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08 August 2016
The A*DESK archive according to…Cuauhtémoc Medina

Cuauthémoc Medina

Like the stone that falls into the water of a pool, art criticism takes on the reflection of a piece of work, or a singular event, as the occasion to generate the irradiation of the broadest possible set of ideas. David G. Torres took the opportunity of the extravagant (and in the end, looking back, insignificant) inclusion of the chef Ferran Adriá in Documenta XII in 2007, to explore the condition of an artistic ambit shifting towards “a new trend of formalism”. One that “doesn’t just endeavour to locate textures, so much as also, more plainly, personal histories” without the irritating ingredient of “critical thought and its discursive, self-referential context”. At a time, more than opportunely, G. Torres denounced the abdication of criticism in the face of the “omnivorous power” of cultural institutions, in the defence of a mood “in-conformity”: the ecosystem of discussion and disagreement. A decade later, the image of an institutionalism defined by this “wasteland of pluralism” is increasingly conspicuous.

Text selected: “Malos tiempos para la crítica”, de David. G. Torres, No. 17, 09-07-07

Hard times for Criticism, by David G. Torres

Ferran Adrià is participating in Documenta XII. He’s an extraordinary chef. He’s invented foam come closest to the taste of intangibility, and given flavours a new twist. It’s amazing to see the books/catalogues of his new annual creations where foods are organised by tables, the differences between vegetables and fruit questioned, whether, for example, a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, and whether this depends on cultural, tastes, or biological concerns. In all of it there are clues that easily recall artistic and cultural references: the immaterial and Yves Klein; lists and Art&Language; how foods are cooked with “The Raw and the Cooked” of Levi-Strauss.

But, his inclusion in the list of participants for Documenta is something that has caused concern, and more than a few hackles to rise, in the Spanish art scene. Basically, due to the limited presence of Spanish artists in this list (Ferran Adrià, Ibon Aramberri and Jorge Oteiza). Even more so since Robert Buergel declared, in an interview in El País, that “today there is nobody in Spain, of this generation, that has a comparable level of formal intelligence”. Evidently, this concern is charged with national feelings, something that is already repugnant in politics and ought to be far removed from art, and ultimately ratifies a conservative logic based on the nation-state, with, as we know, the international organisms and its national representatives, etc. Beyond national feelings, it’s worth considering what is so worrying about Ferran Adria’s selection. And this question seems to rebound like a boomerang in the face of art. After all, his participation (what it was going to be was kept a mysterious secret until the very day of the opening) consisted in the end in practically not participating; Ferran Adrià continues to serve suppers in his restaurant, and El Bullí becomes a temporary location for Documenta. Almost as if in the face of so much hullabaloo it was better not to participate that to become mixed up and stained by art.

In any case, the worrying thing about Ferran Adrià’s participation in the supposedly most important event of contemporary art celebrated in the world, is to do with how art is seen, which affects criticism and its role. It’s the fruit of confusion that has been accentuated for a while now in the field of art: in the neglect of the component of art criticism and its self-referential character. As if once the formal possibilities (almost a century ago), object-hood, gesture or attitude of art, had been opened up, they would have to be left stripped of what the final instance they legitimated; content and its discursive character. Dealt with, in the minimum, by a simple telegram (On Kawara, “I’m still alive”) or a shot in the arm (Chris Burden, “Shoot!”), the question lay elsewhere. This is the difference between the banquets of Daniel Spoerri or Antoni Miralda and those of Ferran Adrià: no doubt in the former the food was much less refined and elaborated than in the latter, but it wasn’t about that. It doesn’t matter if we talk about a restaurant in Cala Monjoi or a meal in a gallery, in art, the question lies elsewhere.

Daniel Spoerri made it crystal clear when he explained what the meals he organised in 1963 in the Galerie J in Paris were about: “the artist at the stove and the critic serves the soup”. He didn’t talk about taste, or flavours; who remembers the plates that were served? But other things were talked about: in this case the situation of the artist and the rules of the consumption of art, briefly, like a commentary, humorously. If this “other place”, this other thing, disappears, where what seems to be a supper, in reality, isn’t, all that will be left to talk about are the plates that are served, as in any restaurant. And the distance compared to any other restaurant will come solely from having been presented in the context of art. The only thing that will be left, as the legitimating element, is the very circle of art, which George Dickie talked about: it is art because it is presented within an art context. And it’s not even possible, as in the case of Spoerri, to resort to the intention as a legitimating element. The intention is the condition that Arthur Danto adds to Dickie’s theory of the art circle: the distance between a box of Brillo washing powder signed by Andy Warhol and another identical one in a supermarket is marked not just by the context of art in which it is presented, but also by Andy Warhol’s intention in presenting it as art.

