Małgorzata Kaźmierczak: On Art Criticism in Dark Times

In February this year, Polish-born art critic Małgorzata Kaźmierczak was appointed the new president of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). Małgorzata Kaźmierczak is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Art of the Pedagogical University of Kraków, Poland and a Head of the Board of the Art Studies Discipline since 2022. She has curated numerous solo and group curated works, among them “Anarchy and New Art. 100 years of Dadaism” (Centre for Polish Sculpture, Orońsko, 2016), “Flowers of Evil” (with Arti Grabowski; National Gallery of Art, Sopot, 2015), “Ephemeral fixed. Ephemeral art – history documented” (Galeria Wschodnia, Łódź, 2012). Her articles on contemporary art and culture have appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza, Art and Documentation, livinggallery, which she co-edits since 2011. After the news of the president’s appointment was published, art critic Valeriy Ledenev called Kaźmierczak and together they discussed how to understand art criticism today and why it is not limited to texts about art, what challenges it faces, and what opportunities it offers in dark times.

Eine Frau sitzt in einem Cafehaus und lächelt in die Kamera. Sie hat blonde Haare und eine Sonnenbrille im Haar.

Małgorzata Kaźmierczak at 55th AICA International Congress, Kraków, 2023. Photo by Marc Michael Moser. Courtesy Małgorzata Kaźmierczak

As the newly elected President of AICA, I cannot help but ask you the most direct and obvious question: how would you describe the International Association of Art Critics today?

AICA is the oldest and one of the largest associations of art critics, drawing participants from diverse countries and reflecting the varied cultural landscapes across the globe. Membership in AICA, as outlined by the organization’s statute, is open to critics, curators, and researchers, although individual national sections may have their own membership policies. In some branches, professionals from other cultural spheres, and occasionally even artists, are also involved; for instance, AICA Poland includes individuals working in radio or producing podcasts. This diversity highlights an ongoing debate about the nature of art criticism and its evolving forms over time.

For me, art criticism transcends mere practicalities; it embodies a steadfast and unwavering stance toward the art world. It’s about advocating for art and standing up for its significance, continually striving to carve out more space for it in the world.

It’s an intriguing juncture that you mentioned: art criticism extends beyond merely writing about or curating art; it encompasses a critical perspective and stance through which one engages with art.

Yes, precisely. An art critic serves as a discerning observer, shedding light on and condemning certain positions and cultural policies within their country. In Poland, my home country, our role during past years primarily involved critiquing government actions, documenting cases of censorship, professional incompetence, and exposing the individuals responsible for such actions. Interestingly, the newly elected government now utilizes our past criticisms against those they have recently dismissed from their positions, as our documentation provided them with tangible evidence of their actions during those years of cultural turmoil.

Initially, when we began compiling cases with a member of AICA’s board Dorota Jarecka, our intention wasn’t necessarily to immediately influence cultural policy. However, recently, the director of the National Museum in Warsaw was terminated from his position, partly due to his inclusion on our list. Also, the Artistic Freedom Initiative in New York incorporated these materials into their report.

For me, this type of activism also falls under the umbrella of criticism. It’s about taking a stance on what’s happening in the world, not solely about writing about one’s aesthetic impressions and experiences at art exhibitions.

What you’ve just described is indeed an example of how art criticism can effectively function, with critics assuming roles as agents within the social sphere. I consider this role to be incredibly significant. Besides the case of Poland and instances of censorship in art, art criticism faces various other challenges in contemporary times.

When we consider the broader challenges facing art criticism today, it varies from one place to another. In Western Europe and the United States, for instance, a significant challenge arises from the conflict of interests, where criticism in major art magazines often serves as a form of advertisement for institutions. This not only compromises the integrity of criticism but also renders it superficial and uninteresting. It’s disheartening to see a lack of critical edge in such discourse. Personally, I prefer to engage with scholarly academic journals, as they tend to offer more depth and intellectual rigor.

Additionally, given the fact of political and economic instability in certain regions, there’s an issue of precarity within the cultural field, including among art critics. This problem is particularly pronounced in countries in South America, known for their rampant capitalism. While this region boasts significant artistic development, the critical reflection on it remains lacking due to the financial difficulties faced by many art workers. 

