Fillip — Folio A

Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism: Keynote

February 27, 2009

Tonik Wojtyra – I think it was Tobias Meyer from Sotheby’s who, at some point during the art market splendor, was asinine enough to say that good art is the most expensive art. [Tobias Meyer was quoted as saying, “The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart,” in Sarah Thornton, “Love and Money,” Artforum: Scene and Herd, May 11, 2006: id=10968.] If the art market is so smart, based on his expert opinion, then what, in your expert opinion, is the best art writing? [laughter]

Tirdad Zolghadr – It’s a good question because, as I was trying to suggest earlier, the agendas between the art writers and the artists are not the same. There are artworks that bring out the best in writers and artworks that do the opposite. There are artworks that prompt a flurry of critical karaoke and then there are artworks that push the writer to reconsider knee-jerk topographies.

Diedrich Diederichsen – What [Tobias Meyer] is saying is that there is judgment taking place, and the art market uses this kind of judgment. If there is such a narrow connection between art writing and judgment, maybe the crisis of judgment and the hope of art writing are not so closely connected. But maybe it’s not the art market that’s responsible for that. [Art writing] cannot exist without opposing the other forces that produce judgment all the time, like audiences, markets, artists....

Tirdad Zolghadr – So what you are saying is that the relationship between judgment and art writing is perhaps tenuous and that perhaps criticism offers the possibility of standing against the kind of judgment that is pursued in other fields so rigorously, such as within the art market. So that criticism is inherently opposing judgment as opposed to pursuing it.

Diedrich Diederichsen – The last thing that I would like to suggest is that maybe because all these other types of judgment are happening, art writing (although it could do other things than judging) has to become the superior judgment.

Tirdad Zolghadr – So the fact that judgment is being pursued so resolutely in these other fields is an opportunity for criticism to engage in judgment in a more subtle matter.

Diedrich Diederichsen – Not necessarily. [laughter]

Tirdad Zolghadr – I’m just paraphrasing here! [laughs]

Diedrich Diederichsen – My point would be that art writing, in its shortcomings and opportunities and so on, is not closely connected for any intrinsic reason to judgment except in a very distant echo. But [art writing] is placed—not so much in an ethical sense but in the contemporary context—in a context with other constantly judging forces. There it inherits the obligation to produce something that competes with, or argues against, these other forms of judgment that exist.

Tirdad Zolghadr – Again to paraphrase for the audience in the back: Criticism does not inherently fulfill this role of judgment except by way of a very faint reminiscence of Kant. But the way that it is placed and contextualized places it under pressure to perform judgment in some form or another.

Mohammad Salemy – You brilliantly explain the whole drama, but today the very fact that somebody writes [about] you is the judgment. You don’t even have to read the essay. It’s like you pull out the catalogue and just the fact that you were written about is the judgment. Just the fact that you were included in the show or not is the judgment. The judgment is already made pre-writing. I recently read a very opinionated piece of art criticism in the New York Times which was shockingly, completely judgmental, and I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe the critic, [Ken] Johnson, can go so deep into questioning the motives of the artist, questioning the aesthetics of the work, questioning everything about the piece!” [See Ken Johnson, “Material for a Palestinian’s Life and Death,” New York Times, February 12, 2009,] Everything seems fine until you find out that the show is Emily Jacir’s at the Guggenheim. It was basically a political judgment on the validity of the Palestinian struggle put in the form of [a review of] Emily’s work. The point is that [the] Hugo Boss [Prize] particularly picked Emily. That is a judgment, too.

Diedrich Diederichsen – That’s a mix of two things: Consequentiality (things with consequence) and judgment. Judgments don’t necessarily have consequences. Judgments are just making a clear statement about something. But when you say that even being included in the catalogue is a judgment, then there is some act of consequentiality, some act with a consequence. A judgment is an act that has a possible consequence, that asks for a consequence—one that is specific and different from other acts of consequence because, in the best case, it makes its criteria explicit and can be discussed, just like you can debate this review in the New York Times because it is judgmental. I think that’s the difference.

Audience member – Can I ask you to maybe indulge in a little “futurology”? Can you predict what might happen with art writing over the next, say, decade? What do you think might come after visual culture? Do you think that art writing might be the thing that creates a relationship between critical theory and curatorial practices, and how do you think that might unfold within a kind of institution?

Tirdad Zolghadr – I’m not very good at this kind of thing.... I can tell you what I’m worried might happen. I can refer to the “neck verse,” this epistemic free flow, the possibility to engage in plural disciplinarity with impunity. In literary studies, the neck verse is often mentioned as a kind of parable of literacy and power. In the Middle Ages, the neck verse was the verse that clergymen could read from the bible to prove that they could read, and this would prove that they were clergymen, and this would exempt them from any punishment before the law. They could get away with murder, literally, if they could prove that they were clergymen. And they would sit in front of the judge, and they would read this verse, and the judge would say, “You can go home now, you’re obviously a clergyman.” The problem was that it was always the same verse, so people would just memorize it and be sent home rather than be hung from the nearest tree. It’s a very useful parable when it comes to this carte blanche that I keep referring to, because it’s about this kind of mystified and mystifiable rationalization of certain privileges of a professional creed. It’s also a question of an institutionalized form of forgery and about class privileges and so on and so forth. So this situation, this neck verse, where you have curators and artists and critics engaging with different theories of globalization and discussions of the history of philosophy and the history of political philosophy with such enthusiasm and unchecked vigor .... I mean, the number of panels I’ve been introduced to where I have absolutely nothing to say—Leninism, the early history of Christian philosophy, Arab migrants, and on and on—is pretty impressive. And all I’d have to do is sit there and do the arty mystery thing, because I’m the token critic/curator—critter—on the panel. I do have a feeling that this situation will possibly lead to a backlash that will temporarily give the Kantians, so to speak, the upper hand. I do think that there has already been a reaction to the internationalism that was so aggressively espoused over the last ten years by postcolonially informed curators, writers, and artists because so much of it was based on vaguely intellectualized wishful thinking or on barely justified combinations of various theoretical statements which did very little for the understanding of how internationalism really does work between the first world and third world contexts—the violence that does occur when things try to travel from A to B. Nor did it help much when it came to understanding or discussing the art. When I talk about trying to define some sort of specificity, it’s not so much a call to order, it’s not so much a yearning for some sort of canon or method or clearly recognizable history that we can all agree on. It’s simply trying to reintroduce the question of whether there are places where we can reasonably be expected to shut up, because we tend to do more harm than good, more often than not.

