View from the cave
Elīna Dūce, Visual Arts Theorist
A conversation about art criticism in Latvia
Yes or no? To be or not to be? Studija is neither the first nor the last publication to raise these questions in regard to art criticism. Such discussions come and go in waves, seeming to exhaust everything only to swell up again later. Perhaps it is important for each generation to define its relationship with criticism. In that case, this will be our version.

The Studija editors, artist Līga Marcinkeviča and visual art theorist Elīna Dūce, invited Aiga Dzalbe, Latvian Art Academy lecturer and art critic, Šelda Puķīte, a student in the Faculty of Art History at the Latvian Art Academy, and Alise Tīfentāle, art historian, critic and former editor of the magazine Foto Kvartāls (2006–2010), to a discussion about art criticism.

(Aiga places on the table a copy of the ‘Aesthetics Booklet No. 2’ published by the Latvian Aesthetics Association in 2001)

Elīna: What’s in that booklet?

Aiga: It’s about a discussion held at a conference about ten years ago, where the starting thesis was that there is no such thing as criticism and there is no point in talking about it.

Alise: And the participants of the discussion try to prove this.

Aiga: But it was agreed that it is possible to have a conversation, so let’s talk about it.

Līga: If we were to attempt to understand the framework for this discussion quite dispassionately – what is today’s cultural-critical text in Latvia? Is it criticism, a review or whatever turns out?

Aiga: In that case we need to discuss the concept of criticism as such.

Alise: In an ideal case it is criticism in the broadest sense, like the current format of Studija, where issues are examined in their broader context rather than just a simple statement “the exhibition included five works” and then the five works are discussed. Assuming that the critic is an art historian or philosopher, he or she increases our body of knowledge. They present new facts, new interpretations of facts, new opinions, all of which may be debatable or provocative, and this can then serve as a platform for generating discussion.

Līga: Where does that all come from? From the work of art. But as I understand it, there is a dilemma between artists and future critics: who is the more important? I think that both are important, because without each other they can’t develop.

Aiga: Actually, there are two types of criticism: one makes sense of the artwork, while the other is reflective – it evaluates. And both are completely legitimate.

Līga: What are the instruments required by a critic? Let’s leave funding aside, that’s not a popular topic anymore. Let’s speak about objective conditions. What’s missing in Latvia’s cultural space at present, as far as the critic is concerned?

Aiga: Other critics. There just isn’t the mass to create something in order to nurture artistic life. In my ideal case, expressing criticism does not mean saying something that is to be disparaged. Criticism should mean only writing about things that are of value. If you don’t have this kind of environment, then unfortunately it doesn’t work.

Šelda: There aren’t any writers.

Aiga: They aren’t motivated, because keeping a diary just for their own pleasure…

Šelda: There are those who publish. I have often heard that Latvian criticism lacks venom. I remember when Inga Šteimane visited the academy, she said that a critic should have at least 20 years of experience.

Aiga: Yes, Šteimane put forward the thesis that a critic matures around the age of 40, and this may be right.

Šelda: Due to experience. You train yourself through writing, just as you train your body through exercise. And every time you can stretch your leg a bit further.

Alise: The question is, who is such criticism for, and in what sort of society can it exist? Obviously there’s some element lacking here that is required for criticism to exist. Reviews are written for periodicals (I’m speaking theoretically now, without mentioning names), and more serious materials are prepared for professional publications. I tend to agree with the view that, in reality, it is not that critics are lacking something, but rather that there isn’t a niche, or need, for critics. Because we are who we are, artists or magazine creators, and we ourselves are the ones who review, do interviews, we are in the process ourselves, and logically where are you going to find the criticism – from some society or university producing critics able to evaluate and make judgements, analytically, coldly and mercilessly like they do in the Western press, where if a critic doesn’t like something they can afford to say it in public, even if other people are saying the opposite. We don’t have the need and hence we don’t have the object.

Aiga: We are affected by a restricted environment. For example, in the 1920s and 30s it was popular to write under a pseudonym. Back then, cultural journalists actively created their own artistic life. At one moment you could speak with one voice, and then…

Alise: …turn into a monster.

Aiga: I think that that could be very lively.

Līga: It’s very unhealthy.

Alise: Yes, everyone will worry – who is it? But they’ll worry about who said it, rather than what was written. That’s the way it is on this scale, in a small society where everyone does everything and it’s all thrown in together. Somehow you have to look at it all from a different angle. We can’t expect things to be the same as in larger communities.

