towards more popularistic and simple „lifestyle“ writing about art. Worst case scenario of this is also art magazines following the trend.

Irmeli: Absolutely, there is no return to the old style connoisseurship. It is interesting what will come out from the new style democratic discussion oriented criticism or the academic research oriented analytical criticism.

Martta: The trends prevalent in mass media seem to put independent criticism at risk, but the situation depends really on the persistence of the individuals who are interested in producing ambitious, thorough-going and insightful criticism. With the narrowing-down of mass media, all kinds of other venues for publication come up, so I’m not as pessimistic as Elkins. Of course this means that the power held by single “authorities” or tastemakers is diminished, as there is no longer one unified audience.

Saara: For me Elkins`s book was inspiring as he was so careful in naming different kinds of writing, of which many cannot be labelled as criticism. Also, this question made me think of Julian Stallabrass`s claim in Art Incorporated (Also published as Contemporary Art. A Very Short Introduction). Stallabrass was criticizing an attitude where the audience is suggested to embrace the many-sidedness of art, to surrender to the beauty etc. (He mentioned critics such as Arthur Danto and Dave Hickey.) According to Stallabrass this encourages the readers to be brainless consumers of art, which again is good for the neoliberal art market. But what helps? I'm not sure if a grumpy star critic would save the situation... We can survive without the master-critic, who marches in and “decides” if something is good or bad. Personally, I enjoy reading different kinds of texts and writers, published in different contexts. Surely there will be crisis if the field of art writing becomes uniform or if the venues and writers become few.

Liisa: We are having art criticism reading groups here in Tallinn and Tartu where we try to bring the theoretical aspects of art writing under discussion as there are no intensive courses in the academies on the subject. Is art criticism taught in Finland? And if yes then who are the main authors read?

Irmeli: Yes criticism is taught at Helsinki University at least. There’s a common course for all students in the institute of Art studies, so that art historians, literary historians and theatre studies students participate in it. Also Jyväskylä University has a similar course. They are very popular.

Saara: There is no MA program or such for criticism, yet for instance at my department, Aesthetics at University of Helsinki there are courses on art criticism. There is even a new book coming up edited by one of our researcher & Mustekala editor Martta Heikkilä on the topic. She might have good answers to this question.

Martta: There is some teaching in Finland, here and there. For instance, I have been teaching art criticism for a few years at the department of Aesthetics at the University of Helsinki and nowadays also at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. Similarly, there are individual courses at some other departments of art research (art history, literature, theatre and music studies etc.) and at the Aalto University/University of Applied Arts, and also in other institutions of higher education. As for the authors, I have used Terry Barrett and Noël Carroll as further reading, and in exams short texts by Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault and Susan Sontag. Also during the courses I mention classic texts, for example, by Giorgio Vasari, Denis Diderot, Charles Baudelaire, Clement Greenberg, as well as contemporary Finnish writers.

Liisa: Is the theory of art writing translated into Finnish? We recently had a translation of Baudelaire`s essays into Estonian but that is about it with a little bit of Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin! Give our publishers some good examples!

Martta: There are not too many translations in Finnish either, the ones you mentioned above have been translated here as well. Of course, one can always ask what counts as theory of criticism… There have been quite a lot of translations of continental philosophy during the past 15 years or so, and in a large scale it addresses the problems of criticism as well.

Saara: As Finland too is a small country, I recognize the lack of publications... I recently read a report on the discussion of the state of the criticism: Canvases and Careers Today: Criticism and Its Markets (2008), edited by Isabelle Graw and Daniel Birnbaum. It bases on a seminar so it has many voices and perspectives on art criticism as well as its relation to the markets, which is a less discussed topic in Finland. I am not saying that it should be translated, but perhaps a similar kind of discussion could be done in Finland or Estonia also?

Liisa: What is hot in theory in Finnish art writing at the moment? Is it poststructuralism? Is it postcolonialism? Is phenomenology in or way out? And what about Marxist analysis?

Anni: I think these are all pretty much mixed up now, and formulating a contemporary line of art criticism with different writers may be emphasizing a little bit different point of views, but mostly drawing from all of these. I think the writing on art is very much about the contexts of art these days, and about the experience of art.

Saara: This depends a lot on who one asks. Within art research, surely there are venues, where queer-theory, poststructuralism, and phenomenology are “hot”. But to name one is impossible.

Irmeli: Recently phenomenology (well about 10 years for now) has been hot. Also women studies and feminist theory are popular.

Martta: Of the ones you mentioned above, phenomenology is probably the strongest “mainstream” approach, mixed with more varied poststructuralist perspectives. Marxist analysis can be met with relevant publications (Kulttuurivihkot, for instance).

Liisa: Feminist art - feminist criticism, queer art - queer criticism, postcolonial art – postcolonial criticism, psychoanalytic art – psychoanalytic criticism? Do these couples make sense to You?

Martta: Not necessarily, although it is clear that the critic ought to have at least basic information in the topics he or she is discussing. However, the methodology of the critic shouldn’t be entirely dependent on the “content” of the work or the intention of the artist.

