The Singapore experiment

kinesisk-tempel-singaporeWhat kind of an art world do you get without critics? To some, the question may sound hypothetical. But as I learned in Singapore last week, such scenarios exist, and may become more common.

In every tangible respect, the visual arts in Singapore are in an enviable situation. The small island nation sees cultural investments as a step toward a high-tech, educated, information society. The major arts facilities are glittering after ambitious additions and facelifts. The display technology in the top museums is world class. There are for-profit and non-profit art galleries. More and more institutions are being built. Artists can learn in prestigious training programs, some managed in partnership with reputable foreign institutions. Grants for travel and production are widely available.

The missing element is criticism. There is none. Newspapers offer reportage, but no reviews. There are no local criticism journals or websites, no training in criticism at universities. In talking with students and artists from around Asia, it quickly becomes clear that while western-style art cultures and art markets are proliferating, criticism is not necessarily being added into the mix. There is one silver lining: More direct contacts between artists (in person or online) not only to chit-chat, but to seriously debate the merits of each other’s work — the kind of intense, one-on-one dialogue and discourse we only read about in the history books.

With Asia exerting a more powerful influence, and with the Western arts press in decline, could the absence of criticism become the norm, not the exception?

6 thoughts on “The Singapore experiment”

  1. The implication in this post is that there is a distinction between an artist’s discourse and an “art critic’s.” I don’t think this distinction has ever been as neat as people wish for it to be, an so I wonder what this desire for strict categories is a symptom of?

    It sounds to me that there is not so much an absence of criticism but that “the crit” is alive and well. These kinds of conversations are not so insular, and they may take root in print culture of some kind. The issue, I think, is that what we usually refer to as criticism is writing, and no doubt there are those who will be compelled to write, if they are not doing so already. It may be an issue of where one looks for criticism.

  2. I recently had a conversation with H.G Masters, one of the editors of Art Asia Pacific at Art Basel Miami. We didn’t really prepare much for the talk but what we did was to spend some time together before going on stage to talk, in a bid to build up a certain momentum, and to have to roll on stage. One of the questions that didn’t turn up off stage that kinda caught me off guard was him asking “Where do you think Asia begins and where do you think it ends?”. I answered pretty spontaneously without much thought given: “I think it begins and ends in China.”

    It was kinda shocking to hear it from my own mouth, and possibly even more so while being in front of a full blown eager beaver art crowd.

    The reason why I brought this incident up is because, like it or not, most “art scenes” in Asia are desperately (like their “political scenes”) to align themselves to China’s internal and international policies. For example, in the last few years, The Singapore Art Museum has made a ton of blockbuster exhibitions of artists from China, completely neglecting their primary aim of researching and presenting South-East Asian modern and contemporary art. PKM Gallery from Seoul has a base in China, while Tang Contemporary from Beijing has a base in Bangkok, etc etc –

    My suspicion is that if somehow, in the next few years, if there is a possibility for the scenes in China to become much more critical and less atmospheric, then criticism might be given a much needed morale and infrastructural boost.

    It’s one thing to have artists and curators and gallerists engaging in conversation with one another, but its really another thing to have an art critic coming in to say : OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT. I really think we need both processes, developing in parallel, just for the sake of thinking about and through contemporary art practices in Asia. We can’t just keep making art… (can we? hahahaha)

    Right now, we do have some researchers (who double up as critics at times, maybe Weng Choy is probably the only one doing hard core criticism) engaging in various scenes around Asia, people like John Clark and Russell Storer from Australia, Lee Weng Choy and Eugene Tan from Singapore, Hu Fang and Hou Hanru from China, Gridthiya Gaweewong from Thailand, Kyongfa Che and Roger McDonald from Tokyo, etc– so its not that its not present, but its just really very little of it – like what András mentioned, there isn’t an institutional structure (nor peer support) to facilitate this. And maybe if someone would like to take it up. In China. When everyone is still hungry for it (clock’s ticking…).

  3. Thank you for bringing up such an interesting case study. What Catherine’s and Heman’s previous comments seem to point to is that an art world can survive without professional critics but not without self-criticality, which I would agree with. In the Spanish-speaking art world we have suffered from a particularly painful drought of true art criticism. In Mexico, for example, we only have a handful of people who really write what they think without entering into pointless and contorted academic positioning. There are practically no printed contemporary art magazines left in Mexico -only those that cover both fashion and art in a “fashion and art” general interest mindset. The only contemporary art magazine that survives, Curare, only appears twice a year so it cannot respond to day-to-day events, and is more a theoretical publication. And that has been very damaging for contemporary Mexican art, which I believe now lacks a sense of perspective as to its current place in the world and in the discourse of what is happening elsewhere. Lack of hard-core, cold criticism fosters mythologizing, infommerciality, and isolation. But quite honestly, to be a good critic is a thankless task that we have a hard time appreciating in the long view, so it is not surprising that it is scarce everywhere, even here in New York.
    One of the additional challenges of small art scenes (as I imagine Singapore is at the moment) is that critics have to maintain a critical distance from the milieu they are writing about – and that generally means that they also have to maintain a personal distance. Which is why it is so hard to write criticism in a town where the art community is comprised of a handful of people that most likely one is implicated in all sorts of ways.
    The only hope to me are the semi-informal online spaces like this, were people generally are more forthcoming to say what they really think – and I do see those proliferating everywhere. The possibilities of anonymity of online exchanges, while they can breed backstabbing, also leave ample room for very much needed candor.

  4. Analogies work across continents, as Pablo shows us, and also across time.

    I’m reminded of the Budapest art scene circa 1979 (you can substitute Warsaw, Prague, or Moscow). There wasn’t a whole lot of truly open criticism. Writers exercised self-censorship when talking about officially sanctioned art, not to mention officially disdained art. Some of the most important figures on the scene were, for all intents and purposes, invisible — from artists who never made art that anyone saw to intellectuals who only held forth in coffeehouses or their own living rooms.

    There was a trade off. In return for the absence of an open platform for dialogue, there was an intense informal scene with a wonderfully rich, arcane, coded vocabulary. It was more of a subculture than a culture. And all subcultures are a sort of permanent “crit” session — with everybody watching everyone else keenly and tiny nuances attaining monumental significance. A great deal of intimacy derives from sharing a common frame of reference (as well as friends and romantic partners).

    I am not sure if the Internet has reclaimed this subcultural intensity and intimacy yet, or that it every could do so. I agree with Catherine and others that these qualities are frequently missing from the written culture of criticism.

  5. Some interesting comments about this post over at Liminal Schema :

    An excerpt : “I don’t believe that the absence of critcism will become a norm as intimated by the Artworld Salon posting, but I do believe that the position of the discursive subject will begin to matter less and less globally. Beijing, where newspapers are meaningless, may foreshadow a world in which paper media plays a greatly reduced role–just to name one example. The kind of governmental structure that limits the range of critical writing available in the mass media and public institutions in Beijing and Singapore is not going anywehre; if anything, it may become even more common as the world economy crumbles.”

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