Discoursing in Dhaka
AICA president and international art critic MAREK BARTELIK reflects on New York, new art world and more...
Art critic Marek Bartelik, President of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), was on a brief sojourn in Bangladesh under the visiting art critic lecture programme of Depart. His two-week stay from end of December to early January brought him in contact with people and places around Dhaka and Chittagong, making him readjust his lens to the realities of a region he had only experienced before via headlines and virtual networking. The following interview was initiated by Amirul Rajiv, an independent curator and photographer, as he recorded the conversations while en route to artist Kazi Salahuddin Ahmed's house with lengthy stopovers at Old Dhaka's heritage sites and the shrine of the Sufi thinker Sadruddin Chisty.
Amirul Rajiv (AR): Tell me about your early engagement with art.
Marek Bartelik (MB): Art is very generational… so in a way I was very much attuned to my generation of artists. It all started in the mid-1980s for me. I lived in New York already when I became actively involved with contemporary art by writing art criticism. Today, I still feel a strong attachment to art made during that time. Art of today I treat with detachment… I engage with contemporary art when it's good, but I am not excited the same way as before. In fact, seeing a lot of art – and there is a lot of contemporary art around – has ceased to inspire or stimulate my mind… So you might say, I am not that different from many others who with age become more critical about new art. Still, I hope I am open enough to appreciate and enjoy what's happening in the art world today, or rather, what artists produce in their studios – for that's the real art world for me.
Mustafa Zaman (MZ): So you have seen a lot of the developments and shifts in New York art scene?
MB: As I mentioned a moment ago, for me that 'development' starts in the mid-1980s: the East Village art scene and the commercialization of painting at the same time. This was an exciting, difficult period in recent history, which produced intense critical debates; yes full of 'signified' and 'signifiers' but also much politicized ones derived from the idea that art can change our lives. In the context of my personal experience as an art critic, I engaged with the New York art scene very late, perhaps at its twilight, which I confused with a dawn.
MZ: We must pick your brain to extract all those… the history of New York art scene.
AR: Why do you think famous people go to New York?
MB: I am afraid my early involvement with New York's art scene of that time is very insignificant on a broader scale. It was more about finding out my own place in life, and the place of art and art criticism in it. Back then I was still a bridge engineer who wrote about art for a Polish-language newspaper in New York. I was learning about myself, The City, and contemporary art – I was learning in this order.
To answer Amirul's question, I don't know why famous people go to New York. I guess the city likes 'famous people' and famous people like being with famous people. Some people go there to become famous. I went there for personal reasons. New York is a giant place, especially compared to the place I come from: a provincial city in Poland called Olsztyn. Some like the East Village, some prefer the West Village; there are also those who like SoHo, which nowadays is a big shopping district full of boutiques. The City is changing all the time. By the way, what happened to SoHo is almost Borgesian: one day all those famous galleries that presented innovative art and made so much money moved to another part of town, leaving the place for 'beggars and beasts'. I hear that's what has already started to happen to Chelsea…
AR: Is New York the only such place on earth?
MB: Well, there is no other New York, for sure. It has its mythology. They say: If you make it in New York then you can make it anywhere in the world … As far as artists are concerned, it might be the toughest place because of the ferocious competition. And there is Wall Street. The economic factor is very important, I think: New York is where art sells. But, for me what really matters is that the City attracts a lot of exceptional people, exceptional in many ways.
AR: The diversity?
MB: Yes, New York is a place where one meets people from all over the world without travelling outside of one's neighbourhood. It's fantastic. When it comes to professional life, the City offers important diversity as well – there are many 'groups of influence' that propagate different, often diametrically opposed ideas about what art is. This is different from most of other places I know, which usually have one group that dominates. In New York, if you don't belong to one group, you may belong to another, and do well.
AR: Why do you think that the art scene is centralized in New York?
MB: It is centralized, and it is not. New York is both cosmopolitan and very provincial – and I like this combination. Of course, it has a very strong European presence, which finds its reflection in the art world as well. It's very different from other parts of the United States, I guess. I mean, I only know New York.
AR: Isn't it very competitive? And it's easy to get lost in New York. As you said survival of an artist does not necessarily revolve around money. But, the rat race in the art business – it also creates a lot of frustration.
