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Contemporary Art Criticism in Spain: A Recent History Survey

The present situation of art criticism and the whole contemporary art ecosystem in Spain can only be well understood in the wider context of the evolution and development of Spanish media-related art criticism during the last 35 years. These are critical years indeed, since they roughly comprise the longest period of democratic government and free press in the history of Spain, all achieved after the death of Franco, the end of his dictatorial regime, and the laboriously negotiated transition toward the present parliamentary monarchy.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Under the direction of José Camón Aznar (1898 – 1979), the ’60s witnessed the creation of the Asociación Española de Críticos de Arte (Spanish Association of Art Critics). The organization had a timid beginning and remained fairly inactive during its first 10 years, although its Catalan branch, presided over by Daniel Giralt-Miracle (b.1944), showed more signs of dynamism. As we will see, the core of Spanish contemporary art criticism is not to be found in the languid—though hyper-productive—hand of an official, bureaucratic critical activity burdened by the mannerisms, political biases, and patriotic trivialities of more than 30 years of art history under Franco. Such criticism helped advance characteristic authors such as the Catholic priest Alfonso Roig (1903 – 87) or the last productive years of Eugenio D’Ors (1882­ – 1954), considered the most relevant art critic and theorist of the time, who in the ’40s wrote essays on Picasso with a strong political bias which demonstrated the extremely low objective standards of critical activity during that period in post-war Spain. If D’Ors, who showed such deep incomprehension of the work of the Spanish painter, was supposed to be the preeminent theorist of his time, it is not difficult to imagine how limited and provincial the “minor” art critics of the period were.

But the winds of change could be felt even in Spain towards the end of the ’60s. The renewal and revitalization of the role played by civil societies in Western democracies—from May ’68 to the strong feminist, queer, pacifist, and radical movements, the decolonization of Africa, and the protests against the Vietnam War—had their share of influence over a tamed society and a sleepy intellectual class; criticism as mere style games based on an obsolete set of haut goût, high classcriteria, and addressing a small audience of aficionados, showed signs of decline. A new theoretical discourse, less formalistic and more focused on the socio-historical context of contemporary art production, began to be articulated. From a Marxist perspective, this new criticism understood the work of art as one link in a communicative process in which the media plays a distinctive and influential role. At this time, scholars and critics such as Valeriano Bozal (b.1940) pioneered an approach to contemporary artistic production that sought to break through the bland formalism that was still the default critical approach.

But even if we simplify the terms of debate to the point of talking about a conflict between a “social-realist” and a “formalistic” approach, we need to recognize other critical approaches in Spanish art theory of the time. Since the beginning of the ’70s, the consolidation of the different trends of what can roughly be called Spanish conceptualism helped to renew the terms of debate. As early as 1972 Simón Marchán Fiz (b.1941) proposed, in his landmark essay Del arte objetual al arte de concepto (From object art to concept art), a first insider approach to these new artistic trends. Art criticism found new public forums in magazines such as Serra D´Or, Destino, and Batik, strongly associated with conceptualism and its related strategies: including Arte Povera, landart, earthart, and minimalism.

The participation of Antoni Muntadas (b.1942) and other Catalan artists in the 1972 Kassel Documenta sparked interest in these new artistic practices. The public controversy between Antoni Tàpies (1923 – 2012), advocating an essentialist return to the purely plastic values of “true” painting, and the collective Grup de Treball, closely associated with Conceptual art, would be followed in Madrid by debates between those critics who championed a so-called “return to painting” and those who the challenged artists considered to represent it. In 1976, immediately after the death of Franco when the democratic transition was about to begin, a new controversy arose when the Venice Biennial invited a group of leftist intellectuals to propose contents for its central pavilion. Their intention was to give critical attention to a whole generation of artists who had worked for 40 years in semi-tolerated obscurity under Franco’s dictatorship.

España. Vanguardia artística y realidad social: 1936 – 1976 (Spain. Artistic avant-garde and social reality: 1936 – 1976), the name of the exhibition was itself a political statement, and the debates that ensued focused on the ideological assumptions of the proposal. The controversy around the selection made by the curatorial commission did a great deal to clear the air. The commission included critics and theoreticians Valeriano Bozal (b.1940) and Tomàs Llorens (b.1936); artists such as Antonio Saura (1930 – 98) and Antoni Tàpies; and the architect Oriol Bohigas (b.1925). The work included in the central pavilion provided a welcome opportunity to open a long-delayed public debate about the elitist artistic and intellectual atmosphere during the long years of Franco’s dictatorship. Art historians and art critics were now encouraged to revise and reappraise the recent history of Spanish art from a new perspective.

In a celebrated article titled “Arte y política,” Valeriano Bozal explained the selection criteria of the commission and insisted upon the necessity of an art engaged with the political reality of Spain during the previous 40 years. Three years after the show, the debate was still going on. The critic Juan Manuel Bonet (b.1953) published an article in Pueblo that refuted Bozal’s ideas:

The political dimensions should be reconsidered. When we say “politics” we can’t but remember the Venice Biennale of 1976, for which Valeriano Bozal and his friends stressed the significance of an exhibiton of Estampa Popular in Cullera [a small provincial town in Eastern Spain], while barely acknowledging the work of José Guerrero [1914 - 91].

Lara Almarcegui’s project in the 55th Venice Biennial. Giardini, Venice, 2013.

Those debates continued in the pages of a new magazine, Batik, launched in 1973 by Daniel Giralt-Miracle (b.1944), where the controversy reached an unusual degree of vehemence. In October 1979 the Juana Mordó Gallery in Madrid opened 1980, a show of “new painting” curated by three young critics and theoreticians: ángel González (b.1948), Juan Manuel Bonet (b. 1953), and Quico Rivas (1953 – 2008). One year later, in the fall of 1980, the Museo Municipal de Madrid hosted a similar show, entitled Madrid DF. Both exibitions were devoted to the work of a new generation of young, post-Franco artists based mainly in Madrid. In their accompanying texts for both catalogues these critics advanced a new political and formal agenda for the new decade. In the aforementioned article published in Pueblo, “After the battle,” Juan Manuel Bonet in turn attacked the strongly politicized conceptual art of the ’70s which, according to him, was:

All but painting … Years of Lent and constipation … Among all that Bozal and all that Rubert, all that Tomás Lloréns and all those translations of Umberto Eco … all that medium and message; they almost managed to make us forget the truth of painting, the necessity and the passion and the pleasure of painting.

Bonet refused to take refuge in a “private eclecticism” and offered a new artistic ethos for the decade that focused entirely on painting, thereby excluding many of the truly fruitful artistic developments in Spain during the ’80s:

As for me, I feel increasingly oppressed by obscure stories, literary painting, and the return of sorcerers. Instead, I am increasingly fond of clear rooms and of pure light ... I am obsessed with Sorolla and Caneja, with a certain pictorial Generation of 1927, Guerrero, Iturrino, and Carmen Laffón.

As vehement as Bonet was, ángel González also viewed painting as the only interesting artistic expression for the new decade:

To brood over painting, even in order not to paint, but to allow others to paint ... The omnipresence of painting in the modern context does not come from a whim or an effort of voluntarism, but from the most lucid and strict planification. One paints after the extinction of all its preliminaries; one paints because of an irresistible attraction towards painting that confirms the memory of its own learning.

All this could be read in “History is painted like this (in Madrid),” the manifesto included in the catalogue of the exhibition Madrid DF. In the same text, González wrote a thinly veiled attack on the role of Tomás Llorens as a “certain art critic from València, follower of semiotics and of some made-up social realism, [who] speaks now of neo-avantgardes.” One year before, Llorens had published an unfavourable review of the 1980 exhibition in Batik. It was, according to Llorens, inspired by the need to:

Celebrate their own achievement of stardom in the near future … In the gallery of Juana Mordó confusion is the first cousin of misery and misery is the sister of insecurity … They don the robe of arbiter elegantiarum … but that doesn’t hide their nature as civil servants of the new arriviste Right.

There were other voices that criticized the proposals of 1980 and Madrid DF. In a very interesting special issue of Batik, “Arte-España 1980,” which is indispensable for understanding the art context of the period, the critic and curator Victòria Combalía (b.1952) accused the young critics from Madrid of “poetic pretensions and preciousness.” Another preeminent critic of the time, Francisco Calvo Serraller (b.1948), asked whether “the parti pris of the critic is not prevailing over the painting; that is, that instead of being at the service of painting, the critic puts painting to work for his prejudices.”

The reader might be surprised by the violence of these vendettas among critics and theoreticians. But it should be remembered that 30 years ago, Spain was just beginning to get used to intellectual public controversies, far from the semi-clandestine criticism under late Francoism. On the other hand, we have seen Tomàs Llorens himself explain how theoretical debates were at times an excuse for fights by proxy for the control of newly created artistic institutions in a democratic Spain. The death of Franco and the beginning of the so-called transition toward democracy meant that new structures of creation and criticism of contemporary art in Spain had to be developed. New public and private institutions sought to come to terms with contemporary art in an international context. Art criticism began to assume new responsibilities and power positions inside the art world; not only did the critic inform about the process of modernization, but they actively participated in it. Art critics were now actively involved in the processes of production, selection, and publicizing new developments. Some associated themselves with the art market, advising private collectors in their purchases. In this respect, the risks were evident; critics began to promote trends, artists, and works that were implicated in private investments. The growing interest in contemporary Spanish art was directly related to its market appeal, as corporate and private collectors saw new opportunities for profit in a previously neglected cultural field.

Public institutions represented another strong effort to update the Spanish art scene and to catch up with a broader international context. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, dedicated to modern and contemporary art, opened in Madrid in 1986. Tomàs Llorens directed it from 1988, and in 1990 it reopened after an important remodelling of spaces and contents. Years later Juan Manuel Bonet would direct the museum as well. IVAM, the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, opened in València in 1989, and soon became an important Spanish institution under the direction of Vicente Todolí (b.1958). In Barcelona, however, the opening of the Museu d´Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) was delayed until 1995. Until the completion of its new building, designed by German architect Richard Meier (b.1934), it was directed by Daniel Giralt-Miracle. It is therefore easy to see how art criticism and institutional projects were closely related during this period.