Līga: How can we make the environment in which we live and work more harmonious, healthier and creative? How can we find points of contact between those that create and those that write?

Šelda: This is the eternal problem for the critic: what position to take.

Līga: But there shouldn’t be a problem if you have written what you think and feel, if this is your conviction and you are prepared to stand by it. Nobody has dictated what you should write.

Šelda: Well then they write a description.

Līga: But why write a description?

Elīna: A description is painless.

Šelda: Yes, everyone is satisfied.

Elīna: But who does a critic write for then?

Alise: And who gets hurt?

Līga: I think the main thing is that you yourself feel pleased and a sense of accomplishment.

Aiga: You create with satisfaction, then along comes a critic and says: “Oh, that’s just wonderful!” And so a thoroughly weak piece of art is talked up to be something fantastic. I think that one of the problems underlying the lack of writing is that the art of the present moment doesn’t offer much to write about. If it were outstanding, then… Isn’t that so?

Līga: I disagree. No one is writing that. If each of us, artist and critic, does their job with a sense of responsibility, we can help each other to move forward and avoid stagnation.

Aiga: The easy way to say something about art which seems medi-ocre is to pretend that everything is OK and write a description. But to say something less complimentary, so that the artist can feel the pain and struggle to improve – that’s the way to create a healthy environment. To fight for it out in the open, rather than writing a mild review.

Alise: They’ll just sit still and shut up, and that’s it.

Aiga: Who amongst us is capable of sharp criticism? What is the reason for this? If a work or an event is weak, then you don’t want to write about it at all.

Alise: That’s not true either, because the critic’s job is to change and shape public opinion in some way.

Aiga: That’s straying into public relations.

Līga: A professional opinion is needed.

Alise: It’s not as if critics only write about works that are good. What is the background against which they are good? But I disagree that we don’t have critical thinking, because in my opinion there are some authors – and they regularly appear in the pages of Studija – who are often extremely poisonous and sceptical about certain manifestations of contemporary art. I don’t think there is a shortage of them! Surely!?

Aiga: But it seems to me that they represent some monopoly on thoughts, rather than their personal opinion. They express an opinion they regard highly, they support these views, but it doesn’t feel as if the thoughts have come from themselves. That’s what I find saddest of all. The thoughts accumulate, and then strange, contradictory currents emerge.

Līga: In this situation the Studija model is successful, because every issue consists of the opinions of the published authors. You can never be sure what the tendency or “non-tendency” of the next issue will be. We don’t coach the authors to write in a special “Studija language”.

Aiga: They influence each other like mad.

Līga: That’s why I asked the question – is that really what you your-self think? In a few years you may feel ashamed. It’s just like an artist and their work of art. Nobody will be interested in whether some apprentice did a bit of the painting, because what remains is the one whose signature is on the work. It’s the same with criticism. And it concerns me that this doesn’t worry you.

Aiga: We already get to read self-congratulatory press releases in which artists write whatever they like about themselves in the third person.

Līga: But! If I take the artist’s view of this... This is a torture for artists, because they don’t want to write, it’s not their primary task. Yet before every exhibition the exhibition organisers, often art historians, harass them: “Write something!”, “When will the exhibition description be ready?” Perhaps this is what leads to unreasonably hostile relations. And then the artist suffers… On the other hand the critic, who has the right education to analyse the work, tries to squeeze something out of the drivel the artist has written and doesn’t even assess the artwork. Just go and talk to the artist! Find out what he or she reads, what they think.

Aiga: The only point of contact is between the artist and the critic.

Alise: That’s why current criticism interests me less and less, and I prefer to distance myself in an academic environment. I’m more interested in working with authors who are no longer among the living, because then you avoid these complicated relationships – “well, what are you going to say about it”, “what right do you have to evaluate” – these misunderstood roles. I get a lot more genuine satisfaction working with a document…

Līga: That’s interpretation.

Alise: First, the existing facts have to be gathered together, and that’s what interests me the most. But what you said about the artist – that’s true to a certain degree…But at the same time, if the artist has released even one sentence into the public arena, it has to be a sentence that really says something. If you can’t, then tell the gallery owner that you won’t write, and ask to be given a press release writer or a hired writer to “cobble together” a text for you, because the artist cannot write some sort of drivel and then expect get away with it.

Līga: The artist views text in terms of signs.