In the video presentation published on the website before the election, you expressed your agenda, which consists in “looking for collaborations over divisions”. What kind of collaborations and alliances are you intended to search? 

AICA was established with the ethos of fostering agreement on various approaches across the globe, irrespective of cultural and religious disparities. We uphold this principle today, even amidst ongoing postcolonial debates and political and religious differences. Despite these divisions, our ability to organize events like the Congress demonstrates our collective determination to make things happen, driven by a shared commitment.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that achieving unanimity among all members is unrealistic. Yet, there are certain tasks and values where consensus is possible, forming the basis for alliances. The composition of these alliances evolves depending on the specific issues at hand. For instance, the issue of censorship related to the situation in Israel and Palestine presents a complex challenge that requires careful consideration. As art critics, it’s imperative that we staunchly defend freedom of speech and condemn censorship, regardless of our personal affiliations.

Ansicht des Seminarraums während der Konferenz. Teilnehmende schauen auf die Präsentation auf der Leinwand.

55th AICA International Congress, Kraków, 2023. Photo by Marc Michael Moser. Courtesy Małgorzata Kaźmierczak

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been ongoing for over two years now, and discussions about a third world war are becoming more frequent. Similar concerns are raised following the resumption of the Israel and Palestine conflict after the 7th October 2023. It’s evident that critical texts cannot defend against actual weaponry. What can art critics do in this situation?

As you may know, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Eastern Europeans immediately rushed with humanitarian help. Saving lives was the most important. Many art institutions and artist studios turned into shelters. As I recall time stopped for us, and we forgot about everything else for at least six months. I know artists who gave up art and turned to full scale activism. I really value his kind of ethical position. At the same time, the situation revealed that there is very little awareness of the geopolitical situation of Eastern Europe in the rest of the world, also among art critics. Believe it or not, but the knowledge that Kazimir Malevich was Ukrainian-Polish is not widespread in the world. The war in Palestine, and how the art world in some countries, especially in Germany and Austria, reacted to any protest against the genocide, also shows that there is a lot to do for us, critics. We need to raise awareness and contribute to the understanding of these, sometimes very complex, historical and political issues. 

Here we are logically approaching the issue of national sections of AICA. Have there been any new ones established within recent years, and how is this process structured?

New national sections are indeed emerging, with one of the most recent being established in Costa Rica. Additionally, there are plans for several new sections in South America, particularly in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, where a previously existing section is being reestablished. Negotiations are also underway for a new section in Georgia.

To establish a new national section, a minimum of five founding members is required, along with a statute that reflects the fundamental principles of AICA. This statute does not need to replicate the general statute of AICA but should align with its core values. Formal registration is not always necessary, especially for smaller organizations that may struggle to meet all legal requirements in their countries. It is important that the primary activities of the section should not be commercial in nature.

The formation of new sections can occur through self-nomination or through dialogue between AICA and the local professional community. In cases where a national section does not yet exist, AICA typically has numerous contacts to initiate discussions regarding the establishment of a new branch.

Apart from being a member of a respective national section, one can become a member of the open section of AICA. What kind of section is that? 

You can become a member of the Open section of AICA if there is no national section established in your country. For instance, critics from Belarus, where political constraints prevent the formation of a section, may be accepted into e.g. the Polish one, or they can choose to join the Open section. Similarly, if circumstances prevent participation in an existing national branch, individuals can apply for membership in the Open section. For example, critics from Hong Kong who have been forced to leave the country, or Russian critics dispersed around the world and unable to maintain connections within their national section.

Membership in AICA is an important aspect of belonging to a professional community and the opportunity to participate in discussions on critical contemporary issues of today. There are also awards, including for emerging critics. What other support opportunities for the critical community are provided within AICA?

First and foremost, an AICA membership card grants you free entry to many museums worldwide. Additionally, AICA awards two prizes. One is for emerging critics, and nominations are open to everyone, not just AICA members. The other prize is for established critics. Unlike the young critics’ award, there is no money for this, and it’s more of an honorary mention.

As part of collaboration between sections, one can apply for a grant for a project. And, of course, moral support is vital. This is our obligation towards members: to defend them from whatever troubles they may have.

AICA has a publishing program that I wanted to ask you to tell me more about. Recently, the book “Bridging the Gaps. An Anthology of Art Criticism in Central and Eastern Europe” was released. What is it about?

