I criticise, therefore I exist

Criticism - a Symptom of an Art Scene

by Svetlana Kuyumdzieva

In 1986, the Pulse newspaper published a series of articles dedicated to criticism under the heading Is the Muse of Criticism Ugly [1]. In 1993, the Art in Bulgaria magazine laid the beginnings of institutional criticism, taking aim at the Union of Bulgarian Artists and the antiquated model of general art exhibitions [2]. In 1996, the Kultura Weekly newspaper published the opinions and experience of the Bulgarian critics and curators who were active at the time about the state of criticism under the general title The Unique World of Bulgarian Criticism and Its Ambitions [3].

The amplitudes in the revival of Bulgarian criticism marked the moments of activation of artistic life and the twists and turns that occurred in it. Such were the golden years of Bulgarian modernism from the beginning of the twentieth century with the texts of Sirak Skitnik, Geo Milev, Kiril Krastev... The fully-fledged critical expression, the doubt and the dispute were a symptom of change. The period from the mid-1980s to the end of the 1990s was a period of change and the next similar rise of criticism in Bulgaria. In any such period, there is also some controversy, since the Bulgarian scene is above all conservative, woven from jealousies and compensatory, and as such is incapable of producing authority in criticism, but rather capable of marginalising the stronger critical voices. At the same time, these voices made up the very community around this scene, its social climate, and produced its strongest twists and turns.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that 35 years later these discussions, articles and reactions from the Pulse, the Kultura Weekly and the Art in Bulgaria sound rather relevant. We still wonder if there is any art criticism in Bulgaria at all, we analyse the lack of education in this field, as well as the lack of sufficient opportunities for expression of the critics. Criticism is an unprofitable business that fails to attract a new generation of art theorists not only in the country, but also in general. It takes a dash of selflessness to defend positions in this dangerous field, and a lot of preparation. In Bulgaria, however, there is a lack of the so-called "star critics", there is no critical authority, although when reading the texts from the 1980s and 1990s I cannot help but notice the otherwise brilliant erudition and reflection of art historians working in virtually impossible conditions at the time.

The discussion in the Pulse was perhaps the first chronologically published debate on criticism in the new history of Bulgarian art, and it came in synchronicity with the so-called "unconventional forms" and the first attempts of Bulgarian artists to go outside – literally outside the territory, control, and the halls of national institutions and figuratively to look for their own language beyond the limits of the realistic and conservative tradition.

And what does this convention mean to criticism? Assuming the 1950s were its beginning, it was over 30 years spent half-asleep, in which newspapers and magazines specialised in culture were bodies of the respective institutions of power – the Dimitrov Communist Youth Union (DCYU), the Union of Bulgarian Artists (UBA), the Culture Committee, the Ministry of Culture, etc. The criticism inevitably contained the obligatory paragraphs with ideological references to the decisions of the recent party congress and used various stylistic tricks and devices to disguise itself between the lines. Critics brought order to trends, genres, general exhibitions, awards, anniversaries; they were the archivists of artistic life. The critical material from this institutionalised and officious period allow us to trace its entire history without interruption and without hesitation – smoothly and orderly. The critic was generally on a payroll, supported with business trips and assignments, controlled or, as Iara Boubnova later admits, "And while in the West they have been fighting against the critic guru for years, we, with the sorrowful experience of this profession as part of the repressive state apparatus, have long been unable to dare and allow the critics their own opinion. In the UBA system, they stubbornly ignored the critic or treated them as the lowest serving layer in their hierarchical pyramid." [4]

Private Archive: Diana Popova

Diana Popova taught art history in National High School for Ancient Languages ​​and Cultures, 1985.

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By the mid-1980s, this establishment was interrupted by the big question of the role of the critic in the changing situation. The layers were starting to shift. Doubts about some ostensible freedom and the obedience of criticism as "serving artists and gallerists," "supportive" or "advertising", rose in all critics practising at the time. They actively debated whether their job was to give only information or, in order to call it criticism, it also had to contain some evaluation. Since the early 1990s, the specialised publications in which these discussions took place have been independent from the state structures, which also helped unleash critical energy. Interestingly, it was supported only by the so-called young generation (quite conditionally young) of critics. These include Dimitar Grozdanov, Diana Popova, Maria Vassileva, Irina Genova, Boris Klimentiev, Bisera Yosifova, Elisaveta Moussakova, Mila Santova, Elena Popova, Alexander Kuyumdzhiev, Svilen Stefanov, Iara Boubnova, Ilina Koralova, Boris Kostadinov, Vessela Nozharova, Dessislava Dimova, Galina Lardeva, Iliyana Nedkova, Stefania Yanakieva, Galina Dimitrova, Kamen Balkanski, Petar Zmiycharov, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Ruen Ruenov, Gennadi Gatev, Boris Danailov, Nikolay Boshev, Chavdar Popov, Tatyana Dimitrova, etc.

