What criteria do we use to judge art? During the opening of the 4th Berlin Biennial in March, Thomas Demand, Mark Godfrey, Jörg Heiser, Jennifer Higgie, Adrian Searle, Polly Staple and Tirdad Zolghadr gathered on a Saturday afternoon in frieze’s Berlin office to informally discuss, over cheese and strawberries, this very question
TD Thomas Demand, artist
MG Mark Godfrey, critic and art historian
JöH Jörg Heiser, co-editor of frieze
JH Jennifer Higgie, co-editor of frieze
AS Adrian Searle, art critic for The Guardian newspaper
PS Polly Staple, editor-at-large of frieze and Director of Frieze Projects
TZ Tirdad Zolghadr, writer and curator
JöH The question we’re going to discuss today concerns the criteria we use to judge a work of art. It’s a deceptively simple question. Is it a particular symptom of criticism today that there are no clear criteria for judgement?
PS A rulebook?
JöH Yes …
AS I wouldn’t do it if there was a rulebook.
JH If you’re not working from a position of a canon, if you’re not, say, Clement Greenberg, then I would hope that the critic reacts to the art work on its own terms while locating it within a greater social context. So you have to use different criteria for each work of art, unless you want all of it to function in the same way.
TZ Obviously we have our intellectual identities and our vanities, but it’s quite surprising how the criteria of curators is imposed on critics. I recently re-read the reviews in the last frieze, and in some it was clear that the critic was really trying to engage with the innate criteria of the exhibition.
JöH So isn’t that a criterion in itself, to find some sort of empathy for the proposal a piece of art or a show puts forth?
AS But surely that’s less empathy than reportage. Some of the time you grapple with the ideas behind a show, and at other times you ignore them because you may like the works but you don’t like the way they’re installed, or for all sorts of other reasons.
JöH So if there isn’t a rulebook, perhaps there’s a box of tools?
AS Absolutely. Very often a political show is judged by political criteria, which are more or less shared. One very rarely sees a political show coming from the position of the right, for example, or one that fails to address cultural difference.
JöH To some extent the job of the critic is to examine the difference between a work’s inherent claims, or claims by the artist accompanying it, and the actual effect. One typical, controversial example is the work of Santiago Sierra. Some people react to it on purely moral grounds, but what I see are conceptual inconsistencies. In terms of, for example, closing down the Spanish Pavilion in Venice and only allowing people with a Spanish passport in, when the reality is that everyone can easily travel to Spain from Germany or France, but not from Africa.
AS But that was part of an argument he had with the Spanish Ministry of Culture, which at that point was under the Popular Party, the ruling right-wing party in Spain. Sierra plays games with these kinds of issues. OK, it’s what you call institutional critique, but not necessarily the institution of the museum but of the power complex that allows him to be the chosen artist at a certain moment.
MG I haven’t seen Sierra’s latest work, which has been shut down now, but he turned the synagogue in Stommeln near Cologne into a gas chamber with pipes leading from the exhausts of six running cars outside. It struck me that what Jörg said would be a good description of it, in that his stated aims for that piece didn’t match up with any possible effect it might have. He indicated that it was a critique of the banality of the representation of the Holocaust in popular culture, but I can think of many artists who have that as a stated aim and who make works which really interestingly express that despair with how the Holocaust has been treated in the culture industry, and don’t just produce this very sensational sort of media story. The interesting question this raises is: does one have to see something to judge it? Sierra’s piece in the synagogue now exists only as a media story.
TD Probably someone should have told Sierra, ‘Look, how about talking to the Jewish congregation first’, which he didn’t do. That leads me to thinking, what is the critic doing there? On one hand, of course, he or she is an exemplary viewer reporting what they see, and then they are also somebody who is going to act as interpreter.
TZ But is he or she interpreting the artistic intention behind the piece or the actual piece? In comparative literary theory, you have the dogma of the death of the author, the idea that the text takes on meanings that aren’t necessarily connected to the writers’ intentions. In the art field, the artist persona and his or her intentions are still very dominant in the reception of the work.
MG Robert Morris, I think in 1969, published an article in Artforum where he describes an imaginary trip to the West Coast and meets an artist who’s constructing gas chambers. When it was published, no one knew whether these were fictional artists or real artists. When I heard about the Sierra piece, it immediately reminded me of the controversy that occurred when Morris published this piece. And it made me ask if one should judge Sierra’s work in relation to an art-historical precedent? We started off by saying that we don’t come to things with a rulebook, but we do come to things with a knowledge of what’s been made in the past and what we find important.
