PRESIDENT'S REPORT from the XLVIII AICA Symposium, London October 2015

Everyone’s a critic by Stephanie Radok

The XLVIII AICA Symposium was held in London on 27 October 2015 at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore where waxwork figures of David Hockney and Henry Moore haunt the Senior Common Room on the top floor where drinks were served at the end of the tightly scheduled event.

The artwork on the AICA Symposium program (and souvenir calico bag) by David Cross and Matthew Cornford was entitled Lost Horizon. The two artists have been making collaborative artworks for many years. This work used financial data from the London School of Economics to computer-generate an iridescent landscape of steep peaks and troughs.

And curiously throughout the Symposium it was the subject of money and art more than the role of criticism and art that took centre stage. And almost everyone mentioned Jeff Koons. A recurring phrase was: “There is no such thing as the public today.” which reminded me unpleasantly of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous remark: “There is no such thing as society.” Unfortunately there was not a lot of time to debate, which was a shame as attendees from Portugal, Italy, China, Germany, Canada and Australia, to name just some of the countries represented, did not get a chance to contribute.

The theme of the Symposium was ‘Who Cares?Cultural Intelligence: Value, Veneration and Criticality’ and was prefaced by some words by Hito Steyerl in Duty-Free Art e.flux 03/15:

“To brutally summarize a lot of scholarly texts: contemporary art is made possible by neoliberal capital plus the internet, biennials, art fairs, parallel pop-up histories, growing income inequality. Let’s add asymmetric warfare—as one of the reasons for the vast redistribution of wealth—real estate speculation, tax evasion, money laundering, and deregulated financial markets to this list.

To paraphrase philosopher Peter Osborne’s illuminating insights on this topic: contemporary art shows us the lack of a (global) time and space. Moreover, it projects a fictional unity onto a variety of different ideas of time and space, thus providing a common surface where there is none.

Contemporary art thus becomes a proxy for the global commons, for the lack of any common ground, temporality, or space.

It is defined by a proliferation of locations, and a lack of accountability.”

The keynote address by Matthew Bown was held at the Courtauld Institute on the Strand on 26 October. Bown has a gallery, writes for the Times Literary Supplement and specialises in Soviet realist art. He first began looking at, writing about, dealing, curating and collecting it when it was both unfashionable and cheap. An experience he said that gave him an opportunity to see it as art rather than a commodity. His lecture compared today’s art market to the market in the relics of the saints in former times. In each case it is the name that is important while the intrinsic value of the object is negligible. He recommended a book by art critic Ralph Rubinstein called The Miraculous in which artworks are described without mentioning their creator’s names.

Critic and ArtReview associate editor J.J. Charlesworth spoke about whether art is a commodity, about the human value of works of art and ended up asking: “Could we be better at making demands of artworks?”

Journalist and filmmaker Ben Lewis, maker of the TV documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble (2008-9) described the madnesses of the contemporary art market and the non-virtuous circles of collecting, speculation and money laundering.

Joshua Simon, filmmaker, Director and Chief Curator at MoBY in Israel had recently been to Australia where he spoke at Westspace in Melbourne in September 2015 and co-curated, with Liang Luscombe, the exhibition Factory Fetish. Simon talked about price versus value, how artists who are exhibited feed on the value of the non-exhibited, how art can be a private currency among people who have identified the rules of the game. In presenting alternatives he mentioned the book Dark Matter: art and culture in the age of Enterprise Culture by Gregory Sholette. The evocative phrase ‘dark matter’ refers to the vast badly or un-paid legions of committed, dedicated people who subsidise the art industry.

Anna Somers Cocks, CEO of the Art Newspaper, spoke vividly of the ‘cruel economy’ of that ‘dark matter’, of the struggle between public power and money power, and the function of a public versus the culture of the spectacle or event culture of the biennale.

Academic and writer Anthony Downey, author of the forthcoming The Matter of Critique (Third Text) and Future Imperfect: Building Institutions through Art Practices in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris) gave a tough talk pointing out the complicity of contemporary art that appears to be taking a political position which seems to be critiquing neo-liberalism but is really supporting it. He claimed that the terminology of equality, human rights, democracy and freedom of expression are normalising and ventriloquising Western globalised neoliberalism. He also spoke about the ethical tension between the art critic and the art world, and the weak moralism and collusive complicity of the art critic’s ethics. He said: “There is no more public space, only public order” and asked: “Whose interests are being served? Who benefits from the work of art?”

Philosopher Nina Power then gave an almost rap-like talk calling on artists to establish a protest economy, memorably suggesting that she was dreaming of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern being filled with stolen police horses.

In contradiction to Downey’s cynicism, photographer, scholar, curator and art critic Julian Stallabrass asserted the importance of socially engaged art, the puissance of inescapable contradictions, and that he considers the grounds for art criticism as currently quite rich. He mentioned the fertility of the ways that artist Martha Rosler is using Facebook and social media erode the former distinction between these who make and those who consume, how dissent can pollute commodification and vice versa.

The final speaker philosopher Marie-José Mondzain stated that: “Creative gestures are not here to produce objects but the liberty of the gaze.” And “Art can be recognised as a universal gift, having emancipatory power.” With particular reference to the recent vandalisation of Anish Kapoor’s ‘queen’s vagina’ work at Versailles she then spoke about violence against artworks, the long history of iconoclasm, and the risk of the creative act. She quoted Don DeLillo on terrorists gaining what novelist have lost and said we must reflect upon our failure to be dangerous – “for without danger there is no creation”.

The General Assembly of AICA was held at the Chelsea College of Arts on 29 October where British art historian, critic and curator Sarah Wilson received the 2015 AICA Honorary Award for distinguished contribution to Art Criticism.

Two curators from the Archives de la critique d’art in Rennes, France, spoke about the Archives and asked all AICA members near and far to contribute their books and other materials.

Planning for the 2016 AICA Symposium and General Assembly in Havana, Cuba is under way.