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Altercritics

by Dan Fox

‘Relational aesthetics’; like it or loathe it, the term coined in 1998 by curator Nicolas Bourriaud has become something of an industry standard. Its meaning used and abused in all manner of ways, the phrase nevertheless seems to have stuck as baggy shorthand for describing a variety of approaches to the way art engages with the broader world. Just how ‘Altermodern’, Bourriaud’s latest unifying theory of art, would manifest itself has therefore been the subject of much anticipation in the build-up to the Tate Triennial 2009, which opened in early February. The merits and demerits of the exhibition and its theme will no doubt be debated at length in the specialist art press. I won’t add my own assessment of the show here – a review will appear in the April edition of frieze – but the speculation surrounding ‘Altermodern’ within the UK art world has led me to wonder what ripples the exhibition might have made in the mainstream British media. Newspaper critics have access to far greater readerships than the specialist art press, and the occasion of large exhibitions such as the Triennial make it worth taking a moment to look at how current developments in art are interpreted and represented to a broader general public.

London was buried beneath a blanket of snow the day ‘Altermodern’ opened. Blizzards had brought the capital to a temporary and beautifully muted standstill. But soon the snow started to melt and the capital’s newspaper art critics began trudging all over ‘Altermodern’ with great big, grit- and sludge-covered boots. Anyone familiar with the art criticism in UK newspapers won’t be surprised by the cynicism with which the Triennial was greeted. With a few notable exceptions, critics tend to use contemporary art as a lightning rod for their disdain of a particular bracket of artists with high media profiles, and anything with a whiff of financial profligacy or conceptualism about it – often all three. The tools of their trade are sweeping generalizations and one-liner insults, thrown left, right and centre with little justification through example or description of the works under attack. Although it does my blood pressure no good, I find this remarkably consistent antipathy interesting it raises a broad range of issues: elitism and populism, specialism and accessibility, models of critical authority, the responsibility of critics, what expectations there are about art’s role in British society (this is a culture that has historically preferred the literary and performing arts over the plastic ones), cultural stereotypes, money, intellectualism and anti-intellectualism.

Reviews of ‘Altermodern’ have been mixed to say the least. Daily Telegraph critic Richard Dorment, whose apoplectic reaction to the Turner Prize last year was so violent it seemed he was in danger of hospitalizing himself, seemed sufficiently engaged by the Triennial to end his decidedly undecided review by stating: ‘My experience of the Triennial wasn’t nearly as satisfying [as ‘Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East’ at the Saatchi Gallery, also reviewed by Dorment], but I’ll return again and again. How’s that for a back-handed compliment?’ Charles Darwent in The Independent , was more positive: ‘some of the work in this show is extraordinarily good’, and with the odd caveat – ‘For a theory that spurns boundaries, Bourriaud’s seems strangely boundaried’ – concludes that it is also ‘a lot of fun.’ Even The Evening Standard’s Ben Lewis – normally outspoken in his suspicion of contemporary art – was broadly enthusiastic, declaring that Bourriaud ‘has performed the ultimate curatorial trick, challenging intellectually while entertaining theatrically.’

The Observer‘s Laura Cumming – who recently stated that ‘it is obvious to anyone with eyes that art has become more vulgar and rebarbative during our lifetime, as well as slicker and quicker’ (I’d argue that depends on where you look and how much time you spend looking) – began her review by giving Bourriaud’s new theory the benefit of the doubt, but concluded that it ‘does not work as an idea so much as a web of observations, a web with a weaver at its centre’, which actually seemed to me like a workable definition of what an ‘idea’ is. Theory aside, with the exceptions of Darren Almond, Marcus Coates and Tacita Dean, she did not like any of the actual work in the Triennial, branding Frank Ackermann’s work ‘teeth-grittingly awful’, Katie Patterson’s ‘a dead bore’, Walead Beshty’s box sculptures ‘broken in transit’, Olivia Plender’s installation ‘worryingly simple-minded’, Matthew Darbyshire’s work ‘pastiche décor’ and Gustav Metzger’s liquid crystal projections ‘monotonous’. As for Simon Starling, she ‘couldn’t even begin to describe the inanity’ of his work. But in each case why? Midway through her review, I began to wish she would expand on these remarks: little more than a sentence was spent discussing each artist. Cumming’s off-hand dismissals were, in her own words, ‘worryingly simple-minded’ and ‘monotonous.’