Kelly Lycan – It made me think a little about the point you were making in the second dilemma which was that there is no place that an art writer can commit to their depth, and I wondered if you could elaborate on that specifically in terms of the critic and curator.

Tirdad Zolghad – I am indebted to Gayatri Charkravorty Spivak’s take ...concerned with the ease with which those who speak can weasel their way out of responsibility. There are those who speak for the object (the artist) or those who step back and say this object can speak for itself. Spivak’s essay suggests both. One of the obstacles for those who try to ventriloquize the object of their discourse is that this notion [assumes] that there’s a level playing field, that theory is simply a box of tools just like a wrench and a hammer, and that it does not inflict violence. Yet the very etymological root of “theory” points to an ancient Greek context where the Theorian were opposed not to practice but to asepsis, where the asepsis was an individual opinion that anyone was capable of—a slave, a child. So there’s a question of the privilege to narrate. If you take these things into consideration, it’s quite easy to see that there’s an ethics of criticism that takes into account the limits of criticism and the limits of things on which you can reasonably be expected to have an opinion in a professional context; [this] is more than just a question of refinement or good taste, it’s also political or ethical.

Audience member – If it’s fair to say that art criticism and judgment are somehow related to the production of art, then is it incumbent upon artists to undertake value judgments from within their work?

Tirdad Zolghadr – I wouldn’t see why not. As I’ve been trying to point out, I don’t think that there is an intrinsic problem between artists engaging in what critics are expected to engage in. But when this happens, it is not a question of two agendas coming closer to one another, but rather, in many cases, professional desperation. At one point, there was a desperate shortage of images with respect to writing. But the situation is now vice versa, so now you have more artists engaging in what you are describing. [Boris] Groys would probably say that to assume that there’s a level playing field just because there are some artists who have the permission to engage in this activity is like saying that you don’t need unions because you have the lottery. It’s still very much skewed....

Holly Ward – Going back to the ethics of criticism.... I recently saw Jan Verwoert speak in Berlin at the United Nations Plaza about his own role as critic. He seemed to display a sense of shame about the reprehensible act of producing criticism and this horrible kind of identity that he seemed to have forged for himself as a critic. I’m curious to see how you might describe your feelings about the act of criticism.

Tirdad Zolghadr – Were you at the second night or the first?

Holly Ward – The first night.

Tirdad Zolghadr – The question is referring to Jan Verwoert’s series of talks “Why are conceptual artists painting again? Because they think it’s a good idea” at the Building (formerly known as the United Nations Plaza) in Berlin. It is a talk where he does have a very apologetic position as a critic; where the act of naming, the authoritative gesture that is associated with criticism is repeatedly brought to the fore and then repeatedly deconstructed. I asked you if you were there for the first night or the second night because the first night I did try to gently poke fun at Jan Verwoert during the Q and A. I said that it was ironic that someone who so eloquently names and deconstructs and disparages entire art practices of certain generations with such Greenbergian majesty would then continuously step back and do these pirouettes of auto-deconstruction and disavow the role of the critic as king-maker. And I was actually arguing that I would much prefer less denegation and more living up to this, the Theorian aspect of things. If you do have this rhetorical thrust that is going to cast shades of black and white and pit people against each other, I actually don’t have a particular problem with it as long as it is ideologically grounded with a reasonable measure of self-reflexivity. I much prefer [this position] because it can be the beginning of a healthy argument, and it can be a lot more rewarding than the weak politicality of the paradox that I was describing before.

Jeff Derksen – I just had a brief speculative question to pick up on the weak politics of the paradox, and also the nice term that you mentioned that you and Polly Staple were using: “binary fluffing.” Is binary fluffing the cultural logic of post-Fordism?

Tirdad Zolghadr – Is binary fluffing the cultural logic of post-Fordism? Sounds like the beginning of an essay ...[laughter] Thanks. [more laughter] It’s what I was trying to suggest less articulately than the way you just put it. But yes, absolutely. I did try to suggest that this comfortable posing of seeming opposites [is a way] to keep things in suspension without having to take any clear position. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s a problem. The only problem with it is that it comes so naturally to us. I don’t see any alternative to it right now. I think its always nice to pick a fight like Claire Bishop does, or like the way I wish Jan Verwoert would do now and then, but at the end of the day, this is the way we have been reared ideologically: to persistently pursue this weak politicality. It does have something to do with the post-Fordist context. We are educated to constantly be open to some other opinion or truth which could pop up at any time. You are supposed to be flexible, sociable, and generally charming enough to be able to integrate this new truth into your intellectual positioning in some form or another. So, yes, I would agree. [laughter, applause]

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