MB: Yes, of course. It's like the survival of the fittest; and may be the luckiest also. But that's an interesting question. Because one needs to find out how much competitiveness actually determines what happens. And you certainly have to be very tough to survive and to succeed. So it is a very difficult environment to succeed in – but the commercial success is not what defines what art is, although some would like us to believe that it is. Financial security helps make art, but, as we know, it means little in terms of how good that art becomes.
All that said, I still think that young people should go to New York, if possible… I went there when I was 25… I think it's one of the best places to experience life, learn about it …In New York I find the world open towards many things… and they might just 'happen' to you….One day you might find yourself sitting on a bench in Central Park and looking up to the sky, feeling good.That's how I ended up there: still a dreamer. I was very lucky; I got good education there – something happened 'accidentally.' One of the first things I did while getting there was to go back to school. One day, I went to Columbia University and said to the woman behind the desk that I would like to finish my studies in Civil Engineering, which I had started in Poland. She sort of laughed at me. She didn't say it but now I understand how difficult it is to get into Columbia. But I guess she liked my guts. She said we have a Polish professor in the department, go and talk to him: 'if he likes you, he will help.' I went to see the professor (I still remember his name, Professor Bieniek) and he said he would try to help. He did help. A few years later I received my Master's degree in Civil Engineering from that university. But I did not stay a civil engineer for long. Some five years later, I decided to go back to school and get my PhD, not in civil engineering, but in art history. I walked into an office in another school and the scenario repeated itself, sort of… I must say, many of the best things in my life happened in New York.
MZ: Were they surprised to see a civil engineer wanting to study art history?
MB: I could see a mixture of disbelief and amusement on the face of a professor who interviewed me. He probably liked my guts too, although I was totally dead serious – with no distance from myself. He let me study for one semester as a non-matriculate student to see how serious I was. I did well and was admitted as a full-time student. That seems to be the story of my life: crazy and naive moves, which have brought a lot of satisfaction to my life (laughter).
AR: When the collectors die… what happens to the collections of the master artists? What are the rules for their custodianship?
MB: You mean the Old Masters?
AR: Artists like Picasso, Dali… how do people conserve the art? How does it come to the big shows? What's the deal here?
MB: You want me to answer a question that is way beyond my knowledge, but I'll try nevertheless – because I like your guts (laughter).There are of course so many collections all over the world. As far as I know, in the US it's very unique; and it's a good system because you can donate your collection, you save on taxes. It encourages people to donate. But the problem is that the museums are full of art; so museums don't want just anything. They don't want another 'secondary' Picasso or Dali; they want the best Picasso in the world still available. I wish there was some kind of a system that would allow sending those 'unwanted donations' to places that have no Picassos or Dalis.
AR: If the Western museums are all full, what is the future of the museums and the galleries and the private collections? How would the future of art be maintained?
MB: I suspect that we are kind of oversaturated with art. Anyway, art amounts to a strange sort of 'objects'. Unlike cars or houses, or any other material goods, which deteriorate and are replaced, art is supposed to last forever – and acquire additional value over time. Though it's something we accumulate more and more. And it doesn't disappear. I think we've reached the point where most of the institutions don't want more art unless it's something incredibly precious aesthetically, but also price-wise. That might be one of the reasons why contemporary art is expected to be increasingly 'esoteric.’
MZ: Quality over quantity.
MB: But quality can be sometimes manipulated … Who decides about quality?... We might oversaturate our environment with art. The rich collectors, they will not buy anything for 100 dollars but they will go and spend 5000 dollars for a fund-raising dinner. Because that's what they want; they want this immediate satisfaction, social exposure, which art events offer nowadays.They don't want another work in their house, unless it is highly unique. It's a paradox; it's a kind of painful paradox in a way that a rich person who can spend 5000 to 10000 dollars in a dinner at a fundraiser won't buy a work of art for 50 or 100 dollars… so it's not a democratic sort of world, but art is not about democracy, and, I am afraid, life might not be either.
MZ: Not at all.
MB: But we should make it democratic as much as we can. We shouldn't be obsessed with the collectors, or famous artists, or prominent curators and art critics. We should think about grassroot movements that benefit our immediate environment.
