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.

Diedrich Diederichsen makes an excellent contribution to this debate in his essay for this volume, “Judgment, Objecthood, Temporality.” He argues strongly against avoiding judgment, and especially the judgment of value. He has a couple of good arguments to pose against the position he identifies as “the Butler-Foucault-Williams argument,” which enjoins a suspension of judgment in favour of an understanding of complexity. For example, he suggests that the production of value judgments creates an ongoing discourse of the kind Judith Butler is said to privilege because “it has to permanently re-discuss what it has seemingly decided for good.” He also advances a political critique of the “the Butler-Foucault-Williams argument”; that the idea of critique as suspension of judgment (or, in Melville’s more abstract terms, as the ground of questioning) is “an extension of the bourgeois idea of aesthetic experience as essentially unconnected to necessity and instrumentality,” which works by covertly replacing “the aesthetic with the critical.”

Both these criticisms could move conversations on this topic forward. I have only one caveat: if Diederichsen had been present at the event that included Hickey and Melville, the pertinence of his arguments might not have been understood by some journalists who were also present, because it is couched in the language of dialectic philosophy. It is an academic argument, aimed at problems as they are framed in the academic community; but art criticism moves beyond those borders. If he had been at the event, Diederichsen might have started some interesting conversations with Melville and some others, but I can’t imagine an extended conversation with Hickey or some journalist art critics who were also present. I do not mean that Diederichsen would not have been understood by Melville or some of the other academically minded critics who were present. I mean that the problem at hand goes beyond its framing within philosophic discourse. That’s the problem I was aiming at with my initial question to Hickey and Melville: what would a conversation that bridged the different understandings of judgment look like? To me the gap between judgment and thought about judgment is wider than disagreements between Butler, say, and those who might want to reframe her politics. The problem is how to talk differently, to talk outside of the ordinary ground of conversation that takes “judgment” as a known term, even a philosopheme.

3. In regard to what exemplifies art criticism
One of the principal contemporary tendencies in criticism is what might be called performative criticism. By that I mean critical writing that is construed as performance, or as performative; it is intended to respond to new kinds of art that are themselves evanescent, body-centered, and time-based, such as performance art. Versions of this practice can be seen, for example, in the book After Criticism.5 The central writer in this regard may be Irit Rogoff; her theory of the development of art criticism from criticism to critique to criticality is mentioned here by Tirdad Zolghadr. He says Rogoff’s sequence “is of course easily parodied as affected and pompous.” My difficulty with it is that I am not convinced that “criticality” has any coherent definition. In practice, Rogoff uses it to describe situations in which the critic’s role, her purpose and voice, are so much at risk—so intimately engaged with the artist’s work—that her subjectivity, and her practice, may alter, and in turn alter the reception of the work. I find it at once a hypertrophied description of any phenomenologically understood encounter with an artwork, unhelpfully ideal as a standard for interesting art, and—most important in this context—not cogent as a contribution to the historical lineage that produced the first two terms, criticism and critique. It answers neither Kant nor Hegel, and it does not persuasively alter the terms of critical discourse that depend on them.

Perhaps it is best to define criticism through practice rather than against other traditions. Performative criticism makes use of a very wide range of rhetorical strategies in order to avoid the linear, logical, deductive argument that it associates with traditional criticism and its production of unambiguous judgment. (I say “it associates” because a study of older criticism shows just how performative it sometimes was. Diderot was far more performative at times than any contemporary critic I know. But what is at issue here is the self-description of contemporary critics.) Critics have been drawn to writers such as Hélène Cixous as models for such experimental writing.

In Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, some of these possibilities are beautifully articulated—and also embodied—by Maria Fusco. She writes, for example, that a critic might “induce” the artwork’s “essential obscurity” by responding with “essential obscurity” and that criticism could be “a procedure of induction rather than deduction,” which could help avoid the kind of writing whose purpose is “tracking a logical conclusion.” She advocates “parlous ...navigation” and a “backwards movement” of argument. This is attractive, and in the hands of writers such as Fusco, Cixous, or Jean-Louis Schefer, many kinds of nonlinear writing can be engaging and apparently appropriate for contemporary art practices. They become problematic only when they ask to be read as examples of art criticism, as working definitions of art criticism, or as responses to other people’s positions about art criticism. I can read Fusco’s essay only as an example of itself and its own concerns about writing and art. I can’t read it as a way to frame an activity that it would make sense to call art criticism, because that activity has become sensible through different kinds of claims.

A related position is articulated by Lütticken who proposed, following Andrea Fraser, “site-specific criticism,” meaning criticism rethought and remade for each individual occasion. This is also an excellent ideal, like Plagens’s ideas of “wildness,” and it has the added virtue of alertness to the logic of the work and the reciprocal logic of the critical text. I do not object to such ideals, but they are not, in themselves, either definitions or directions for art criticism, because they apply too broadly. What critic, Diderot included, would say he wasn’t responding to the logic of the individual work?

The fact that the best and most successful contemporary experimental writing about art is only and entirely its own project poses a root-level challenge for any number of inventive contemporary practices if they are interested in retaining affinities to something called art criticism. I don’t think it is possible to respond to such practices as responses to older or existing practices that are identified as art criticism. The new practices can be examples and models, but they are not part of the project of rethinking art criticism in particular. And this problem becomes only more difficult when we think of art criticism (as I’d like to do) as an aggregate of practices that includes not only serious experimental prose but the most superficial and abbreviated journalism and the most clearly commercial gallery brochures.

These three are fundamental issues (history, purpose, form), by which I mean they have the potential to disrupt one another and the entire project of art criticism. It helps to acknowledge that art criticism is not a well-defined field within which such problems can be discussed in a normative fashion. Art criticism is not a “normal” field in Thomas Kuhn’s sense: its problems are not contained within its rhetoric but exist sometimes outside that rhetoric, with the potential of undermining the field itself. It would seem, given this situation, that there would be concerted efforts to comprehend the limits of the conceptualization of contemporary art criticism. But I find that such efforts are only scattered and intermittent. This suggests a fourth issue, a kind of meta-problem for art criticism.

4. Unaccountably, none of these three issues has provoked sustained interest

The practice, or practices, of art criticism are diverse, and that diversity does not often bother critics. At the end of the The State of Art Criticism, Michael Newman and I printed an exchange of letters on this subject. We were wondering how it was that so many contributors to the book did not engage the fundamental questions (including the three I have just named) that were raised at the beginning of the project. Why were so many art critics, from so many different backgrounds, uninterested in clarifying the history, purposes, and forms of their own practice? Almost every contributor in The State of Art Criticism noted the problem of judgment, for example, but hardly any thought it was worth pursuing. At the time it occurred to me that this could not happen in the sciences. Everyone involved in CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), for instance, presumably agrees on the gaps in the current conceptualization of subatomic particles (the question of the origin of mass, the nature of gravity, and so on). Even engineers and other technical specialists, whose work takes place far from the teams who work on the major experiments, presumably know about such issues and agree they are of fundamental importance. There is no such thing as a person who works on particle physics who simply doesn’t care what happens with subatomic particles. Like many analogies between science and culture, this one is tricky and partly inappropriate, but I think it is exact enough to capture what is so strange about art criticism. Even in a field closer to art criticism, for example literary criticism, there is general agreement on the importance—if not the force, pertinence, or truth—of foundational thinking such as the poststructural critique associated with Paul De Man and others. Every serious academic literary critic will have come to terms with poststructuralism in some way, but in Newman’s and my experience few critics care about even large conceptual inconsistencies in their own field.

This fourth issue is a second-order problem, an obstacle to working on the first three problems, and it is an obstacle that derives its objections from sources sometimes entirely outside the issues that drive those first three problems. In other words, many critics do not have considered positions on problems like the first three, and they do not possess accounts of why they do not require considered positions on those problems. Logically speaking, this creates a third-order problem: not having positions about fundamental problems itself comprises a second-order problem, and not having an account of why it is not necessary to have a position is a third-order problem. The fifth and last issue I want to raise is also a second- or third-order problem, but it is easier to state.

5. People do not read the literature on art criticism, so writers often repeat texts and ideas that have already been articulated

This is the main reason I am not planning on keeping up with the literature: I find it frustrating that the same issues get raised over and over, and that the people who raise them are unaware that their ideas have been formulated by others. They therefore miss opportunities to build discourse by critiquing or strengthening previous positions. In the Vancouver forum, a number of issues repeat debates already articulated in Adorno and the literature that follows him, especially Jay Bernstein; and there are discussions in more recent publications that could have provided stronger starting points for ideas the speakers raise. I wonder, again, if this kind of situation could happen in the sciences. At the least, the rediscovery of ideas that are already in the literature prevents discourse on art criticism from building into a common conversation: something that many critics, including some as different as Sarat Maharaj, Boris Groys, and Jean Fisher, have said they would like. It probably isn’t possible to make this point without sounding overbearing, but it does matter, because if there is not a common core of texts (as there is, for example, in visual studies, which circles around Foucault, Benjamin, Lacan, and a few others), then conferences and books on art criticism will tend to be mostly made of old ideas, inaccurately repeated from unknown sources. And that would create a crisis in any field.

There is another way to look at all this. Perhaps the irresolutions of these five issues are symptoms of the current state of affairs and not problems to be solved: it’s entirely possible that these are conventional limits to our discourse and that the best thing to do is describe them, not solve them—to increase our awareness of them, along with our awareness of why we do not want to work directly on them. It feels that way to me, but it also seems clear that some very interesting discussions are waiting to take place around problems like these.

  1. The 4th International Conference of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Art History Project, Copenhagen, February 26–March 1, 2009.
  2. Posibilidad, unutilidad, y acción: Entre la accademia y el periodismo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotà, Colombia, October 6–8, 2008.
  3. The 2nd China Contemporary Art Forum, What Happened to Art Criticism?—Problems in Chinese and Western Art Criticism, The Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing, May 19–22, 2010.
  4. The State of Art Criticism, co-edited with Michael Newman (New York: Routledge, 2007) is part of a series called The Art Seminar (New York: Routledge, 2005–08, 7 vols.). At the end of the last volume of that series, called Re-Enchantment, co-edited by David Morgan, vol. 7 of The Art Seminar (New York: Routledge, 2008), I wrote an “envoi” looking back over the books in the series. Each book was on a different subject, and each revealed a different kind of incoherence or unity. This paragraph is adapted from that “envoi.”
  5. After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, ed. Gavin Butt (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005).
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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