A Global View: An Art Critic’s Perspective on International Trends

Edward Rubin
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www.artesmagazine.comEditor’s Note: Edward Rubin, an ARTES magazine contributing editor, returns from Eastern Europe and the International Art Critic Association’s meeting there, with a brief overview on the state of the arts in many corners of the world. Along with his own reporting, he has organized a series of feature articles by some of the prominent speakers at that meeting, to appear on the ‘pages’ of ARTESmagazine.com.

Every year for the last 46, the International Art Critics Association (AICA) with 4,600 members from over 61 countries, holds a Congress in a different country. Hosted by the participating cities, the international attendees are wined, dined, treated to tours by the participating city, regaled by a keynote speaker, feted by surprising personages, and treated to panels and Power Point presentations by top art writers and critics from around the world. Last year the Congress was held in Zurich, with a post-congress visit to Documenta, the renowned contemporary art fair, held every five years in Kassel, Germany. In 2015, the city of Seoul and Suwon, South Korea, will be hosting the Congress. artes fine arts magazine

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St. Elisabeth Catherdral, Košice, Slovakia. Photo: Edward Rubin

This year’s Congress—“XLVI AICA International Congress,Slovakia 2013”— took place in Kosice, Bratislava, and Zilina (September 19-29), was organized and chaired by Juraj Carney, the President of AICA Slovakia. Organizing the 46th International Congress of AICA may be regarded as the culmination of roughly sixty years of effort by a young discipline—Slovak art criticism—to communicate fine art to our own society, as well as to the international community, and thereby raise its artistic and intellectual level.

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Soviet troops at the “liberation” of Prague by the Red Army in May 1945.

After the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the city became part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc for the next twenty years. In 1968, after the unsuccessful Czechoslovak attempt to liberalize the Communist regime, the city was occupied by Warsaw Pact troops. Shortly thereafter, it became capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, one of the two states of the federalized Czechoslovakia.The AICA Congress was last held in 1966, in Prague, the capital city of Czechoslovakia. Only its secondary offshoot took place in Bratislava, but that part has become legendary. Many world-ranking critics, headed by Pierre Restany, instead of attending an event presenting the official notion of contemporary art as found in the halls of hidebound institutions, took part instead in Alex Mlynárčik’s “counter-event”, which was held in public toilets. This event underlined the duality of the contemporary cultural situation, – official and alternative – a model which survived through subsequent decades in various modifications.

Bratislava’s dissidents anticipated the fall of Communism with the Bratislava candle demonstration in 1988, and the city became one of the foremost centers of the anti-Communist “Velvet Revolution” in 1989.

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Fountain in Bratislava: Úrad vlády (government office) garden

In the wake on national strife, re-discovering a critical artistic voive can never be done easily. Every good art historian and critic in Slovakia is permanently in the position of a rebel, who daily must defend his/her freedom and unyielding independence—at one time, under a totalitarian regime—against the ambitions of less talented colleagues; later on, against a nationalist oligarchy committed to genre sensibilities–and today against the abuse of some features of the market and all kinds of fashionable superficiality. Strong characters as a rule are able to bear such pressures, but paradoxically, and with iron regularity, all the most distinctive critics have had to pay the price of a certain social marginalization. They have suffered the unwarranted loss of important employment positions, thereby impeding not only their personal growth but also the development of the many institutions where they worked.

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Conference organizer and chair, Juraj Carney, the president of AICA Slovakia. Photo: Daša Barteková

We dedicate this congress to them above all: Alžbeta Güntherová-Mayerová, Karol Vaculík, Marián Váross, Ľubor Kára, Radislav Matuštík, Eva Šefčáková, Tomáš Štrauss, Igor Gazdík, Zuzana Bartošová, Katarína Rusnáková, Alena Vrbanová, Vladimír Beskid, Ľudmila Kasaj-Poláčková, and others, including those future critics whom the same fate still awaits. Historians of art and critics (simply by virtue of their profession, which demands expansive knowledge and vision) always have before them an idea of a situation towards which the art scene is still only tending. And that ensures that none of them will be “prophets in their own country.” Particularly in the post-totalitarian countries, this is something that must be regarded as inevitable.

