To coincide with the radical German magazine’s 25th anniversary and 100th issue, we talk to Texte zur Kunst’s founder Isabelle Graw about critique, the techno age of liking, mutations and insider trading.
In the preface of the 100th issue of TzK, you have written, “Critique always also manifests itself in affirmative stances.” This seems specific to your magazine, as opposed to a publication like Artforum, which predicates a stance of supposed objectivity. Can you elaborate on the problem of explicit affirmation?
The 100th issue was dedicated to the theme “Canon Today.” We asked our writers to argue for (or against) a practice that they consider canonical and explain why. Critique indeed implies a certain degree of affirmation—simply by choosing an art object as being worth your time and consideration, you’ve affirmed its existence. If you then afford it some symbolic meaning, which is what critics tend to do, this helps in generating affirmative value. But it is crucial to understand that critique, at least in my understanding of it, not only affirms, but also negates; as much as it associates itself with a practice and its respective social conditions, it also has the power to dissociate itself from them. Criticism can raise objections against certain practices or question their supposed relevance. I doubt that anybody still holds on to the ideal of “objectivity,” as you seem to suggest. In my view, Artforum has never aimed for what is implied by this concept: a neutral standpoint and total independence of judgment, which is something that I take to be both imaginary and fictive. Critics do not and cannot judge with complete independence—they are necessarily implicated and involved—and yet, despite being implicated in specific circumstances, they can nevertheless negotiate distance from them. They can inhabit a standpoint of distance that is both fictive and absolutely necessary, as Luc Boltanksi underlined. Far from being objective, critical judgments possess a dual nature that Kant that described when theorizing his aesthetic taste judgment. These judgments are fundamentally subjective and make universal claims at the same time. They are rooted in the subject but try to convince others. In every “I” of art criticism, there is a “we” implied.
So why then would Jutta Koether be considered more important than Isa Genzken? Does this have something to do with being affirmative as a critical performance of the subject?
Did anybody in Texte zur Kunst ever argue that Jutta Koether is more important than Isa Genzken or vice versa? I can´t recall. On the contrary, I remember having written favorable monographic texts on both artists in the early 1990s, when both were far from being institutionally recognized. But it is true that I never just “embrace” a practice without reservations; for me, art only gets interesting insofar as it presents itself as a Problemzusammenhang (to borrow from Adorno)—that is, a constellation of problems. It ideally shows an awareness of being problematic and causes me problems as well. I therefore analyzed the return of the human figure in Isa Genzken’s later works (e.g., Ecce Homo: Art and Subjecthood (2011)) as correlating with a new economy that is busy absorbing human competences: affects, interactions, etc. It also struck me how her mannequins, allegories of a damaged subject, allow for simple identification: we are meant to recognize a condition with which we are all somewhat familiar. For me, it’s challenging to analyze not only how artistic practices change over time, but also how what I considered to be a successful approach in one historical situation can appear to be rather questionable under different historical circumstances.
Is self-scrutiny a necessary component to be part of the TzK canon, as an artist, critic and/or curator?
Self-scrutiny? Do you mean in the sense of controlling oneself? I hope that there is not one behavior or character feature that we expect from our writers and colleagues. You are probably hinting to the magazine’s constant efforts to question its premises, to re-examine its former convictions and never take any belief for granted. That is part of our daily work, linked to which is a desire to avoid striking the self-righteous pose that so many on the left can adopt. But of course, it’s also possible to bask in self-righteousness and to write for us in the same time!
How does a critique of affirmation retain critical potential within the age of “liking” cultural output? Your dialectical approach, which holds affirmation itself as the constitution of critique, implies time spent on the very object of critique that appears to be slipping away in the face of constant techno-contact.
As said above, TzK is far from practicing a “critique of affirmation.” Quite on the contrary—we encourage our writers not to focus solely on the artists they love. We even went so far to commission “disses” in our issue called “Verrisse” in 2002. I think that there are manifold reasons (economical, social, psychological) that explain why people prefer to “like” in our techno-age. Apart from the fact that it belongs to Facebook´s etiquette to like what your “friends” do, we live in a state of network capitalism where contacts have risen to the status of a currency. If you opt for dislike under these circumstances, you risk loosing a valuable connection, and might even be socially excluded. Furthermore, since products have become increasingly personalized in our celebrity age, people tend to take it rather personally when you criticize their product. Once the border between person and product has become blurred, the person behind the product feels hurt if you criticize her product—and nobody wants to be deliberately hurtful. Faced with these fears, worries, hesitations and economical pressures, we often remind ourselves of Merlin Carpenter´s proposition to criticize your friends—especially your close friends, I might add. Maybe it is possible to do so in a loyal, impersonal, and well-argued manner. We are still working on that.
