The Dysfunction of Criticism

Introducing his 1986 essay ‘The end of Art Theory’ Victor Burgin relates the experience, a decade earlier, of participating in a conference at the ICA which, he was told, ‘was to be a response to the crisis in British art.’ He continues, mock-naively, ‘I never did learn what the ‘crisis in British Art’ was; nor, I suspect, did anyone else. In retrospect … I see the ICA event, the brainchild of three British art critics, as a textbook example of what psycho-analysis terms projection: the crisis sensed by these critics was not in ‘art’ but in criticism itself.’[i]

Psychobabble aside, Burgin had a point. That art critics perceived a crisis in art was reflected the emerging rupture between conservative and radicalised art and criticism: If you saw a crisis it was because the terms you valued had lost the authority they once enjoyed. If, like Burgin, you happened to be on the side that in the next decade took over the academy and redefined the politicisation of culture, there was of course no crisis to be seen.

Fast-forward twenty five years to the pages of Art Monthly and a new dispute has erupted on whether art, and  art criticism are in a state of crisis. Denying that there is anything wrong with art today, Michael Archer sparked things off with the dull edict that ‘what is there is what needs to be looked at’; tiredly waving away discussions of art that demand responsibilities of, or suggest other ambitions to, the art of the moment, concluding with the lazy insight that if art ‘fails to meet up to expectations, there’s an even chance that it’s the expectations that are misplaced’. Art criticism, it seems, should learn not to expect too much of art.

It’s a position echoed by Matthew Arnatt who, in a similar fit of paternalistic fatigue at the ‘eruptive, hormonal denouncing of contemporary art and criticism linked to the demand for change’ would prefer criticism which is ‘maturely conscious of failings and uncomfortable about being generally or brilliantly oppressive’. Archer’s and Arnatt’s positions have their sights on the kind of politicised, avant-gardist models maintained by Rasheed Araeen and Peter Suchin, of art and criticism that is subversive and might serve to  put things ‘in crisis’. Meanwhile, Alex Coles, who steers clear of making political prescriptions, has argued for writing on art that acknowledges its simultaneity with and contingency to the work, with an attention to its literary quality, and to the special position of the independent, non-academic writer.

Either way, it’s clear that no one can much agree on any clear mission for ‘art writing’, criticism, or the role of the critic. But if neither Archer nor Arnatt have much taste for writing that imposes any kind of too-insistent requirement on art than to be other than it is, it’s equally apparent that the kind of agenda-driven, transformative criticism that Araeen and Suchin favour currently lacks much bite, sounding increasingly out-of-step in an cultural climate where the notion that anything can be improved through critical intervention is met with indifference or disillusion. Both sides, hysterical in their assertions and denials of crisis, desperate in their insistence on the appropriate functioning of criticism, protest too much, and reveal only that the intellectual and political conditions in which contemporary art now exists are in danger of making writing about it dysfunctional.

If the sign of crisis echoes Burgin’s historical anecdote, the terms of the current discussion should be of concern to us, as they reveal a severe and pessimistic attenuation of what critics today believe their activity can achieve. Even in the gloomy last years of the ‘70s, the crisis in criticism was only over which theoretical or political approach art was better; in the nostalgic words of Richard Cork’s recent anthology of his criticism from the period, ‘everything seemed possible’. That the theorisation and criticism of art was possible, desirable and necessary was an assumption held by all participants, regardless of their formalist, old-left or postmodernist tendencies; the contest was between conflicting accounts of art, but the sense that art could be addressed by criticism, and that critical discussion formed part of the process by which art came to terms with its own successes and failures, was never in doubt.

By contrast, in the recent Art Monthly debate, the arguments are no longer even over whether one theory, account or criticism of art is any better than any other. Rather, the argument has turned on what the most ‘appropriate’ relationship between a writer, his writing and the work of art should be. Instead of a politics of criticism, and a discussion over the desirable future of art and culture, we’re presented with a cautious and exhausted ethics of the responsible critic, prescribing limitations on the cultural and critical aspirations of art and the writing that attends it. It is in effect this low-octane ethics that lies behind both the obsessive deference to the primacy of the work, and of the preoccupation with criticism’s specifically literary dimension. In this sense, the preoccupations of Archer, and Arnatt are symptomatic of writers who by default have little involvement in anything beyond the individuated, professionalised act of mediating between art and readers. Without a broader purpose underpinning the activity of addressing art, and its exchanges with culture and society, it’s not hard to see how writing about art starts to turn inwards, holding up its banal prerequisites – looking at art, stringing words together and acknowledging your reader – as if they were the essence of its being.

