For Whom and for What to Write?
Tetsuya Ozaki (Journalist / Art Producer)
I am a Kyoto based journalist / art producer. I started my career as an editor and reviewer of a culture magazine and later, launched an art magazine and culture web magazines. In 2013 I was General Producer, Performing Arts Section of Aichi Triennale. I have curated several art exhibitions as well.
I also write and edit books and published One Hundred Yeas of Idiocy in 2002, and One Hundred Yeas of Lunacy in 2014. The former is the collection of documentary photographs, each a symbol of the idiocy humankind has exerted on the Earth in the 20th century such as war, discrimination, refugee problem, environmental destruction, economic disparities and so on. The latter covers similar occurrences in the 21st century. Both include my own essays and articles contributed by authors Natsuki Ikezawa, Yi Zheng, anthropologist Claude Lévi=Strauss, film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, physicist Freeman Dyson, political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson and philosopher Bernard Stiegler among others. Last year I published my own book entitled What Is Contemporary Art.
Today I would like to speak about the art writing’s role, focusing on contemporary art. I think my speech may be applicable to contemporary culture in general, including the performing arts.
What is the most serious problem facing art writing today?
I know that everybody here is worried about the shrinking readership. People nowadays read less artistic discourses than they used to. Therefore art writers’ influence has been in decline. Art critic Hal Foster published an essay in 2001 beginning with the sentence “The art critic is an endangered species.” After mentioning the contributors to “Artforum type and the October sort,” he continues:
“For institutionally, both kinds of critic were displaced in the 80s and 90s by a new nexus of dealers, collectors and curators for whom critical evaluation, let alone theoretical analysis, was of little use. Indeed, these things were usually deemed an obstruction, and many managers of art now actively shun them, as do many artists, sadly enough. ” (*1)
Popular art journalist Jerry Saltz who won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism last year (2018) describes his actual feeling in 2006:
“At no time in the last 50 years has what an art critic writes had less of an effect on the market than now. I can write that work is bad and it has little-to-no effect, and I can write it is good and the same thing will happen. Ditto if I don’t write about it at all.” (*2)
These two writers specialize in contemporary art and lament the situation in which the criticism cannot counteract today’s crazy art market. On the other hand, film critic Patrick Goldstein sees the same situation from a different angle in an article contributed to Los Angeles Times in 2008, which includes a similar expression:
“Critics today are viewed as cultural dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. (…) Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it’s in classical music, dance, theater or other areas in the arts. While economics are clearly at work here — seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics anymore — it seems clear that we’re in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.” (*3)
“Obviously the Internet has played a big role in this shift. It has promoted a
democratization of opinion in which solo bloggers can outstrip mammoth news organizations.” (*ibid.)
To sum up their discussions, ballooning art markets as well as the widespread use of Internet and social networking services have brought about the decline of artistic discourse and its influences. I suppose this understanding is shared among many members of the art world. Then, what can be done to change this situation?
Before starting the argument, let’s confirm one thing: What is the art writing?
Roughly speaking, the artistic discourse can be categorized into the following five types: Art history, artistic theory, criticism, review and art-related articles in journalism. Boundaries between each are often blurred and some discourses combine elements of several categories. I do not think that it is necessary to give a definition or an explanation for the history and theory categories here. The question is, what are differences between criticism, review and journalism.
An interview entitled “Do we still need critics in this age of opinion?” was published in Observer on November 18, 2018. The “age of opinion” means this age of ours where a lot of people can post their personal opinions on the Internet. Observer’s theatre critic Susannah Clapp answers to a question “What, in 2018, is criticism for?” in the following way:
“At its best, without being too highfalutin about it, you should be able to make the case for any art or book or show being a way into the wider world, to open you out rather than for you to have some ‘precious communion’ with an art form.” (*4)
In both the title and the question is the word “criticism,” but this is a typical comment about the review. “The wider world” should mean the readers or potential spectators to whom the reviewer should give charming points of the work. Then, what are the characteristics of the other types of discourse?
Not only ordinary readers, but also some specialists i.e. writers, mix up one type of discourse with the other partly because of the fact that there are many writers who prefer to call themselves a critic. The three types should, however, differ from one another. What are their missions, and who are their respective readers? The following is a simple comparison chart.
Of course, “encouraging & inspiring” in “Mission” does not just mean simply “praising”. You should point out problems, if any. You know what they say: Spare the rod and spoil the child.
