the critical question

the backstory on berlin critics and communication

When I started considering this month's theme of communication in the art world, a rather depressing question flew into my head: Does anyone really care about the art criticism coming from Berlin? And further, who are the Berlin critics and what do they have to say? Where has criticism been in Berlin; where is it now, and where could it go?

Berlin's current art criticism scene is in many ways an accurate reflection of its current art scene: increasingly large, fragmented, and disparate, like a mini-universe of solar systems whose life forms don’t know that other life forms exist. The city is crawling with art critics (and people who call themselves art critics), ranging from academic theorists to true eccentrics—like the guy with the hard-hat video camera on his head at every opening. But If you don't know who they are, you'd never recognize them—except for the hard-hat guy (he is the Kunstkontakter, and his online video archive isn’t bad). It’s not like critics wear nametags, and many get their best work done visiting galleries alone or schmoozing at one of the city’s increasing number of private collections behind closed doors.

All the same, critics have their scenes, spanning neighborhoods, nationalities, and “degree of difficulty” (from blog to challenging academic journal). The Germans run the gamut from oft-aloof fortysomething men, like the FAZ's Niklas Maak, Monopol's Holger Liebs or Frieze's Jörg Heiser, who have staff jobs and tend to wear suit jackets with jeans, to outspoken, smart women—Isabelle Graw from Texte Zur Kunst, Brigitte Werneberg from the TAZ or Claudia Wahjudi from Zitty —who seem more about the work than the image. There’s also a more anti-establishment “alternative” German crowd, including the provocative Ingo Niermann, who made a series of films called The Future of Art. The Americans are a growing motley crew, ranging from trendy bloggers who’ve been here a couple of years to art historians who’ve been here for 20, both with lots of coming and going. The Brits seem more serious and less numerous than the Yanks. And there was a period in the late aughts in which there were a lot of Canadians. The rest I don’t know well enough to judge.

The newcomers and foreigners add plenty of diversity to the German tradition of criticism, which is different than what we Anglo-Americans know. To historicise briefly, one of the earliest German art critics was Carl Einstein, who—after writing seminal works on African art and Cubism and cultivating very leftist politics—presciently left Germany in 1928 and founded Documents magazine after moving to Paris. World War II put a major crimp in a lot of intellectual endeavors in Germany (and, let’s just say it, caused one of the largest brain drains in modern history); it took some time until popular concern about the arts was revived. The documenta, for example, was launched in 1955 by artist and curator Arnold Bode, initially to show examples of important prewar art as a piggyback to a major German flower show. It sated a German public that was starving for high culture during reconstruction. German criticism and cultural writing, like Germany itself, had to come back to life.

Since then, German art critics have typically fallen into two categories: the newspaper critic and the hardcore theorist. The first—whose notable figures in the past decades were Eduoard Beaucamp, Heinz Ohff, and Rudolf Schmitz—were the connection between the art world and the educated public; the second, like Bazon Brock or, later, Dieter Diederichsen, tended to take a more academic stance (even if Diederichsen started off at Spex, a music magazine). Both sides, however, stuck to academic formats and approaches, a long way from the poet-critic archetype so prevalent in postwar New York art criticism, or the clear, dogmatic Clement Greenberg/Howard Rosenberg “how I see it, is how it is” thing (http://www.theartstory.org/critics-greenberg-rosenberg.htm).

The Hamburg-based ART magazine was founded in 1979, appealing consistently to the intellectual bourgeoisie. In 1991, Isabelle Graw founded Texte zur Kunst along with the late Stefan Germer in Cologne; the magazine moved to Berlin ten years later. Texte zur Kunst, which has often been compared to October in the United States, was a game-changer in many ways, giving a broad range of writers another avenue through which to express themselves in often long-form writing.

As early as the mid 1990s, New York-based online art magazines like artnet.com and thing.net had already started plumbing the potential of the relatively new internet scene, and the art world itself was becoming increasingly chic and less arcane to mere mortals. It was becoming trendy. By the early 2000s, formats reflecting this trendiness were appearing, many of them not so much about the art itself, but about the scene surrounding it. Artforum.com's Scene + Herd kicked off in 2004 and didn’t even try to hide that it was a sexy, Page Six-type gossip column for the art world with little focus on the art itself.