In issue no. 96, “The Gallerists,” galleries are described as “gatekeepers to artistic production.” Surely this market-level understanding of production is too simple, as the role of the gallery is in constant change. Could you expand on this mutation?
Taking “Gallerists” as a theme for the issue was not meant to suggest that artistic production only happens in the market sphere. That would be totalizing and schematic. There is much activity happening in other segments of the global market, which is inherently multidimensional and highly segmented. With this in mind, it is admittedly one of TzK‘s deficiencies to have mainly covered gallery stuff. Most of the practices written about in its pages—and this is true for a magazine like KALEIDOSCOPE as well—are either first introduced to us by a gallery or exhibition space or end up being recuperated by them. Although activist art played a central role in our first issues in the early 1990s, it has since been of lesser importance, which is both problematic and symptomatic. Meanwhile, we can’t deny that galleries remain an important filter. In many ways, as “gatekeepers,” they can actually market places, allowing for interpenetrations with the Internet and the cybersphere as well. Their importance has only increased over the last fifteen years—and this despite the recent emergence of agents and advisers. After all, how often have you written about an artist who is not represented by a dealer?
In a particularly dynamic period for curating, TzK has not devoted coverage to the same trajectory as mainstream curatorial discourses. Do you have a different conception of curating or the artist–curator relationship? Could you perhaps explain what we mean by “mainstream curatorial discourse”?
You’re right, in that we do try to implement our own discourses and themes. We don’t just react; we’ve never wanted this magazine to cover only pre-existing debates or events. If we encounter a development that we consider worth thinking about, such as Post-Internet art or Speculative Realism, we insist on having our own take on it. I wouldn´t say that we necessarily disagree with the prevailing curatorial concepts, but we do try to analyze them on our own terms. We don’t automatically assume that they are so meaningful or important.
It feels strange that you’d ask me to define a term like “mainstream curatorial discourse,” which has been brought to the table not by TzK but by you. I can only say so much about this concept. “Mainstream” implies a polarity with terms like “subculture,” “underground” or “minority,” like an Other that doesn’t quite grasp the current situation. While it was possible in the historical avant-garde to describe the aesthetic field as agonistic, organized around clear-cut opposite poles, we are currently dealing with a more complex situation. Now, I am not saying that there are no centers and margins, no insiders and outsiders, no winners and losers in the global corporate art world. On the contrary: new polarities have emerged, organized around different axes; this is something that will be addressed in our next issue, which takes polarities as its theme. But when it comes to mainstream and underground culture, they tend to overlap in many ways. They inter-relate and nourish each other while remaining distinct from one another in other respects.
What you have achieved with TzK is extraordinary. Why have you continued with the magazine for twenty-five years and not expanded via a new model of practice—for example, by opening a physical space or curating a biennial? Are you ever concerned that you have been too passive?
This is the first time ever that I’ve been characterized as passive! I’m flattered, especially considering that I quite enjoy reading theories of passivity. My life didn’t and doesn’t feel passive—it actually feels a little bit too active. But your observation on passivity also rings true, since we decided early on not to expand, as capitalism forces most businesses to do. We rejected the idea of endless growth; we didn’t want suddenly to turn into an art fair, or to wake up one morning as curators, as many art magazines and critics have done. Rather than producing exhibitions, we wanted to be able to criticize them. There is actually one exception: for our twentieth jubilee, we curated a show that consisted of our editions, brilliantly arranged by Annette Kelm and Andreas Mühling. This was an in-house exhibition, if you will. I am afraid that there’s no possibility that we will, say, ever curate the next Berlin Biennale. It’d be a rather horrifying prospect! I consider it crucial that we keep our distance from these types of institutions (Kunstwerke). But while this magazine won’t turn into a curator, its authors often have assumed this role. In order to prevent more insider trading, we have established the following rule: our own books and other activities won’t get mentioned in its pages—which is a shame, of course, but also absolutely necessary.
Isabelle Graw is Professor for Art Theory and Art History at the State Academy of Fine Arts Städelschule, Frankfurt, where she co-founded the Institute of Art Criticism in 2003. She is an art critic and co-founder of Texte zur Kunst in Berlin. In 2010 she published Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, Standard Press.
Piper Marshall is an independent curator and writer based in New York. She was formerly the curator at the Swiss Institute and is now serving as curator at Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
All images courtesy of Texte zur Kunst.
Portrait Credit: Thomas Ruff, Portrait (Isabelle Graw), 1988.