Their predecessor generation of artists shunned the debate. The profession of the art critic is relatively undifferentiated, which Boris Kostadinov [5] also noted recently, but in practice since the mid-1980s the division between researchers and critics, historians, critics and curators has begun to act very distinctly, almost immediately after their placement in artistic processes. Maria Vassileva is one of the critics who has previously pointed out the possible roles of the art critic, where they should be allowed beyond the "parade" and official institutional functions and for which they have the real capacity to influence. These are the specialised publications, mass daily newspapers, museums and galleries in the regulation of the exhibition process [6]. The need to write and defend special roles, which we have now adopted as a daily regularity, is especially indicative of this restart of art criticism sparked by young critics back then.

However, many of the critics from the younger generation subsequently also distinguished themselves from criticism. Although they have played a very important role in a timeframe of nearly 20 years and have been extremely active and involved in the problems of their day – causing an enviable whirl of the scene – even before the late 1990s, many of them have retreated into research in the recesses of medieval times and into teaching. However, this short timeframe and moment of awakening and rebellion is extremely important for the subsequent development and individually for each of them, and in general for the art scene.
What is the inherent dynamics of this period of upsurge?

In the beginning, as if united by a desire to improve the situation of criticism, for emancipation from the institutions and to protect the public prestige of the profession, critics’ circles subsequently split up due to internecine struggles and conflicts. The longest-running and fiercest dispute was not so much between traditionalists and those supporting new conceptual art as between the various circles working to promote contemporary art, between different publications and different models for organising exhibitions. The dilemma of who is more important – the critic or the artist – which was topical in the 1980s, was gradually fading. Or, as one of the most ardent advocates of criticism of art life management, Philip Zidarov, wrote, "a confrontation between artists and critics who see themselves as antipodes is illogical, since they are the two main components of a single system called art life, without whose equal action it could not function normally." [7] Relatively soon, this illogicality was realised and accepted, and as art was taken out of the institutions, art came also out of the direct management of the heads of juries and artists. Here I realise quite clearly that this "leaving the institutions" was also conditional; it did not happen so quickly and was not a priority of criticism at all. Rather, the latter sought to find a place for its own interest in these institutions and change them from within as far as possible.

Although initially feeling in an underprivileged position, the critic, willingly or not, began to gradually perform a far more overtly powerful role as an editor of specialised publications, as a curator, as a gallerist. Artists wrote, critics painted. The choice which one to write about, whom to show, whom to market also developed as a meta-form of criticism. In the early 1990s, the complexes about artist dominance were overcome increasingly successfully, and the figure of the critic merged almost organically with what was new in art and its defence. From that moment on, the war between the critics themselves began – the clearing of hostilities, the creation of new ones, and the race to prove themselves to each other and between the circles of artists they defended. The question of who was more relevant to their time and the international situation became key one.

"The tension in the 1990s between the poles of humiliated national self-esteem and the cosmopolitan self-confidence of Bulgarian artists, which has aesthetic, social, moral and psychological dimensions, can be named the Bulgarian artist’s transition complex.” [8] Benchmarking against world art and provincialism were criticism’s main leitmotifs. The tension so well summed up by Elisaveta Moussakova was part of a longer lasting process of fitting and re-officialising of several generations of artists and critics. Once they had shaken off the sense of oppression at the institutions, many of them began to actively initiate institutions or to take "subversive actions", uniting in structures such as the Club of the (Eternally) Young Artist. [9]

If I were asked to nominate a distinctive, iconic image of the critic in Bulgaria in the 1990s, I would unhesitatingly point to Diana Popova. As editor of the Kultura Weekly newspaper, she contributed, perhaps most noticeably, to highlighting the role of the critic who has the self-esteem to be negative in their evaluations as well, sarcastic, and to anger, while being sufficiently reasoned to hold attention to each subsequent issue, to provoke answers and discussions. Just as noticeable, of course, were the faces "on the other side of the barricade", such as Svilen Stefanov and Ruen Ruenov, for example, but they seemed to have a much less differentiated role of ideologists of entire circles of artists and curators. Undoubtedly, by the mid-1990s, art criticism in Bulgaria became the most interesting.

In her memories, Diana Popova touches on the topic of terms, which is perhaps the most essential with regard to the emancipation and the development of Bulgarian criticism in that period. [10] By and large, since the 1970s, criticism has had a great tendency to poeticising the language, to coining terms, the most successful of which perhaps will remain "associative figurativeness" (coined by Aksiniya Dzhurova), followed by "plastic suggestions" and empathy (after Worringer). In addition to the large terminological experiment called "unconventional forms", which lasted relatively briefly and became the cause of many disputes, critics from the 1980s and 1990s often borrowed terms from other fields to sharpen the language or gain distinction. I will never forget that "self-sufficiency, which pathologised to exhibitionism and onanism", with which Petar Zmiycharov described some miserable students from the art academy on the pages of the Art in Bulgaria magazine in 1993. [11]

A turning point for the following generations of artists and critics became the Dictionary of Art Terms by Edward Lucie-Smith, published in 1996 and translated by Iara Boubnova and Luchezar Boyadjiev. Its appearance seemed to be one of the main symptoms of the need to sober up and return criticism to its professional language. However, shortly after it, at the end of the decade, came the so-called "lifestyle", pointed out repeatedly by Diana Popova too as the great threat to specialised criticism and expert writing on art. This phenomenon, mainly related to the springing up of a number of luxury editions dedicated to mainstream contemporary culture as a way of life, had a somewhat, retrospectively speaking, more positive effect than expected. These publications, interested in provocation, have helped to promote contemporary art in a wider range of audiences, to update and emancipate the language used to talk about art, to synchronise it with global trends, to turn contemporary artists into public figures, and contributed to the dose of secularity of art life. Then, of course – commenting mostly on where the harm came from and whether journalists could write quality articles about art – no one from the professional circles even suspected the emergence of social media...

