Here's a speech presented at the AICA 2004 World Congress

Art Critics: The New Diplomats Bridging Cultural Gaps

 Hi Everyone. Today, I will talk about critical theory in Post-socialist Europe. Oh, just kidding. Unfortunately the scheduled speaker Agnes Berecz was unable to attend and present her provocative paper on this subject. I'm the pinch hitter, which means I had to come up with a speech fairly quickly. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Susan Kendzulak and I've been living in Taipei for 8 years. I am an artist and came to criticism rather incidentally. I used to get really annoyed reading any of the local art reviews in English because I felt the writers had absolutely no understanding about art. So I marched in and now I have a monthly art column in an alternative weekly, plus I write regularly for local and international publications.

I am currently doing an art project, which is part of my long-term project called 'everything is dangerous.' The first part I dealt with natural disasters like typhoons, which you all get to experience for free. The part I am doing now is called the "Relationship Crisis Hotline." I hand out business cards to people that say if they feel like dying from a breakup, to call my cell phone and I will go to their house to prevent them from suicide. This blurs the line between art and life, and addresses the rather alarming high suicidal rate among young people over relationship breakups. Perhaps art is a real lifesaver.

In Taiwan, there are parallel worlds between Chinese and English; sometimes they connect. So it's been enlightening for me to hear the speeches of the Taiwanese critics, as I am unable at this point for direct communication. We're rather limited by the language we write in as that determines our audience. So one thing to bear in mind is that art critics in Taiwan are not all Taiwanese, nor do they all write in Chinese. And not all Taiwanese can read Chinese. There are quite a few critics living here or abroad who write in English (and Japanese) to help bring the attention of Taiwan to the rest of the world. And this is what I will discuss today. My title is: Art Critics: The New Diplomats Bridging Cultural Gaps

Are art critics mere journalists filling out the newspaper features sections with fluff? Is art criticism an obsolete practice that only worked in selling Modernist art to the public? Do art critics only function like movie reviewers in that they get the reader interested to see a museum exhibition, but without creating much provocative mental engagement via the written word? In other words, just creating a disposable and easy to consume piece of writing? Or does art criticism play a more pertinent and fundamental role in the field of culture and society at large, by redefining and helping us to examine our lives? Should art criticism play a more vital role by giving us some type of provocative compass to guide us in our quest in forming and shaping our world or should art criticism just lie back and be an observer?

As contemporary art shifts from the dichotomous categories of painting and sculpture and begins to take on the local cultural meanings of its makers, it at times seems incomprehensible to audiences, which is where the art critic then takes on the necessary roles as intermediary, interpreter and even diplomat.

A critic then not only explains the aesthetics and look of the work, but how it was produced in its milieu along with all its embedded cultural meanings. And for art that is being exhibited outside of its locality this is quite important. How do we look at and assess art from countries and cultures in which we are not as familiar with as our own?

As cultural misunderstandings often lead to conflict, the critic acting as diplomat brings greater awareness and sensitivity to a misunderstood or little-known culture. For example, contemporary Chinese art would not have been so broadly accepted or as quickly accepted without the assistance of Chinese critics and writers based in Europe. The positions of critics Hou Hanru and Fei Dawei in Paris cannot be underestimated in how they helped bring passion and understanding about contemporary Chinese art to large Western audiences. Without their work, situations such as artist Huang Yong-ping representing France for the Venice Biennale probably would not have taken place. This is one important achievement of critics. They help to obliterate the limitations of national borders and identities.

In my case, though I am not a native Taiwanese, I have lived here 8 years gaining sensitivity to the local art scene, and see myself acting as a link between the western art world and Taiwan as I consistently write about and critique the contemporary art scene here. I have a sense of what Western audiences are looking for when they look at Asian art, and I also have the practical living experience to act as a connector between the two worlds. In other words, I know which aspects to highlight and which areas wouldn't be of much interest to the two sides. And in Taiwan's case, where diplomatic relations between nations are sparse, cultural diplomacy and cross-cultural awareness can fill in the gaps.