Without intention all that’s left is context. Without taking into consideration content, for example, Carsten Höller’s slide in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern would only be differentiated from any other slide in a fun fair because of being in the Tate Modern: Welcome to the wasteland of pluralism!

The presence of cuisine in Documenta is a chronicle foretold or at least one that could be intuited; the path lies open. If over the last few years we have seen the appearance of architects, treated like artists, in events dedicated to art, the path is laid bare for these spaces to be occupied next by cooks. If architecture can enter on its own into this circle, legitimated to be in this context not for context nor intentionality, why not cuisine? This presence of architecture has also had a boomerang effect on the work of artists: the presence of architectural projects treated as if they were art projects (I insist here on separating what is presented in an exhibition from what forms part of a cultural project) and the voiding effect it implies. In many cases it seems to have become the norm that art projects take on the look of architectural projects. But now, aside from a few exceptions, they are without content nor references, nor discussion about art (this subject was already empty) but also without architectural effectiveness. (In this regard see the proposal of Tomas Saraceno a few months ago in the CASM; architectural ineffectiveness, ineffectiveness as display, formal ineffectiveness, ineffectiveness of content…)

How can we complain about the devaluing of art if we’ve been the first to empty it of its specificity, content? The wasteland of contents that opens up under the mantle of pluralism recuperates two discussions that seemed to have been overcome: “anything goes” (architecture or cuisine, everything is legitimated by the context) and the old question of formalism. It’s not by chance that Roger M. Buergel talks of “formal intelligence” with regard to Ferran Adrià: what stands out about those declarations in El País was not the allusion to the Spanish artists of his generation, so much as the appearance once again of the reference to “formal”, to the form. The catalogue of Documenta XII barely includes an introductory text, and in this sense, makes clear a whole tendency to do with stripping away discourse and content; let the works talk for themselves.

Greenberg, the father of critical formalism, emphasised the fact that American abstraction had reached a sort of essence of painting, which harvested the whole history of western painting to resume its essence within the frame of the canvas. To which point he applied a (fairly opportunist) discursive argument. He also insisted that what was lacking was a cultivated sensitivity, to appreciate the textures, colours and formal balance that occurred within the painting. Today, this degree of the devaluing of the content of art and a loss of it discursive character seems to leave little room for judgement and analysis of the work beyond those which pass for the description of its formal qualities. And this would have led to the extreme of the premises of Greenberg: it was no longer about explaining this refined sensibility that the American critic talked of, so much as directly recognising and appreciating taste, good taste. When all is said and done, that’s what Ferran Adrià’s work is about, taste.

We’d be talking about a new style of formalism, passed through the sieve of new media, that doesn’t just endeavour to locate new textures so much as also, more plainly, personal histories. It’s not odd to find in the universe of biennials of contemporary art, videos seasoned with a touch of violence or sex to the rhythm of an advert or video-clip. But to talk about them, without being to refer to either content or discourse, the only option would be to recur to a formal or emotional description of the form. Under this new formalism, the most serious issue is that criticism has been deactivated, left to distinguish between those works that do stem from a discursive strategy and work with content. Only with the recuperation of the mechanism of the art critic will it be possible to place in reasoned perspective the distance between the meals of Daniel Spoerri and those of the chef Ferran Adrià or what separates Carsten Höller’s slides from any other. If this distance is eliminated, there is simply no possibility to apply any criteria: do you like it or not? Swinging?

It is precisely the development of criteria that forms the basis for the work of the art critic. This work is based on a triple function; the analysis of current artistic practices in relation to the past; the interpretation and reading of these artistic practices, and the fact of pointing out what is being discussed and the context within which it arises. Recuperating this function, criticism can play a fundamental role in the revaluing of the role of art within the cultural framework. In short, this reference to the importance of content, discourse, and the value of art criticism implies a vehement defence of the value of art.

