December 18, 2014

2015 Prediction Nr. 2: Clubs And Critics Are The Next Big Things

Me at the dinner club, korean barbecue at Arirang, Charlottenburg

This might be new to you but the latest trend in town is to be part of a club. I myself actually kind of set this trend in 2014 and in 2015 it’s gonna be hyping. Drop your music band, join a club! At the moment I’m part of a glee club, a drawing club, and a dinner club. It’s not only me, other cool people have started clubs this year. The thing is, they don’t call it a “club” yet but they will in 2015 because everybody will be clubbing. Of course, I might be the trendsetter of this trend but I’m not the avant-garde. Craig Shuftan is. He was talking culture club as early as 2002 (first on the radio Triple J, then in the book The Culture Club: Modern Art, Rock and Roll, and Other Things Your Parents Warned You About, 2007). That’s the thing about being avant-garde. Andy Warhol was one, and he explained it like this: “Whenever I’m interested in something, I know the timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time. I should just be getting interested after I’m not interested any more, because right after I’m embarrassed to still be thinking about a certain idea, that’s when the idea is just about to make somebody a few million dollars. My same good mistakes.” No wonder then, that Craig Shuftan just started a new music band Ducks! (check it out here).  

 The electronic music duo Craig Shuftan and Lani Bagley  

Craig Shuftan brings me to the next topic of 2015: great art writing, and this is the part where I make the obligatory suggestions for Christmas presents. But first of all, what is good art criticism? Mainly it opens up the artwork or the exhibition to a more abstract level - call it phenomenology - and that’s why you can can still read it decades later although the artwork itself might have disappeared. However, it’s been a while now that art criticism is stuck in a lurch or is it in a slump, and as Dr. Seuss taught us: it is really hard to un-slump yourself. This week a review about the Jorinde Voigt exhibit at Johann König Galerie in the Berliner Zeitung made me cry out how on earth?! Because yes, it is a mystery to me how these art reviews get published saying nothing but blablabla on an entire page. Nowadays art critics don’t express an opinion, nor do they seem to have an outlook. Art reviews are written purely to please the gallerist, the collector and the museum director. Shouldn’t it be the other way around: the art critic defining what should please the gallerist, the collector and the museum director? 

The crisis of art criticism is an old debate (it started around 2000). But I have a positive feeling that art critics are growing an opinion in 2015. To help them on their way, here are a few examples of good art writing and at the same time it's also a list for the non-art-writers of what to read during Christmas break:

1. Be punk

It takes guts to be an art critic. The most punk of the current critics is the artist Wolfgang Müller. Not only because he happened to have a punk band in the 1980s, Die Tödliche Doris. Nor because he publishes his articles in the smallest newspaper of Germany, the leftist newspaper Die Junge Welt. He also writes extensively on a forum like facebook. So what is a punk attitude? Take this Facebook status update as an example: “Once I was asked by a journalist: ‘What did you think when you noticed that punk-music and Super-8-films from 1980s subculture ended up in the museum?’ My answer: ‘That is wonderful! Where else can it end up? Or do you think, it would be better if it ends up on the scrapheap?’” Equally badass was Wolfgang Müller's suggestion about crowdfunding in the cultural magazine TIP: “When I would have the feeling that a diffuse flock of intelligentsia expected something particular of me, I would possibly make something disappointing so I could at least surprise myself. Like using the money to fly to Hawaii and send everybody a postcard with vinyl loops on which you can hear the reconstructed sound of the Hawaiian O’o - a bird last spotted in 1934.” To write punk is to write about underground culture, which is a culture that is not acknowledged like, for instance, deaf culture, promoted by Wolfgang Müller as “visual culture” (unfortunately this article in Die Junge Welt is not online anymore). And writing punk means also to be political. In a recent interview in the Berliner Zeitung, Müller asked a pertinent question about our society that we can try to answer in 2015: “Are the best ones those egoists who worked themselves up in the shortest time possible? Is that their record performance? The simple question about humanity absolutely has to be asked again. Thus: what is a human being?” 

