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Bartelik about AICA

Marek Bartelik, Portrait by Phong Bui
Marek Bartelik, Portrait by Phong Bui pencil on paper

Marek Bartelik, Guest Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, presents AICA.

This special issue of the Brooklyn Rail introduces AICA (the International Association of Art Critics), founded in Paris as a non-governmental organization affiliated with UNESCO in 1949, to a broader audience in the United States and elsewhere. It also includes reports on the current state of art criticism in Europe, along with conversations about its impact on art and culture, by art critics and artists from 26 European countries.

Since its inception, AICA has played a vital role in promoting independent art criticism—and independent art as well—disseminating critical ideas and promoting innovative art, while bringing together art critics, art historians, curators, and artists from different parts of the world. That mission was already signaled by the title of the Congress of AICA in 1949: Aesthetic Questions: Art and Society. Professional Questions: the Rights of the Critic. To a large extent, it was international associations such as AICA that played a major role in reducing cultural and artistic divisions, first in post-war Europe by contributing to the East-West détente on the continent, and, then, in other parts of the world, by organizing international symposia and annual congresses, publishing books, organizing major exhibitions, and facilitating personal contacts between critics and critics, and critics and artists. It is important to mention that from the very beginning the presence of art critics from the United States was vital for AICA: James Johnson Sweeney was elected one of its founding Vice Presidents in 1949, became President in 1957, and served two terms until 1963. Kim Levin was AICA’s President between 1996 and 2002, and I (a naturalized American) have this privilege at the present. AICA USA, currently under the presidency of Christopher French, counts over 400 members, among them many illustrious art critics, art historians, curators, and artists who write on art. Today AICA International is 4,500 members strong, its sections comprising 63 countries and regions. As the title of the Honorary President of AICA Henry Meyric Hughes’s article in this issue indicates, the association has evolved from a “Gentlemen’s Club” to a “Universal Fellowship,” making art criticism practiced by AICA members a truly global phenomenon.

AICA’s history has been recorded in AICA in the Age of Globalization published by AICA Press in 2010 and edited by Ramón Tió Bellido and Henry Meyric Hughes. Various archives of prominent members of AICA have been deposited at the Archives of Art Criticism in Rennes, France, run by Jean-Marc Poinsot. Our modest contribution to casting light on the Association’s past consists of a discussion of the AICA archives of James Johnson Sweeney and several photo albums accompanied by short commentaries about the activities of AICA in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s provided by the Polish critic Anda Rottenberg and the Honorary President of AICA, Kim Levin. Included are also extracts from a speech that Ilya Kabakov delivered during the 28th AICA Congress in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1994, which—being an ephemeral “piece of art” in itself—demonstrates how significant the voices of artists have been for advancing discussions on vital issues concerning both art critics and artists. It is my sincere hope that this material, as well as the entire issue, will motivate others to further engage in the research of AICA’s history, for—to recall Walter Benjamin’s words—we need such research in order “not to retain the new but to renew the old,” and to make “what was old” our “own.”

Although we speak here about the current state of art criticism and art in Europe, the goal is to speak from a specific vantage point, but not about a specific place or homogenous culture with a geographical or cultural fixity. We have already been thinking about similar issues devoted to Latin America, Asia, and Africa in the years to come. Therefore, Europe is a region, not an absolute space but rather a relational, even “paradoxical” one, conditioned, like all other regions, by the presence of the World Wide Web, the “art world,” and the world economy. In a sense, what we attempt to achieve in this issue is to present the regional as a network of smaller places that, despite globalization, may or may not directly interact with each other. To paraphrase Michael R. Curry, such a network constitutes not a map or an ur text but “a world of places within a larger space.”

As the critics invited to participate in this project passionately argue, despite the worsening economic situation and growing marginalization of traditional art criticism, writing on art is alive and well. What is changing is the way it is exercised, as more immediate means of communication, such as art blogs, are often replacing, or rather supplementing, traditional forms of writing. Still, in the world of fast exchanges of ideas we may become increasingly aware of our “insignificance,” which—perhaps rightly so—to a large degree expresses our real place in culture: an unstable place between the artist and the public. For me that dynamic instability might in fact be the strength of the critic, because it keeps us constantly aware of the changing world we live in, to which art criticism must respond. As the world becomes increasingly aware of its diversity—be it cultural, ethnic, or sexual—to paraphrase the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, it is moving from a “solid” to a “liquid” state, where our presence is visibly fluid.