MB: One must know and be proud of his/her history, which includes history of art. It's very important to be informed. That's what I say to my students… you can reject this painting or that sculpture as meaningless to you, but you have to know what you are rejecting. You shouldn't reject knowledge.
AR: So Marek, I want to know in the context of what we have been talking about… in the hubbub of curating, collecting and buying-selling, how do you still look at art, or define art?
MB: But those are huge questions again (laughter). I must say I like them, because for me they mean we want to know. By the way, once I was asked even a bigger question when talking about contemporary art: Does God exist? And I was like, 'Oh my God!' it's very nice that you're enquiring about art and I feel: Am I qualified even to address those things… what is art and what lies beyond it? I was truly moved, and I admitted I had no answer to such questions, but I was very glad they were still asked.
AR: What is art… to you?
MB: Art is a vital part of my life. I think it's a state of mind and emotions… it's a freedom… it's a gift of gods in a way…it's a gate to a new world… if you can engage in making art, you have something special in your life, something unique because you go against everything which people tell you that life should be… like the pragmatic aspect, material aspect or the daily aspect… art is kind of everything that goes beyond that. That is my unprepared answer to your question.
AR: But if you frame it theoretically...
MB: I am a lousy theoretician. I have no solid background in so-called art theory and my mind is constantly drifting all over. For me art is a kind of living communication; where you communicate with people regardless of any kind of division – whether it is ethnic or economic or political. I think it is sort of a form of co-existence which is very special. It's a way of experiencing the world for me also, without other people around. But it's also a form of yearning for contact with other people. That's why I like to talk about art and share my ideas. Because I think that's how we communicate on a very different level and it's not religion, it's not politics, it's not about material things… it has been with us since the beginning… it exists beyond definition, I guess.
AR: Is everything art? Or does art need a context?
MB: Everything can be art, but not everything is art – this might be the essence of contemporary art… it's not a fix state of mind may be or state of being, perhaps becoming, a potentiality of making something unique, but also important to us all. On the other hand, art has its own dynamics, it can be an 'event,' which also evolves. In that respect the definition of what constitutes contemporary art keeps changing – and I am afraid I am not the best person to define these changes. I think the definition of art is evolving as we speak. I hope it will not evolve in a direction where it will be like a precious commodity, or a pretext for something else. I think that we have to be very careful not to succumb to commodification, which makes art into a kind of useful but 'empty' addition to our lives. Art can be a commodity; I don't have any problem with that. But when it becomes a precious kind of commodity then it's not available to the people. By precious I don't mean only material value, but also its status as a cult object for a small group of people. The rest of us might be stuck in the gift shop (laughter).
AR: Zaman bhai, I want to return to your statement that everything can be art…
MZ: Everything cannot be art because you have to make the object. Even if you don't make the object you have to re-contextualize a particular object in order to turn it into art. So to me, it's like Marek said, ‘It's a state of mind’. That's an interesting point of entry into this discourse. Although I don't believe in hierarchies regarding objects, but there does exist a hierarchy. If you have ten objects at your disposal, you could be touched by one, perhaps. I mean you develop this tendency as you grow up. Like I want to touch this one particular object, not the other one… why? Though I am not sure why! But that's how you develop your sense of belonging to the world. So it is part of the sense of belonging that you begin to prioritize one thing over another while you're growing up.
AR: Artists always talk about freedom. Artists always require freedom to make art. But when we look at the contemporary art scene there are many aspects to it. There are artworks people can't communicate with. People are being overwhelmed with theoretical, grammatical aspects; some people are more into the conceptual gambits while some are into abstraction…
MZ: Like Marek said, art has this quality to transcend the object; that is why it is 'a state of mind', I guess. In the second seminar he was answering this particular question put forth by Abul Monsur, the art critic. His answer went like this: If there's a story it has to go beyond the story. I mean there's this element of abstraction in all art. Because you're already distancing yourself and your language of expression from what is real; because the real is 'here', but art is 'there'. That's how I look at it. And the relationship between the two is not definable, not linear. The relation exists, which cannot be explained away. You look at reality and you produce something which is connected to reality. The knowledge you invest, the techniques you invest are transcended in art. So you don't usually get plain, uncritical knowledge out of your art.
