COLLOQUIUM REPORT: ‘Reframing the (Art) World: Commitment, Challenges and Crises of International Art Criticism since 1945’

Université Rennes 2, 11-12 October 2018

by JJ Charlesworth

Université Rennes 2 is host to the Archives de la critique de l’art, which holds, among other records and archives, the historical archives of AICA. For the last three years, the archive and the university have partnered on a programme of research, monikered ‘PRISME’ – taking as its starting point the AICA archives, to research the as-yet little examined histories of art criticism in the post-war, as these played out through the activity facilitated by AICA’s international network, and the contacts this fostered and the debates it initiated.

In October, a resulting two-day colloquium, ‘Reframing the (Art) World’, brought together 15 papers examining the role of prominent critics and historians and key moments in the history of AICA, in its response to the culture and geopolitics of the Cold War. Organised and led by the university’s Dr Antje Kramer-Mallordy, the four sessions dealt with four themes delving into the place of art criticism through the optics of AICA, covering a period from the 1950s to the early 1980s. The first day looked to European art criticism in the first decade of the Iron Curtain, then turning to the question of how the internationalism of AICA, and of Modernist art criticism figured in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The second day’s papers delved into the transatlantic connections and dialogues between Europe, the UK and the US, followed by a final afternoon which turned, increasingly self-consciously, towards the heterodox developments in theory and criticism that emerged in Europe and the US during the 1970s. It was an illuminating two days, which included a drinks reception at the premises of the archives, hosted by ACA’s president Professor Jean-Marc Poinsot and director Dr Nathalie Boulouch.

That the 1970s figured as a sort of endpoint is no coincidence, since what the colloquium revealed was how the politics of the Cold War so clearly defined – and often constrained – the professional forms and institutional contacts of art criticism in the years to the end of the 1960s; and how both the geopolitical balance and the dominance of a (putatively) internationalist, modernist art criticism both unravelled in the decade following.

The extent to which modernist art criticism was tied up in the ambivalences of internationalist ideals played out in the shadow of US power was a frequent motif. Morgane Walter’s examination of the debates initiated by critic Wilhelm Wissel in Leverküsen in 1955 focussed on how the assembled critics wrangled over how abstraction could embody liberation and an internationalist spirit, while the issue of figurative art was haunted – by its address of the artistic and cultural particularity and locality – by the spectre of nationalism; a spectre which post-war West Germany was keen to distance itself from. Walter’s account revealed the confused tension in disavowing the Nazi pre-war past in the same breath as the pre-war history of figuration – whether, for example, the psychological experience of war (and therefore of ‘national particularity’) could be detected in abstraction made in different national contexts.

Nancy Jachec’s paper looked at the crisscrossing of the Iron Curtain by Czechoslovak intellectual Adolf Hoffmeister; returning to Czechoslovakia in 1946 to work for the new government, he was soon a delegate to UNESCO and the UN. With the repressive turn of 1951 he was recalled, jailed and then given a teaching post. Hoffmeister’s disillusion at Communist repression became the background to his part in bringing Jean-Paul Sartre to Eastern Europe. Jachec’s paper traced Sartre’s important contributions to congresses in Moscow and Leningrad, and Hoffmeister’s support for new cultural journals such as Plamenand Tvarjin the early 60s, later suppressed after the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Following Jachec, Agnezka Bartlová examined how the liberalisation of the 1960s and the aftermath of the Prague Spring figured in the development of Czechophone art criticism during the 60s; charting the fortunes of the monthly Výtvarné uměníand the bimonthly Výtvarná Práce, Bartlová put these in the context of the 1966 AICA congress in Prague and Bratislava, and the activity of the Union of Czeckoslovak Visual artists, by then headed by Hoffmeister, which funded both magazines. Noting the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the 1966 congress through which Czechoslovak critics developed their contacts with the West, Bartlová showed Výtvarné umění’sattention to international tendencies, for example published articles on Marcel Duchamp and cybernetics, as well as reports by Czechoslovak critics of visits to Venice and Documenta. The bimonthly Výtvarná Práce was a faster, more artist-centred publication moreoriented to the local scene. Both however, would cease publication by 1970s as the ministry of culture pulled funding from the Union of Visual Artists. Bartlová concluded by criticising the political queitism of the Czechoslovak section of AICA, lamenting the failure to maintain any collective memory or institutional continuity with the criticism of the 60s, inaugurating, in her view, a long period of silence in Czech art criticism during the last years of the Cold War.