Šelda: They are completely different worlds. I would be interested in having two different criticisms of the same event in two different forms: one in which the writer has studied these texts and communicated with the people involved with the event, and the other in which
the event only is evaluated.

Elīna: But does the critic have to consult with an artist?

Līga: It’s only an option, if anything. At other times the talking is even more confusing, and can just lead deeper into the woods.

Elīna: I think that if a critic speaks with an artist, then…

Alise: Then it’s no longer criticism, it’s another genre. An interview or something else. I understand criticism to mean an analytical evaluation of a work.

Līga: I find it interesting to read the opinion of an author I respect. This helps me as a reader to form my own opinion. I miss authorities and their opinions, there aren’t enough of them.

Aiga: I’d be more inclined to say that, in order to give up your time and read something, you want the opinion of an interesting person rather than an authority. This seems to me to be the greatest problem. The texts are full of fancy phrases and all kinds of politically correct inanities. We need reports, but they are hard to read and they aren’t, how would you say it… Sexy? Alive, powerful.

Alise: That’s a matter of style or, let’s say, the respective school, because in Latvia we have a high regard for the academic tradition – writing entertainingly about art is bad, because it borders on journalism. And that runs the risk of being unprofessional.

Aiga: But you can write wittily and professionally without being vulgar.

Alise: You can, but then where are they…

Līga: We have the traditional forms of expression, but saying what we think, without fear…that’s not there.

Aiga: Our texts are plagued by clichés and vacuous phrases. I don’t know what you thought about Sergejs Kruks’ article about Foto Kvartāls ( – E. D.), but really it’s good if someone at least is saying it to your face.

Līga: A brief comment. I thought it was unfair to take just the one magazine, because this could apply to any publication offering cultural criticism – Studija, Kultūras Diena and so on.

Aiga: It was addressed to art historians.

Alise: On the contrary, I thought it was about those who are not art historians. And it seemed to me that the author hadn’t even read most of the articles in the magazine, but to my mind the problem is the one that Aiga has already mentioned and which is characteristic of all journalism…

Aiga: That you don’t want to read it.

Alise: Yes, the quality of the text is not up to scratch. But we have no shortage of art historians who are professionals and who do write. Kruks’ article was more about the level of journalism, about how those who don’t really know their way around try to express themselves. They want to participate in the discussion, but can’t really back up their views.

Aiga: But don’t you agree that those metaphors are a real curse for art historians?

Alise: Concretely – what is the favourite metaphor?

Aiga: It’s the foreign words or phrases that are in fashion…

Alise: Such as “discourse”…

Aiga: Yes. I think they change every few years. And they should be weeded out, in order for the text to be sparkling and clean. And that’s not something that can be done by the editor, it has to be done by each writer, in their own head. From Kruks’ article I remembered the word “generalisation”, and I confess that I use it too, because it’s easy to say and it’s a sort of professional slang, because why should I bother trying to say something in other words if I know that you’ll understand me. That’s how it comes about.

Alise: I don’t think it’s that bad. Words get overused and become disagreeable. And it depends how you look at it, because occasionally there really are generalisations, without the inverted commas.

Aiga: Here we have to examine in what proportion the words are used, because the texts really are becoming unpleasant to read.

Līga: They are the texts which you come across in magazines and plan to come back to and read later, but in reality you never go back and read the ones where all these foreign words are strung together. Is it hard to collar the new writers? I don’t understand – who is writing. Our writers come from philosophy and art criticism, and every now and then an artist makes an appearance.

Aiga: Artists over 40, please.

Šelda: They develop so chaotically, because there is no schooling. I’m not speaking about a programme of study. There aren’t any examples. I hear that in the West subjectivism is now in fashion – writing professionally but subjectively, in a style almost like a diary. For me, for example, it’s difficult. Every time I write, I’m searching for how it could be better, but… Maybe there really is no one to look up to?!

Aiga: You could read and analyse texts that you don’t like in some way. You simply have to work on it a lot yourself.

Šelda: That’s what to a large extent happens, but I don’t see those towering heights.

Alise: You don’t have to see the heights. An art critic engaged in actual criticism must be clear about a number of things: where am I heading, why and with what resources at my disposal, what sources have I used and quoted that represent my intellectual level. This is the work you have to do independently in shaping your career, and there are no authorities to emulate. But what I wanted to add to the initial question of why it is difficult to find young critics and where to find them… What sort of social or economic prestige do these people have? What is their place in society and who would aspire to that? I will tell you – the status is uncertain, no one would aspire to such a position on the economic food chain, so to speak. You only end up there by chance.

