Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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Topic: Recycling Salon Reviews

Q: Why the margins of a weblog to review the biggest international art exhibition in the world?

The blog has a lot in common with the origins of art criticism. In particular, the short-form writings known as Salon Reviews, popularized in 1765 by Denis Diderot, are making a comeback. The blog, like the Salon Review before it, does not unravel as a single congealed 500- or 1,500-word article. Instead, brief passages released under subject headings are written to give a single topic, such as an artist or an artwork critical treatment.

One hundred, or even two hundred years ago, Royal Salon critics compiled “handbooks” in this way – on the go – as they wandered the galleries and later, the city streets. The modesty of the medium lent these reviews an autonomy. This independence was lost until recently, due to the enclosure of the art press by the PR industry. Today that same modesty has returned in the extraneous, yet essential, ephemeron of the weblog.

In his second Salon of 1846, Charles Baudelaire wrote of art that, “It is true that the great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established.” The same thing could be said presently of art criticism. It is more accessible – yet not always self-aware – due in large part to a precarious publishing industry.

The coincidence of this old Parisian format of the Salon Review contending with contemporary art relates to an everyday paradox: namely how “new media” continues to propel us back in time. The visual culture of the twenty-first century experiences itself elsewhere, thanks to new media, in images recycled from yesterday, last week or the last century. Despite these ( often wonderful ) consumer distractions, we have today formats besides the commercialized nostalgia that often fill our television, cinema and visual art. New media, admittedly, does offer new platforms for critical reflection as an efficient means to recirculate recent history.

Hans Haacke, ‘GERMANIA’, Biennale di Venezia, 1993

Yet, blogs are not used often enough as the old Salon Reviews were – to remark on the contents of major events. Exhibitions promising new proposals in the field of visual art rarely face the critical scrutiny they deserve. These new, more accessible outlets may give us that opportunity.

Without challenging the entertainment value of the upward mobility that is at the heart of social networks, it is clear that the international art press is too often reduced to reporting on quasi-celebrities while they have a good time and have their photo taken looking sharp.

In recent years, Boris Groys has persuasively argued that everyone today is a self-designed work of art. Is it not also the case that everyone today is a self-styled art critic, commenting on images in comment boxes around the internet and on social media? Perhaps Joseph Beuys’ famous proposal would apply and that these masked critics are fulfilling their ancient duty as artists, intervening in the social property of visual art, whomever these artists and art critics are.

Even as nineteenth-century newspaper critics ignored what became the avant-garde (the same newspapers, according to Baudelaire, that had by 1845 become a spiteful organ of the self-conscious rank of bourgeoisie mobbing the Louvre) Salon Reviews were made quietly and at the margins. They covered art like sport: they were physically present in the spectacle but separate as critical voices. They were offering an assessment of game changers entering the field, whether it came in the form of Modern artists like Delacroix and Manet or innovations like photography. Groys explains where this culture of artifice and constant change has led us to today via new media.

As a final note, there is little in the mobile debriefings from Kassel to come that will inspire the hope of nurturing another Diderot, Gautier or Baudelaire, dear reader, but one can set forth with a commitment to independent thinking that Salon critics were expected to possess, regardless of who they held the pen for.