49. At the AICA Congress Symposia

Your week has been dominated by the AICA congress in London. The International Association of Art Critics first came to your attention only when you were nominated to join it a couple of years ago. Soon after you found yourself at the AICA congress in Seoul, acting as a moderator for a day of debates and then writing up an overview of the Seoul 2014 congress for the AICA website. Meanwhile you began learning about AICA’s amazingly rich and noble history, its changing identity and its aim or ‘spirit.’

In Seoul you were enlightened by a grand parade of international perspectives concerning just what an art critic or art writer might be today and in the future and might have been in the past. In London’s heavily marketised art world (you were recently informed it corners 76% of the European art market) the role of the critic seems relatively disparaged or ignored. But in e.g. Putin’s oppressive Russia, or rapidly emergent Korea you encounter a quite different status and role for the art critic.

The more you learn and the more you think about it the more you appreciate that the tradition is not only long but more or less noble. By historicizing and working constructively with the archive the more you can see beyond the past to imagine various futures in which this role and this purpose might yet be transformed and renewed.

This year’s congress was actually a slightly smaller affair, with less time, less delegates, less events and less funds than a full congress. This was because London stepped-in very late in the planning schedule, agreeing to host a congress when funding for the proposed Swedish congress fell through at a late stage. Nevertheless, as well as showing a group of delegates a selection of London’s wide range of galleries, and as well as AICA attending to its annual bureaucratic matters, the congress still managed to put together a very focused one-day symposium held at RCA and a keynote event at The Courtauld Institute.

The theme of these talks generally revolved around the value and price of art in our presently rampant, barely opposable, neoliberal and global capitalist economy. Keynote speaker Matthew Bown, who spoke at Courtauld, set the scene with a slightly audacious, quietly argued thesis in which the ‘relic’ remained centre stage as our most reliable and consistent sign of value for art. Bown argued that ‘relic’ status can be applied equally to the nail clippings of saints maintained in jewel-encrusted medieval reliquaries and to the squeegeed prints of Andy Warhol. Enlightenment, Modernist, or today’s often crass and grotesque market- valuations become incidental distractions given the real, central, fundamental and enduring value of the ‘relic.’

Interestingly, Bown’s argument resurrects the well-known research of Kris and Kurz in their classic study ‘Legend, Myth & Magic in the Image of the Artist’ in which they arrive at the concept ‘Enacted Biography’ to show how artists already live their lives akin to Vasari’s lives of the artists  – that were of course based on lives of the saints. Hence, anything the artist does or touches becomes automatically valuable and significant as a relic of that special life, even if the object they produce or even merely touch is otherwise difficult to evaluate.

Seasoned London gallerist René Gimpel, transgressive video journalist Ben Lewis, art critics JJ Charlesworth and Anthony Downey, artist David Cross, philosophical activist Nina Power, curator Joshua Simon, art Historian Julia Stallabrass and profound cultural commentator Marie Jose Mondzain all proffered related theses the next day at RCA.

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For much of the morning you felt assailed and slightly demoralized by a battery of proclamations illustrating and compounding the image of vanity, inanity, greed, corruption, and grossly over-inflated, short-term financial shenanigans typical of the Londoner’s perspective on art. Anthony Downey even confessed to the increasing impotence of his own role and at one point seemed willing to tender his resignation to the audience. He repeatedly expressed his growing realization, gleaned through close scrutiny of the international art world, that the critic or art writer, however well-intended, may have little or no influence today and becomes inevitably compliant with a regime that should be a nemesis.

Charlesworth tried to move more cautiously and constructively towards a theory of art that went beyond the traps of capitalist vocabulary. Can we just stop calling or thinking of art as a ‘commodity’, and that way begin to rescue or redeem qualities and values that it must surelt retain outside or beyond market values? Downey also railed against habitual vocabulary and terms that trap our responses within established rather than innovative discourse. Meanwhile Anna Somers Cocks (who chaired one session) asked an important but sadly unanswered (due to time constraints) question along the lines of: “Does anyone here think that the artwork maintains and retains other values despite all the doom and gloom we have heard concerning the market?”

Having chewed over a series of papers delivered by middle-aged men who seemed intent on outdoing each other in being cynical-er than thou, it was left to Nina Power and Marie-José Mondzain to breathe some hope back into the ailing body of progressive, revolutionary, autonomous, exceptional or even beautiful art. Power mostly harangued the London-based ‘Accellerationist’ movement, vehemently arguing for a counter-assertion of humanist values and strategies opposed to their dangerously post-human, market-accommodating, object-oriented and technology-adoring quasi-futurist vision. Power insisted on rolling back recent incursions of the private sector into public space and public facilities and in her most vivid and memorable example imagined a Tate Turbine Hall installation featuring hundreds of horses stolen from the police, a symbolic image implying some future re-balancing of the people’s power played out through art.

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Mondzain followed Power’s passionate but slightly rough-hewn argument with her own display of Franco-philosophical prowess, reminding you that there is a spark of noble liberty informing and giving energy to every genuine act of creativity and that in this unalterable fact lies hope and sustenance for true believers in the infinite possibilities of art. Mondzain expanded on an argument originally forged in the 1990s by Don De Lilo (and wonderfully illustrated by Johan Grimonprez’ grim [1997] video collage ‘Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y’). This thesis basically says that terrorism has supplanted the role of the artist as the crucial figure in a modern or postmodern society responsible for challenging and transforming, through risk and experiment, and thereby creating spaces of possibility (however vile their terrorist acts) that are un-assimillable to the status quo. Mondzain used examples from contemporary art and politics – including recent scandals concerning public art- to convincingly demonstrate that art, art writing and artists may seem toothless or appear to be  surpassed today because “we have failed to be dangerous” – a memorable phrase which was one of the most valuable you took away from a day overflowing with carefully crafted words and thoughts.

You reflected on all of this as you left the 2015 AICA congress symposium and made your way home through London streets bustling with cranes and trucks indicative of the new building boom, the next property bubble and the likely bust-to-come. Yes, the truth is painful, but London’s is not the only story of contemporary art, and not the only perspective upon it. All in all the debates seemed to spotlight London as an epicenter of cynicism but also the eye of a storm which can become blind to the myriad perspectives of other cities, peoples, markets, arts etc.

This year’s smaller but perhaps more focused AICA congress did mean that less time and less perspectives of a truly international kind featured in the symposia. The painful truths you heard left you a little demoralized and even ashamed, but the proliferation and contemplation truths, however painful, must always be an important aspect of the art critic’s and art writer’s role. Unpopular and unpopulist as they might be, it is often pain, truth, and their stomach-curdling combination, that stimulates demands for change, and kick-starts alternatives.

The panoply of disturbing evidence you saw and heard, within so many descriptions of critical failure and cultural impasse (only occasionally alleviated by more hopeful thought), may ultimately rejuvenate the role and purpose of the art critics and writers and curators and academics gathered in London this week, and thereby rejuvenate the role and effectiveness of art criticism and art writing per se – the history, care, perpetuation and cultivation of which is a long and noble tradition for which AICA remains uniquely responsible.

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