As contemporary art often raises topical and relevant issues such as societal, political and personal ones, these issues are then brought into a broader discussion. For example, in my review about the current Taipei Biennial, I discuss the project by Taiwanese photographers Yeh Weili and Liu Ho-jiang at Treasure Hill. They are selling posters of their photographs they took of the residents of this impoverished community to raise money to build a photo lab there. Now attention about the poor condition of this community becomes linked to the bigger global discussion about housing and human rights. And people outside of Taiwan can learn about how Taiwan deals with these types of societal issues. In that way, good and insightful art criticism about Taiwan's contemporary art builds bridges and brings a deeper understanding to this misunderstood island and is entirely beneficial for everyone involved.

A Case Study

This year I have written four reviews of Taiwan-based exhibitions for the international art magazine Flash Art. The importance of this for Taiwan's contemporary art scene cannot be overlooked. On the magazine's byline page they list correspondents from all around the world. Not all the world's countries are listed or are represented. That is not due to the publisher's policy. As they list a writer from Iran, for example, they would most heartily welcome other critics from under or un-represented areas. To have Taiwan consistently represented abroad culturally not only makes more and more people interested in learning about Taiwan, but it helps Taiwanese artists gain acceptance and exposure abroad. As there are consistently international-level exhibitions held in Taiwan such as the Chinese Contemporary Photography curated by Yao Jui-chung and Zhu Qi at the MOCA and the Navigator Digital Arts exhibition curated by artist Wang Jun-Jieh at the Taiwan Museum of Arts, the magazine is thrilled to give coverage and exposure, and additionally it gives a chance for readers outside of Asia to learn about the compact, yet vibrant art scene of Taiwan.

Of course there are other art magazines with its editorial focus predominately on Asian art such as Art Asia Pacific and Yishu, but what makes Flash Art a nice promotional tool for Taiwan is that the magazine's focus is on high-quality contemporary art, and by publishing articles several times a year, gives out the message that the contemporary art scene in Taiwan finds its peers with those in advanced art cultures such as Europe. This is so important for the advancement and dissemination of Taiwan's contemporary art as it shows that the culture here is advanced and intelligent, and is on par with the international art and critical discourse. And as Taiwan is a place that not many people are familiar with, or at least not as familiar with as China, this magazine, and others like it become valuable bridges to cross-cultural understanding. And in that way, when I am sitting at home alone fervently typing away at my keyboard, I feel I am playing a critical role as a cultural ambassador and it makes me aware of how powerful the written word truly is. Whether in print or online, readers from around the globe are able to learn more about the world in which they live in. Often most of us feel powerless or voiceless in this big world, yet as an individual, once my articles are in print or online, I feel I make a difference, as I am helping to introduce the reader to the great art and artists of Taiwan's contemporary art scene.

Taipei Biennial 2004

Besides being a cultural ambassador, the critic does have to confront some negative aspects from time to time. How do we address this diplomatically and objectively? For the recent Taipei Biennial held at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, I was writing about it for several publications, both local and international. As you may have heard, there was a conflict between the two curators Barbara Vanderlinden and Amy Huei-hua Cheng, with Miss Cheng not appearing at any of the opening activities. As a writer, I was asked to address this issue by my editors. In this capacity I felt like a 'forensics art critic' as I had to dig up information on a negative situation while ignoring the gossip and trying to objectively determine what took place since I wasn't privy to any of the in-house discussions or interactions. This new role made me feel very uncomfortable, actually it mortified me, as it veered into examining individual personalities, motivations and personal behavior.

As a critic, I want to solely discuss the art works, the ideas involved and how the work fits into society. If addressing these more gossipy issues of what happens behind-the-scenes is the trend in contemporary art criticism, I think we are heading into tabloid journalism. Maybe regarding arts reporting, I am from the Clinton era "don't ask don't tell" camp. When I go to see a large exhibition like a biennial I want to only be confronted by the art itself and not the backroom squabbles. Being aware of the curator-conflict in this biennial made it difficult for me to critically view the exhibition as it made me wonder who contributed what into the exhibition and if Taiwan had fair representation. However, should this even be a concern for the critic? Is this something we should concern ourselves with? Should we strictly stick to the artwork? I ask, because I'm not sure. Maybe this is the decision for the editor.

