From Where You Are Speaking...
... is a phrase I wish to link with the issue of positioning written art criticism. To do so I have selected Lucy M. Lippard and Carla Lonzi, two significant authors for the development of feminist (art) criticism, because they sought to make their own authority the subject of debate within the politicising art scenes of the 1960s and 70s.
I will begin with Lippard, a US art critic and curator whose writing provides us with a fantastic example of a move away from a purely formal understanding of her work and the opening for issues of context and identity. Even if it is really not possible to reproach Lippard´s criticism for disregarding formal aesthetic aspects (issues of surface handling, colour, line and texture), it ultimately challenges the basic rules of formal criticism, i.e. the belief that art is primarily judged on optical qualities and genre and media specificity, a belief that was held until the 1960s. Instead (in one of her reviews of Eva Hesse, for example) she speaks of a dematerialisation of the pictorial impetus in sculpture that assumes the form of two- or three-dimensional drawings. Rather than representing the inner necessity of sculpture, Lippard believes that the focus is on another criteria: the ability of an artwork to realise a moving experience.1
If in the light of current common theories of affect (I am thinking of Lauren Berlant, Gilles Deleuze and Brian Massumi) we no longer regard feelings as primary subjective expression or the opposite of things, but as phenomena that occur in the physical encounter between object and viewer, the criterion of moving experience asserted by Lippard also presents itself as a request for art criticism to include emotional involvement within its scope.
The resulting shift in the value horizon of art criticism (Helmut Draxler) can also be observed in the case of Carla Lonzi. In 1969, a year before the Italian art critic founded Rivolta Femminile with the artist Carla Accardi, she published Autoritratto. This was an unusual example of art criticism for the time and comprised a montage of various talks she had conducted with fourteen artists (of which only one, her subsequent fellow combatant Carla Accardi, was female) between 1965 and 1969. As the Italian art and gender theorist Giovanna Zapperi, who published it in French last year, writes, the book is a kind of farewell2: Lonzi was never to return to art criticism before her premature death at the age of 51. She expressed her frustration at the restrictions of art criticism as early as 1963: in her text La solitudine del critico (The Loneliness of the Art Critic) for example, in which she questions its hierarchical authority. Like Lippard, Lonzi also reclaims a profound commitment to artists.
Without being able to refer to a widely effective women's movement in the mid-1960s, Self Portrait is according to Zapperi a search for a decidedly female-coded authorship, in which she recognised the possibility of dissociation from the dominant, i.e. in her eyes patriarchal, form of critical writing. She staged a fictional dialogue using interviews that allowed her to involve several generations of Italian artists in conversation with one another.
Like Lippard, this was an undoing of art criticism as a practice that derives its legitimacy only from the distance to the objects viewed. She accused this practice of pretensions of expertise and taste that ultimately served only the art market, but not living experience. In doing so she claimed to communicate with both male and female artists on an equal footing. The decisive credo became not writing about something, but authorial action within the field in which she moved.
For this purpose she took up the avant-garde montage process: interweaving interview technique and text processes she recorded, transcribed, cut and then rearranged the talks from which Autoritratto is compiled. From the very first page of Autoritratto it is obvious that that Lonzi is unwilling to ask questions or to interpret the work of her interview partner; instead, she only ever speaks for or about herself. The voice of the critic can therefore be seen as a montage of dialogue, fragment, montage, chance, omission, projection - as if she were attempting to sketch her own self portrait using the rules of everyday interpersonal communication. Ultimately, this principle also affects the choice of images, insofar as private photos of those involved in the conversation are mixed with images of works and references. This simultaneously simulates and subverts the characteristic text/ image relationship of traditional art history. The photographs thus become a self-predicating text about art and the artist. This characteristically also involves a series of snapshots that contrast the (supposedly) spontaneous and the affect with art criticism´s imperative of reflection. According to Zapperi this is how Lonzi annuls the hegemonic poetics of the dominant art criticism of the time.
Like Lippard, Lonzi therefore attempts to break up both the authority and the second-rank status of art criticism by conceiving it as a practice of writing that does not aim at judgement based on (seemingly objective) distance, but by seeking to establish the rules that equate it with the object of observation. The loss of art historical authority thus goes hand in hand with self-empowerment for creative authorship.
Sabeth Buchmann is an art historian and art critic. She is currently Professor of Modern and Postmodern Art and the Head of the Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
1 Eva Hesse, The Circle, reprinted in: From the Center. Feminist essays on women´s art, 1976, p. 166.
2 Giovanna Zapperi, Introduction à la journée d´études "Carla Lonzi, critique d’art et féministe /art critic and feminist"