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The ruins of Spiš Castle, in eastern Slovakia, one of the largest castle sites in Central Europe.

Today we have a new situation before our eyes: we are witnessing real international successes by Slovak artists on the international scene. This fact in itself poses a duty to contribute our own opinions and stances towards the naming of the wider-than- local context of visual art, at the very least for the purposes of Central Europe and Europe as a whole.

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“I come from nowhere,” Andy Warhol once famously quipped: but his mother was born in Medzilaborce, site of the Warhol Museum of Modern Art in eastern Slovakia.

AICA members who wanted to arrive early to Kosice were offered a hike in the mountains or an architectural tour taking in the 12th century-old Spiš Castle, the early-18th century wooden orthodox Church of St. Cosmos and St. Damian, built in baroque-gothic style, several medieval towns, and—by contrast—the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia. A 2-day Post Congress tour (September 29 – October 1), was organized by AICA Poland’s president Andrzej Szczerski, taking us to Krakow, where we visited the city’s top art galleries, museums, prominent buildings and monuments. We also attended a panel discussion about the state of contemporary art criticism.

James Elkin, the E.C. Chadbourne Chair of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was the keynote speaker for this Congress. Delivered in Bratislava, on third day of the gathering, Elkin’s loosely-abstract talk, as he termed it, discussed with a preponderance of text hurriedly flashing by on the screen, the “Six Sets of Problems in Art History.” The surprising personage du jour, giving a well received autobiographical performance which added much cache to the event, was Paris-based, international art star, Orlan, the wife of Raphael Cuir, the current President of AICA France.

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Paris-based, Raphael Cuir, the current President of AICA France, and his wife, international art star, Orlan. Photo: Edward Rubin

The title of this year’s congress was White Places and Black Holes. ‘White place’ is a term used in cartography, describing unnamed places on the map. ‘Black hole’ is an epithet from cosmology, defined as a region of space/time from which gravity prevents anything, including light, from escaping. White Places – Black Holes analyzes the strategies by which lesser-known regions have positioned themselves and are represented in the global history of art. The presentation went on to ask: how is the local history of art perceived from these distinct centers of influence and how is their contribution to a broader history of art perceived from outside these regions? ‘White Places – Black Holes’ is a problem permanently present in art history and figures, in its own way, in every attempt at critical reflection on visual art. During the last congress, held in Czechoslovakia in 1966, the isolated artistic scene—then hidden behind the Iron Curtain—was introduced to the most prominent world critics in the AICA. Thereby, for a brief while, it made contact with the world and acquired a place to advocate its international positions.

However, even today we meet with similar problems, not only in every country of central and Eastern Europe, but anywhere at all where the art scene has developed in relative isolation and without the opportunity to communicate directly with the artistic centers. The aim of AICA, therefore, was to organize a central European congress reflecting the wider realities of how local art scenes are perceived by ‘official’ art history. This problem, in the broad sense of the word, affects all artists and artworks that have strived to garner attention and catch the eye of history. Is it really criticism which decides what is accepted and rejected; and what methods does it employ in its research procedures? To what extent is the image it creates genuine; to what extent is it schematic? What is the role of critics in the lesser known regions, and how do they reflect development beyond ‘their territory’? Where has criticism got to in the year 2013, and how does it reflect the changes in thinking brought about by the new communication schemas?

To this end, most of the twenty-six presenters spoke about the art and artists coming out of their own country. Videos of all of the lectures can be found on AICA Slovakia’s website or by clicking on recorded lectures: http://www.aica.sk/video-19.html

By Edward Rubin, Contributing Editor

 A video of James Elkins’ talk, “Six Sets of Problems in Art History,” can also be found on the AICA Slovakia’s website www.aica.sk, as well as on the following YouTube link in English, with French and Spanish translations: http://youtu.be/iRjQ9g3RMlc.

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