In the introduction of “Art and Objecthood”, the North American critic Michael Fried, remembers that there were already complaints, at the end of the sixties and during the seventies, of the loss of what he calls “critical value”. Anchored in the formalist premises and the power that restrained criticism, his complaints lay with the inability to have any impact on the scene, an impact that Greenberg undoubtedly had. Today the problem would have to be situated in a different place. It’s not enough to say that critical value doesn’t exist, or to yearn for an old power that could detain the critic. This complaint would be tied to a modern idea of criticism, to the exercising of power and as a nexus for the analysis of cultural productions, a place that gives opinions and generates them, that makes and generates debates. The question would be in indicating whether criticism continues to be a place for analysis, opinion and discussion and if it continues to use these tools.

Or if, rather, founded on this discrediting of content, the value of art as critical thought and its discursive, self-referential context, opinion has been ousted by information. Something tied in with the abdication of criticism in the face of the rather omnivorous power that is held by the artistic institutions (museums, art centres…).

A city like Barcelona which only ten years ago had a precarious infrastructure of contemporary art, today maintains five institutions dedicated to contemporary art: Museu d’Art Contemporani (Macba), Centre de Arte Santa Mònica, Fundació Tàpies, Fundació Miró and Palau de la Virreina. Moreover one has to add to this the programmes that other centres dedicate to contemporary art, from the Fundació La Caixa to the Centre de Cultura Contemporánea (CCCB). The more than three or four spaces dedicated to emerging art and a couple of centres for the production and studios of artists, not to mention a dozen or so galleries. In a scenario with strong competition for visibility, the institutions seek repercussion in the press. And for this, they have money and maintain ties with the economic, administrative, and political powers that be, whereas criticism is a poor profession.

In the context of the infrastructural construction of contemporary art, the figure of the curator appears as a way to make criticism by other means. Basically, a putting into practice of critical function: creating a context, giving a reading through an exhibition instead of through writing, pointing to artists or contexts, which is a way of applying criteria. In the other words, the curator manages contents. This is how the critic maintains independence and closes the loop, with the construction of discourse, debate, and criteria. But if this content disappears, the critic merely arranges. And as such the institution stops being at the service of art and the curator, and calls upon knowledge as a form of criteria for the curator to become at the service of a network of institutions.

Ages before, Thierry de Duve in “Clement Greenberg, between the lines”, already talks about situating this problem: “That in the sixties, cultural mediators should have appeared with a role hardly distinct from the artists they frequented – people like Seth Siegelaub, Michel Claura, or Harald Szeemann- is the sure index of a conventionalisation of the entire art world around behaviours and attitudes that denote a quasi-professional knowledge of the rules of the game rather than a technical mastery of the aesthetic rules of the métier “. In this shift towards a professional knowledge of the rules of the game, opinion, without content to refer to, without discourses to discuss, is left displaced. So when criticism after its travels through curatorship returns to its terrain there is little left, its independence lost, criticism applies itself to informing. However, the functions of criticism are founded on this very abandoned opinion.

In a recent article, “La crítica de arte -después de la fe en el arte” (Art criticism – after faith in art), José Luís Brea talks about the necessary epistemological distancing of art criticism ( A distancing called for by the institutions. Today more than ever, criticism can’t exercise its function from within an idyllic marble tower, so much as there needs to be an understanding of the processes of production in art; the discursive keys to the art circle, but also its involvement with cultural policies, with long-term processes and the forms of applying them in the short term. It’s not so much about how to avoid mud stains as whether it’s possible to talk without attracting a bit of mud. Perhaps it would be enough to learn how to swim and save the clothing; this distancing would offer at least a minimum of intellectual character to recuperate a commitment to the discursive function, sufficient to vindicate criticism as a form of mood.

Perhaps it’s just this; perhaps criticism is simply a mood. A state of dissent, one that assumes a series of methodological elements, to make use of, and generate, opinion: to discuss. This is how one of the pillars of art, discussion, is established.

Cuauhtémoc Medina (Mexico City, 1965) is a curator, critic and art historian. From 2013 he was institutionalized by being in charge of the University Museum Curator of Contemporary Art (MUAC) of the UNAM in Mexico City. Quite often he is assailed by the suspicion that after half century is past, one is no longer an alternative but part of the problem or the problem itself.


08 August 2016

The A*DESK archive according to…Cuauhtémoc Medina

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)