2. Have a laugh,will you!

Nothing worse than art criticism that is too serious about everything, including itself. Dorothy Parker is not alive anymore, but her sharp wit is timeless. She said things one wasn't supposed to be saying and did so with a great self-humor. Let me quote from Dorothy Parker. Complete Broadway, 1918-1923: “It’s like this: If they were to come to me tonight as I sit at dinner, and tell me that an amendment had just been added to the constitution prohibiting the performance of the plays of William Shakespeare on any stage, I should politely remark, “Oh, is that so?” and calmly go on eating. For the horrid truth is that Shakespeare on the stage is not for me. I don’t mean to be bigoted about the thing. Some of my best friends heartily and sincerely enjoy Shakespearean performances. But, for me, the plays of Shakespeare in the theatre are as so many helpings of creamed carrots - I know they will do me good and I ought to enjoy them, but I am congenitally unable to.”  

3. Generalise boldly

The most common problem with art criticism is that it tends to stick to the little facts instead of rising above them. Gertrude Stein knew how to make bold statements for the hell of it. She made generalisations in such an absurd way that it totally made sense. My favourite one is how she described her encounter with Ernest Hemingway who, she wrote, “looks like a modern and smells of the museums.”: “I remember very well the impression I had of Hemingway that first afternoon. He was an extraordinarily good-looking young man, twenty-three years old. It was not long after that that everybody was twenty-six. It became the period of being twenty-six. During the next two or three years all the young men were twenty-six years old. It was the right age apparently for that time and place.”  And Gertrude Stein was head-on in her definition about the twentieth century: “So the twentieth century [] is a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself, it is a more splendid thing than a period where everything follows itself.” 

4. Be Pop

Art writing that keeps to rationality and logic is plain boring - you can do that in academia. Great art writing doesn't follow the trodden paths. It's the result of associative thinking, a mind that puts together things that didn’t belong together and makes it work. That’s the mindset of Craig Shuftan. He doesn’t even care being unreasonable once in a while - feeling unreasonable is actually what made him write his book Hey Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone! in which he jumps back and forth between 20th century rock & roll and 19th century Romanticism. Indeed, Shuftan takes great leaps in time and he does it with ease. And yes, he's not afraid of Pop. As a fan of Andy Warhol I dig writing in which, so to speak, rice and beans are put together with cokes and hamburgers. Craig Shuftan introduces disco into the stuck-up language of art criticism (also called International Art English). And similar to early twentieth-century cultural critics Walter Benjamin and Alfred Döblin, Shuftan makes the genre of art criticism radioactive. Listen to his latest radio program Love In The Nineties

5. Write Poetry

Art critics tend to forget that also the genre of art criticism can be a form of art in itself. Not only content counts, but it’s equally important to play with language. It was Roland Barthes who wrote about the pleasure a text can give to the reader: “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).” An art critic who I admire most for her use of language is Catherine Nichols. I think the exquisite pleasure of reading Nichols’ texts derives from the fact that she knows how to write with both the eye and the ear. A whole paragraph just to proof my point: 

“In stark contrast to its object - the discourse surrounding sound art - and hence the work of Rolf Julius who is widely considered a major exponent of this movement - is quite concerned with finding its feet, in finding legs to stand on. Indeed, approaches to this direction in art, which have radically proliferated since the late 1960s, have a considerable gravity about them. The very act of designating works incorporating the element of sound in some way as sound art affords sound a weight, a significance, which precludes it from being merely one of many elements in a work; it has a tendency to make sound central, all-consuming, and the other elements subservient, peripheral, perhaps even exchangeable. The phenomenon has had philosophers like Adorno worrying over the integrity of the arts and music, art historians and musicologists wondering where they might locate the beginnings and the boundaries of the movement, and artists nervous about the limitations of subsumption into this fluid category.” (Rolf Julius, Für den Blick nach unten, 2007). 

Catherine Nichols writes not so much for magazines or newspapers, but she has left her mark on many catalogues. My last advice: buy them all! Beuys, Die Revolution sind wirBruce Nauman, Ein LesebuchDie Leidenschaften, ein Drama in fünf AktenThe End of the 20th Century. The Best Is Yet To Come. 

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