MB: I think you talked about being rebellious and doing things on your own and being disinterested in the world where people kind of are playing games and so on. But I want to contradict myself here a little. I always said to myself that you cannot always win. I mean, you can be a hermit… that's a completely different possibility. But if you want to be in touch with the world – the world as it is – then you have to figure out how to go about it and I always said I'm willing to lose a battle as long as I can win the war. So, sometimes you have to compromise. You cannot always be an obstinate objector. Because then you put yourself outside… you become irrelevant. Relevant to yourself maybe, but not to many other people. That's when New York might teach you a good lesson…
So, you have to figure out how to sometimes give up a little bit of freedom for the sake of gaining something more significant. And if you believe that what you are saying is important, not only for you but also for other people, then you have that responsibility to figure out how to communicate your message. Being unique, it's not enough. Everybody is unique in their own way… but if you want your voice to be heard you have to figure out how to get there; do you know what I mean? Being involved with other people requires certain kind of strategy. There is no such thing as a kind of a 'pure world', I guess that's what I am saying. Unless you live in your head, whatever happens there might be pure. But if you step out into a social environment then you have to figure out how to live and how to make your voice kind of relevant. Just remember: As someone lately said during the conference I attended, quoting Bertolt Brecht, ‘Every tree hosts a dark secret’.
MZ: The world is impure! So is art.
MB: I mean you can be an obscure artist and that's fine but if you have something important to say then figure out how to enter the bigger picture. So you can make your voice heard. That requires a lot of knowledge; it requires a lot of interaction and learning. Perhaps, some mischievousness… toughness, for sure. Today you cannot be an artist in isolation. I mean you can but the world is so close, so it's very difficult to ignore it. I think it needs to be aware of it and to take advantage of it. But part of you can do it. That's why I said, even with art you ask about plagiarists or how you appropriate things and so on. Of course you can do it. If you are isolated; if Bangladesh was isolated from the rest of the world then you find out something interesting on the Internet which you did here and people say it's brilliant. But then because the world is coming here to visit and participate in your art events somebody might look at it and say, this looks exactly like somebody else's work! So it means that to be relevant you have to take into consideration what has already been said on that particular subject or in a particular voice; like we talked about Duchamp's Fountain yesterday. I don't want to make this kind of easy parallels. If somebody uses a urinal it means it must be a Duchamp, but before you reject it at least you have to know what you are rejecting. You cannot say, okay, I don't know anything and I don't want to know about anything – I make Art. And you end up making a urinal (laughter).
AR: When you critique someone's work, what are the basic aspects you look at?
MB: The other day I told Mustafa that part of being a critic, especially when you enter an artist's studio, it's almost like being a shrink. That situation is not about art per se, but about human interaction. Showing your work to someone is a very delicate moment. So, you have to understand someone's psychology. If you don't, your comments are as good as the message that you can't share. If you say words which are too harsh to somebody who has invested so much, that's not good either. I mean it's not always like this, but very often. In other words you have to listen and you cannot always be hundred percent honest, which is Okay. You have to be aware of the other person's need because it's more important that I tell you something that will inspire you than I say your work stinks and this is the end of the world, in a way. So I think it's important to communicate and to understand what a person or even an audience needs in a given moment to become inspired on their own. One should always treat people very seriously. I mean you can communicate complex ideas but you don't patronize people, you basically share your experience, your knowledge, your sensibility, and your doubts. I think, in brief, that's my philosophy, which is not a philosophy at all.
AR: In yesterday's lecture you told the audience that the artists should not listen to the curators as and when he or she is involved in art making or exhibition making. Can you elaborate on that point?
MB: Well, what I'm saying is that there are good curators and not so good curators. A curator is really a kind of an administrator, so this figure of the curator has no crucial function in the process of art making; he/she is not necessary for art to exist. I mean curator is a recent phenomenon, it's a kind of a relatively new beast, especially independent curators. There were not many before; they used to work in museums, right? Now they are freelancing and are everywhere. I think what bothers me that the curators are often so preoccupied with their own success and by doing that their decisions are not based on independent research. They are not adventurous. They are often preoccupied with what suits their careers best. So, they will go for things which will basically validate their existence rather than thinking about the artists as being the beginning and the end of the show. There are too many opportunists in curating nowadays and that can be very dangerous. It diminishes the stature/position of artist because the artist becomes sort of a tool for somebody else's career, vision, or whatever. So that's why I think the phenomenon of curating is a tricky phenomenon. I'm skeptical about expanding bureaucratic space between the artist and the object. There are already way too many people in the middle – between the artist and the viewer.