The Art in Bulgaria magazine was first published in 1993 under Editor-in-Chief Dimitar Grozdanov, and in a decade became a landmark for the directions of art life, whose next issue was expected with anticipation and excitement. None of the daily and mass or online editions can make up for this excitement even now. The new Art in Bulgaria magazine came out with the ambition to continue the 40-year-existence of the eponymous magazine of the Union of Bulgarian Artists, whose closure created a huge vacuum in the criticism from the period for two years on end. It aimed to continue the tradition, to restore that equal linearity of historicising the modern day, mentioned above, and at the same time to be a "space for discussion". [12]

Now, reviewing its entire periodicity, I cannot help but take stock of the small steps of our development since then and the fact that the main actors on stage took their key positions precisely in this turbulent decade, which, not surprisingly, seems endless to me. [13]

Since the mid-1990s, the magazine has been devoted almost entirely to presentations of artists, becoming a catalogue of Bulgarian art – both contemporary and classical, as well as to publishing translated articles and events from the international stage. Issues focusing on traditional or contemporary art alternated, or on the artistic activities of some of its circles. Discussions and critical articles appeared on its pages relatively less frequently. I confess that I am completely skipping the issues dedicated to the National Revival and medieval art.

Kamen Stoyanov

A small story about "KULTURA", 2010.

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  • Material: silk, screened text on newspaper

The Art in Bulgaria magazine and the Kultura Weekly newspaper were too often in opposition as the two barricades of the warring artistic groups, of curators and artists who defended their values and ideals. Today, both media are gone, as well as many of the opponents feuding on their pages. However, criticism never seized to exist; it has not discontinued now, although it is quite silent in anticipation of the next revival. The end of criticism is like the end of art. It never happens. Although it is an ungrateful job, criticism leads to addiction, gives enormous opportunities for self-education and a stimulus to be as close to events as possible. The abundant and expert perspective on the scene and the basis for comparison are priceless in shaping each curator. The ability to critically evaluate is actually part of the propensity for creativity. Criticism is a school through which all the active theorists of art have gone – a kind of baptism by fire and a trial of forces, showing what one can do and how much they understand. Social media have greatly helped to devalue the critic’s role and their authority, and yet, it exists. If now Raphael Rubinstein writes that the future of criticism tends more towards new media and turning it into a film or a video essay [14], and perhaps he is right, then this is just one more opportunity, and the text remains completely free, available to create art on art in its purest form, without serving functions, dependencies and conditionalities more than ever.


[1] According to the article of the same name by Mila Santova, opening the discussion, No 1/2014 1, 11 March 1986.
[2] Klimentiev, B., Georgi Todorov, Dimitar Grozdanov, Petar Zmiycharov, The State of Art without a State. A conversation at the editor’s office, the Art in Bulgaria, 1993, 1, 4-6
[3] The Unique World of Bulgarian Criticism and Its Ambitions, Kultura Weekly, No 2, 12 January 1996, p 9, 12
[4] Boubnova, Y. Free Choice in the Silent War, Kultura Weekly, No 1/2014 32, 7 August 1992, p 6
[5] Kostadinov, B. Critical Non-Criticism, Kultura Weekly, No 1 (2954), January 2019, pp 13-14
[6] Vassileva, M. Ambition and Reality, Pulse, No 1/2014 17, April 29, 1986
[7] Zidarov, F., With the Risk of True Impartiality, Pulse, No 1/2015 21, 27 May 1986, p. 8
[8] Musakova, E. Bulgarian Art in the 1990s in the Mirror of the Art in Bulgaria Magazine, Bulgarian Art in the 1990s between Traditions and Innovations, collection, LIK Publishing House, 2003, p. 18
[9] Some of these agents of change from this early period to date have already headed the main institutions on which the art scene is based – the National Art Gallery with all its subdivisions, the National Academy of Arts, and universities – and how tame or still untamed they are in these positions could be the subject of another article on the institutional life of contemporary Bulgarian art and the donors funding its independence.
[10] Popova, D. Terms and Memories – with Elements of Reasoning I, II, Open Art files
[11] Zmiycharov, P. New Names: The Academic Problems of the "New" Names, Art in Bulgaria, No 3, 1993, p 20
[12] Leading article, Art in Bulgaria, No 1, 1993, p 2
[13] https://brooklynrail.org/special/ART_CRIT_EUROPE/reports-and-interviews-from/at-the-end-of-the-longest-decade
[14] https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/where-is-the-audience-for-art-criticism-now-63661/

This article is part of a project included the Legacy programme of Plovdiv 2019 Foundation.