“Artists” in “Readership” are creators in general including curators and producers in addition to artists, authors, film & theatre directors, performers etc. “Spectators” include artists, and “society” everybody because the discourse can be read by anybody if it appears in media open to public such as newspaper, magazine or web site, i.e. unless it is a private correspondence to someone. Nonetheless many should approve that the primary readers are those who are in this chart. That is to say, the critic should write for artists, the reviewer for audience, and the journalist for all the members of the society regardless of who would actually read their discourse.
All the critics, reviewers and journalists write about specific works. Their playing fields, i.e. the media they contribute to, often overlapped, and some write reviews although they bear the title ‘critic’, while others contribute discourses that are none other than criticism to the review section of a publication. As the former is often seen and the latter being in a minority, there might be an epidemic called “critic complex” that makes infected persons believe critics great and look down on reviewers.
Be that as it may, let me explain more about the difference between the review and criticism having taken the liberty of likening artists to animals. Though there seem very few artists worthy to be called a savage beast these days, creators can be considered as animals and reviewers circus guides. As an enthusiastic circus-goer, the reviewer preaches the pleasure of appreciation and teaches points to be seen to other visitors. He/she may criticize the choreography or acting of animals, but rather, he/she is expected to entertain his/her readers by an easy-to-follow explanation and amusing comments in order to boost the numbers of visitors as a result.
The critic is not a guide but an outside connoisseur with deep knowledge about the biological history, animal life and history of circus. His/her criticism consists of the “carrot and stick”. As he/she is not hired by the circus, he/she can criticize the animals’ physical shape, movements and acting, as well as the show as a whole. However, the owner and trainers at the circus, correction, the producer, director or curator, and other connoisseurs may hit back; and there is no guarantee that the animals will obediently eat carrots and submit to getting beaten. Some may attack you, showing their fangs, and some may simply ignore the carrot and stick. It goes without saying that the more ferocious the beast, the less easy it amends its behavior.
Miles Davis hated the critics. Andy Warhol said: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches”. Barnett Newman’s remark “aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to birds” is well known too. A world-famous artist once told me that he was so busy dreaming up ideas and creating new works that he had no time to read criticisms, and he believed that his art would be assessed historically at some point regardless of whether he reads the criticism or not. I think these artists are not acting tough nor cynical and they speak their honest feeling.
However, criticism inherently has the power to bend even the direction of creation. For example, critic Clement Greenberg dominated the art world of mid-20th century with his formalistic criticism. He is known to have championed abstract expressionism and brought painters like Jackson Pollock to acclaim, emphasizing the significance of pursuing of medium specificity – two-dimensional character in painting – and asserting that the most important of all in painting was:
“The picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, (…) until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas” (*5)
Greenberg’s assertion strongly influenced many American artists of the era to establish modernism in art and to generate an artistic movement, i.e. the abstract expressionism. Journalist Tom Wolfe represents the voice inside of Morris Louis (without his permission) who was said to have taken Greenberg’s remark literally:
“So Louis used unprimed canvas and thinned out his paint until it soared, right into the canvas when he brushed it on, (…) and he had done it! Nothing existed above or below the picture plane. (…) No, everything now existed precisely in the picture plane and nowhere else.” (*6)
Some say that the relationship between Greenberg and Morris was not so simple, but that aside, there must have been many cases in the history in which excellent theories or criticisms affect creators and improve the artistic quality of their works subsequently.
By the way, the persons I mentioned now, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis, are all dead. There have been so many discourses about them that were written after their deaths. Marcel Duchamp left a famous remark: “Besides, it’s always the others who die”. Anyway, we have had too numerous criticisms to mention that deal with dead artists from ancient Greek playwrights to Freddie Mercury. It is natural that there are more writings about the dead than the living as the number of the former is much more than that of the latter. These criticisms written about the creators of the past and their work will also encourage those of this era and the future if they are good.
The important thing is whether the criticism contributes to a new creation or not. The one, of whatever era, that interprets the work accurately, or proposes a new interpretation of the work, to provide a stimulus and a hint to those who want to create something, is a good criticism. Let me add these to the chart.
Now, let’s listen to what aesthetician Boris Groys says. Groys, who is said to be the best art critic and theorist of this generation, claims as below in an article entitled Under the Gaze of Theory that was published in May 2012.
