All Art is a Critique of Reality. About Critique. Interview with Pravu Mazumdar

Published: 25.06.2018
Pravu Mazumdar  Pravu Mazumdar 
Carolin Denter
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Klimt02 has started a discussion about critique and shows various perceptions. We have been choosing different interview partners from the field of art and design. Working in art and design might seem like a wonderfully idyllic and relaxed career choice, where you have the pure freedom to let your creative juices flow. Each of them represents a unique view and gives us an overview of their own experiences. This is the fourth interview of seven.

We talk with Pravu Mazumdar who studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. Born and brought up in the eastern provinces of India and living between several languages and three continents, Pravu Mazumdar leads a typically contemporary interstitial existence. An essential category of such a mode of living is the idea of hybridity, to which Mazumdar has devoted several writings, like “Wishful Thinking - on jewellery and existence." or “Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”. 
What Is Art Criticism, and why do we need It? 
Art, in my view, requires that works and words connect. As soon as our gaze rests on an object, we find it embedded in clouds of words: words uttered by critics, journalists, gallerists, jurors, viewers, the artists themselves, even if they say nothing other than: “These works need no words.” The perception of a work is always accompanied by the words informing our gaze and the words triggered off by the work.

In a narrower sense, criticism is an integral part of the artistic process, which in its turn is inseparable from the process of living. All three, life, art, criticism involve a drawing of lines and a transgression of limits. They generate forms, norms, algorithms, ultimately habits that preoccupy a substantial part of our daily lives. At the same time, they can also involve a reshuffling of the order of things to enable a fresh start on a clean slate. A life free of moralism is, just as any good art or non-judgemental criticism, a playful exploration of limits.

Criticism, as I understand and practice it, is not the application of a norm to judge a work, but a mode of cooperation with the artist [1], employing words to articulate the questions inscribed into an individual work and steering the artistic process in a direction that is first manifested in the work itself. Does the work do justice to what it set out to be? Does it fall short of its own criteria? If, for instance, the readable concern of a piece of jewellery was the issue of wearability, then the role of criticism would certainly not be to apply the criteria set by other works that have become canonical in any sense of the term - like fashion jewellery or the Padua school or an individual master -, to find out if the wearability of the piece conforms to such criteria, but rather to explore, to what extent and how precisely the piece articulates the limits of wearability. Criticism, as I understand and practice it is the use of words to seduce a work of art towards becoming itself, towards becoming what it would have liked to have been and is not yet able to be. Intelligent criticism is fruitful, but not due to the application of a norm, which is never quite free from the subjectivity of the people who happen to be occupying the seat of judgment, at least for the time being. It is fruitful only to the extent that it collaborates with the artist towards disrupting, intensifying and renewing our daily routines of perception. (In saying this, I am specifically thinking of Viktor Sklovskij’s observations on the techniques of estrangement involved in the making of art.)

What do you think about the sentence that the plight of criticism was to be always the lover, never the beloved. Criticism would need the art object, but the art object doesn’t need criticism? 
To the extent that art and criticism are entangled in a collaborative process, their relationship is dialectical. On the one hand, the process of making involves a series of decisions and actions, in which not only technical prowess or creativity is at work, but also the critical faculty of distinguishing between options concerning form, content, and material. On the other hand, the process of criticism involves a sharing of the spirit of the artist to ascertain if the work in question has succeeded in realizing its own inner tendency. It is true, that an individual art object does not require the criticism of the critic that follows at its heels. However, the artistic process itself is influenced and impacted by the critical discourse that permeates society and is associated with any single act of artistic reflection.

Is criticism necessary for the progress of society? Please explain to us.  
Before answering the question, I would like to modify it with respect to its key concepts. If creativity and criticism are the two constitutive factors of any artistic process, then the question needs to be reformulated as:Is art necessary for the progress of society?Moreover, the idea of progress can no longer be used uncritically in contemporary discourse due to its association with the economic category of “growth”, which has been under scrutiny in the wake of our collective ecological awakening. In this vein, I would like to propose a second modification of the initial question: “Is art necessary for the transformation of society?
My answer to the modified question is: Yes! If we consider that society is connected with the way we live; that the way we live is connected with the way we think; that the way we think is connected with the way we perceive; and that, finally, the way we perceive is connected with art as a practice of shaping, modifying and reinventing perception: then society cannot be transformed without the agency of art.