First of all, we publish an e-magazine, in which any AICA member can submit an article in any language, and we will publish it uncensored. We are not reliant on advertising and aim to provide truly independent expression of their thoughts and ideas.

We also publish a series of books of distinguished critics from the country where the previous AICA congress was held. Although the AICA congress takes place every year, the book release is a much slower process. In the near future, we plan to publish a collection of texts by the Polish art historian and curator Aneta Szyłak , a recipient of the distinguished critics award in 2023, who passed away in October the same year. This is important not only as a tribute to her memory but also because the field of distinguished critics is predominantly occupied by men, and it’s crucial for us to change that.

The book “Bridging the Gaps: An Anthology of Art Criticism in Central and Eastern Europe,” which you asked about, includes texts on art from the Visegrád Group countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) written after 1989. It was published as a physical book, but you can also download its PDF for free . It was sponsored by the Visegrád Fund, which typically supports projects like this. I myself have often found it difficult to study this transitional period for all the four countries because the primary sources are poorly archived, barely analyzed, and not translated into English. Working on this project was vital, and we would gladly release a second volume if we found money to do that.

55th AICA International Congress, Kraków, 2023. Photo by Marc Michael Moser. Courtesy Małgorzata Kaźmierczak

From my observations of the art history of my country, there are ‘lost generations’ during that transitional decade — generations of people who were actively involved in the art scene and made significant contributions to it, but have since faded into obscurity. I believe similar cases exist in your country as well. That’s why I particularly wanted to highlight that publication in our interview because it is crucial to bring such works to light.

Yes, such occurrences are not uncommon during transitional periods when people leave the country, change their profession, or simply exit the scene. Recently, I spoke with the Vice President of AICA Austria, Walter Seidl, who also has an interest in art from the region. He asked me about an artist from Krakow who was active in the 1990s, but neither he nor I knew her current whereabouts or activities. I did some research and found out that she still resides in Krakow but is no longer involved in art. And it happens to people, artists, critics, curators—everyone. So, these things sometimes become lost, as you say. But it’s our responsibility to bring them to light.

Does AICA have its own budget and where does it come from? 

Our budget is very modest, while administrative expenses and rent costs are incredibly high in contrast, and a portion of the funds is reserved for publishing activities. The main source of funding is membership fees. During congresses, national sections may receive support from AICA International. In some cases, we can apply for UNESCO grants. We have already completed two UNESCO projects organized in Africa, focusing on gender inequalities in Morocco, Senegal, and Ivory Coast. Currently, we are considering organizing similar projects in English-speaking African countries like South Africa and Ghana. While these grants may not provide substantial funds, they are sufficient to organize symposiums or publications afterward. We don’t always have enough capacity to apply for such grants ourselves, but if any AICA member wishes to, we provide support in this process.

All this time, we have been discussing art criticism extensively, covering its theoretical, practical, and political dimensions. As we conclude the interview, I would like to ask you about your own scholarly interests as a critic.

I have a particular interest in performance art, which I analyze from the perspective of someone closely connected to the artists who practice it. Both my father and my late husband were performance artists, so I’ve been actively involved in the conception, scheduling, and execution of performances throughout my life. From an early age, I’ve been engaged in documenting performances, documenting what is often considered impossible to document. In addition to a theoretical approach, I bring a practitioner’s insight to my analysis.

Currently, my research focuses on performance art within a political context. This art form reacts rapidly to reality; artists often arrive at events without predefined plans, drawing inspiration from their immediate surroundings and reacting spontaneously. Such responsiveness is unique to performance art and provides rich material for examining its political dimensions.

I’m particularly motivated by exploring the political and historical contexts of performance art. It’s fascinating to see how artists from previous decades predicted future developments and addressed pressing political issues. This aspect interests me more than purely aesthetic considerations, although I acknowledge that the aesthetic form of performance art can also carry political significance.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Valerij Ledenev (2024, 20. März). Małgorzata Kaźmierczak: On Art Criticism in Dark Times. the ARTicle. Abgerufen am 13. April 2024, von

Valerij Ledenev

Valerij Ledenev ist freiberuflicher Autor und hat mit Art Focus Not und Art Newspaper Russia gearbeitet. Zuvor war er im Garage Museum tätig.

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