“Today’s public accepts contemporary art even when it does not always have a feeling that it “understands” this art. The need for a theoretical explanation of art thus seems definitively passé.
However, theory was never so central for art as it is now. (…) I would suggest that today artists need a theory to explain what they are doing—not to others, but to themselves. In this respect they are not alone.” (*7)
At one time, to make art meant to protest against what the previous generations did. But today, there are thousands of traditions and thousands of different forms of protest as the one and only (Western) tradition has been rapidly undermined. Under such a situation, artists need a theory that explains what art is. Because such a theory gives an artist the possibility to universalize, globalize their art. Having recourse to theory liberates artists from their cultural identities and from the danger that their art would be perceived only as a local curiosity. That is the main reason for the rise of theory in our era…
Groys explains his basis of argument in this way. He thinks that these days theory is not written for general spectators, his fellow theorists and researchers, but it is for artists as is the case with criticism. As a matter of course, we don’t have to overlook the fact that Groys specializes in contemporary art. Unlike music or performing arts, contemporary art definitely has its origin in the West (at least Groys and I believe so). It is a historical fact that contemporary art has expanded its domain by including non-Western art. Therefore you have the right to accuse Groys’ argument – which certifies what is art and what is not art imperialistically – of being Euro-centric because globalization has been advanced mainly by the Western countries as major players.
However I do not discuss this issue here. Instead, I would like to appreciate the stimulus given by theory and criticism to enhance creation. Some theory or some criticism encourages and inspires creators directly and shows them the direction of the road ahead. It is well known that Groys has been championing Ilya and Emilia Kabakov theoretically and through the criticism. The etymology of “criticism” is a Greek word “krinein,” meaning “judge, decide”. A good critic will judge and decide the way for an artist to go.
In addition to that, Groys expresses another interesting opinion about contemporary artists. He says: “In the last few decades artistic practice itself has undergone fundamental change. In this period the artist has mutated from being the exemplary producer of art to an exemplary viewer of art.” (*8)
“Indeed, from Marcel Duchamp onward and at least since the Pop Art of the fifties and sixties, the artist has progressively ceased to act as a producer of art, seeing himself instead as an observer, interpreter, and critic of the signs, images, and artifacts that are constantly produced by our society and permanently disseminated by the mass media. In a world in which everyone and everything is aestheticized and designed, the one missing element is the viewer. (…) The fact that today’s advanced art strives to be critical above all else offers sufficiently clear evidence of the artist’s role change from produce to viewer. (…) Today’s artist no longer produces anything – or at least not primarily, since he prefers to select, compare, fragment, and combine, to contextualize certain things and to put aside others. In other words, today’s artist has appropriated the critical, analytical gaze of the viewer.” (*ibid.)
Long before this comment, Duchamp, who was mentioned by Groys in it, had already made a statement in 1957 as follows:
“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.” (*9)
As most people know, Samuel Beckett wrote “What matter who’s speaking”, Umberto Eco published Open Work, Roland Barthes The Death of the Author and Michel Foucault What Is an Author? after this very famous declaration. The notion that “the artwork cannot be completed by itself, it is accomplished only when it is appreciated by a viewer after the artist created it” is an axiom shared by everybody now. Philosopher Jacques Rancière took a step further to develop an argument:
“She (*The spectator) observes, selects, compares, interprets. She links what she sees to a host of other things that she has seen on other stages, in other kind of place. She composes her own poem with the elements of the poem before her. She participates in the performance by refashioning it in her own way. (…) They are thus both distant spectators and active interpreters of the spectacle offered to them.” (*10)
If the assertions of Groys, Duchamp and Rancière are correct, we have to admit that a cataclysmic change less known to the public is happening in the art of our era, more precisely, in the creation and the appreciation of art today. There is no border between the artist and the spectator anymore, and the artist=spectator has become a being who is a critic at the same time. What should we do in this milieu?
I think that all of us who write about art should write like an exemplary critic. This is the chart I showed to you a short while ago.
This is a logical conclusion if the reader is the artist= spectator=critic. The missions of five different discourses are converged to “encouraging & inspiring artists for creation”. All of “research & positioning works,” “interpretation & understanding of works” and “providing information & commentary on work & situation” serve to “encouraging & inspiring artists for creation”. All of artists, spectators and critics want nothing but to see good works and all the more so with an artist= spectator=critic. Therefore this is a logical conclusion, too.
Let me take an example from recent discourses about performing arts: Kyoko Iwaki’s “On Theatre Today, Berlin – Centering around Volksbühne Issue” published in March 2019 (*11). Iwaki is a theatre researcher with a Ph.D. at Goldsmiths in London University who transformed herself from a journalist to an academic.
As you may know Chris Dercon took up the position of Intendant or Artistic Director of Volksbühne, Berlin in autumn 2017. It is a theatre founded more than 100 years ago with a history “which is not only closely interwoven with that of the GDR (…) but also a key site of post-1989 leftist cultural practice” according to Texte zur Kunst (*12). Dercon is a curator and an ex-Director of Tate Modern, whom I accused of having developed popularization of the mega museum under the policy of “Museum as a producer of experience and as a social and civic place”. His appointment provoked a backlash even before he took office. After a series of protest demonstrations and an occupation of the theatre by activists, Dercon was forced to resign in only 255 days.
Iwaki recounts the issue briefly and asks if “it is a proud declaration of victory for the stubborn working class which has been existing from the era of former East Germany over the neoliberal curator?” Then she criticizes both the “working class” and “neoliberal curator” and presents an outline of Claire Bishop’s “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone” which discusses the recent trend of the dance performed in museums mainly in Britain and the U.S. In the latter half, Iwaki critically analyzes Tino Sehgal’s performance that took place at Volksbühne in a program entitled “Samuel Beckett/Tino Sehgal” in November 2017 while Dercon was in power. More properly she criticizes its mise en scene and the relationship between its venue and the spectators by employing Bishop’s argument. Iwaki expresses that “unfortunately the gray zone that should be between the black box and the white cube did not appear in the foyer of Volksbühne” due to the distance between globalization and the locality, which is hard to bridge. And she concludes that “the fatal miscalculation of Dercon, who has been accustomed to dealing with quantified visitors in the international market, was that he impersonalized, in the same way, those of Volksbühne, which is best known in Germany as a theatre which puts a high value on its history, cultural feature and regional characteristics”, and that “perhaps theatre is one of the social devices that should not be impersonalized”.
There may be some debate as to the evaluation of Sehgal’s piece (I have no opinion because I did not see it), however I think that Iwaki’s article fulfills the necessary conditions required for today’s artistic discourses: it deals with works, theory and situation, being written for current and future artists=spectators=critics to encourage and inspire them for creation. That is why I introduced it as an example.
Now, I’ll take the liberty to talk about my book What Is Contemporary Art. When I was contributing it to the web magazine Newsweek Japan as a serial article, it was entitled “Players of Contemporary Art”. I explain the role of collectors, gallerists, curators, critics and artists in the first half of the book. Here is the table of contents.
Prologue: Venice Biennale – Ladies and Gentlemen Gathering in the Lagoon City
Chapter1: Market – Battle Field of Ferocious Giant Dragons
Billionaires’ Hunting Instinct / Battle of Super Collectors / Princess is No.1 Buyer / Dealer: Glory and Darkness of Gagosian Empire / “POWER 100” – Behind Mirror Mirroring Art World
Chapter 2: Museum – Problems of Palace of Art from within and without
Hong Kong’s M + Director’s Sudden Resignation / ‘Regulations’ of Museums in Spain, Korea and Japan / Fight against Invisible Collections / Off-course MoMA / Off-course Tate Modern /
Chapter 3: Critic – Crisis of Criticism and Theory
Critics as an Endangered Species / Theorist and Movement as Endangered Species / Where Have All Aesthetics Gone? / Boris Groys’ View of Theory
Chapter 4: Curator – Balance between History and Contemporaneousness
“Magiciens de la terre” and Documenta IX / Jean-Hubert Martin: Sex, Death and Anthropology / Jan Hoet: Opening Up ” Closed Circuit” / “Vertical” Hoet and “Horizontal” Martin
Chapter 5: Artists – Is Reference to Art History Necessary?
Contemporary Art in Japan and “World Standard” / Struggles of Hito Steyerl and Hans Haacke / Quotation and Reference – Wavering Definition of “Art” / Samuel Beckett and Contemporary Art / After Duchamp’s Urinal
Chapter 6: Audience – What Is an Active Interpreter?
Change of Viewer’s Role / Three Major Elements of Contemporary Art
Chapter 7: Motives of Contemporary Art
1) Pursuit of New Visual Senses and Sensations / 2) Exploration of Medium and Perception / 3) Reference and Objection to Art System / 4) Actuality and Politics / 5) Thought, Philosophy, Science, World Recognition / 6) Self, Memory, History, Community / 7) Eros, Thanatos and Sacredness
Chapter 8: Scoring Contemporary Art
Chapter 9: Crisis of Painting and Photography
Epilogue: Present and Future of Contemporary Art
There are many reasons why I wrote this book. The most fundamental one is that there seems to be few people who seriously think about this question of “what is contemporary art?” even in the art world. I would not say that this question did not exist before the modern art era, but in our time, without this radical question, neither creation nor appreciation would be possible. So far however, many people seem to be indifferent about it.
Despite this, a handful of people who seriously think about it would not explain what contemporary art is properly. It is caused mainly by resignation that only a few people would be able to understand, or by elitism that it would be enough if just a few people could understand it. I thought this tendency was only found in the non-Western world, but in fact, it seems the situation is almost similar in Europe and the United States, home of contemporary art. That is why many people lament the decline of criticism. Putting aside the Western countries, I wanted to call Japanese readers’ attention to this question of defining contemporary art.
In order to do it, I thought first and foremost that I should introduce what was going on in the art world now. It is a pity that in Japan, international news is not sufficiently read or watched due to the language barrier. ART iT, an English-Japanese bilingual art magazine I created in 2003, only runs a web version now. Another Japanese art magazine Bijutsu Techo that was first launched in 1948 has never been bilingual, and was sold to another company in 2015 after having financial difficulties. Since then, this magazine has become bimonthly from monthly. Japan’s art journalism is facing a critical situation.
For that reason my book overviews the situation of today’s international art scene, picks up important art historical events (ones after 1989 in particular) with commentaries, introduces theories to be read shortly, and criticizes some works while initiating how to appreciate art.
I would like to emphasize that in this book I also write about the social situation. Art is a form of expression that has existed for so long and varied according to times. In this respect, art cannot be separated from the past and the contemporaneousness, i.e. the history in general and the current affairs. Especially in this “era of Trumpism” where the politicians with an iron fist such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Kim Jong-un, Benjamin Netanyahu, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, György Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte and Shinzo Abe to name a few, who boast about putting publicly “their nation first” are ruling countries, it is natural that decent artists get sensitive to political and social situations. Needless to say that we have so many concerns of our time such as data monopolies by giant IT companies like GAFA, ecological issue, ethical questions of genome editing among others.
As I mentioned before, I wrote, edited and published the two books of One Hundred Yeas of Idiocy and One Hundred Yeas of Lunacy in which I argue problems such as war, discrimination, refugees, environmental destruction, disparity between the rich and the poor and so on. So far these problems have been expanding and spreading out crazily. Artists today may not deal with them by preference, but it’s no wonder that these issues concern them.
I suppose that it is a common belief that artists and art people must learn the art history. It makes sense for a professional, but in this era you should not be an art nerd. You would rather know various incidents of our time as well as the history that causes them, and on that basis, have your own perspective. We have to keep it firmly in mind as an artist=spectator=critic.
At the beginning of this speech, I said that the most serious problem for the art writing today is shrinking readership. However I am not pessimistic about our future. In all eras of history, people expect good works, and if so, good discourses that encourage the artist should be no doubt read. Even if they are not read in the time where they are written, there are possibilities that future readers would (re)discover them. The same thing can happen not only to art, but also to performing arts, literature, film, music and so on. What matters is that you should always try to write a high level discourse worthy enough to be read.
(*1) Hal Foster, ‘Art Agonistes’, New Left Review, March/April 2001
(*2) Jerry Saltz, “Silence of the Dealer”, Modern Painters, September 2006
(*3) Patrick Goldstein, “The End of the Critic”, Los Angeles Times, April 8 2008
(*5) Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoön”, Partisan Review, June 1940
(*6) Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, 1975
(*8) Boris Groys “Installed Viewers”, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov: Where Is Our Place?, 2004
(*9) Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act”, 1957
(*10) Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 2008
(*11) Kyoko Iwaki, “On Theatre Today, Berlin – Centering around Volksbühne Issue”, Butaigeijutsu (Performing Arts), No.22, Spring 2019
(*12) Sven Lutticken, “On the Volksbühne Occupation”, Texte zur Kunst, October 3 2017