Criticism v Critique

The problem of what art criticism is, can or should be continues to be an itch everyone wants to scratch, and it’s spreading.

At Tate Britain in December, for the newly established annual lecture of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) UK, US academic James Elkins cheerfully reasserted his argument that there is currently no clear definition or common understanding 01 what art criticism is or does, no canon of art critical writing, and no coherent methodology that might define it as a discipline. A few days earlier, to mark its 20th anniversary, the Berlin-based journal Texte Zur Kunst had put on a conference (published in its March issue) to address ‘the fundamental question of the relationship between art criticism and social critique’, at which publisher Isabelle Graw proposed a ‘rethinking of methodology’ at a time when ‘art critics and art historians tend to opt for an eclectic mix of methods without ever reflecting them explicitly’. In October last year, Irish magazine Circa relaunched itself — albeit briefly — as an online publication, its first issue devoted to examining the magazine’s role as a space for ‘criticism and criticality’. Meanwhile, coming out of Canada, the Vancouver-based magazine Fillip published the results of a 2009 forum, in its collection Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, with contributors as diverse as Tirdad Zolghadr, Tom Morton, Maria Fusco and Diedrich Diedrichsen, with an afterword by the prolific and now seemingly ubiquitous Elkins.

So while the ‘crisis of criticism’ rumbles on, it is becoming a more energetic and internationalised debate; it is — perhaps only tentatively — starting to give shape to a key division in the recent history of how critical reflection about art relates to the context that produces art. This division could be characterised as the historic split between ‘criticism’ and ‘critique’, and the double impasse now facing both these trajectories. While the field of art criticism, in terms of the writing of commentary on the day-to-day production of art in art magazines and newspapers, tends to be seen as wracked by self-doubt regarding its co-option by the art market and the culture industry, and uncertainty about the troubled question of ‘judgement’, the continued existence of this field of ‘everyday’ criticism nevertheless nags away at those who defend a more theoretically grounded criticism of art, but who find themselves frustrated by the exhaustion of the theoretical and methodological trajectories whose heyday was the art theory of the late 1980s and 90s.

For the editors of Texte zur Kunst, for example, the symposium, titled Wo Stehst Du, Kollege? (Where Do You Stand, Colleague?), provided an opportunity to review the magazine’s evolving commitments to certain key methodologies and theoretical paradigms, some older, others more recent. While one section reviewed the continued critical value of the social history of art approaches to criticism, another acknowledged the resurgence of aesthetics in contemporary debates, alongside a third examination of how theories of the ‘biopolitical’ could inform discussions of the relationship of art to the increasingly administered realm of cultural economy and ‘immaterial labour’.

What emerges from the overlapping discussions of these three strands — although barely alluded to by any of the contributors — is a tension regarding the problematic site of human subjectivity and the agency of the human subject when confronted with the deterministic implications of many of the theoretical approaches that have come to dominate current critical debates on art and culture. So while Graw seeks to defend the insights provided by the tradition of the social history of art, and its ‘shift in focus — away from the art work “as such” and on to the social conditions of its production and reception’, she acknowledges that ‘when art works are related to social conditions, for instance, the latter often rum into a “deterministic causation”… that leaves no spaces for art to possess a logic of its own’. Graw’s plea for a more nuanced and tentative reinvention of the social history of art effectively concedes that it no longer offers a convincing account of the formation of meaning in art relative to a political reading of art’s social context ‘Neither social context nor art work are given entities,’ she argues, ‘but it is nevertheless possible to investigate how and where artistic production and social reality come into contact with one another, how and where they actually constantly reconfigurate each other. An updated version of the social history of art could try to grasp this mutual reconfiguration in a non-reductivistic, non schematic manner.’

Graw’s problem is that while she may accord artworks the status of subjects with an agency that can be analysed, the moment the question of individual and concrete human subjectivity enters the mix, subjective experience quickly becomes hijacked and incorporated into the evil machinations of ‘biopolitical’, cognitive capitalism. Here the old determinism of the social history of art gives way to the new determinism of biopolitical theory. As philosopher Martin Saar argues in his contribution, following Michel Foucault, ‘It is the signature of political modernity that the living body has entered the realm of politics and that power now tries to regulate, govern and use the living. The individual is now systematically subject to various technologies of individualisation (psychological, ethical, somatic); and the collective body or population is now subject to various forms of social regulation.’

The trouble with critiques of contemporary capitalism such as biopolitics, and their influence on discussions of art’s relation to contemporary society, is that they always run the risk of reducing the space of subjective experience to an effect or artefact of powers not only beyond the subject’s control but imperceptible to it, given their role in the formation of subjectivity itself. So those art critics who go about making judgements or making evaluative criticism of artworks are merely cogs in a bigger machine, insensible to the part they play in, say, keeping the art market supplied with ‘textual bikinis’ (to use Boris Groys’s amusing, disparaging characterisation) or worse, of converting the apparent freedom of artistic experience into the commodity of cultural capital. Critic André Rottman is right to sound a note of dissent against the fashion for biopolitical theorising when he asks: ‘Does not this new master trope of (art) criticism itself amount to a totalising gesture that subsumes all aesthetic phenomena to the insurmountable grasp of an omnipresent but elusive regime of power?’

