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The International Association of Art Critics (AICA) was conjured into being, like a rib from its parent body, UNESCO, which had been established in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It was a product of UNESCO’s initial plan to create a fully-fledged Fine Arts Section and was launched at almost exactly the same time as the International Council of Museums (ICOM), in June 1948. AICA, like UNESCO, chose Paris as its base at a time when that city was struggling to reassert its status as artistic capital of the world, and its two official languages, at the outset, were French and English—to be followed only later by Spanish, in the early ’60s.
Understandably enough, the first International Congress of Art Critics was held at UNESCO’s then headquarters in Paris and was devoted to the urgent theme of post-war reconstruction. It covered a number of disparate areas, such as art education, museums education, urbanism and reconstruction, the restitution of works of art, the protection of natural and historic sites, and—most importantly, in retrospect—the role of the critic in society and the creation of new channels of communication to replace those which had been destroyed. The original list of names of 20 individuals who were to be invited to the inaugural congress was indicative of the organizers’ ambitions and included art historians, museum directors, art theorists, art critics, and artists engaged with theory and teaching. At the end of a full week in session, the delegates from 35 countries elected a Belgian critic, Paul Fierens, as the president of the new Association, along with five vice-presidents—James Johnson Sweeney (U.S.A.), Lionello Venturi (Italy), Herbert Read (U.K.), Jean Cassou (France), and Václav Nebeský (Czechosloviakia)—whilst the British critic, Denys Sutton, acted as rapporteur and the French hosts took care of the administration.
At the second Congress, in July 1949, the Association laid the groundwork for its future existence, by voting in a constitution which established it on a federated basis, with 13 national sections, many of them initially “represented” by a single individual. It also went some way towards trying to define the basis for the professional status of art critic, in part as a reaction to recent events. As the Frenchman Raymond Cogniat pointed out, in a comment he might equally well have extended to Stalinist Russia: “In proscribing art criticism the Nazi and fascist regimes inflicted on art an injury, from which it has yet to recover.”
Throughout the 1950s, the new Association developed a pattern of activity which has continued unbroken to this day and is built around an annual congress and general assembly of the global membership, each time in a different city, alternating with an annual board meeting at the head office in Paris. What had started off as a largely Eurocentric (or Atlanticist) organization, for reasons that were pragmatic as much as cultural-political, had always nurtured universalist ambitions inspired by the Enlightenment ideals of its parent organization and a desire to pour balm on the self-inflicted damage caused by Europe’s imperialist and belligerent past. Initial efforts at expansion involved establishing bridgeheads in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Japan. They culminated in an Extraordinary Congress in Brazil in 1959, for which the government of President Kubitschek invited a total of 65 foreign delegates to inspect the new capital city of Brasília, still under construction, reportedly described by André Malraux as “the first capital city of a new civilization.” This event symbolically marked both a high point in the history of modernism and in the struggle for the recognition of art criticism as a discrete profession, though for one admittedly partisan observer, it also heralded the “beginning of the end of the Golden Age of art criticism and its gradual replacement by market values.”
The 1960s brought not only a shift of focus in contemporary art from Paris to New York and a rapid increase in its commercialization and mediatization, but a corresponding growth in the Association’s membership and its radius of influence. The decade opened with a memorable Congress in Communist Poland (“Modern Art, as an International Phenomenon,” 1960) and continued with a comparably influential event in Prague and Bratislava (“The Essence and Function of Art Criticism,” 1966) at the height of the Prague Spring, and was marked by issues such as the Vietnam War and the student rebellions of 1968. By the early 1970s, the membership had grown to a total of around 1,300, 350 of whom were full members and 950 mainly younger associate members, and the number of sections had increased from the initial 15 to a total of 42. One of the highlights of this decade was the initial sortie into Africa, with the extraordinary 3rd AICA Congress in Kinshasa, Zaïre (the present Democratic Republic of Congo). It took until the first decade of the 21st century for this early initiative on the African continent to be followed up in a consequential way; however, a geographical pattern had already begun to emerge, and has been preserved today, with the division of the world into five broad areas—North America and Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, and Africa—and levels of activity in those economically disadvantaged areas of the world that reflect both the expansionary objectives of AICA itself and the funding priorities of UNESCO and partners, such as the Getty Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund. Throughout the 1970s, considerable resourcefulness went into devising, and bidding for, UNESCO funding for projects that could profit from AICA’s ever expanding networks, up to and including the far-sighted “survey of all the biennials throughout the world” that provided the basis for a two-day conference in Venice, in September 1985, and heralded the onrush of globalization in the years that followed.