MZ: But in the European context, concerning the contemporaneous, staging becomes an important part of the entire process. So you already have bureaucracy in place. You know, the salon was obviously bureaucratic. I guess bureaucracy is mutating. Do you feel that it's mutating in a bad way?
MB: The French Salons belonged to a local bureaucracy. Now you have a global kind of bureaucracy. Which has a limited or no connection to any specific location; art kind of floats from place to place. It's like what happened to the economies … that there's no independent national economy per se anymore, right? Even I'm sure in this country you have the biggest corporations, multinationals perhaps, they are not just Bengalis. Curators too are kind of multinational; they don't have any particular affiliation with the place, or they are highly 'flexible.' They like to hop from one place to another. On the positive side, somebody said with the economy being so multinational, it now belongs to the individuals rather than the countries. But I don't buy this. Now we live in a different world, but it's as violent as ever. So going back to curators, I think the curators have a little too much to say about what's been done and the artists become sort of subservient. They might be a part of 'surveillance culture' we are increasingly belonging to.
MZ: They are calling the shots.
MB: Yes and what's interesting is that the collectors have been exercising the same sort of power. They might even tell artists what to do and then artists do it. And you don't bite the hand that feeds you…
MZ: Artist Ronni Ahmmed's video, which he made five or six years back is a performance where he has an episode titled Thousand Years of Bengali Cuisine, which portrays an artist played by himself. He is sitting in front of a canvas and talking to his collector on the phone and receiving clear suggestions for what to do with this canvas. It goes like this: Now is this how I should paint? What is the colour? Blue? Red? He keeps asking the buyer, the collector who is going to buy his work.
MZ: Yes, intentionally. You know, to critique the situation… I mean the power play between the buyer and the artist.
MB: Well, we need collectors, but we don't need collectors playing God…. I was doing research on Rothko and during the fifties when the popular press started to pay attention to modern art, Pollock for example. But the conversation about their contribution to our lives was often quite trivial, especially in popular press and other media. I just read an article about how big-in-size paintings were more interesting than small paintings, because they were more suitable for modern interiors. Even back there, pragmatic concerns impacted artistic production in major way…
And so it's been around; I mean the whole thing about the suitability or marketability of art. But now I think it has gotten out of hand. In my opinion the bureaucratization of contemporary art is so overwhelming and it's not good I think. It sort of takes artist's attention away from the studio and whatever you create. There are many people whom I call 'coffee house artist'; they basically sit in a coffee shop and wait for critics, curators and museum directors to come. Then, after they learn what is needed, they go back to their studio (or computer) and produce their art. I am afraid I've seen them in some places in your country too…
MZ: Just to cater to their taste…
MB: Yeah… I call them coffee shop artists – the absurd end result of conceptualization of art.
AR: I want to know how you got to know Bhupen Khakhar?
MB: I never met him, but what happened that when I was in Madrid… usually when I write my reviews what I do is I walk around and see what I like. I ventured to the Reina Sofia which is one of the major museums there. I think they were closed that day but they allowed me to visit the exhibition by myself. It was fantastic to be alone with art. What I saw blew my mind. I thought the work was very different, very strong, and very moving.
AR: Was it a retrospective?
MB: Yes, it was, if I am not mistaken one of the early ones in Europe. When I went back to New York, I proposed a review to my editor in Artforum and she said, 'yes.' I was happy because I don't think that many people in the US knew about his work. His art seemed highly engaging on many levels – aesthetic, political, and human, and it was a very beautifully curated show – no curatorial gimmicks at all. Seeing Khakhar's art was an adventure. Sometimes you sort of discover things that you never knew about, and yet it was totally familiar.It's what I love about art.
I am so glad we are finishing our conversation by talking about an artist and his art…
Transcript by Naim Ul Hasan, edits by Depart.