The Guardian’s Adrian Searle, respected within the art world for being the most measured and imaginative of British newspaper art critics, opened his review with an immediate assault on Shezad Dawood, Spartacus Chetwynd and Nathaniel Mellors (an artist who Searle seemed to mistake for two different actors in Mellors’ film and who Dorment, in his review, confused with eminent designer David Mellor). These opening blows would easily have led one to assume ‘Altermodern’ was in for a kicking. Yet, with spleen vented and after (by his own admission) a surprising tangential leap onto the subject of WG Sebald midway through his review, Searle went on to argue that ‘The show has its longueurs, but it is also the richest and most generous Tate Triennial to date. It is also the best-installed. There are clean, elegant rooms as well as clutter, a wide range of objects and installations, dramatic turns and quiet spaces.’

The TimesRachel Campbell-Johnston didn’t seem to mind certain aspects of the show, at one point giving the impression of quite enjoying what she understood to be ‘an iconoclastic show’. Unlike Searle, however, she only seemed to see junk and clutter: ‘After Brit Art with its easy one-liners, this confusing junk room of images feels full of possibilities.’ Ultimately, the range of work on display proved wearisome for her. ‘This show is all about distraction. Without any one focus, the eye hops restlessly about. The thoughts shuffle about in your head. At their most engaging, they are making unexpected connections. […] More often they drift off bored by conglomerations of clutter that, quite frankly, feel about as fascinating as a file of student research notes.’ Campbell-Johnston was highly critical of Bourriaud’s theoretical terminology, citing a rather convoluted sentence in his Triennial catalogue essay as an example of the curator’s highfalutin’ approach to art. Yet despite this, towards the end of her review, with no description of what the work in question actually looked like, she slipped in an assessment of Rachel Harrison’s work written in classic art jargon: ‘Rachel Harrison challenges our systems of classification and disrupts the orders of progression.’ Whose systems? What classifications – Dewey Decimal? Premiere League Football? And what on earth are the mysterious ‘orders of progression’? Did someone mention ‘easy one-liners’?

Campbell-Johnston’s review was mild by comparison with Waldemar Januszczak’s bilious and hectoring Sunday Times article. Januszczak opened his review – headlined ‘The Tate: pompous, arrogant and past it?’ – by reminding readers of his critical qualifications: ‘I love modern art. It’s been my life, my career, my sustenance. My wife is a modern artist […]. My children have been fed a diet of modern art ever since they opened their eyes. […] So I’m experienced at modern art; I’m supportive of it; I embrace it. If, therefore, I suggest that it appears to have reached the end of its journey and has begun annoying the bejesus out of me, you can be confident it’s serious.’ He then put the boot into Martin Creed’s recent commission for Tate Britain – Work No. 850 (2008), which involved people running the length of the Duveen Gallery at 30 second intervals each day – describing it as ‘meaningless’ and ‘a gross waste of effort’ – hardly supportive or embracing. (‘Meaningless’ is the favourite lazy put-down of the reactionary art critic, but please will someone explain how anything premeditated such as an art work, whether good or bad, can be entirely without meaning?) For Januszczak, Creed’s work ‘brought into focus how flaccid and indulgent and spoilt and grandiloquent and aimless and bloated and, yes, degenerate British art has become.’ It is sad to see a critic so loudly trumpet his expertise but then use the word ‘degenerate’ to describe an entire nation’s contemporary art. Anyone who has studied 20th-century history will know that ‘degenerate’ is the word used by the Nazis to describe the art included in their 1937 exhibition ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art), a show that featured, amongst many others, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, George Grosz and Piet Mondrian. I would not for a moment argue that this suggests anything sinister about Januszczak’s political beliefs, but I do believe a writer should be responsibly aware of a word’s resonance rather than just its dramatic effect. ‘Degenerate’ is not a term to be used lightly. He declares the art that developed around commercial art gallery Lisson in the early 1980s, along with that of the Young British Artists in the 1990s, to be the last ‘two truly significant modern movements’ to have come out of Britain, and contextualizes them as working in opposition to the Tate, which he conspiratorially denounces as ‘a cultural despot that has the government’s ear’. Januszczak argues that ‘Altermodern’ ‘makes an unanswerable case for the proposition that British modern art is clapped out’, and that the exhibition bored him, citing the inclusion of a number of long video pieces as particularly grievous in this regard. What’s wrong with something being long? One of the guilty films he mentions – Handsworth Songs by Black Audio Film Collective – is not part of ‘Altermodern’ but a separate display of new acquisitions of British art by the Tate. It was also made 23 years ago.