The rapid expansion of the Association and the democratization of the interest in contemporary art led to a revision of the critical canon, in the light of postmodernism, the new art history, and postcolonial theory; to an investigation of new media, such as video; and to the re-evaluation of “old” media, such as the traditional craft-based skills of sculpture and painting. This went hand in hand with geographical consolidation, but the real push for expansion came in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and loss of regular funding from UNESCO. Among the immediate effects of these two related events were the push to become established in some of the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe and the compulsion, both to seek new external sources of funding and to stabilize the core income raised from the membership. The latter was achieved by abandoning the long resented division between “Associate” and “Full” membership in favor of a unitary category of international membership, with concessionary rates for adherents from economically disadvantaged countries.
The decades following the collapse of Communism led, not only to the reorganization of Sections, such as Mexico, Turkey, and Ukraine, but to the creation, or re-establishment, of others in Armenia, Croatia, Nigeria, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.), Pakistan, Slovenia, Serbia, South Caribbean, Taiwan and, most recently, Cuba. Over the following 20 years both the venues for meetings and the leading themes that were selected for them reflected the very changed conditions of the world. Memorable congresses and general assemblies, for those privileged to experience them, were held successively in Tbilisi (“The Evolution of Art at the End of the Twentieth Century,” 1989), Macau/Hong Kong/Canton (“East and West in Contemporary Artistic Creation,” 1995), Tokyo (“Transition: Changing Society and Art,” 1998), South Caribbean (“Repositions, Repossessions,” 2003), São Paulo (“The Institutionalisation of Contemporary Art: Art Criticism, Biennials and the Market,” 2007), Paraguay (“Art and Criticism in Time of Crisis,” 2011), Zürich (“Writing with an Accent,” 2012) and Slovakia (“White Places—Black Holes,” 2013), with South Korea in prospect (October 2014). In the same period, regional workshop/seminars—many of them supported by UNESCO—have been conducted across Africa (Dakar, Addis Ababa, Cape Town), the Balkans (Istanbul, Skopje, Yerevan), and South Asia (Karachi and, most recently, Colombo).
A thorough revision of the Association’s Statutes in 2002 to 03 resulted in a liberalization of the criteria for membership, reaffirming the primary focus on contemporary art; granting recognition to the range of new disciplines relating to it, and the parity between them; recognizing the growing power of new media and forms of communication; and acknowledging the intimate relationship of criticism to the newly emergent fields of curating and the history of exhibition-making. The revised Statutes also devolved further powers and responsibilities onto the national sections. Partly as a result, the membership has grown rapidly, from an approximate total of 3,500 in the 1990s to close to 4,600 today and 63 fully functioning sections (including the Open Section, for members without a national affiliation).
What does AICA offer to the generality of its membership? And what of the future?
The most obvious and visible benefit to the membership, as a whole, is the universally recognized press card, underwritten by UNESCO, which grants members free access to publicly funded museums worldwide, as well as to many other private institutions and foundations, exhibitions, and events. Members are also encouraged to contribute in any way they can to the international activities, including the annual congresses and activities in connection with prizes and competitions, seminars and debates, publications and research activities, organized or facilitated by AICA’s head office, in Paris. On top of this, individual sections arrange regular opportunities for face-to-face encounters between members in their own, or neighboring countries—especially in large sections such as that of the United States, which maintain a continuously high profile.
