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Marek Bartelik in Saint Petersburg

What is happening with the discourse of art criticism? Has it changed significantly since you first started writing?

Yes, things have changed. Critics now have to react, respond to events so much faster than they used to. And there are fewer periodicals to publish your articles. There is only one art critic among the staff of the New York Times Newspaper; the rest are freelancers. And that’s the largest of our newspapers. Magazines also do not employ art critics. Since the emergence of blogging, many critics have been writing art blogs; however, as they would tell you, they have no idea how long they will be able to afford doing that: they have to do something else to earn their living. Also, due to this need for instant responding, so typical for the internet, paradoxical situations tend to arise. An art blogger confessed to me that he was scared of someone else writing a piece on the same subject and publishing it first. Can you imagine that? And if you are scared of that, you end up living in fear: there will always be a chance of someone being quicker than you.

This anxiety – it is probably not just typical for art critics today; it is in the air. And the surest way of self-assertion today is to come up with new keywords, new terms that fit a problem or describe some sort of new art fact, and everybody else will start repeating it after you. And then you become famous.

I recall the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and I think that, with his slow and melancholy style of writing, he probably would not have become famous in our time. His verses are completely devoid of any urgency of communication; all communication takes place on a completely different level there. And I think that this sort of opposition to this ‘urgency of account’ makes sense. On the other hand, I have noticed a new trend of critics starting to write their texts like fiction, introducing elements of inventions, sometimes even a proper storyline. You can make up a whole personal art universe; you can write your critique as a story. My new book features a chapter on an imaginary artist although the rest of the characters are quite real.


You mentioned during the discussion that you sometimes use a similar approach in teaching when you are telling your students about art...

Yes, and sometimes I worry that I may be ‘mixing up their coordinates’ too much. I do think, however, that they should always be given an opportunity to make up their own mind.

How do you do it?

You want me to give you an example? Well, for example, there was this class when I showed my students a drawing of an elephant by Rembrandt, having first clipped it so that it did not include the animal’s tail. I said to them: ‘Look at the brilliant way Rembrandt was working. To show the elephant’s giant size, he cut off the tail in his picture.’ And later someone googled the drawing and found out that the tail was actually still there. Of course, I don’t do this sort of thing very often. However, I do think that these little catches for imagination, for critical evaluation of the ingested information are really necessary. What it also shows is that art can become a sort of separate reality. We are attending a conference on art and reality here. Yes, they do have occasional points of intersection. And yet they exist separately. And I am teaching my students art, I am not teaching them reality.

Of course, education is not a copy/paste of things said by the teacher. You have to process them and check if they are actually true.

It also has to do with feelings, not only with the brain, as well as with the fact that teaching is passing on not only knowledge but also the understanding that this knowledge alone is not enough, that there is this space of search which we enter together. Of course, I may be more experienced in this, having been around for a longer time. And yet we have to discover things together. When we start teaching, we forget that the most memorable moments have actually always been about things not going quite right. The professors I personally liked best as a student were the ones notable for a certain eccentricity of behaviour: they could do bizarre or even silly things. And it is they who I remember, not the ones who were paragons of perfection. >>