The morning concluded with my discussion of the transatlantic contexts that appear in the content of the British magazine Studio International between 1968 and 1972, as the magazine both represented and intervened in the progressive reorientation of the British contemporary art scene from US-Anglophone relationships to the growing influence of European avant-garde activity after 1968.

Turning away from the Iron Curtain geography of the morning session, the afternoon papers looked towards what would now be called the Global South. The tensions between internationalism and the entrenched influence of Eurocentric critical habits were playfully highlighted by Caroline A. Jones’s delve into the shifting reception of the Pakistani painter Sadequain (Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi), lauded by European critics in the early 1960s as the ‘Pakistani Picasso’. Jones essayed the circuitous routes of Sadequain’s interaction, from the ‘periphery’, with the European ‘centre’ of Modernism – the artist arrived Paris in 1960, winning one of the prizes at the second Biennale de Paris in 1961. Jones traced the complicated to-and-fro between Sadequain’s modernism (as he circulated in Europe and North America) and the calligraphic and iconographic forms he turned to increasingly later in the 60s, as he aligned himself more closely with the Islamic and nationalist cultural and political currents of Pakistan and the Middle East of the period.

Following Jones, Maureen Murphy analysed the context of AICA’s third extraordinary congress of 1973, which took place in Kinshasa, during the rule of Mobutu, as AICA’s preoccupation with developing its network beyond its core of European, US and Latin American sections turned its attention to the new African states. According to Murphy’s account, Mobutu has supported the congress in Congo (it could, she suggested have happened as easily in Dakar), as she unpacked the complicated post-colonial reciprocities that condemned art made in Africa to remain ‘traditional’ however contemporary. Murphy argued that the ‘73 congress became an inadvertent platform for Mobutu’s cultural policy of ‘Authenticity’, in which art could be both ‘local’ and ‘Modernist’.

Unable to attend, Berenice Gustavino’s paper was read by a colleague, charting the contrasting positions and professional rivalries of Argentinian critics Jorge Romero Brest and Jorge Glusberg. Critic, historian and founder in 1948 of the review Ver y Estimar,Romero Brest was closely involved in AICA during the 1950s, founding in 1948 the review Ver y Estimar. Critic, historian, then director of the National Museum of Fine Arts after the overthrow of the Peron government in 1955; Brest was an actively critical presence in the early days of ACIA, quick to see the obstacles and problems that faced AICA’s network. Gustavino’s account unpicked Brest’s dissatisfaction with AICA, looking at his proposal for the 1954 Istanbul congress, in which he sought to develop a more definite and objective terminology of art criticism – a project which the congress turned down as ‘too big’. Gustavino tranced the rivalry between Brest and the younger Glusberg (who founded the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAyC) in Buenos Aires in 1968) and the institutional tussles between the two, noting Glusberg’s attempts to fuse the Argentinian section of AICA with CAyC, while finally becoming AICA’s president in 1978.

Christina Tejo closed the session with her comparison of critic Mario Pedrosa and museum director Walter Zanini. Tejo’s paper questioned whether figures like Pedrosa and Zanini were active agents in the expansion of the international art system or instead no more that ‘docile subjects framed by a colonialist gaze’. Tejo’s account of Pedrosa’s activity contrasted the critic’s more reciprocal contacts between Europe and Latin America in the dissemination of modernist developments with the greater challenges encountered by Zanini in professionalising Brazil’s museum culture. Pedrosa, well-connected in militant left-wing and avant-garde circles in Europe before the war, became a prominent newspaper critic and vice-president of AICA in 1957, when he also headed the fourth Biennial of São Paolo, and was instrumental in organising the extraordinary AICA Congress of 1959 – the first time AICA has assembled outside Europe. Zanini, trained in art history in Paris and London, was in a strong position to work in Brazil’s growing museum sector, becoming director of Sao Paolo’s Museum of Contemporary art in 1963. Tejo detailed Zanini’s ultimately frustrated struggle to get Latin American institutions taken seriously by their European and North American counterparts during the 60s and 70s, by reviewing his correspondence with the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), which continually ignored his input. CIMAM’s first conference in Latin America, in Mexico, was only held in 1980.

