Kritiikin anatomia (”The Anatomy of Critique”) is a series of articles, that ponder on the essence of critique, the role of a critic and writing – what does writing a critique actually take and what kind of anatomy does a good critique have?
Series consists of texts that reflect upon the current discussions of critique and also my own writing. In addition I interview different writers and artists. The emphasis in this series is on the possibilities of critique rather than its so called crisis. This time I interviewed critic, editor-in-charge of KUNST.EE and art historian Andreas Trossek.
Last November I participated in Nordic-Baltic Curatorial Research Programme in Stockholm and Tranås. During that trip we visited many interesting institutions in Stockholm and we attended a conference about art criticism Punctum Ceasura – Art Criticism in a New Public Sphere in Tranås. One of the participants in Nordic-Baltic Curatorial Research Programme Stockholm and Tranås was critic, editor-in-charge in KUNST.EE and art historian Andreas Trossek. I was eager to hear about his views on art critique and the Estonian context of it. We started this interview on that trip, in a train and continued afterwards via email.
You are an art critic and editor-in-charge of KUNST.EE. What kind of professional identity you have as an art critic and as an editor?
In fact, when people ask what I do for a living, I usually just tell them that I’m an art historian. I think that sums it up quite nicely. I went to study art history at the turn of the century, this has been my so-to-say core discipline at a university level. I haven’t studied journalism or philology, but basically I’ve been working in art journalism and art publishing throughout my entire career. I think it’s a question of function really, not so much a question of form. There are many things you can do as a trained art historian, and writing is just one of them. I’ve been the editor-in-charge of the Estonian art quarterly KUNST.EE since 2009, but that’s just something that’s written on my business card. I have always enjoyed reading and thinking about art and history and culture, etc. And when you work as an editor, you are going to be the first person to gain access to that new information, which feels great. The main downside to this job is that I rarely have enough time to write myself or read anything beyond my professional scope just for the fun of it. Editing is a remarkable laborious and time-consuming process, and editors rarely receive the credit they deserve. Regrettably, it’s also almost an invisible job. There are no congratulatory handshakes and no-one puts you on a pedestal, figuratively speaking. In my darkest hours I’ve even joked that I should have become a curator instead – then at least I would have the bonus of free drinks at the openings. So if you think people in the artworld are going to like you simply because you just finished editing this great new art publication that’s going to change the course of history and bla-bla-bla – it’s not going to happen.
Could you tell me something about KUNST.EE? For example, about from print and online perspective?
I’ve often joked that printing and distributing an art journal or a magazine in the current digital age is a lot like selling vinyl records: online demand is rising and print demand is declining, but printed matters still rule as niche products. Personally I still prefer slow reading and the pleasure of browsing through the pages of a printed publication to just skimming over the glow of the screen, but general reading habits are clearly changing everywhere, especially among younger generations, so publishers always have to adapt. In fact, we actively sell each new issue of KUNST.EE for a limited period, and eventually all the print files become available on our web archive for free downloading. So you can buy or pre-subscribe to the print version, but you can also patiently wait and get it for free. However, getting your hands on a fresh copy right after it’s published just feels way cooler, just like vinyl records do. I mean, it’s the real thing, it literally has weight. KUNST.EE is an art quarterly published in Estonian and English, amounting to almost 400 pages a year. This alone would take up the space of a big fat monograph on the bookcase. KUNST.EE covers art and visual culture, so whether we like it or not, in Estonian journalism it has a hefty responsibility; no other art periodical of a similar size is published in Estonia. KUNST.EE has been published in the quarterly format since 2000, with full parallel translation into English since 2012. We also have an online archive from 2009, where all previous issues can be digitally accessed. As an art quarterly, KUNST.EE carries on the tradition of the Kunst almanac, which appeared from 1958, so it has been quite a journey. Between 1928 and 1929, five issues of Taie, an “Estonian art journal” according to the header of the publication, appeared, so that in a sense, we could have been celebrating our 90th anniversary in 2018 as well, ignoring the 30-year gap between 1929 and 1958. One could gleefully fantasize here that in some so-to-say alternative reality the current quarterly could have easily been named TAIE.EE if this Finnish-sounding word had managed to root itself more deeply in Estonian language than the German loan ‘kunst’.
How did you become an art critic? What kind of background do you have?