AS But that’s the question that people who teach in art colleges bash their head against the table about, isn’t it? I used to teach, so I know the territory well: there are students and artists who think that anything that happened before 1945 has nothing to do with them. Many art students in the UK in the 1970s only looked across the Atlantic, and were completely ignorant of what was happening in Europe. That’s not amnesia; that’s ignorance.
JöH What do you do if you like a work and then you read the artist’s statement and that puts you off the work?
JH I had an argument with a student I was teaching on an MA course, whose work initially looked interesting. She was using Suprematist symbols and referencing colours and forms in Malevich’s paintings, but when I asked her about her relationship to Malevich, and how her understanding of that particular social moment impacted on her thinking she said, ‘Oh I don’t care about any of that at all; I just think it looks really cool.’ Her reply infuriated me and totally changed my reading of the work – what seemed interesting was now rendered blank.
MG What’s the difference between your position and the Greenbergian rulebook, where what counts has to count in the trajectory of works that he finds important?
JH He was more obviously much more rigid in how he thought art should function. I’m simply not interested in the work of artists who are indifferent to history.
PS This is a very liberal conversation we’re having. All of us seem to be in some kind of tacit agreement that we are all going to be generous and take into account the author’s or artist’s intention and the context. Claire Bishop’s recent article in Artforum is interesting in this regard. She proposes that a form of criticism is developing which uses ethics and moral judgement rather than aesthetics as the key mode of passing judgement on the quality of the art work. She writes about this in relation to social relational art practice – one that employs the social as both content and form. Claire points out that this is problematic because it’s ignoring the art or the aesthetics in favour of how the artist worked – whether it’s ethical, whether they worked collaboratively in a generous consensual way, or whether they just, in a Sierra-type way, employed people. In other words, if you take an autocratic position of judging work by ethical standards, then that’s didactic.
JöH There’s of course the other bogeyman, which is the aesthete who just looks at work in terms of beauty. All of this is about comparing claims to actuality. And you can’t have your ethics without your aesthetics and vice versa. You have to ask what does a work claim in terms of its ethical assumptions, and what does it actually do aesthetically which backfires on that ethic?
PS Maybe this is more of a curatorial point, but there’s a lot of bad so-called relational work around because it suits various public funding agendas. There’s also a lot of bad painting, but it suits the market, which is, of course, the other big elephant in the room. One extreme is academic didacticism, the other is commodity fetishism.
JH I’ll state the obvious: taste is more often than not class-driven and about preserving a status quo.
TZ This idea that art critics must either be market-driven or ethical doesn’t take into account artists who draw at home or do something else that doesn’t fit these criteria. They have their own little thing, and you just have to look into that.
JöH So we’re facing relativism here? Which kind of makes dogmatism and agendas from the 1960s look good – and I think that’s a kind of delusion.
AS It always was a delusion, surely? We only have a very partial view of the world; we can’t see everything.
JöH That’s what the last couple of decades have tried to point out; that Conceptual art wasn’t just five guys in New York but existed in Australia and Argentina and so on.
TD Yeah, but they thought they were the only world. They thought that the earth was flat and it would stop after you reached the edge of Manhattan.
JöH Some people still believe that.
TZ I think what is fascinating about this conversation is that, even though the criteria are so fuzzy, we still know what we’re talking about when we say ‘contemporary art’.
MG My criteria aren’t helpful when I encounter work that comes from a completely different culture that hasn’t been informed by the critical traditions that I understand.
JH But that’s why critics have to be clear about the limits of their own understanding.
AS Very often the least important thing that we do is the old thumbs-up or thumbs-down routine. What’s more interesting is the journey through the work which one takes through writing; it’s the experience of it that counts. You’re a witness to this work, and somehow you’ve got to deal with it.
JöH So the critic is both the attorney and the lawyer. You’re suddenly in that schizophrenic situation trying to …
AS That’s not schizophrenic at all. You single yourself out; there could be somebody else doing it. But it’s you, for one reason or another. I think when people read criticism, they don’t think that they’re less intelligent than the reviewer; they think this article is talking about this art and he’s got these things to say about it, which I may or may not agree with.
PS But this position brings with it a certain amount of responsibility.
JöH For example, Adrian, in your recent review of the Tate Triennial, you wrote: ‘I very much dislike the work of Mark Leckey.’ My criterion in that instance would have been to argue why you didn’t like the work.
AS There wasn’t space, there wasn’t time.
TD As an artist – it sounds horribly sentimental, but it’s true – you always remember that very negative review, the very bad word somebody said or wrote at some point ten or 15 years ago. Artists have elephant memories when it comes to these things.