Whether there’s a crisis or not, it’s by no means a local debate, even though to his credit only Coles managed to point across the water to October’s recent round table on the state of art criticism[ii]. Whilst Archer was asking ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ March’s Art in America ran Raphael Rubinstein’s article ‘A Quiet Crisis’, which probed the perplexing lack of critical public dialogue that now accompanies the ever-expanding world of contemporary art. It is worth noting Rubinstein’s apposite contrast of contemporary painting’s booming success with the absence of discussion of the artistic value at stake:

“…new artists emerge, new bodies of work are shown, countless group exhibitions are touted as revelatory, to strangely little consequence … No one articulates the grounds on which certain artists become famous and others are marginalized … Instead, everything seems to happen without explanation, as if the realm of contemporary art were simply following the rule of some natural order. There’s no need to spell things out in today’s art world, and in any case, value judgments are so yesterday.”

Rubinstein is right in sensing that the vexed question of value judgment, and its public articulation, lies beneath the current trouble over art criticism. It’s the pessimistic uncertainty about the cultural purpose of evaluation, of the deployment of criticism to form consensus through public argument, of the possibility of freely achieved consensus based on common criteria, and even of the notion of a coherent public sphere at all, that forms the black hole into which all collapses. In the American context, these questions tend to be refracted through the problem of the current stagnation of identity politics as a political and cultural force. In October recently, Suzanne Perling Hudson parallels the conservative backlash against identity politics art, with the renewal of critical interest in ideas of beauty and aesthetic affirmation[iii]. The rise of beauty, Hudson suggests, ‘fills the spaces left vacant in the evacuation of strident critical activity.’

It’s precisely this exhaustion, the moribund institutionalisation of critical postmodernism’s ‘strident critical activity’, grounding criticism throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, which provides the conditions for the recent rise of ‘art writing’. The slip of terminology from art criticism to mere art writing in recent years is symptomatic of a growing indifference to writing’s polemic and contestative potential. As the old  veterans of October’s round table were still sharp enough to note, the breakdown of writing as  a critical intervention in how art is given value, has in the last decade gone hand in hand with the emergence of a privatized, ‘belletristic’ form of ‘art writing’, concerned with the author’s subjective impressions or immediate sentiments, relentlessly affirmative in tone , passively accepting what the art world decides to offer for its attention (again, ‘what is there is what needs to be looked at’, neither more nor less): It’s also this ‘belletrist’ tendency that Suchin found so objectionable in his argument with Frieze writer Tom Morton. Whether in ‘belletrist’, ‘literary’ or pop-cultural flâneur mode, the steady shift from ‘criticism’ to ‘art writing’ is one of increasing introspection, of attending to art as if it were an immovable cultural phenomenon for which art writing should provide a subordinate, complimentary service of sensitive interpretation and not-too-far-reaching valuation. It is of course synonymous with the commercial art writer’s self-limiting professional horizons; in a market driven by fashion rather than open enquiry and debate, the art writer is a dandified copy-writer whose job is to produce, as Hudson puts it, ‘beautiful writing about beautiful objects and their beautiful makers’, their value already determined by others. Such writing, pandering to the unreflective cultural sensibilities of writer and reader, reflects a generational disinclination towards conflict over what constitutes good, interesting or worthwhile culture and art.