In recent years, there have been many debates on the state of art criticism in this country and elsewhere. Some of those debates have had a highly academic character, while some of them have remained informal. Throughout its history, AICA has been actively involved in championing such exchanges of ideas during its congresses and special symposia—and its unique role must be stressed here. As far as this issue of the Brooklyn Rail is concerned, what distinguishes this particular debate from others is that despite its overriding narrative—as suggested by the title “On the State of Art Criticism in Europe”—the content of this issue remains episodic. We should perceive the material gathered here as a set of unprescripted “encounters,” which Alain Badiou has defined as “contingent, chance element[s] of existence.” Major European countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain are represented, and so are small ones such as Luxembourg, Macedonia, and Slovakia. Russia and Turkey are countries between two continents. What unites the art critics whose voices are presented here is the fact that they constitute grassroots art criticism, experiential in its nature, based on the realization that human thought must follow human action and be intuitive as well. It has been very important to me that the presence of artists here is as clearly visible as the presence of art critics. After all, as the art world resembles the world at large with its 1%, or privileged people, and the remaining 99%, we need each other, perhaps more than ever. What unites contributing writers and artists here is that sense of double je (“double I,” but also phonetic “double game”) which binds us to the specific places we come from and, at the same time, pulls us elsewhere, toward different territories. This might be, in fact, one of the main underlying themes of this issue: the fight against the alienation of human experience and human thought, while examining our singularity.

I thank the Brooklyn Rail, Phong Bui, Sara Roffino, Maggie Barrett, Williamson Brasfield, Walter Chiu, Gaby Collins-Fernandez and the Brooklyn Rail production team in particular, for giving me the opportunity as a Guest Editor to prepare this issue, and all the contributors for their generous participation. Finally I thank all artists for giving us rights to reproduce their works here.

—Marek Bartelik, New York, May 1, 2014

MAREK BARTELIK is an art critic, art historian, and poet. He taught modern and contemporary art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York from 1996 to 2012. Universities he has taught as Visiting Professor include Yale and MIT. Bartelik was a Graduate Critic-in-Residence at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (2006 – 2011). Between 2008 and 2012 he served as President of AICA-USA, and currently serves as the 15th President of AICA International (International Association of Art Critics), which gathers over 4500 critics in 63 national sections worldwide.

His books include: The Sculpture of Ursula von Rydingsvard (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), co-authored with Dore Ashton and Matti Megged; To Invent a Garden: The Life and Art of Adja Yunkers (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2000) for writing of which he was awarded a Judith Rothschild Foundation grant; Early Polish Modern Art: Unity in Multiplicity by the Manchester University Press, Manchester, England, November 2005 (England), December 2005 (USA) - for which he has received PIASA’s 2007 Waclaw Lednicki Humanities Award; and GDR/DDR: Contemporary German Painting from Portuguese Collections (Lisbon, Portugal: ARTing, 2008). His debut volume of poetry, East Sixth Street: 50 poems, was published by 7Letras in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in December 2006. His first book in Polish, Lagodny deszcz (Gentle rain) was released in Poland in December 2010 (the book’s English version is scheduled to be published in 2015).

His articles have appeared in, among other magazines and newspapers, CAA Art Journal, Print, Culture Politics, Paletten, Dare, Obieg, Brooklyn Rail, Art in America, Bookforum, and Artforum - for which he has written exhibition reviews from more than 20 countries on four continents. He has written about, among others, Cai Guo-Qiang, Ilya Kabakov, Boris Mikhailov, Dmitri Prigov, ORLAN, DUST, Anna-Bella Geiger, Pazé, Nan Gonzales, Oswaldo Vigas, Miguel Palma, Grimanesa Amoros, Isabel Rocamora, Christopher Mir, and Yuhee Choi.

He curated, among other exhibitions,
Adja Yunkers: To Invent a Garden at the Bayly Art Museum in Charlottesville, University of Virginia (April-June 2000); POZA: On the Polishness of Contemporary Polish Art at Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT (October 2006 - January 2007); and Mark Rothko: Paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington at the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland (June - August 2013).

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