JH If I was Mark Leckey, I would have wanted you to say why you didn’t like my work.
AS I will go down that trail at some point. It was obviously critical in more ways than I intended, but it was meant to be blunt in the way that his work is blunt.
JöH There’s the difference between a quick judgement and a long argument about why something is complete crap.
MG Benjamin Buchloh did that for Tino Sehgal this summer, brilliantly I thought. Completely deconstructed the work, but it hasn’t stopped him [Sehgal] having countless shows since.
JöH Buchloh’s is the type of criticism that I detest. He has allowed five or six artists into his pantheon of greats, and Tino dared to step too close to one or two of them.
MG What I find amazing about Buchloh’s writing is that, as much as it puts forward extremely cogent arguments for that pantheon, whether it’s Michael Asher or Lawrence Weiner, he often expresses a sense of surprise about new things that he sees. The range of his taste is far wider than that pantheon.
JöH I don’t agree. I think he looks at the pantheon and ponders, ‘Whom can I let in for a few weeks?’ I agree he’s a very smart thinker, but at the same time he’s coming from a generation where the whole thing is about positioning yourself in the art world to create a peer group that you’re part of, and that you use as a kind of mother ship.
MG In the 1980s most critical writing appeared in a context when Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente were the only artists getting shows and American institutions were ignoring the more significant and interesting artists. If you read Buchloh’s criticism now, it may seem like creating a pantheon of artists who are already accepted as the important ones, but it was only because of that criticism that they were given a kind of visibility, because critics spoke up for them.
JöH At that point many artists were also writers. They were forming their arguments from the position of their own work. They didn’t need a critic to be their lawyers or attorneys; what they needed were peers within the art market, like Seth Siegelaub or Konrad Fischer, the people who made it possible for them to be visible.
MG I have only once written a negative piece about an artist: a review on Ron Mueck’s work. But I didn’t feel it was very productive for me to explain what I felt to be uninteresting in his work. I admire those critics who do devote their attention to countering practices and positions they find problematic – Claire Bishop’s work comes to mind – but so far I have tended to spend my time explaining why I admire the artists that I admire; I haven’t written about why I find 95% of the contemporary painting I see to be dull.
AS Newspaper editors like negative reviews! I think it’s mediocrity that one would like to ignore, but if it’s the Tate doing a show of mediocre art, then you have to deal with it. It’s much more interesting to deal with really terrible art that’s got huge pretensions or really interesting art than it is to deal with the mediocre. I would rather write about a big Thomas Hirschhorn show than Ron Mueck.
TD Can I introduce an old-fashioned word: ‘medium’? I find that I definitely do have criteria for judging film installations. And there are lots of different things I find myself either liking or not liking. I might judge that work against my sense of developments in that medium, but at the moment, in terms of contemporary painting, I never really understand it in terms other than ‘that’s nice’ or ‘that’s not nice’.
TZ So basically you can only criticize how the yellow isn’t working with the Swedish green on top of it or something.
JöH The composer Hanns Eisler once said that if you only know about music, you don’t know about music. And I think that, for example, is the big problem at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where you have all these departments and they’re trying to justify themselves to each other. We have a similar problem in criticism. To understand video installation you have to understand space, you have to understand architecture and you have to understand sculpture.
JH I’m curious about why people do get into art criticism when it’s incredibly difficult, incredibly badly paid and incredibly insecure. If we’re talking about the intention of the artist, I think we should also talk about the intention of the writer. How do they want their criticism to function? Obviously it makes a difference whether it’s for The Guardian or for frieze or for an academic journal.
JöH I got into it from music criticism. I was listening to all sorts of music and suddenly musicians were using art, or they were referencing art. I felt there was a need for clarification and understanding, and that I might have a useful role in that world, which I also happened to be socially engaged with.
JH Tirdad, you came from a literary background. What made you shift over into art?
TZ I liked the parties! I had the tools to write criticism; I was introduced to artists, and became curious about their work.
JöH I’m glad I’m not a literary critic, because you always have to summarize a plot and then judge it, so you always have this kind of back-story.
JH You have to do that with a review, you have to describe a show.
JöH But usually there’s not a story that you have to relate or recount. It’s more interesting than having to summarize War and Peace.
JH But most people who read your review won’t have seen the show or the work of art. It’s a bit like what Mark was saying about knowing a piece by Sierra by seeing it on TV or reading about it in a newspaper.
JöH If you look at pop music criticism of the last decades, there are very few interesting critics who are actually talking about the way the music sounds. They usually write about the lyrics or personalities. Only quite recently have writers like Kodwo Eshun found a language to describe sound.