In my opinion, Jewellery needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism. What do you think about that? 
I agree. In our individual and collective lives, we are like maritime creatures swimming about in an ocean of discursive and nondiscursive forces. Wherever we go, we find ourselves preceded by discourses and things that are constantly at work, giving shape to our senses, sensibilities and strategies of existence. Art, like life itself, can only unfold in a space replete with the materialities of words and things caught up in the process of being organized into familiar entities like criticism, discourse and the world at large.

„Art criticism is massively produced and massively ignored, just as art itself“. One of the main causes of this paradoxical condition is the so-called “academization” of critical thought. Connected to that, what institutional changes would you like to see? 
The academization of critical thought is inseparable from the growing academization of art. The problem, however, as I see it, is not academization, but the “academy” itself as an institution based on a system of segregation and isolation of disciplines and discourses. The academization of critical thought is derived from the dominating role of science and technology as epistemic trendsetters in contemporary systems of knowledge. The academization of art is the tangible effect of a politics of integration cut out to adapt a renegade form of knowledge like art to the existing hierarchy of knowledge, in which science and technology are at the top and critical knowledge like literature, philosophy, sociology at the bottom. To tap the critical energy common to art and criticism, it would be necessary to create institutional channels for promoting a kind of sustained transdisciplinary interaction between the sciences and the arts. There is certainly a deluge of science-and-arts projects around us since quite a while, manifested in conferences and exhibitions. However, in most projects of the kind, it is the artists who are instructed by scientists on the latest achievements of science, as for instance in the artists’ programme at the CERN laboratories or the ongoing annual arts/science projects of the Otago Polytechnic / Dunedin School of Art. The opposite is practically still unthinkable, that there could be something that scientists, employing visual techniques on a regular basis in activities like model-building and simulation, could learn from artists.

One exception is certainly the case of the bio-sciences and bio-art. The latter is represented in the work of bio-artists like Joe Davis (US) or Eduardo Kac (Brazil), who stumbled upon the artistic possibilities of genetic engineering, took the trouble of acquiring professional competence in the area, swapped the studio for the lab and unfolded a unique practice of artistic intervention in genetic research, from which genetic engineers have repeatedly taken their cue [2]. However, that happened in a chance and spontaneous manner. I would not only like to see science courses stepped up in art academies but also the establishment of new and innovative channels towards the information and education of science students on the techniques and “truth practices” of contemporary art. To turn around the science-arts hierarchy and promote projects that do not guarantee any immediately marketable result would, however, require an institutional courage that can only be sustained by sufficient political and economic support. One can imagine the enormous political will required to push through something as elementary as an “arts-tax” – parallel to the “church-tax” – in a country like Germany.

Where do you see problems of criticising art and what would be the difference to censorship in your eyes? Where does censorship start for you?  
The problems begin the moment the assessment of an art object is dominated by criteria alien to the artistic process, through which the object was generated. I tend to imagine that in post-metaphysical societies, the only type of criticism that can be relevant and fruitful is a kind of immanent interpretation of the artwork, in which the object is to be read as a body of traces left behind by the production process. Clamping down external criteria or oppressive comparisons with other works and art worlds would merely eclipse the singularity of the work. If we regard censorship as a politics of normalization, which defines a work that does not tally with a pre-conceived norm as a deviation, then it is not possible to see any difference between censorship and what I call judgemental criticism.

What does it mean to be making art – in the present, and how is it different from the past? 
Art today remains in my view what it has been throughout the twentieth century: a technique of resisting the dispositives of familiarity, which obviously involves practices of reinterpretation. Art has to reinterpret the material, from which the piece emerges as an art object, as well the world, in which the piece positions itself as a thing. I tend therefore to consider art as a science of forms that includes extensive knowledge of the materials used and the world of things, in which it is placed. In the past, art could emerge as a model of conformity with what had become aesthetically familiar. Today, art is inherently a technology of transformation, wrenching materials, forms, contents away from what they are expected to be and exploring their alternative modes of existence.

