Sophie Jung: Where do you see a critic’s role within the dynamism of art—and how different, if at all, is the current situation?
Lucien Kayser: For as long as aesthetics was kept within strict limits, say until the end of the 19th century, when works had to comply with a set of rules, a proper canon inherited from the Greek ideal of beauty with equivalent values for both truth and justice, criticism was (only) the art of judging, of giving an opinion about compliance. This is no longer the case whenever novelty takes over from tradition. On what basis should an artwork be judged now that it sets its own rules? Of course, there remains the physical confrontation with the work, but criticism depends more on the coherence of the idea or concept and that of its visual/physical form.
Jung: As an artist, I am relieved. On the other hand, I do believe in courage—the effort it takes to enter a work with a subjective eye.
Kayser: One of the main trends in today’s literary or artistic criticism is sympathetic re-creation, in other words, an explanation of how the work came to exist. Explaining and describing what the intentions were, and showing how they finally materialized. This is a fully justified approach, and a gratifying one vis-à-vis the public, but only if the work in question has already been accepted and recognized as being worth the exercise.
Jung: Art exists in an irresolvable dichotomy, being at once a radical vision of alternatives aimed at destabilizing prevailing structures, while also serving an economy that longs to treat it as a stable, reliable investment. A critic thus has the power to increase value, consequently influence the market, and so directly affect people’s personal wealth. Do you see a danger of interdependence between market forces and intellectual ownership?
Kayser: It seems to me that the critic’s influence was greater in the past. Nowadays, other indicators are available to the market and the power is more on the side of institutions, museum directors, curators of exhibitions, etc. Mind you, their own power is being challenged by that of the big collectors. And then, there is such an explosion of talents, such a wide artistic scene. In the past, a critic could promote or defend a certain artistic trend or school, but I wonder if this is still the case today.
Jung: I am making use of notions, concepts, objects that are freely available and assembling them into something new. You are tied to a closer mirroring of something in particular: an artist’s work. I can act, you must react.
Kayser: I would say that artists react just as much to the status of art around them and to the current world situation. For both artist and critic, there is no creation from the void, and it is the media, the tools, which are different. Indeed, it is true to say that a critic focuses on a specific work, but he or she has complete freedom in choosing that work and can even, in some cases, judge it most severely. And as to the mirror, this is indeed where everything linked to reflection comes in.
Jung: Did you ever want to be in the position of “acting” or do you see your work as doing that already?
Kayser: Different media, different tools: really, is it pretentious to look at a critic’s text as real “acting?” I have always been impressed by the French tradition, where the most interesting essays about art and artists have writers and philosophers as authors, beginning with Diderot. The innovation in a text should come from the author’s unique point of view, not only the result of erudition.
Jung: When I am asked to explain my work, I can point toward elements and describe their symbolic relevance, but ultimately, I thoroughly mistrust such a singular “this-equals-that approach.”
Kayser: This hesitation raises the question of whether the artist, or any author in general, is best situated to comment on his work. Paul Valéry, the French poet, denied this opinion. Valéry regularly went to the Sorbonne to attend the lectures of Gustave Cohen on his own Cimetière marin. Writing after the foreword for Cohen’s edition, Valéry said that the author is exterior to the work once it is finished, like any other person.
Jung: My idea of experiencing art is that rather than simply reading symbols, the viewer should enter the logic and the vision of the work itself.
Kayser: Let’s re-emphasize the sympathetic re-creation mentioned above, even if criticism remains the practice of judging. Otherwise, the market alone will decide.
Jung: Do you feel it is difficult to translate this experience into words, and if so, what tools or methods do you use?
Kayser: Sure, but this difficulty concerns all sorts of translation, “traduttore, traditore” (“translator, traitor”), Italian people say. Not to distort, or to betray yourself, that’s the challenge. Combining the knowledge given by the human sciences and your own experience that forms your personal approach and expression.
LUCIEN KAYSER was born in 1945 in Luxembourg. He studied philosophy and literature in Paris, at the Sorbonne and Ecole Normale Superieure. Writing about art in newspapers and magazines, he is the president of the Luxembourg Section of AICA.Sophie Jung
SOPHIE JUNG was born in 1982 in Luxembourg. She studied photography and media arts at the Folkwang School in Essen (Germany), the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, graduated in 2011 from the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, and is currently studying for an M.A. in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London.