Līga: Well, just like artists do.

Alise: Artists do have quite a lot of prestige in society. At least at present their status is higher. Just think, how much do the services of an art critic cost, compared with those of an artist? To compare: an article – 20 lats, a painting – 2,000 lats, for example. I’m generalising, of course.

Šelda: An artist has to spend quite a lot of more on materials.

Alise: Nonsense. Do you know how many books you have to buy and how many museums you have to visit if you want to research something…

Līga: But sometimes artists create a work without knowing if it will have a buyer.

Alise: We’re talking in very general terms. Every profession, every trade has its place in the socio-economic…

Aiga: …food chain.

Alise: Yes! Are you at the top or the bottom of the food chain? It is logical that the people practicing criticism are at the bottom. This is what leads to tension.

Līga: But do you think that if this field is left untended, then critics will become extinct? Of course not! But will the level of quality drop catastrophically?

Alise: Perhaps. Right now the job losses at our cultural publications are crucial. This means that critics have fewer and fewer places to get published, and with that comes ever decreasing interest in investing one’s time and talent in this activity. I asked at the very beginning – what purpose does the critic serve? Who is she? Our critic works in her spare time, say, giving lectures, doing this and that and then dabbling in a bit of criticism as well. But that’s already post scriptum, sort of “before bedtime”. Hence there aren’t actually any critics to speak of. There’s just something a bit extra that you or I could do as well. With the one hand you write a press release for some hopeless artist and with the other you pen a review for a magazine.

Līga: But I want to ask – is the work of an artist any different?

Alise: For both it is in essence a hobby. We’re really trying to see the tension here, when in fact we should take a lighter, more relaxed view.

Aiga: If we were to create a healthy atmosphere then everyone would want to write.

Alise: Yeah, because that’s a hobby too, not a real job.

Līga: When will it become one?

Alise: When we advertise for the position.

Šelda: Maybe the problem is that there is a feeling that society is not interested in reading? By that I mean seeking out new people.

Līga: But how can you know, if you don’t write? If you don’t plant the seed, you’ll never know how large it will grow. Everything is pointless, really. Why get up in the morning if you’ll have to go to bed again in the evening? Why breathe in if you have to exhale? Well, perhaps try at least once? In conversation with a film director, Valentīna Freimane once said that the problem with Latvian directors is that they are all geniuses, but there are no decent craftsmen. I think that we have a genius problem all over the place. We’re sort of a nation of geniuses. In the cosmic universe we are the Infinite.

Elīna: Does anyone enrol in the Department of Art History with a strong conviction that they are going to become a critic?

Šelda: Not that I’ve heard of.

Aiga: At the entrance examination oral, quite a few say that they would like to write, but the question is – what? Journalism, books, monographs. Almost everyone wants to write.

Alise: What else besides writing could they do?

Aiga: In the end, the art historian has more baggage, a greater knowledge of the history of art and works written in earlier periods. They should have more contextual knowledge than an aesthetics expert or a philosopher, yet they are unable to create a text as interesting as that produced by philosophers with their system of thought which seeks out new points of view. For a reader, of course, that seems cooler.

Alise: More sexy, like you said. But partly, it’s a matter for the education system. How does a young art historian learn to write? Are there enough good courses that teach how to write in a contemporary way, that give good examples and compare styles? And is this sufficient? If someone hasn’t studied how to write a professional text… It’s difficult and time-consuming if you have to start from scratch. There are hundreds of handbooks about, say, how to present your thoughts in five steps, learning to express yourself clearly or how to write a conference application and similar. If no such course is provided, then a person might begin to feel insecure. They pick up a magazine in English with an article that is a pleasure to read and wonder – how do you write like that? They don’t have it in them to write like that. Obviously people are not being given the chance to learn creative writing methods – how to write an introduction, how to articulate a thought, where to inject some humour into the text.

Aiga: Well, that’s exactly what I have started doing.

Alise: Teaching? Obviously that has been lacking.

Šelda: Ingrīda Burāne had a course, but it was very short.

Aiga: I think that for young, emerging authors practice is what matters most. Getting an outline of the theory, even at handbook level, then immediately putting it into practice.

Alise: Well, now we shall start looking forwards to more of it.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/
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