Its German counterpart might be Monopol, which started in a small office in Berlin-Mitte in spring of the same year with the Beuysian slogan “Kunst ist Kapital” (art is capital) and the addition of “lifestyle” to art writing. Its pedigree is undeniably Gen-X pop—brought to life by well-known journalist and Generation Golf author Florian Illies and his wife, it was soon infused with capital (Kunst?) by Swiss publisher Ringier. About the same time, artnet.de was launched under the editorship of German artist and writer Thomas Eller, who assembled a more serious group of German critics, ranging from the very young (Anne Haun and Dominikus Müller) to a little more established (award-winning critic Ludwig Seyfarth) to cover the German scene. It’s since gone through two full editorial staffs and is now headed by Hendrike von Spresshardt and, perhaps ironically, a group of former Monopol writers.

Berlin’s art-based publications have since grown alongside the city’s art world. Vonhundert, an online, German-only magazine with lots of smart essays, launched in 2006; editors include Raimar Stange, who writes for Art Review, and other names in the old-school German scene who aren’t afraid to be refreshingly scathing. And, not a periodical but a formidable art publisher just the same, Sternberg Press started publishing excellent, out-of-the-box art-theory books and catalogues with increased quality and frequency around 2008. Earlier this year, Frieze launched a Berlin-based bilingual edition geared toward the German-speaking audience, headed by longtime American art press correspondent Jennifer Allen. As a first import (besides artnet), it has incredible potential, even if the first issue left me scratching my head a bit.

What remains a little unsettling is that Berlin’s art criticism has many of the same problems that the international one does. What’s criticism’s role besides PR, self-exposure, or preaching to the converted? In her book High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, Isabelle Graw notes the German art world has shifted, in the 1970s and 1980s, from a "dealer-critic" system to a “dealer-collector” system. The dealer-critic system is where the critic adds symbolic value to an artist or artwork. A dealer-collector system renders the critics, in many cases, as disseminators of descriptive, uncritical information who take great care not to tick anyone off. Graw mentions how harmless most critics have become; these days, they might also be curators, or artists, and have to later work with someone they’ve dissed, so they keep it toned down.

Some correspondents on the Berlin scene seem to simply cover the same artists, promoting their friends over and over. On top of this, it seems like so many art writers, when offered a chance to do something else, abandon criticism without a single look back. One Berlin ex-critic rebranded himself as a collector. Marc Spiegler, once a reportage-style art writer for New York Magazine and Monopol, as well as the cofounder of Art World Salon (www.artworldsalon.com/), hasn't written about the arts since he was named co-director of Art Basel in 2008.

The other day, an American correspondent to a major art magazine told me, laughingly, "no one reads my reviews in Berlin anyway," continuing with a story of being nudged out of a gallery as some important collectors appeared and snubbed by some German writers. Whether criticism continues to add value to artists and artworks or if it is generally ignored is a growing point of contention among critics. I hope it’s the former.

On the upside, ripples from the wonderful learn-fest that was e-flux’s United Nations Plaza a few years back are still lapping against the Berlin art world’s feet, and locally produced magazines like 032c still publish long-form pieces on conceptual, non-commercial artists or architectural subjects. This very journal is still taking its first baby steps but could grow into an important English-language voice, if it plays it cards right and doesn’t fall into the trendy trap. Some academic writers like Jan Verwoert still give talks and speeches in fun places. And most critics here aren't nearly as inaccessible and arrogant as most in other major cities, with a few exceptions. The discourse is lively, if you listen, and is becoming increasingly international—more international now than many other art capitals. But it’s still perhaps a discourse amongst insiders; that is, unless we’re talking about those dispatches about Berlin’s newest hot art neighborhood that appear in international newspapers (which, sigh, I’ve written my share of to pay the bills. Sorry.)

And now, as many German journalists would do at this point in the story, I’m going to pull a fancy quote. As Boris Groys mentions in his book Going Public (an e-flux reader publication published by Sternberg Press and a must-read for the Facebook generation), “The survival and dissemination of opinions on the global information market is regulated by a law formulated by Charles Darwin, namely, the survival of the fittest. Those opinions that best adapt to the condition under which they are disseminated will… have the best odds of becoming mainstream.”

In his essay “What Happened to Art Criticism,” James Elkins makes the point that the only critics the mainstream know are those who write for mainstream publications with massive circulations (Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl in the US; Lynne Cook at the Guardian and, Sarah Thornton at The Economist) in the UK, to name a few). Mainstream might not be the ultimate goal or even appropriate for many critics, but writers—art writers, too—want to be read. Whether the “conditions” Groys is talking about are a blog, a glossy journal, astute academic art writing or pithy Saltzian art journalism that puts it all into a sociological context (or even a reality show on Bravo!), Berlin, right now, has the unique opportunity to define its own voice. It’ll be interesting how art criticism and writing fares as Berlin becomes a real city and its art world finally matures.

—Kimberly Bradley

[Image: A bookshelf at the Texte zur Kunst offices, by Maxime Ballesteros]