How would you define the “contemporary”? It’s rather a question of a calendar, a (post)historical condition or on the contrary, is the contemporary an always raising condition, a pure virtually?  
The term “contemporary” is an easy escape route from the problems caused by the term “modernity”, which constantly needs to be defined and defended. I would like to suggest in line with Walter Benjamin that we use the term “modernity” to designate a mode of collective living, which is determined by the loss of the original, the emergence of seriality, the smashing of the aura. We are still living under the conditions that the first Industrial Revolution brought about towards the end of the eighteenth century. Modernity is a mode of living in a world, in which things recede and make place for products that result from algorithms of production and are devoid of any individual signature of an individual producer. This creates a specific tension between a work of art, which is still expected to have the signature of an individual artist, and the mass of industrial products fencing us in in our daily lives. Such a basic tension is inscribed into the term “contemporary” applied to art in the midst of an industrial civilization.

  • Good criticism – like that of Susan Sonntag or Michel Foucault on literature, or, many decades ago, in the early days of the Soviet revolution, the work of the Russian Formalists like Viktor Sklovskij or Jurij Tynjanov – is based on the art of description. One should not confuse the work of a critic with that of a juror.

Autor Ben Marx points out in his Book about Criticism, that everyone seems to think that there’s a problem with contemporary criticism but no one can agree on what that problem is. For some people criticism is too theoretical, for some people, it’s not theoretical enough. For some there are too many answers; for others, there aren’t enough. He thinks that maybe people have a lack of a sense of shared ideas that are being debated. What do you think? 
The problem lies in the self-misunderstanding of a criticism that would like to regard itself as a judgemental practice of applying pre-conceived norms. Fruitful criticism, however, resulting from intense scholarship geared to an elementary perceptual curiosity, is not judgemental, but exploratory. That is why good criticism – like that of Susan Sonntag or Michel Foucault on literature, or, many decades ago, in the early days of the Soviet revolution, the works of the Russian Formalists like Viktor Sklovskij or Jurij Tynjanov – is based on the art of description. One should not confuse the work of a critic with that of a juror.

Contemporary Jewellery is already fighting for its platform in art. How do you think critics can affect its position and to what extent can it be convincing?
I think, that it is important to strengthen existing discursive trends towards overcoming the epistemic fault lines that separate science from art, art from craft, art and craft from criticism. I think that it is the task of criticism to read the thought process inscribed into an art object and to connect the artistic thinking “coiled up” within it with thought processes in other areas of contemporary discourse like the environment, genetic engineering, the digital revolution, globalization, etc. In the case of jewellery art, which incessantly reflects on the relation of a piece of jewellery with the body of the wearer, criticism would consist in working out the anthropological reflection incorporated in the piece.

Do you think it is important to continuously be critic of yourself as a maker?
I think the process of making involves the necessity of not taking oneself too seriously, so as to be able to devote oneself to a material, a form, a content. We make as we plow through a material, supported by our dreams of form and content. Making, however, requires the innocence of dreamers. “Criticising oneself as a maker” misses the point. For we cannot unfold our activities within the space of a material unless we are looking at reality through the lens of our dreams. There is critique involved in the process of making, but it is not a critique of oneself as a maker. It lies in the act of transforming a material by envisioning an alternative. The term “critique” derives from the Greek verb krinein, meaning to distinguish. It refers to the act of perceiving and creating difference: the difference between the real, the possible, the impossible. All art is a critique of reality.

[1] A more detailed discussion of this is to be found in: P. M., “Against Criticism. Seven Variations on an unpleasant Theme, Parts 1 & 2” in AJF, Criticality, nos. 6 & 7, 2014.

[2] See P. M., “The dual Matrix of Life. On Science, Genetics and the Truth Games of the “Third Culture”, Junctures 18. The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, NZ, 2017. 


About the Interviewee

Pravu Mazumdar studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

Born and brought up in the eastern provinces of India and living between several languages and three continents, Pravu Mazumdar leads a typically contemporary interstitial existence. An essential category of such a mode of living is the idea of hybridity, to which Mazumdar has devoted several writings, like "Das Niemandsland der Kulturen" (Berlin: 2011) or “Wishful Thinking” on jewellery and existence."

About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2015 she made an Internship at Klimt02, where she is working since 2016 as Content Manager. In 2017 she graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she started working part-time as Marketing and Design management Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement.