# Four
- 2014

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Crítica(s) de arte. Discrepancias e hibridaciones de la Guerra Fría a la globalización

Universidad Complutense de Madrid


Paula Barreiro López & Julián Díaz Sánchez (eds.), Crítica(s) de arte. Discrepancias e hibridaciones de la Guerra Fría a la globalización. Murcia, Cendeac, 2014

Involved with the Independent Group, British art critic Lawrence Alloway betted in the 1960s on fading out the strict boundary, traced by the interpretive scheme and the regime of experience, between high and low culture, between elite art and its forms of popular expression. The continuum on which Alloway then betted has spread in our societies of efficiency to the point that it seems difficult to sustain not only the division between the various fields of experience, but also the space of meaning from which this bet was outlined. Currently, criticism’s wish to mark off its territory often expresses a yearning for autonomy that emerges only as a minor and nostalgic flash of a past era or that, in the worst of cases, sheds light on the institutional requirements of an elitist and gregarious cohort of intellectuals. This concept of criticism remains anchored in an idealistic (when not classist) claim of the critical subject, under which the conditions of possibility that made this claim possible over the course of Western modernity are now crumbling away day by day. The words of its associates ride the ruins of their own collapse. If there is a revolutionary critical subject today, his voice can only rise as the remains of the ruin of modernity. And his voice will hardly be recognized as critical by traditional criticism, since it is not based on the recomposition of any previously extant space.

The editors and prologue writers of this rich volume seem keenly aware of this critical situation of criticism. It is maybe the reason why they have opted for a multi-faceted structure of the volume, filled with open questions and building transversal connections among the various essays compiled, so that the abyss currently open under the critical certitude will not be settled with excessively recurrent or too self-indulgent expectations of redemption. The book endeavours to assess the validity of the functions of criticism as a “mechanism for the construction of art history”, an “instrument for the definition of the art system”, a “tool for the dissection of great concepts like modernity” and a “method” (p. 13). It is a platitude that, on the negative side, many of these functions have also contributed historically to consolidate discourses of power and to the production of market value around artistic practices. It could be asked if a good deal of these functions is still taken in by current art criticism, and not by other agents and interests of the globalized art world. But a negative answer to this question should not drive us automatically to melancholic positions about the role played by criticism in other periods within that system.

The volume opens with a point blank written text by Jonathan Harris who, far from falling into the linear and out-pacing periodizations so in vogue in historiographical critique, alerts us about the persistence of the model of state capitalism imposed globally from the beginning of the Cold War (with its liberal, social democrat and Stalinist versions) in the multipolar reconfiguration of the globalized world. Notable among the rest of the contributions are those which, instead of reconsidering the role played by criticism in the turf war within the art world, reconstruct the memory of the activity of critical subjects whose degree of politicization far exceeded that framework of action. A good example of this is John Berger’s oeuvre, analyzed by Judith Walsh in her essay “British realism: John Berger´s art reviews (1951-1959)”, where one of the most recurrent controversies in the field of XXth century criticism emerges: taking sides in the debate between realism and avant-garde. The most relevant thing in Walsh’s essay is the way in which she points out Berger’s ability to shift the conceptual axis of this debate from the stylistic assessment of the works to the idea of realism as an attitude towards social matters, which is reflected in the visual productions of the period reviewed. Therefore, the point was not only to challenge the ahistorical exaltation of pictorial abstraction in the works of critics like Herbert Read (whose activity is glossed in the book in another essay, by Henry Meyric Hughes), but also to stress the understanding of the critical function of art through its possible influence on the social sectors that could promote political change in the context of the British post-war period.

This praxeological conception of art criticism would be shared by other critics of Marxist ascendance located in geopolitical areas of the Cold War far away from the British mists. Paula Barreiro’s essay “Marx’s shadow. Avant-garde, ideology and society in the activist criticism of the second Francoism”, analyzes the way in which the Marxist mise-à-jour became a possible vector for the articulation between art criticism and the public opposition sphere of the last decade and a half of Francoism. The Italian influence exerted by Giulio Caro Argan’s critical sociology or Galvano della Volpe’s semiotic linguistics confronted the most formalist visions of post-war art as well as the sociologically orientated determinations of the relationships between art and society. To this influence was added the knowledge of other voices, such as Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, in whose writing converge the culture in exile, the rebellion against the dogmatic drift of Stalinism and Althusserian theoreticism, and the recovery of the subject in socio-historical praxis in the light of the revolutionary processes in Latin America after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The overcoming of the dichotomy between realism and avant-garde presented by this author in his book Las ideas estéticas de Marx (Marx’s Aesthetic Ideas) (1965) inspire the positions of a new generation of critics like Valeriano Bozal, Tomás Llorens or Simón Marchán Fiz. They all take the lead of prescriptive art-linked criticism to consolidate conceptually the art productions of critical realism or of the new behaviours under the premises emphasized by Barreiro:

1. Artistic activity was understood as an historically and socially shaped relationship between human being and nature […]. Art was a workforce more among others; as a result, it partook in social practice, which determined the active function it had to play in the praxis. (p. 263)

Also worthy of notice in the volume are the essays focused on the way in which this series of problems unfolded in the Latin American context. In one way or another, they all contribute to consolidate an heterotopic, off-centre image of modernity and to highlight the existence of spaces of dialogue and symbolic negotiation alien or tangential to the hegemonic power centres. The following biennials of the time in Havana or São Paulo bear proof of this. The final purpose of this selection is to give critical density to an image of the “cosmopolitan modernity” of contemporary art, which ultimately takes up again, productively in the present, the unresolved contradictions passed on by the configuration of the Cold War bloc politics. As the editors of the publication say, analysing Anna María Guasch’s contribution to the volume, it is a question of assessing “what kind of critic does the current artistic situation need in a moment when criticism seems to lead inescapably to cultural theory” (p. 15). And, it could be added, in a moment when cultural theory often shows a political paralysis when it comes to responding to the imminent need to go beyond the limits of action of the discursive field that gives it legitimacy. Including, of course, the field of the so-called “contextual criticism” which, in its decolonial turn towards difference, in its transdisciplinary impulse and in its alliance with visual studies, not always escapes a virtual –not virtuoso– self-referentiality. Rather than a “situated criticism”, the present political and cultural state of affairs demands, as we said in the beginning, a radical re-situation of the critical subject in the social sphere, and there don’t seem to be too many cultural theoreticians ready to face this challenge within the current crisis of modernity that covers the same floor on which they strive to keep an increasingly unstable balance. This book may be useful to anyone who, in the flight from this state of affairs, decides to take up arms.


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