AS What would you do with an artist who described their work as ‘poetic’?
JH Be very suspicious.
PS The Berlin Biennial is very Italian, gothic, poetic. I think we are going to see the overuse of ‘poetic’ in reviews of it, I’m afraid.
JH Ultimately a work of art can’t literally be translated; it can only be discussed in the clearest terms possible. We have banned certain phrases and words in frieze such as ‘poetic’ and ‘riffed’.
AS ‘Poetic’ makes the art work sound wimpy. And not all poetry is wimpy.
TZ Apart from terms like ‘poetic’, oxymorons are a real hallmark of criticism. Stuff like ‘bafflingly functional’, ‘determinedly ambiguous’, or ‘clinically quirky’. It seems as if critics are trying to weave a vague grey zone you can’t quite grasp. Like trying to stay hands-off as well, bracketing the work between contradicting terms. I’m very sceptical about critics who resolutely say that there is some sort of magic at work when encountering work, because I always think a gut reaction is never enough – ideology is also part of it and that should be accounted for and not just blanketed with this kind of wilful incomprehension. But at the end of the day, maybe the vagueness of these oxymorons is inevitable? I don’t think it’s necessary bad, even if it’s messy.
PS I call this ‘binary fluffing’ – the putting together of two oppositional terms to make a new term. I’m sure we all do this when we’re writing, when you can’t find the right language to describe something.
MG I wonder what was the last work people saw that surprised them: something that you liked but didn’t think you would, and this made you reconsider your assumptions.
PS Isn’t that what we’re always after, in a way?
JöH It’s almost like a kick you’re looking for, isn’t it?
MG There are artists whom I’ve dismissed and not liked for years and then have come round to.
JH Was that because the work changed or because you changed?
MG I’m sure I’ve changed, but maybe the work changed too. Who knows?
JH Can you give us an example?
MG Yesterday I saw a silver painting by Tomma Abts, which I discovered is a cast of a painting. It raised questions that, as yet, I haven’t really answered.
PS Are you saying you didn’t like the work before?
MG I’ve been confused by her work for a while.
TD I’ve followed her work for a long time, and judging from some of the things that I’ve read about her, it seems it’s extremely difficult to write about because you’re always kind of wrong if you say it looks like this or that. Maybe it’s difficult because it looks old and new at the same time. Her works don’t look like the reinvention of painting but in some way they are like the reinvention of painting.
MG The painted cast I saw yesterday was on the walls of one of the classrooms in the old Jewish girls’ school. I think the lower half of the wall was papered with wallpaper showing the image of a brick wall, and the upper half was painted white. The artist had precisely placed her work over the meeting point of the wallpaper and the white painted wall, and this placement of the work there on the boundary between reality and image, old and new, is something that corresponds interestingly to the relationship of old and new in her painterly language. I think it was Abts’s attention to hanging her work in a particular site which impressed me.
JH This throws up the question of whether Abts’s work should be written about from the perspective of Geometric Abstraction or from the position that she expresses, which is outside that.
AS But if you look at Abts’s work, you come to it with your memories of Geometric Abstraction.
JöH Another example of artist intention versus actuality is Erik van Lieshout. I hope that he will not become the kind of artist who turns into what he’s trying to understand. He literally throws himself into the trickiest situations, risking being beaten up or even killed by trying to find out how people with extreme views think.
JH I didn’t like his recent work. I think it’s just reiterating what you know anyway: that there are creeps and Nazis in any culture. But he just gives these snapshots, these collaged images of them, so that everyone is going, ‘Oh, aren’t they appalling’, but there is no examination, really, of their social context or what turned someone into this.
TZ I think that what makes it stronger is that he doesn’t fall into the anthropological trap.
JH I don’t think that’s the only alternative.
JöH There are so many layers where you can criticize it for being possibly racist, or neo-colonialist, but I think he brings out something that wouldn’t be possible if he soberly examined the possible repercussions of putting himself in these situations. His work is all about the possibility of failing and becoming a cliché. And that’s why, for me, it’s interesting that he allows that instability between something that’s analytical and critical and something that is stupid and a cliché.
AS He also puts the viewer in a position that can be humiliating. You know, he makes these mad and uncomfortable situations for the viewer, with these kind of potty seats which people sit in to watch the film. You’re disorientated even before the film begins. He makes me embarrassed, which is why I find his work funny as well. It’s not just about his inability to analyse these situations; he’s also carrying the viewer to that place where we’re uncertain quite why we’re laughing, or why we find it funny.
JöH I’d like to bring up the question of the social relations of critics. In terms of friendships, or being corrupted or alienated.
PS Are you talking about the parties now?
