Fillip — Folio A

Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism: Afterword
James Elkins

In the last year there were at least five international conferences on art criticism. On the weekend the Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism forum took place, I was at another conference on art criticism in Copenhagen.1 A few months before, in October 2008, there had been yet another conference on art criticism in Bogotà, Colombia,2 and in summer 2010 there was a large, four-day conference on the subject in Beijing.3 Whether or not it makes sense to say that art criticism is in crisis (and I do not believe it does), the field certainly perceives itself as such.

I have been trying to keep up with the literature—something that can’t be done for long, at least if you have a day job—and I think that the problems art criticism has been posing to itself are not necessarily endless or insoluble. It helps to distinguish three fundamental philosophic and historical problems, and two underlying rhetorical and institutional reasons why those three problems have not been adequately addressed. I wouldn’t claim these are the only five issues that articulate the current conceptualization of art criticism, or even that I’m posing them here in an optimal form, but I do think that until we pay close attention to some version of these issues, art criticism will continue onward in its anxious and inconclusively articulated state.

1. In regard to history

Does art criticism, in its current forms, descend from writers like Charles Baudelaire and Denis Diderot, or are their practices more usefully conceived as parts of other writing traditions? In other words, where does contemporary art criticism begin? In the book The State of Art Criticism there is an enormous range of ideas about whether art criticism has a history. For some, like Dave Hickey, art criticism’s history comprises whatever creative writers the critic likes. Hickey names William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and others. He names them not because they teach him to write art criticism, because, he says, no one can do that, but because they are his favorite writers. For others, like Steve Melville, art criticism by its very nature doesn’t have a history because it depends on the individual act of judging. The range of ideas about whether art criticism has a history is itself much broader than the range of opinion about other central objects of debate in art theory, for example the index in photography, or the place of aesthetics in art history.4 Art criticism’s history, or lack of it, produces a deeper incoherence.

The principal contribution to this problem is Sven Lütticken’s essay in this volume, “A Tale of Two Criticisms.” He proposes that art criticism has two origins: an Enlightenment tradition, beginning with the French Salon in 1747, and a Romantic tradition, which is “scattered across the early writings of Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and others in their circle, around 1800.” Several questions could be raised about this genealogy. One might ask how much work these characterizations can do for the present, given that it would not be difficult to demonstrate that Diderot (who is mentioned as an example of an Enlightenment critic) was interested in many things other than “rules” to “regulate the representation of suitable objects in a manner that is morally edifying and ennobling,” and that Romantic critiques were not always about “reconstructing” the “shaky rules” established by artworks. In other words, this is a particular reading, done through Jacques Rancière and Walter Benjamin as much as Schlegel or Diderot, which asks to be read not so much for historical veracity as for what work it can do on our practices: and the answer would depend on what lines we can draw between the generations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and the present. My own sense of this is that such lines are tenuous: I would draw them more or less as Michael Newman does in his important essay “The Specificity of Criticism and Its Need for Philosophy” (reprinted in The State of Art Criticism) or as Joseph Koerner does in his current (unpublished) work on Breughel. Lütticken argues that our current journalistic criticism often amounts “to a debased Enlightenment criticism that offers judgments without reflection.” Leaving aside whether or not Enlightenment critics didn’t pause to reflect, the question would be whether we want to assign apparently unreflective moments in contemporary criticism to Enlightenment precursors. If I do, it’s because I want to find a deeper history for current art criticism (and then I’d have to ask myself why I want a deeper history); if I don’t, it’s because I don’t see how it helps to see traces of a dissipated Enlightenment in contemporary practices. Is this particular version of the Enlightenment really usefully connected to the present?

2. In regard to the content of art criticism

Should it involve direct judgment, only the consideration of possible judgments, or something more like description of evocation? This was the operative question of the forum, as it has been of others. There is certainly a gulf between the activities of some populist critics, such as Robert Hughes, and certain academic critics, such as Rosalind Krauss. In the two panel discussions held in Ballyvaughan, Ireland, and Chicago, Illinois, transcribed in The State of Art Criticism, I tried posing the problem this way: what kind of conversation might take place between a critic who holds that art criticism’s purpose is the articulation of judgment and a critic who sees criticism’s purpose as the articulation of the conditions under which critical judgment might be made? I thought putting it this way might avoid a direct interrogation of poststructural interpretations of art criticism, according to which criticism is dedicated to the study of what Krauss called “method”; that is, the elaboration of the assumptions and discursive conditions that lead others to propose judgments. It would also avoid directly questioning those critics who do judge art, either about the reasons they decline to engage with current thinking on the strategies of avoiding judgment, or about more general poststructural concerns. I put the question to Steve Melville and Dave Hickey, and nothing very enlightening took place. Hickey pretended not to see the point of the question, and Melville tentatively articulated an understanding of judgment as a kind of questioning, which would therefore be amenable to the uncertainties that attend or pursue the production of even the most unreflective and apparently immediate judgments. It was a moment, I’d say, of pure darkness. I don’t see how anyone reading the transcript of that exchange—between two exemplary practitioners of very different senses of art criticism—could glean any ideas about how art critics might speak to one another across that gulf of judgment.

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About the Author

James Elkins is an art historian and art critic. He teaches art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of What Happened to Art Criticism? (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003) and Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art (New Academia Publishing, 2009).

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