The state of art criticism in Lebanon, or, can you even write about art under current circumstances (and it’s not geopolitics I’m talking about)?

Disclaimer: this is a completely biased, non-objective, personal opinion, that does not necessarily reflect the views of the artsbeirutcritics team.

I would like to open the discussion to a topic close to my heart. In late 2010, I followed a class at Saint Joseph University in the context of their art criticism and curatorial studies Master’s degree. Led by Pr Charlotte Gachon, it centred on the study of the history of art criticism. I will not get into details, but we read pretty much all important Western writers on art, from Greek philosophers to the French enlightment philosophers to contemporary theorists.
These writers all went further than a simple description of art. They explained it, criticized it, commented it and theorized it.Their audience was not necessarily a large one, yet, they made an impact on the discourse around art, and, beyond that, the direction artistic creation took at one time or another. There was a concerted effort to give an opinion all the while educating the public.
I am certainly not trying to say that all criticism is dead all over the world, and that our society is decadent, no longer reads, or no longer cares about art. On the contrary, on a global level, museum attendance is quite healthy, art fairs keep on growing despir the viscissitudes of the economy, and auctions keep on breaking records. Many critics retain their role as critics, praising but also finding faults with what they write about. (Witness the recent obituaries published after the death of the arguably great, untouchable painter Francis Bacon. Some assesments of his life and work were, to say the least, harsh.)
In Lebanon, however, I have yet to read a single negative word about the local art scene, which is more active than ever (and, hopefully, will only keep on growing in quantity and quality). I believe our country  is a true community of critical thinkers who think about art instead of simply describing what they see.
Indeed, most exhibition reviews published in Lebanese publications seem to barely skim the material at hand and simply rehash whatever press material the gallery / art space / institution fed them, adding a sprinkling of laudatory adjectives. (Although, there’s a few whom I think do a great job, none of all in the Francophone press our country prides itself for.)
Even more appalling, many are plain, blatantly WRONG.
Only in the past week, I read a critic in an important Lebanese weekly who misstated the very location of an exhibition. Mind you, he didn’t get confused between, say, the Beirut Art Center and the Beirut Exhibition Center. He (or she, the article was not signed) seemed to mistake an exhibition of Lebanese art for one of American art. Makes you wonder if/how editors even read copy before it goes to press.
It’s one thing to praise everything one sees just to be nice, or to keep receiving invites to vernissages and be able to shmooze with artists/ collectors/ gallery owners / politicians / ladies who lunch etc., it’s one thing to work within the limited parameters of free speech in Lebanon, it’s another, altogether, to be so sloppy as to spell artists’ names wrong, works titles wrong, or mistake a photograph for an oil painting (there’s a reason why I don’t link or give names: I’m as sheepish as all of us and my aim is not to hurt anyone).
In the past, I have asked many people involved in the art world here why they thought there was no decent art criticism in the local media. The responses I received were unanimous. One, people don’t dare attracting the ires of artists and gallerists, fearing they will be ostracized from future exhibitions. Two, journalists and the art world are friends or social acquaintances. Three, come on Marie, you’re asking too much we are in Lebanon after all!
I do not think any of these reasons are acceptable. To these three reasons given, I counter: One, this is art we’re talking about, not politics, nor religion, nor anything taboo (art censorship is another issue altogether, I’m only making reference to reviewing art that’s on public view, thus acceptable for censorship). It’s not as if you were going to be assassinated because you said what you thought of art, and so what if an artist gets angry. Let him or her try to subject itself to more serious criticism abroad, for instance. Two, friends (if it’s friends we’re talking about) should accept constructive criticism. Three, exactly, we are in Lebanon and we keep on praising our long heritage of quality intellectual production.
To which I conclude: instead of accepting the status quo or lamenting the current state of affairs (which I actually seem to be doing, ironically), we need to step up our game. Become, ourselves, the independent, outspoken art critics out there to voice their opinions, make themselves respected, open the eyes of the public, make a larger audience enthusiastic about art and support the growth of quality artistic production.
Did sound pretentious didn’t it?


3 responses to “The state of art criticism in Lebanon, or, can you even write about art under current circumstances (and it’s not geopolitics I’m talking about)?

  • Sophie

    Hey,

    interesting rant ;P I’m inclined to agree, after a year of intensive research of the Lebanese contemporary art scene and spending hours reading rather fruitless articles. But on the regional level you get some decent coverage in Art Asia Pacific, sometimes canvas (not too critical), bidoun etc.

    The overwhelming view seems to be “things are so hard already in Lebanon leave them be” or they’re “young artists, let them learn” or worse, as you said “it’s Lebanon” as if that was an excuse to expose lw-quality work both in galleries and in the press.

    My question is this: with the public viewing art/ consuming art being so restricted, and the people authentically interested in artistic issues being even more so (not just in lebanon, in many countries) do you think a critical environment, made up of continuing debates in the press, back and forths and so on would ever take hold? I’ve heard of, and know there are big differences in opinion, but its all “hush hush” , partly because there are no platforms to express these things but partly because i’m not sure people would always want to see their arguments through.

    Sophie

  • Ramzi Fawaz

    Very interesting article. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been researching the Lebanese and Middle Eastern art scene for a few years and so far, I haven’t found one article with solid critical substance. As you mentioned, the purpose of most articles on the subject are to praise and promote, which is not necessarly wrong but they definitely don’t serve the purpose of educating the public.

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