Januszczak’s article contains a comparison that is worthy of mention. At one point he describes Nathaniel Mellors’ Giantbum film as ‘seemingly interminable.’ He goes on to mention the work of Iranian artist Tala Madani, currently exhibiting in the Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Unveiled’ show, saying that her paintings display ‘such astonishing courage and punchiness, the Middle East could be a significant location’ for new developments in art. (In the context of art exhibited under the banner of being Iranian, the word ‘courage’ here has patronising Orientalist overtones, almost suggesting that Madani goes to her studio everyday in downtown Tehran hiding paintings under her burqa.) The print edition of Januszczak’s piece was illustrated with a large image from Mellors’ Giantbum and Madani’s painting Holy Light. What neither Januszczak nor the newspaper’s picture researchers evidently know is that Mellors and Madani are partners, and that they exchange ideas and opinions about each other’s work on a daily basis. Admittedly, I have the advantage of insider information here and there is no reason why The Sunday Times should know this too, but the irony of this juxtaposition reinforces the impression that some of our newspaper critics are out of touch with the ways in which young, internationally mobile artists today maintain sophisticated dialogues across a range of media. Things have moved on since the days of the Lisson sculptors and yBas.

Likes and dislikes were one thing, but the facile cultural stereotyping that certain reviewers stooped to in order to make their points was downright ugly. Here’s how Campbell-Johnston saw fit to broach the Triennial’s theme in the Times: ‘So what will this new Altermodern era entail? Don’t expect the catalogue to help you. Bourriard is a Frenchman. He has svelte Gallic looks and a Left Bank aroma of Gauloises. And he seems to have been brought up on Baudrillard and Foucault in the way that the rest of us were brought up on our ABC.’ Does that really deserve to be called art criticism? Darwent described him as ‘co-founder of Paris’s impenetrably au courant Palais de Tokyo’. Translate the French and ask yourself what being impenetrably up-to-date actually means? In explaining his understanding of the term ‘altermodern’, Lewis of the Evening Standard opined that ‘The theory is complex and this is an incredibly uneven exhibition that, like the mind of any French theorist, contains flashes of genius, passages of stomach-churning political correctness, a bit of bean-bag art (art that you enjoy while lying on the bean-bags placed in front of it), and an afternoon’s worth of artists’ movies (some stunning). The whole mélange is served up with the thick buttery sauce of French art theory, and the catalogue essays will give anyone except a curatorial studies MA student a crise de foie.’ I wondered what, based on this line of thinking, someone from outside the UK might say the mind of ‘any’ British theorist contains – an Art & Language catalogue, ten pints of lager and a curry? After the laboured references to French cuisine, he went on to assert that ‘The weakness of Bourriaud’s theory — and of all French theory — is that there’s too much philosophy and not much historical perspective.’ I bow before Lewis’s encyclopedic knowledge of continental philosophy. All French theory? Really? I’d love to see him argue that down at La Sorbonne.

