The first of four panel discussions arranged to coincide with the photographic exhibition ‘To the Holy Lands’ was held last week at DIFC. Entitled 'Critiquing Art: factors in critiquing art within the Modern Middle East' the panel explored some of the cultural dynamics associated with art criticism in this region.
One comment made about the purpose of the forum was to bring like-minded people together to begin a dialogue that underpins the UAEs current art boom and ultimately contributes to its sustainability. This is a noble aim but I don’t get out as much as I probably should so unfortunately didn’t recognise most of the people in the room! It would have been very useful if there had been a participant list available especially one with affiliations so that we all know who the interested parties are.
Another aim was to explore the difficulties of critique in a media environment that tends to cut and paste the press release and where public criticism of any kind is considered negative. There is a rather large gap between this context and the occidental view of criticism as a separate discipline necessary for creative and intellectual development.
One question raised by panellist Stephanie Sykes, Communications Manager of Art Dubai, was ‘Who makes the best art critic?’ Another panellist, artist, critic and curator Talal Mualla seemed to think that artists themselves were in the best position to be critics. In his view, the way in which artists relate to wider cultural, political and historical contexts enables them to situate and interpret the work more accurately.
This may be true but it does not necessarily mean that artists are the best critics. They have a vested interest in promoting their own craft and their understanding and respect for the creative process itself can reduce their critical judgment of the final product. However, this approach probably makes them ideal critics in the environment under discussion!
It’s a shame that this issue wasn’t explored further but it got me thinking about the definition of art critic. To paraphrase from my new favourite book ‘Art Criticism – a User’s Guide’ there are several types of critic:
The Advocate – promotes artists he or she admires and compares others unfavourably
The Theoretician – interprets the context of each work rather than its form or content
The Progressive – welcomes and promotes innovation and new forms
The Ideologue – interprets through a structure of political or social commitment
The Traditionalist – reviews what is new in terms of its relationship to the past
Related to this my book also says there are several types of criticism - thematic, geographical, technical, chronological and theoretical – none of which sound particularly nasty to me. In fact all of the above just seem to be flexible structures or at least starting points for forming an opinion. Despite its name art criticism is not automatically 'critical'.
Given the creative mergers and acquisitions of globalism and technology over recent years it is tempting to think that approaches to criticism must also shift but maintaining some structural consistency amid often chaotic change is probably more useful. That said there is too much happening to be covered by traditional means anyway and changes in the nature of communication enable artists, or anybody else, to say essentially what they like. However, this is most often small groups of people talking amongst themselves so issues of quality control are probably moot. Ultimately, established and traditional authorities of art criticism are likely to prevail until new ones emerge strongly enough from new global settings to challenge them. This relates to the other big unexplored question for me which was ‘Who is it for?
The panel was essentially about Middle Eastern art and while it is always worthwhile to get good information out there in any language, most of it is in English. If the dialogue is about developing and sustaining creativity in the Middle East where are the Arabic commentators? There are loads of Arabic blogs and forums out there so surely some of them must be about art and culture in the region. If anyone knows please tell me. I won’t be able to read them but I know people who can and it would be good just to know they are there!
The other discussion are as follows:
October 15th - 'Digitally Restoring Photographs: practical techniques
October 22nd - 'The History of Photography and Contemporary Photography in the Gulf Region'
October 28th - 'How to run an exhibition: Art Management'