Tejo’s contrasting of critics and as art historians (often recruited as museum professionals) was echoed in the next day’s paper by Thierry Dufrêne, who presented the diverging trajectories of André Chastel and Pierre Francastel, both involved in the early years of AICA. Chastel, art historian at the Sorbonne was also art critic for Le Monde, took a traditional, autonomous view of art history, rarely taking contemporary art as his subject. By contrast, Francastel, influenced by Durkheim, took a more sociological approach to art. In 1955, a professorship opened at the Sorbonne, which both applied for and which Chastel secured. Dufrêne outlined Chastel’s increasing involvement in art-historical institutions, while Francastel focused on contemporary art, and for a form of criticism implicated in the contemporary and in other parallel fields such as science and architecture, and a criticism committed to reproducing and retaining the encounter with the contemporary work, in opposition to the more didactic and pedagogical drive of André Malraux’s concept of the ‘Musée Imaginaire’, and its cosequences for how art could be experienced in the age of mass communication technologies.

In her paper, Jennifer Cooke looked closely at the largely transatlantic gathering of the 1961 congress of the International Committee CIHA, brought to New York by art historian Millard Miess; student and then later successor of Irwin Panofsky, then established at Princeton. Cooke scrutinised the change in CIHA’s statutes ratified in 1963, which shifted CIHA’s remit to focus less on its earlier attention to national art histories, to the ‘post-classical West’. Examining the congress as a showcase of the iconological tradition spearheaded by Panofsky, Cooke went on to consider how CIHA’s shift (with greater power accrued to American committee members) reflected the obstacles of growing Cold War entrenchment, even as CIHA attempted, throughout the 1960s, to make overtures to Soviet art historians. It took until 1977 (under sustained pressure from UNESCO) for CIHA’s to revert its statutes to acknowledge a wider remit of world art.

The privileged relationship between Western Europe and the United States was also the subject – in more optimistic vein – of Beatriz Cordero’s paper on curator James Johnson Sweeney, curator at MoMA in New York 1935-47, becoming a vice president of AICA in 1948 and then president in 1957, during which Sweeney was director of the Guggenheim. Cordero charted Sweeney’s hyperactive role in bring post-war European modernism to the US – staging the first major museum shows in the US of Dalí and Miro, for example. For Cordero, Sweeney’s cultural roots (born of Irish immigrants), and his education at Oxford (through which he met Roger Fry) and in Paris (meeting met Leger, Miró and Calder) underpinned Sweeney’s reputation as a ‘European’ in America, as an advocate for the European roots of American modernism.

Taking its leave from the high point of the Cold War context, the last session turned to developments in art criticism since the 1970s, under the banner of ‘Art worlds/worlds of ideas: intellectual acquaintances of art criticism’. Larisa Dryansky opened with a paper unearthing an intriguing contribution to the 1977 AICA congress in Kassel and Bonn, by American video artist and critic Douglas Davis. Dryansky noted how twentieth century criticism and art history had often grounded its authority in parallels with scientific method, in ‘scientificity’. In his paper presented at the ’77 congress, ‘Sweet Anarchy’, Davis argued for a criticism which could accept the apparently chaotic manifestations of contemporary art, and relinquish its normative and legislating function. Against the ‘old guard’ of AICA, Davis argued for an art criticism which might shift constantly from one perceptual and theoretical system to the next. There was a Cold War subtext to Davis’s relativism – in championing a simultaneity of modes and theories, Davis pointed to the failure of East and West in sustaining their respective legitimising discourses. The intellectual drive for Davis’s approach was his reading of Paul Feyerabend’s controversial 1975 book Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledgewhich broke with rationalist scepticism of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn to argue that all methodology was suspect, and crisscrossed by irrational, rhetorical and even aesthetic aspects.

If Dryansky’s paper outlined a moment in which art criticism began to be reconfigured in response to the radical scepticism and relativism affecting the social sciences, Nicolas Heimendinger’s examination of the reception of Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-garde in America, through the lens of the journal October. Heimendinger examined how the 1984 English translation of Theory(published in German in 1974) came at a moment of crisis for the journal, which by the early 80s was attempting to move on from its initial, anti-Greenbergian opposition to Modernism. Unravelling the problems of differentiating a regressive post-modernism from a progressive post-modernist critical project, Heimendinger argued that that the reception of Bürger’s Theory should be seen as a key part of the October critics ambivalence towards their role in disseminating a by-then contested post-Structuralism. Theory of the Avant-Garde, Heimendinger proposed, became a major influence in developing the idea of ‘art as institution’, reinvigorating the critical projects by October critics such as Hal Foster, Douglas Crimp and Benjamin Buchloh.

If Heimendinger sought to highlight the circuitous historical trajectory of ideas between decades and continents, and their shifting significance according to context, it highlighted how the early moment of post-modernist art criticism has itself become the object of art-historical study, a ‘period’ now cut off from our own present. As if sensing the problem, Katie Deepwell offered a lively and abrasive counter to the dangers of such distancing, as she criticised the current tendency to see feminist art and art criticism as something done ‘back then’; not only a historical period but now its own niche to be accommodated as an object of art-historical memorialisation, while the field of feminist agitation in the museum appears to be limited to a constant repeating of the limited issue of the representation of women artists in the museum canon. In opposition to these simplifications and amnesias, Deepwell presented a mass of archival references to feminist art critics and criticism in publication over the last fifty years, to illustrate the danger of losing the sense of the complexity and diversity of feminist practice which has led to, and continues in the present.

Deepwell’s recalling of the continuous flow of critical activity through decades, and the problem of staging an (art-)historical origin for a tradition of criticism which is inadvertently cut off from the present by the act of historicising itself, was a problem that could be posed as that of the colloquium as a whole. Collectively, these papers looked back not to a history of art works or artists, but to the history of the institutions and networks of a practice of art criticism that can’t be separated from the institutional ruptures and breaks of those institutions and networks. There is a restorative aspect to un-forgetting the historical debates and conflicts of an organisation like AICA, with its now seventy-year history and its origins in a world order now long gone. Yet that process of historical recollection, here, seemed continually to gesture towards that harder-to-represent moment in which the institutional (and intellectual) continuity of the organisation (and of the mode of art criticism more broadly) was affected by the unravelling of that bygone world order.

This is perhaps why many of these fascinating explorations into AICA’s history alighted so vividly on the long and active process of assimilation and institution-making of international modernism in the post-war period, while signalling, more tentatively, what would be the coming crisis in the theoretical foundations of art criticism; a crisis which would coincide with the period in which the institutional hegemony of Cold War politics would begin its long decline – from the West’s oil crises of the early 1970s to the end of the USSR in 1989.

It may be that our current artworld can be dated from that year onward. Consequenlty, in concluding somewhere in the 1970s, as that crises of the old artworld began, ‘Reframing the (Art) World’ poses the exciting task for further research: how to beginning to write a history of the period in which our present critical and historical methods and paradigms came to be.

Regrettably, travel arrangements meant that I had to leave before the final paper by Clélia Barbut, and the closing discussion between Henry Meyric-Hughes and Jean-Marc Poinsot. However PRISME plans to publish the proceedings of the symposium next year. Thanks are due to Jean-Marc Poinsot, Natalie Boulouch and Antje Kramer, and AICA UK, whose support made my attendance to the conference possible.