On the commercial side, the first edition of ARCO, the Feria Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo, opened in Madrid in 1982. From the start it was a mixed event. Unlike other art fairs at the time, ARCO was heavily subsidized with public money. The media and general audiences viewed it as a huge collective exhibition, almost an annual survey which allowed visitors to “catch up” with contemporary art thanks to a yearly stroll through its premises. In subsequent years ARCO captured the interest and attention of the Spanish mass media, which in previous years had appeared to sustain a more articulate approach towards Spanish contemporary art.

In the ’80s a whole new generation of critics, less concerned with the controversies of the first democratic years of the transition, established new fields of debate and new publications to articulate them. That publishing boom proved to be ephemeral and would hardly survive into the next decade. Among new specialized journals one should mention Lápiz, founded in 1982. Guadalimar, founded in 1975 by Miguel Fernández-Braso, offered a common ground for both old-school critics and younger theoreticians. Trama, founded by a group of artists that included Juan Manuel Broto (b.1949), Xavier Grau (b.1951), Javier Rubio (b.1952) and Gonzalo Tena (b.1950), was established in 1977 after the French model of Tel Quel, and demonstrated a strong interest in new painting trends.

As for the daily national press, one should note the role played by El País, the newspaper that embodied the changes in the free Spanish press after Franco. In 1980 it launched a weekly section devoted exclusively to the art scene: El País Artes. In its pages readers encountered the opinions of renowned critics such as Calvo Serraller and ángel González, together with the new points of view of a whole generation of younger critics and scholars, including Anna María Guasch (b.1953), Juan Vicente Aliaga (b.1959), Estrella de Diego (b.1958), Fernando Castro Flórez (b.1964), Mar Villaespesa, Francisco Jarauta (b.1941), and the recently deceased José Luis Brea (1957 – 2010).

These new voices would become stronger and articulate their views more fully during the ’90s—a more ambiguous and less legible decade. It is true that the openly confrontational critical scene of the ’80s now acquired nuances and sophistication. The instruments of open and free intellectual debate were employed with greater familiarity. But this can also be read as the result of the progressive de-ideologization and taming of the Spanish contemporary art scene, now fully assimilated as a branch of a worldwide cultural industry. With a certain delay—owing to rarefied political and socio-historical conditions—the Spanish art world entered the international market for cultural commodities. Public and private institutions devoted to collecting and displaying contemporary art blossomed all across the country thanks to the political decentralization of the Estado de las Autonomías, the constituional autonomy granted to the different regions that comprise Spain. The role of the mass media—and the role of an art criticism associated with it—changed as well in relation to new cultural artifacts.

Today, Spanish national newspapers like ABC, El Mundo, La Vanguardia,and El País publish their own weekly cultural supplements that are quite substantial compared with other examples in the contemporary European press. The mass media tends to play a lubricating role in artistic production in order to facilitate its consumption by a wider audience. In Spain as well as in the rest of Europe—the United Kingdom would be a case study—the attention of the media towards contemporary art has grown exponentially, while its ability to interpret it in any deep or significant way has diminished considerably.

All these factors have led to the disappearance of the many magazines and specialized journals that flourished in the previous two decades. New publications such as Exit hardly compensate for this loss of bibliodiversity. Notable, however, is the development of online alternative critical projects, such as Salon Kritik, founded by José Luís Brea, who also supported pioneering Spanish websites such as Arts.zin, devoted to “online criticism of new art practices.” Brea was also behind the rhizomatic online project Aleph, which focused on artistic creation specifically designed for digital environments, and the on-line magazine Acción paralela.

The role of the critic in national newspapers—serious art criticism is virtually nonexistent on Spanish TV channels or radios—has been modified and mollified. Controversies, debates, and simple divergences of opinion are scarce, and the role of art criticism has become increasingly informational. Thus enters the critic as chico para todo, a jack of all tradesin charge of sanctioning the most diverse artistic manifestations with the tenuous patina of high culture. But so, too, arrives the acritical critc, who works with official institutions in an effort to promote their achievements. It remains to be seen what new approaches Spanish art criticism will take in the current decade.


Javier Montes

JAVIER MONTES (Madrid, 1976) is a writer. His last novel, The Hotel Life, was published in English in 2013 by Hispabooks. In 2007 he won The Anagrama Essay Prize with La Ceremonia del Porno. In 2010 he was selected as one of The Best Young Spanish Language authors by Granta. As an art critic, he collaborates with Spanish newspapers and magazines such as El País, ABC, Exit or Revista de Occidente. He writes for Artnews as a correspondent from Spain. His last curated show, Beckett Films, focused on the cinema and TV works of Samuel Beckett and was shown at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (Seville) in 2011.


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