It was on this question that the recent ‘The All New Art Writing’ symposium held at Tate Britain foundered so spectacularly: A mixed audience keen to hear about the potential of ‘criticism’ – that is, an argument over the broader terms by which a work might be given value – was confronted with panelists (including Archer and Coles) who were more happy ruminating on the art-writer’s self-conscious deference to the particularities of a work, and the obsession with the literary subtleties of ‘art writing’. Most lacking was any idea of the critic as the agent through which what is critical in art is publicly put into play between artwork, spectatorship and readership – ‘critical’ in the sense of what is ‘of decisive importance in relation to the issue’. Whether they admit it or not, art writers are instrumental in establishing the decisive aspect of a work, bringing it to explicit attention, or choosing to ignore it, a process that is never value-free. Take for example Archer’s comments on the film by Zarina Bhimji. Archer states, matter-of-factly, that ‘Idi Amin was a brute who squandered the legacy bequeathed to his country by the withdrawing British’. This apparently passing observation, unassumingly authoritative, is in reality what is critical to how Archer then commends Bhimji’s film; in one breath he has reaffirmed a liberal truism regarding the decadence of post-decolonisation African dictators, whereas the continued influence of Western power is never brought into question. Archer’s following comment, that the dilapidation of Western modernity depicted might be seen as ‘a reproach and a refusal to accommodate to imposed values’ ties things up in a neat pluralist contradiction that excuses the critic’s commitment to it either way. Problematic contemporary politics are here accommodated, permitted to be a ‘question’ then neutralised to allow ‘what is there’ to be looked at. It does not occur to Archer that it’s precisely this political contradiction of his assumptions that is critical and ‘what needs to be looked at’. Otherwise, Bimhji’s dull film of knackered buildings, sunsets and spooky noises remains just that.

The art world’s increasingly weary disinclination to engage in an open discussion regarding the significance of the art it promotes, and to declare its authority over the choices it makes, leads to a situation in which such contingent, partisan evaluations occur as if by magic. Rubinstein’s apprehension that ‘everything seems to happen without explanation’ evokes a situation in which evaluative choices within art institutions, whilst still a necessary aspect of their functioning, are increasingly presented as if no one had a hand in the matter. What gets shown sprouts fully formed  as if no discussion were necessary, and art writing is complicit in the passive acceptance of this process.  Art may increasingly by indistinguishable from lifestyle culture, and the logic of fashion also dominates how art is made visible; with the centred authority of modernist aesthetic criteria long-dead, and post-modernism’s dynamic politicised proliferation of criteria equally exhausted, fashion steps in to regulated things with its free market, vaguely democratic, cut-price Kantian aesthetics – After all, if we all like the same art at the same time, then it must be good. After that, who needs criticism?

Such developments, whilst they take a local shape in the art world, are part of a broader cultural and intellectual impasse that goes beyond the local difficulties of artists and writers. Historically, it’s when art’s relation to society is seen to be critical, that a dynamic of criticism has emerged. What both modernist and postmodernist criticism had in common was the assumption that art interacts with a wider world where change is not foreclosed, and in which it is possible to intervene to change things for the better. Of course, that supposes you know what ‘the better’ is; in an epoch where relativism now operates to repress any claim to general truth, and in which pluralism masks a retreat from open discussion of cultural and political problems that appear beyond our control, the very idea of offering generally valid criticism smacks of overreaching arrogance. It is these corrosive intellectual trends of the last decade that more than anything diminishes art criticism to art writing. Postmodernism’s assault on the ‘false’ universalism of modernity has only produced an artificially enforced pluralism, in which relativism and fashion merge to reduce critical choice to the level of unaccountable subjective taste: As Peter Suchin’s art student knows too well, ‘that’s just your opinion’.

Another definition of the critical is ‘of the nature of, or constituting, a crisis’. Criticism in periods of certainty works to elaborate the authority of its terms; in a period of crisis, criticism can become the space in which conflicting terms are explicitly articulated. But such outcomes are today limited by the exhausted culture of low expectations that dominates cultural and political life. The function or dysfunction of criticism thus finally depends on a broader recognition (or denial) of the possibility of change in society: If nothing is susceptible to change, or change is haphazard and outside our control, then there is no point to criticism, and opinion becomes trivial; criticism then becomes an unwelcome irritant to a cultural sensibility somnolently resigned to the status quo. 'What is there is what needs to be looked at’, makes sense only if you assume this is all there is for art criticism to do. That ‘there is no crisis’, only makes sense if you cannot conceive any other situation than what there is. But without a broader deliberation of the conditions of cultural value in art, and its relation to the critical questions facing contemporary society, the dysfunction of art criticism will indefinitely attend the tepid triumph of art writing.

[i] This was ‘The State of British Art’ held at the ICA, 10-12 February 1978, organised by Peter Fuller, Richard Cork, John Tagg and Andrew Brighton, which brought together representatives of the British art world’s divergent political and artistic tendencies. Published in Studio International vol.194, no 989, 2/1978

[ii] ‘The Current State of Art Criticism’, in October no 100, Spring 2002

[iii] Suzanne Perling Hudson, ‘Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism’, October no 104, Spring 2003


Published in Art Monthly no 279, September 2004 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated