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Marek Bartelik in Saint Petersburg

In Latvia, there was a huge explosion of interest in the new media from the mid-1990s onward.  It seems to me now that the focus has somewhat shifted to painting, for example, to moderately sized pictures influenced by naïve art... Are there similar trends in the USA?

It makes sense to look for parallels in history. While the 1970s were the age of conceptual art, the 1980s were marked by the return of painting. And when people started to analyse how that had come about, they arrived at the conclusion that in many cases the changes could be traced to art galleries which had long since realised that they could not sell conceptual art: the pieces were insufficiently material and compact, they looked too esoteric. And the galleries said: ‘It is time to go back to painting!’ And then neo-expressionism emerged, and so on. To a considerable extent, the whole thing was staged. Perhaps it would be wise to try and figure out how much of it is actually a natural development and to what extent it is a a market-imposed strategy that influences young artists who follow its lead. Because everyone is informed that ‘there are similar trends in art galleries everywhere’... I would put a question mark there. Perhaps the problem is that art had become too political or esoteric and insufficiently ‘materialised’. I don’t see a potential of escape in painting. It is nothing more than one of a number of currently existing parallel forms of expression. Although it is, of course, easier to separate the good from the bad in painting.

I think it also has to do with the subject of questions and answers. Contemporary art as we know it – installations, video, performances – is more about asking questions, topical questions at that. The audience, however, experiences a deficiency of answers. Perhaps painting is more like an answer.

Yes, perhaps it is a return to the original impulse, to a more personal kind of art. When an artist is painting in a studio, he exists in a world of his own. And it is a more sensual kind of art. For instance, the sense of smell is involved in it. The Greeks said that art had to smell. If you take a piece of marble and start to work with it, the stone does release a smell. The difference between American and European art lies, among other things, in its attitude toward smells. In Europe it is quite acceptable. In America, we think that there should be no smell. It is the same with cheese: we eat the same cheeses, except they are pasteurised: they must not smell. People are afraid of anything with a smell. In Europe, on the other hand, art sometimes still has a smell, and that’s a good thing...
As for predictions and theorising, I prefer to see first and then respond to it, having processed the impressions. In the 1980s, the famous American art critic and curator Barbara Rose mounted an excellent exhibition titled ‘Painting in the 1980s’; it also toured throughout Europe. And then, in the late 1980s, she put on another show, this one under the title of ‘Painting in the 1990s’. Now, that was a complete fiasco. All the artists and works she thought would play a major part in the 1990s faded from significance during the actual decade. And I wouldn’t like to find myself in a similar role of the failed predictor. It is like a relationship: you are dying to know how things are going to work out. But it’s impossible to tell someone: be this kind of person, and then I will like you. The same thing with art...

The final question: how did you become the President of the International Association of Art Critics?

That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I spent the greatest part of my life trying to be a very private person and avoid getting seriously involved in organisations of any kind. And then at some point I realised that if I wanted to do something in this area, it had to be then. Because ten years from now, I won’t feel like doing that kind of work; I will probably be more inclined to focus on my poetry, etc. I attended a number of international conferences as a representative of our chapter of AICA. And we talked. And I felt that people seem to like my ideas. I was elected in October 2011 at the AICA congress in Asunción, Paraguay. It is both a great honour and a huge challenge for me. My life is changing once again, like it did when I was 30. I am 55 now, and that’s great – it is the beginning of a new adventure.