One project, established by AICA members in the 1990s, which has now grown to full maturity in its new, purpose-designed premises, is the Archives of Art Criticism in Rennes, France. This is possibly unique, in its single-minded concentration on building a collection of critics’ writings (publications, audio-visual recordings, archives, etc.), exploiting them for scholarly and artistic research and making them accessible online to a general public (archivesdelacritiquedart.org). Allied to this is the long-running, bi-annual magazine Critique d’art/International Review of Contemporary Art, which was recently redesigned and launched as a bilingual French and English review for critical writings in all languages, from many parts of the world.
Among AICA’s most recent initiatives has been the successful creation of a new Prize for Distinguished Contribution to Art Criticism, awarded to a critic from the country that hosts AICA’s annual congress for a lifetime’s achievement, and an Incentive Prize for Young Critics, both of which are already in their fourth year. In parallel to this, the AICA Press has launched a new series of prominent critics’ writings in translation, starting with a bilingual Spanish–English selection of essays by the Paraguayan philosopher and ethnographer, Ticio Escobar. The series will be continued with collections of essays by Slovakian writer Tomáš Štraus, in German and English, and Serbian Ješa Denegri, in English translation.
AICA is in a process of constant renewal. It lobbies for the cause of rational debate in the overheated climate of the market, and wherever there are unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression. Its greatest assets are the individual and collective strength of its membership and the shared interests that bring them together from a great diversity of cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. Special emphasis has always been placed on the value of face-to-face encounters, but the exponential growth in electronic communications opens up exciting new perspectives, as well. The prospects for global exchange and collaboration based on the principles of professional solidarity and enlightened self-interest are better than ever before, and the changeover from elitist club to worldwide fellowship has already been achieved!
This short introduction to AICA’s history and activities is based on the publication, AICA in the Age of Globalization, edited by the present author and Ramon Tió Bellido, with essays by Hélène Lassalle, Henry Meyric Hughes, and Ramon Tió Bellido (Paris: AICA Press, 2010).
Contributor Henry Meyric Hughes
HENRY MEYRIC HUGHES is a freelance curator, consultant, and writer on art. He is General Co-ordinator of Council of Europe Exhibitions and Honorary President of AICA. He was a co-founder of the European Biennial of Contemporary Art (2003), Manifesta and President of the Manifesta Foundation, Amsterdam, from 1996-2007. From 1968-92 he worked for the British Council in Germany, Peru, France, and Italy, ending up as Director of Visiting Arts (1994-96) and Director of Visual Arts (1986-92). He was the British Commissioner for the Venice Biennial and the Sao Paulo Bienal, 1986-92. He was then director of the Hayward Gallery, including National Touring Exhibitions and the Arts Council Collection, from 1992-96, (exhibitions incl. Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930-1945, The Spirit of Romanticism in German Art, 1790-1990, and the British Art Show 4). His recent projects include curating a survey exhibition, Blast to Freeze: British Art in the Twentieth Century for Wolfsburg and Toulouse (2002-03); the Cypriot Pavilion (Nikos Charalambidis) at the 2003 Venice Biennial; a touring exhibition of contemporary art in Norway for Oslo (2005-06); and No Borders, Just N.E.W.S., a touring exhibition of young European artists in 2008. He is currently co-curating the XXX Council of Europe exhibition, The Struggle for Freedom/Critique and Crisis: Art in Europe since 1945 for Berlin, Krakow, Tallinn and Milan (2012-2013), with extension to Thessaloniki, Sarajevo, Prague and Brussels (2014-2015). Recent publications include AICA in the Age of Globalisation (AICA Press, 2010) and African Contemporary Art: Critical Concerns / Art Contemporain Africain: Regards Critiques (AICA Press, 2011, co-ed.) and John Moores Critics Awards 2012 (Shanghai, 2013, co-ed.).