Saara: I recognize the couples, but I am not too sure if they make sense to me. This involves the troubled relation of art and theory... Recently I went to a conference in Verona, organized jointly by Finnish and Italian political scientists, and noticed that a certain kind of political art was appreciated there – and that my own understanding of political was still something different. Also, back in the days when I did an interview with young artists who had opened their own gallery, one of them formulated his frustration with the Finnish situation, where theorists found their “favourites” in art. I guess it was good for the ones who were “found” or got house critics, so to say, but if you were not so easily labelled or identified you might end up feeling like there is no response, no dialogue... I guess all this goes back to the relationship between theory and art, which is very complex. Art cannot be used simply as an illustration of a theory, whichever theory one chooses. Perhaps something interesting happens if the art sets the theory into a motion, challenges its own understanding of art?

Liisa: Susan Sontag in her 1966 essay "Against Interpretation" says that Freudian and Marxist approaches are the worst possible ways that art criticism can go. She says we should throw intellectualism over board and revive the spiritual or transcendental approach – her famous "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art". Do You think we have something to learn from Sontag today? What kind of criticism does contemporary art need?

Irmeli: Oh yes, Sontag made a very good point. She is right in general terms, but I think that the problem is not anymore in the interpretative business she speaks about. In the past decades the academic critics wanted to explain art works i.e. to interpret them.

Saara: Surely we can learn from Sontag. However, we must take into account that the situation she wrote in 1966 was again different from the scene in Finland or Estonia today... Maybe “today's Sontag” would instead call for both erotics of art AND intellectual art criticism, as we in Finland seem to be lacking both?

Martta: As the methods, approaches, ideologies, perspectives and media of contemporary art are so varied, there is perhaps no single answer for the question. In here I see “relativism” – that is, sensitivity and receptivity to the particular nature of each work – as the best way to choose one’s angle towards contemporary art.

Anni: Sontag is calling for the phenomenological aspect of art. I think her wish has come true in many ways, as I wrote there above, I think the current discussion around art is very much emphasizing the phenomenological aspect of art, or the experience of art. But we have to note, that experience can also be a matter of mind and intellect, not „just“ about feelings. Or rather, these aspects of experiencing and thinking in art are now more intertwined. The current idea of art and how to write about art seems to be subjective experience of it and the context of the work/exhibition.

Liisa: Let me drop another name for You. In Oscar Wilde`s "The Critic as Artist" one of the characters, Gilbert, says: "In literature mere egotism is delightful... When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting." How about leaving the theory aside and sticking to the brilliant essay tradition a la Dave Hickey?

Anni: As I said above, this kind of discussion about art seems to be growing more popular. At the moment, there is a lot of (political) discussion about the impact that encounters with art and culture have on the emotional wellfare. The emphasize there is exactly on the viewers own experience and feelings about art. It is OK, but I think it is dangerous to go too much into this direction, or leave less space for more theoretical thinking about art. We need both.
I hope we are not going to have too much Gonzo-style art journalism in the future, that is what internet is already too much about in other issues. And you really have to be brilliant to be interesting in that area. I think art criticism should try giving more than just somebody´s personal attitudes and feelings.

Saara: I am not sure if there is such a “theoryless” writing, but in a sense a good way to respond to the suggested crisis of criticism is to simply write brilliant essays on art.

Irmeli: Excellent idea, and there is actually an essay writer Antti Nylén who writes lengthy and very skillful criticism on art that he is fond of. Pirkko Holmberg reviews his essay collection Halun ja epäluulon esseet in Mustekala.

Martta: Yes, that’s one possible solution. But I refer to my previous answer – I think we need every possible approach!

Liisa: Please put an ! or ? or whatever at hand for Artishok readers!
criticality
empathy
description
evaluation
wit

Anni:
Criticality!
Empathy!
Description!
Evaluation?
Wit!

Saara:
Criticality
Empathy!
Description
Evaluation?
Wit

Martta:
criticality!
empathy!!(?) (basically yes, but does it suit all kinds of art? do we have to understand everything, that is my question)
description!
evaluation!?
wit (approach with care!)

Irmeli:
criticality!!!
empathy?!
description? : (
evaluation!!! : D
wit!!! ; D

Liisa: We have had two Artishok biennials here in Estonia that take young art as well as young criticism into focus – 10 critics are asked to write 10 texts about 10 artists. Do You think situations like that enrich art critical writing or should art criticism never mess around with artificial situations like that? The weight of my question is not to get a compliment for Artishok but to ask whether cultural criticism is a sort of intellectual species that should be protected?

Irmeli: It is hard to say, since what works in Estonia doesn’t work in Finlad, I guess. In a special situation this might be a good idea but Helsinki is too big for such an event to get enough attention.

Anni: I think it is a good idea to make experiments like these!

Saara: Again, there are different ways and situations of writing: if I am suspicious about theory-free writing, another thing I would have doubts would be an idea of completely “neutral” or “pure” criticism. The experiment sounds like fun.

Martta: As every writing situation is in a way “artificial” and needs elaboration, however fluent it may seem to the reader, I think your experiment is justified. As for your final question, my answer is yes – or maybe not so much protected, but “nurtured” (i.e. given a chance to grow and flourish).

Liisa: Thank You!

1 kommentaar:

Irmeli Hautamäki ütles ...

Dear Liisa,

thank you for the interview. I have to add, that shortly after the publication of this interview the Finnish media told that the literary criticism portal kritiikkiportti was closed. It was run with considerably big public money (180 000 € for 3 years) and little ambition and did not reach enough readers. As a comparison: the Finnish government supports us with 2 700 €.

Best regards Irmeli Hautamäki