Shifting Role of Critic

"The times they are a-changin'" and so is the role of the art critic. As in the example previously mentioned, critics are often forensically examining the aftermath and other details involved in an exhibition. They are often engaged in looking at the world at large rather than only examining and describing pictures on a wall. With the recent Maurizio Cattelan public sculpture of 3 children hanging from a tree, the art critic had to address the issue about the community reaction and subsequent scandal. An enraged viewer had climbed up the tree to cut down the sculptures and had fallen 5 meters to the ground and had to be hospitalized. The sculpture was only on view in the public square for 36 hours but it hit a raw nerve in most people who saw it. This is where the critic can become the important diplomatic intermediary, the voice of reason and to explain to the public the necessity of supporting art that is uncomfortable and uneasy.

Lately, an art critic's role parallels that of a sports writer's. We not only describe the event, we now have to deal with scandals from both the players and the spectators alike and we have to explain an unexplainable frenzied situation to a more sober reading public, and a more intelligent reading public. When a scandal occurs we have to give a convincing argument to why we support such art and why this type of art making is good for the societal and cultural debate. Life changes quickly and there are increasingly more difficult things that we must confront daily such as war, terrorism, and natural and man-made disasters to name a few. More than ever, artists are frequently addressing this issue of how to cope with living in today's world and they are making art that is concerned with the troubles of the external world.

As critics we also must take these issues into consideration, which at times, makes me feel like I am more of a political writer than an art writer. As culture is rapidly changing, the field of art criticism is recently becoming an intense area of study. Critics Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw have been arranging lectures at the Institute for Art Criticism in Frankfurt's Staedelschule and recently organized a conference called the "Power of Criticism." Their aims are to show the vitality and necessity of criticism. They ask does criticism play a vital role in looking at and defining our world? And these are questions that this AICA international conference is addressing too.

The online forum "Underfire" sponsored by the Witte de With Art Center and Jordon Crandall is engaging in the discussion about the representation of violence, armed conflict and terrorism in the city which will culminate in a series of publications. Here is an example of critics and thinkers in the art field who are directly involved in addressing change to make life better and safer for everyone. The current discussion is about the exhibition of the torture scenes inflicted by the US military on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison which are now on view at ICP and curated by Brian Wallis. Check it out.

War-torn Places

Criticism does seem to play an integral part to help readers understand areas that do not get much exposure or are out of the mainstream or are even in conflict zones. In looking at war-torn areas such as Iraq or Palestine, we see how necessary the art critic is in keeping the local culture alive and bringing attention to its country's artists. The Internet is a wonderful tool in that the user can search and find information about artists from all around the world. However, the information must first be written by the critic, thus making the critic the crucial link between the written word and the artist. To cite an example of how effective the critic is to keeping hope alive and letting the world know of its great contemporary artists is the International Network for Contemporary Iraqi Artists, which was founded by artist Maysaloun Faraj in 1995 and supported by the Arts Council of England. Without this online network a whole country's roster of artists would be completely forgotten, obliterated and obscured. Here, the critic takes on the life-saving utopian role to introduce us to Iraqi art and which allows us deeper insight into the consciousness of the country's people, giving us another view outside of the corporate-dominated media.

Conclusion

Art is such a unique field in that the roles of artist, curator, critic, and institution are constantly in flux and continuously being re-examined. What other fields are the roles of people and place so closely scrutinized? This dynamism is something that many of us thrive on.

Since many of us in the art field take on several roles simultaneously, that of an artist being a curator or a curator being a critic, we must ask ourselves then what can criticism do; what can we achieve as critics? Should we be heroic and try to intervene to save artists from obscurity? Should we address today's pressing issues and try to offer solutions? Because I work as both an artist and a critic, I see the uniqueness of each position, and fully understand the symbiotic relationship it entails, as one cannot live well without the other. Perhaps this is why many of us take on various art roles simultaneously as they cohabitate and merge nicely.

And personally, it is quite exciting to be involved in a field that undergoes such upheavals, such deep internal soul-searching, and yet still retains its undercurrent of beauty and mystery.
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Susan Kendzulak's Writing Samples