JöH One of the trickiest things is to write negatively about someone you like.
AS Everything I know I think I’ve learnt from artists. I’ve learnt how to look at art through my relationships with artists and looking at their work. Some artists have been close friends, and I’ve always been open about that. I think if you don’t like the territory, don’t play the game. Don’t be in it. I’m in it because I like this world. And I’ve signalled my friendships when I’ve written about artists in that way. And I’ll stand up for that; I’ve got one life, I don’t care.
MG But I wouldn’t write about somebody whom I liked as a person but whose work I didn’t like. JH Where does catalogue writing fit into this?
PS I often don’t like the relationship that writing catalogues sets up because it’s assumed you’re going to write something positive.
TZ If you are asked to do a catalogue essay, you’re not being asked as an art critic. You’re asked as somebody who has the tools at hand to write about art and contextualize it.
PS I don’t mean to dismiss catalogue essays. I think some of the most interesting catalogue essays are the ones where the writer has been given absolute licence to respond to the work as they like. It can be a respectful situation between the artist and the writer.
JH Which is important, as there’s often an assumed hierarchy that artists are first, and writers are second; that’s very irritating.
JöH Particularly in the 1970s and ’80s there seemed to be an assumption that critics were a kind of educated aristocracy who performed as …
JöH Yes, in the sense that artists are the interesting primitives doing their stuff. In academia, in the vein of early anthropology, it was all about people saying, ‘Look, I’m the one who actually makes you understand that these primitives out there in the world are actually doing something that is interesting.’ And to a certain extent that’s what we’re doing in terms of art. We’re saying, ‘Look you may not think this is art, but it is.’
TZ You mean this as a cliché?
JöH Yeah, of course!
TZ The question ‘Is this art or not’ is actually a question that has been done by the Daily Telegraph now; we don’t talk about it any more.
JöH I’m not sure that’s true. It’s not like, Rirkrit [Tiravanija] is cooking, is that art? We don’t really discuss that so much, but still we have criteria of implication. That’s the whole Arthur Danto discussion about what constitutes the actual parameters of art. Is it the institution or the critic or the artist?
TD A critic in the 1970s was more powerful than critics now, because the role of the curator has changed and has influenced criteria. I remember in the late 1970s kitsch was a category that implied disdain, but if you describe something as kitsch today to somebody in LA, they say, ‘yeah, right on’. It’s like cities or countries that come in and out of fashion. There’s this amazing concentration of power in the hands of very few, and then there are critics who have been saying the situation today makes Greenberg look grassroots: really democratic by comparison. There’s much more autocracy going on now.
PS You’re talking about bad curating?
TD In criticism as well.
PS I think it’s important to talk about things such as the relationship of the curator and the artist to the gallery.
JöH I agree. A large part of our job is to look not only at what artists produce but also at the way their work is displayed and framed. And I think that’s where we have to look at questions such as ‘Is the show compromised by the fact the curator is very close to one gallery’, for example.
TZ I think everyone should mention briefly how he or she got into art writing. Jennifer?
JH I worked as an artist for a long time and I was on a scholarship in London from Australia, and I was having a terrible time with my own practice and felt lost. Writing was a way of thinking things through properly. Of working through the panic. Polly?
PS I studied art history and also went to art school. I have a brain that is both reflexive and interested in production, and that relates to my writing and my curatorial practice.
JH Thomas, why didn’t you become a writer?
TD My brother is a writer, Christian Demand. He actually has written a book about the descent of art criticism in the last 150 years. I never considered writing. If you’re an artist, there remains a certain kind affection to your artwork as a – hopefully – successful operation in the world. In that sense, there remains a division between artists and critics, who – unless they are artists themselves – inevitably don’t share that experience.
PS I’m not sure about the hierarchy between artists and non-artists that this implies. As a curator I’m often actually on the side of the artist not the critic, being part of the production being criticised.
JH Mark, how did you become a writer?
MG I was doing an art history PhD, and writing criticism came out of that.
AS What was your PhD on?
MG It was about Holocaust memory and abstract art. I wanted to be able to articulate my responses to the works I enjoyed seeing and also to articulate that within the continuity of the art-historical writing that impressed me. I had a particular respect for certain art-historical positions, and the artists that I wanted to write about I wanted to think about within those traditions. Adrian?
AS I went to art college and the year I left I moved to London and some of the people I had known, who were doing a bit of part-time teaching, were starting an art magazine and I thought that would be a good way of meeting people and not being lonely. It was Artscribe and it was 1976. It cost 20p a copy. I helped fold it. It didn’t even have staples.
First published in Issue 100