What haunts many of the contributions to Wo Stehst Du, Kollege? is the apprehension that, while the field of ‘aesthetic’ experience may be reduced to nothing more than the site of the deployment of ideological power, it is also de facto the only space where the agency of subjectivity might still be tested and developed. So it falls to TJ Clark to muse that, given that the avant-garde project of negation has run into the sand, ‘some form of reconstruction of aesthetic retreat — aesthetic distancing and duration and constructed intensity —  is the best current hope we have’. Clark goes on to argue for ‘a new model of complexity in art: an immediacy of the made image that would not be instantaneously available or transparent.’

What Clark is arguing for is art as an experience that is not immediate, that escapes from the ‘time and place of the slogan, the soundbite, the sentence, the image-that-obeys-the-logic-of-a-soundbite’. But such an object also implies that the subject should engage in some sort of work in the encounter with the artwork, should expend some kind of effort; in short, that the subject should reflect actively and consciously on the nature of the object and its encounter, rather than accept its immediacy passively and unthinkingly. It is a politics of subjectivity that is being proposed here, even though it appears as a defence of the specific aesthetic qualities of the artwork.

Of course, such an encounter between an actively reflecting subject and an object whose meaning or effect is not immediate is precisely the space inhabited, traditionally, by art criticism. This is why, while various critiques think to reduce art criticism to its professional and economic manifestations — and therefore dismiss it as subordinated to the market, the culture industry, the society of the spectacle or the biopolitical — they are continually, frustratingly, confronted with the problem that by enacting the active, reflective encounter with the artwork, art criticism remains the site in which the agency of subjectivity is put to the test.

This may mean that art criticism might appear to make ‘judgements’ about artworks, and judgement is something that, historically, theoretical critiques of art criticism most distrust. In his symposium contribution, Benjamin Buchloh typifies critique’s antagonism towards judgement, ‘one of the questions to be asked is whether criteria of judgement could be re-instituted, and if so, to which registers of social and subjective experience could they possibly refer’, only to declare that, ‘after all, the criteria of distinction, of qualitative differentiation, have always been dictated from above, from the judgement seat of power’. Similarly, Zolghadr, in his contribution to Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, is dismissive of the resurgent appeal of judgement: ‘Judgement’, he argues, ‘needs a critical ethos beyond a friendly set of advisory checks and balances. It needs to be repeatedly deconstructed from within.’ Judgement cannot, for Zolghadr, be meta-critical, or capable of reflecting on the conditions of its own articulation, whereas ‘a theory-driven practice of metacommentary strives to do justice to a shifting, heterogeneous public, to the very dialogue unfolding between texts and their objects, leading to a rigorous detachment from questions of quality towards questions of context, ideology etc’. Referring to Irit Rogoffs apparently ‘successful’ summary of this as the shift ‘from criticism to critique to criticality’, Zolghadr extols it as the process of moving ‘from finding fault [criticism] to tracing tacit assumptions that make something seem persuasive [that’s critique] to observing from an ambivalent ground that builds on both earlier moments but also wishes to acknowledge the speaker’s own complicities’.

There is in reality nothing very successful about the shift from criticism to criticality that is the supposed achievement of ‘theoretically driven metacommentary’. What Zolghadr and Rogoff represent is little more than the slow unravelling of those theoretical and political projects that once informed ‘critique’ — those critical discourses on art that were rooted in some form of agenda for social, political or cultural struggle, in the name of one or other political constituency — feminism, or post-colonialism, for example — into an extreme form of self-reflexivity in which even one’s own subject position cannot be trusted, but must be constantly ‘deconstructed from within’ in order to ‘acknowledge the speaker’s own complicities’. It is not surprising that ‘critique’ should degenerate into ‘criticality’, of course, because it represents the turning inwards of the deconstructive methodologies of critique once targeted at, for example, patriarchy, or the myth of the creative artist, or the ideology of the museum. With the politico-cultural movements and upheavals of the 1970s and 80s that sparked the projects of theoretically driven critique now entirely exhausted and dissipated, critique becomes little more than a sort of ascetic lifestyle choice for lecture-circuit theorists, a commitment to a kind of aloof self-regard for one’s own reflexivity, far away from the lowlier, less self-aware masses of audiences and art critics, slaves to the illusion of their own autonomy, lost to the corruption of the market and the culture industry. That this directionless, hollowed-out and formalist performance of critique becomes a form of condescension finds its appropriate manifestation in the tone of writers like Zolghadr and Buchloh — pompous, hectoring and priestly.

But to pretend that judgement is always ‘dictated from above’ or that criticism cannot address itself consciously or reflexively is to grossly caricature criticism as being still monological, totalising and hegemonic, rather than what it is currently: a field of activity marked by a sense of its own contingency, provisionality and (inter)subjectivity — qualities which are ably articulated by Frieze critic and curator Tom Morton in his contribution to Judgment. Morton takes various swipes at those condescending voices (Groys and October critics among them) who disdain the site of the critic’s activity. Morton makes a defence of the groundedness and subjective particularity of the art-critical encounter, against what Zolghadr only half-ironically typifies as ‘frictionless thoughtfulness’ — that is, high-theorising that never gets its hands dirty. Morton is all too aware of himself, in fact: ‘The critic may, as Groys says, “talk about himself”, but it’s hard to think how this might be avoided — we have nothing but our better or worse selves through which to process the world.’ Embodiment is precisely what justifies Morton’s form of art criticism: ‘to get down and dirty with art, to feel its grain and let it feel yours, is subjective, sure, but it is also the most meaningful critical activity I can imagine.’

Morton’s funky intimacy may be slightly self-parodying, and easily leaves itself open to accusations that it remains innocent — unconsciously or hypocritically — of the broader institutional machinations and systems of power that circumscribe its existence. But that would be to submit to those critiques’ assertion that the art world is now so utterly instrumentalised and co-opted by power that any act of art criticism which plays the game of evaluation or judgement of the work-at-hand merely drives the economy of discourse that the art market still seems to require. It is an argument reiterated by critic Sven Lütticken, who follows Groys’s cynical and vacuous description of the shift from a ‘yes/no’ culture of judgement-making to a ‘one/zero’ culture of publicity, in which the simple fact of being written about is itself the act of confirmation, regardless of what is said. Lütticken argues that ‘critics may still pass yes/no judgements, but these could now be seen as surface phenomena that distract attention from the real judgement The “no” of every negative review is negated by the fact the review was published at all — by the fact that it is a “one”‘. Such is the power of this absurd argument that, bizarrely, Lütticken then feels it necessary to footnote himself, recounting how a negative review by him produced an irate response from an artist, who complained that his remarks ‘would undermine the market for his work in the US’. Disavowing the effect of his own criticism, Lütticken bafflingly concludes: ‘I highly doubt that any negative judgement in the text would outweigh the effect, such as it is, of writing and publishing the text in the first place.’

When art critics feel it necessary to deny the potential critical effects of art criticism on the art on which it comments for fear of not conforming to the script handed down to them by opportunistic and freely spinning practitioners of ‘critique’ such as Groys, you know something has gone badly wrong. What is apparent here, though, is the current influence of a mutant mix of faux-leftist, zombie-Adornoan, moralising post-Institutional Critique, nihilistically obsessed with the supposed excesses of the globalising art market and culture industry, laced with a faddish anti-capitalist posturing, whose adherents cannot bear to believe that art may still contain value at the site of its encounter with subjectivity and experience — however corrupted, compromised and constrained this is by the politics and the economics that frame its presentation. That the site of human subjectivity itself, and the theoretical problem central to art criticism — namely how to mediate between concrete and individual experience and the wider discursive and institutional cultures that produce the intersubjective constituencies of art — is contingent, imperfect and continually subject to the violence of power should surprise no one. Yet to pretend that such power is constitutively all-encompassing — ‘hegemonic’ in the jargon of critique — is to denigrate the site of subjectivity and the active, conscious and potentially insurgent life of individuals as they articulate the value and meaning of experience for themselves and each other.

It might be argued that the critique-criticism split is the outcome of the historical inability of those theoretical projects underpinning contemporary critique to intervene in, and win over, a broader audience on the conventional territory of art criticism — namely the quotidian, semi-journalistic forms of the critical mediation of art. This would then be a defeat only on the level of strategy and tactics, as if things would have been all right after the 1980s if only October had managed to extend its position through more demotic forms of publication and writing. But the problem goes further than that, and turns on the demoted status of subjectivity in the spectrum of theoretical outlooks that have come to dominate critique since the 1970s. Because while various post-structuralist theoretical projects originally sought to dismantle the myth of the bourgeois, masculine, enlightenment, universalist subject in the name of minoritarian identity and difference, their subsequent legacies have turned the critique of the myth of the bourgeois subject into a dissolution of subjectivity as such, seeing it as hopelessly colonised at every turn by the totalising systems of late capitalism. So whether it is the masses’ unwitting subordination to the Society of the Spectacle, or the notion that the subject is inextricably formed in and by language, or the elevation of the psychoanalytic unconscious over the conscious subject, or the subjugating systems of biopolitical power, a whole edifice of critique is ranged against the fragile coherence of actual, lived and generative subjectivity.

But while dismantling the subject may play well in the academy of critique, it is now of little practical use to art criticism, whose site is a grounded speculation on, not a proscription of, subjectivity. So while critique wastes its time rubbishing art criticism from afar, the field of art criticism is busy trying to re-theorise itself — precisely to reflect consciously on the terms of its own — witnessed by the growing buzz of activity internationally around how to redefine art criticism’s terms and functions. At stake is not the relationship between theory and practice, but the productive implication of theories of subjectivity in the practice of subjectivity, or instead their destructive and antagonistic withdrawal from it.

Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, eds Jeff Khonsary and Melanie O’Brian, Projectile Publishing Society, 2011.

First published in Art Monthly no346 May 2011 www.artmonthly.co.uk