A Tale of Two Criticisms
Modern art criticism is twice born, having been shaped by the mutual influence of two opposed yet interwoven critical traditions. One lineage is that of Enlightenment criticism, instigated when a certain Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne arrogated himself the right to judge the French Salon in the name of the Public with his 1747 pamphlet Réflexions sur quelques causes de l’état present de la peinture en France.1 The other is that of Romantic criticism, for which we do not have quite such a clear and convenient beginning. What Romantic criticism is, or could be, is scattered across the early writings of Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and others in their circle, around 1800.
The different natures of these beginnings, their differing degrees of publicness, are themselves significant. In La Font’s time, the idea of a general public for which, and in whose name, one writes was still new and subversive. To claim that one had the right to judge the productions of French painters was an attack on the absolutist state and its king (an academy patron); to find the art sponsored by him severely wanting was also to suggest, however implicitly, that the system that produced such art was lacking. Soon, Johann Joachim Winckelmann would draw complex analogies between the nature of Greek art and the political freedom enjoyed by the classical Athenians; such reasoning was by no means uncommon. Small wonder that Denis Diderot, who would become the most important Enlightenment critic of art, published his Salon reviews not in print, but in the hand-copied Correspondance littéraire, which was sent to select subscribers or “correspondents.”
Enlightenment criticism passed judgments in the name of a public that it had to posit, or forge, in the first place, and such judgment had a moral dimension that was not always implicit: Diderot attacked François Boucher as a man whose conception of art could be only lowly, his imagination having been dragged down by the cheap prostitutes in whose company he spent his time.2 Romantic criticism radically reconceptualized the work of art. Far from having to obey “eternal” rules posited by the critic in the name of the public—rules that regulate the representation of suitable subjects in a manner that is morally edifying and ennobling—the work of art is now seen as establishing its own shaky rules, which the critic tries to reconstruct. In Jacques Rancière’s words, the era of early Romanticism marks the moment when the work of art comes to be seen as an “object of thought”—not merely in the passive sense, but as an object that is itself a manifestation of mute thinking, of intuitive theory. Positing an incommensurable rationale of its own accord, the work of art confronts the viewer with a tangled knot of reason and its other, of logos with mythos.3 This means that the relationship between the critic and the work is stood on its head: struggling to do justice to the work of art, which, if successful, is a law onto itself, the Romantic critic himself becomes the object of an implicit judgment by the work of art. Will he (at first, the critic was, of course, almost always a “he”) do justice to its inner workings, or fail the test and have recourse to irrelevant criteria? While the risk of failure is thus a very real one, the Romantic critic also aims higher than his Enlightenment counterpart: at its most ambitious, Romantic criticism not only sought to do justice to the work of art’s inner workings, but also to raise its idiosyncratic logic to a plane of greater self-awareness.
In his famous dissertation on Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (1920), Walter Benjamin argued that the task of art criticism as conceived by the early German Romantics is to elevate the work of art to a higher plane of reflection; Friedrich Schlegel referred to his own essay on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre as the Übermeister.4 Yet we are not dealing with a linear Hegelian process in which the obtuse manifestations of Spirit in the work of art are liberated from their sensuous shackling by being raised to the sphere of pure reason; instead, we are dealing with an ironic, endless dialectic—an endless series of reflections. This is criticism as critique: “Criticism,” in its Enlightenment sense, consists in recounting to someone what is awry with their situation, from an external, perhaps “transcendental” vantage-point. “Critique” is that form of discourse which seeks to inhabit the experience of the subject from the inside, in order to elicit those ‘valid’ features of that experience which point beyond the subject’s present condition.5
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About the Author
Sven Lütticken teaches art history at VU University Amsterdam. He is the author of Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (2006), Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle (2009), and History in Motion: Time in the Age of the Moving Image (2013).