On Art Criticism

October 9, 2014

To address art criticism in Brazil, I will start by recalling Mário Pedrosa (1901 - 1981), the most important Brazilian critic during a time in which art criticism had, in fact, great influence over the local scene. In the 1950s, during the polemic between figurative and abstract art, Pedrosa was a tenacious advocate for abstraction. His argument, however, wasn’t the same as Clement Greenberg’s formalist reading of art, but was based on a humanist vision. His defense for abstract art sprung from the search for a transformation in sensibilities: “art is freedom’s experimental exercise.”

Following this principle, Pedrosa encouraged the radical proposals of Brazilian art during the 1960s by artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, coining the expression “postmodern” much earlier than Lyotard. In Brazil, the 1960s were a moment of artistic and intellectual independence from the great European and North American centers. Pedrosa was essential in this mission, as a critic who was not only at the artists’ sides, but at the forefront of important institutions such as the São Paulo Biennial (1953 and 1957) and the Museo de Arte Moderno de São Paulo, in the 1960s.

However, Pedrosa was a leader in a time when visual arts, particularly in Brazil, had a highly improvised, and even marginal, nature. Until the 1980s, the art market in Brazil was practically nonexistent and so, experimentalism was not a form of contradiction, but rather of affirmation. After the 1980s, as the professionalization of the art system in Brazil grew, the critical power of art was lost. The natural consequence was the loss of the critic’s important role. The curator emerged as a figure allied to the market, often alternating their work between private collections and exhibitions in public spaces, generating a series of conflicts of interest.

At the same time, newspapers and magazines not only demanded the simplification of texts, but they also imposed a sensationalist practice, generating a strange mixture of critic-publicists who wrote as if editing social articles.

I tend to say that the greater part of the artistic production in this country seems like an IKEA product, preoccupied with decorating the big, empty walls of a growing middle class. In this way, the crisis is not only with art criticism, but with art itself. When even the experimental works of the 1960s and 1970s have received shiny and clean frames, how can we expect criticism that doesn’t match the tone?