In my family there were no academics or artists, in that sense I have a typical working class background. But in secondary school I took some courses on world art history, so I knew the drill, I knew what to expect. I went to study art history in the Estonian Academy of Arts because I wanted to write and the curriculum also had to do with general history. I remember thinking that it felt slightly pointless to study journalism, for example, because after graduation I wouldn’t have had any particular expertise in a narrower sense. But in the art history department I would become an expert on this specific field, and if nothing else, become an unemployed homeless person with a smart-sounding degree. And strangely enough, it sounded like a good deal back then. Luckily, when I graduated there was a job opportunity at the Estonian Public Broadcasting, so university education indeed paid off. I was a radio news reader in that organization for some years but also stumbled upon an opportunity to co-host a weekly radio show on visual art called “kunst.er”. That was also a time when I felt confident enough to start off as a freelance art critic, and seized almost every opportunity to publish. I was aiming at art journals and magazines but also didn’t mind writing to daily or weekly newspapers. Of course, if I think about my early stuff, I feel embarrassed at best, nauseous at worst. But you got to start somewhere, I remember I kept telling that to myself. Also what I think helped, is that from the beginning I decided that I only write about the things I know. It’s like that I didn’t want to bluff or go along with the current status quo of things just by default. In that sense it hasn’t been difficult for me to write also a few of those so-called negative reviews. Just do your homework – that’s the only rule.
How do your texts come to be? Is it easy for you to write? What are the typical circumstances you write in?
To be honest, I’ve always found the deadline to be most stimulating source of inspiration: you either come up with something by the end of the deadline, or you don’t. In this respect I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie if we talk about motivation. It also helps if there’s a modest writer’s fee involved, but money is just a bonus in this game. I can only speak for myself of course: I’ve always had day jobs, I’ve never been a full-time art critic, whatever that means. But usually I have some kind of basic structure of the piece in my mind already when I start writing, and eventually, it’s just a question of time. You just work. Preferably indoors with no loud chatter in the background and no distractions, please.
Do you feel that you have a recognizable style or your own voice as a critic?
Well, back in 2007 when I was in my twenties, I received an annual critic’s award from the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp, so I probably struck a chord somewhere along the road or was considered at least a promising art critic. Now I’m just known as “that guy who runs that art magazine” among my colleagues, which means, I have to act more like an adult.
In your opinion, what makes a good critique? What kind of reviews do you enjoy the most?
It depends on the context. For example, in the 1990s art criticism was booming in newly independent capitalist Estonia. There were lots of newspapers and most of them published art criticism. Some writers were professional art historians, some were amateurs, but times were changing so fast that it was always an interesting read, even if it wasn’t always well articulated. Nowadays it often feels like everyone’s a critic. Unless they’re in fact selling you something of course. Via social media everybody can share their smartphone photos and short comments about artworks or exhibitions. Sometimes people describe artworks really beautifully in just a half-sentence and seem to get what this or that exhibition is about, even though they are not any kind of experts in art, and as such this can be a really positive trend, because it helps the artists to spread their news across the society. Good art criticism goes beyond that: it’s more nuanced, more structured and it always has this sense of historical knowledge that you just can’t fake. In order to become a good art critic, you still have to do your time in the libraries and museums, galleries and artists’ studios first. I mean, what more can I say? There is no art without art criticism and vice versa. And there’s no art criticism without the history of art and vice versa. So it’s a very complicated and multi-layered discourse, and it has been like that, well, since the renaissance at least.
How do you feel about the power you have as a critic? Do you think about the power relations in the art field in general?
Power relations and politics are of course everywhere but I think it’s also important not to become too paranoid on these issues. To my mind art critics have no direct power within the art world – for example, by definition critics usually don’t build museum collections or commission new artworks – but art criticism most certainly influences all those decisions that art institutions are making. So you got to know, where you stand. You got to have this intellectual independence as an art critic, otherwise you end up used and abused. And once you’ve sold out, it difficult to come back. For example, if I really don’t like something – too commercial, over-hyped or deadly boring –, I walk away. And I will always have this freedom that I can walk away.
Do you think about the readers and the feedback you might get when you are writing?
For some art critics, feedback is like fuel and they feed off from instant comments. I’m not functioning like that. When I’m writing, I don’t think about the so-called average reader that much at all. To me it is more like writing into the darkness or into a void. Often I like to think that I’m writing letters to an unknown friend somewhere or even to an unborn friend in the future. Surely someone sometime somewhere will understand; people are not that different after all. In art criticism you can do absolutely anything, whatever you want – as long as it’s honest, it has value in the long run. Nordic-Baltic Curatorial Research Programme in Stockholm and Tranås was organized in November 2018 by CCA Estonia, Frame Contemporary Art Finland, CRIS, The Nordic Art Association, Sweden.
Find other articles of Kritiikin anatomia -series here.