Jonathan Jones, reporting on the behind-the-scenes preparations for the Triennial for The Guardian observed of Bourriaud: ‘He is very French, by which I mean he is unapologetic about big ideas.’ It may be a back-handed compliment, but it nails a certain aspect of the critical hostility to Bourriaud. Skepticism towards ‘big ideas’ can, in some cases, be evidence of a healthy and down-to-earth pragmatism. The flipside, however, is a paranoia about pretension – an anti-intellectual fear of somehow being ‘caught out’ by ‘big ideas’ if, at a later date, they are demonstrated to be worthless. (It’s a position not too far different from the tabloid newspapers complaining that contemporary art is the result of a big conspiracy at the expense of some mythic Great British Public.)

One possible reason for the skepticism towards theory, I think, lies in our education system. In British universities, the teaching of philosophy is dominated by Anglo-American schools of thought, with logical positivists such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and AJ Ayer still casting long shadows. Continental philosophy is more likely found in art schools or social science faculties than it is in English and History departments. Anglo-American empiricism does not rub along well with Lacanian psychoanalysis or Deleuzian rhizomes. Of course, this does not fully account for the anti-Gallic subtext running through some of the ‘Altermodern’ reviews – you probably have to go back to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 for clues to that – but it might suggest a reason why British critics are not naturally pre-disposed to Bourriaud’s theoretical framing of art.

Of course you can say that these critics are just doing their job – that it’s all part of the game, of playing the traditional role of bourgeois critic outraged at the excesses of the avant-garde. Maybe they’re being unfair or maybe Bourriaud’s show just doesn’t do it for everyone – either way a few superficial comments about Left Bank intellectuals and lengthy videos aren’t going to stop curators and artists going about the work they believe in. But, as a reader, I felt I learnt little from them about what the show constituted. Scant information was given about simple things such as how many artists were in the show or how many were British and how many were from other countries. Only the most cursory descriptions of what works looked like were given. If a piece of art is really so bad, please tell me why properly – I’d rather read a well-reasoned critique of a work than a haughty barb.

In one sense, I sympathize with these critics. It can be extremely hard to review big sprawling group shows for a print publication where there is only so much page space allotted to each article, and I have probably wronged the odd artist myself by paring a sentence down to the bare bones in order to squeeze more words in. Editors give writers a maximum number of words they can use, and to discuss the work of nearly 30 artists with equal depth is often impossible. And all this is before the newspaper’s subeditors have attacked it with their scissors. The physical restrictions of print publications can make the coverage of contemporary models of exhibition-making (where they include many artists and with different parts of the show occurring in different locations and at different times) a little dysfunctional. Yet the reviews discussed above are by no means brief; the shortest is Charles Darwent’s in The Independent at 743 words, and the longest is Ben Lewis’s in The Evening Standard, which reaches a healthy 1603. The majority are longer than the reviews you’d find in most art magazines. The argument about lack of space therefore begins to look a bit shaky – these are hardly comparable with the short, sharp notices that theatre plays receive after their opening night.

Whether ‘Altermodern’ is successful or a theoretical hotch-potch is almost beside the point here. These critics are perfectly entitled to their tastes and opinions, and I don’t believe contemporary art is beyond criticism. But they have to remember that their readers trust them as experts in their fields. Critics have responsibility to these readers – the responsibility of arguing why something is bad, rather than dismissing it with one withering phrase. The responsibility of conveying facts. The responsibility of describing to readers what a work looks like or actually taking the time to sit through an artists video, no matter how interminable it may be, before criticizing it. The responsibility of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness. The responsibility of being sensitive to someone’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation or nationality rather than using them as an excuse for smuggling prejudice and cheap jibes in under the banner of art criticism.

About the author

  • Dan Fox's photo

    Dan Fox is co-editor of frieze and is based in New York.

    His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2015.