Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism: Panel One
February 28, 2009
Panelists: Kristina Lee Podesva, Tom Morton, and William Wood
Moderator: John O’Brian
Kristina Lee Podesva – I’m sitting here as a representative of Fillip in a sense, but also as an artist and a writer, and perhaps to represent a divergent view from what Tom [Morton] articulated just now in his paper. Instead of being interested in these intimate relationships—these intimacies that he discussed—I’m actually really quite interested, more so, in what art and criticism can share. To me, that interest lies in the fact that both require a public audience, and their engagement with one another occurs in an actually public context. Returning to Sven Lütticken, who writes about critics who lament their instrumentalization by the “real decision-makers—the collectors, curators, and gallery owners.” [See Sven Lütticken, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2005), 7.] For him, their complaints about the service role they occupy in the production of art-critical sales talk belie a failure to see how this view inhabits a rather small and inconsequential domain, delimited by what he calls “professional pride and privileges.” Instead, Lütticken offers the critic a meaningful alternative to consider “the potential of art to constitute a critical form of publicness within the contemporary spectacle.” If the artist renders certain phenomena and questions knowable or visible in public, the critic then, perhaps, makes that endeavor legible and legitimate, sometimes in alignment with the artist’s intentions, but at other times not. Still, both the artist and the critic make their cases in public and to various publics. By public, I realize that we have a term equally as elusive as criticism. Michael Warner has gone far to attempt to grasp the notion of the public in his book Publics and Counterpublics (2005), observing that publics are multiple and mutable, echoing perhaps [Michel] Foucault’s project on power. The point of Warner’s study of publics is that they “exist only by virtue of their imagining. They are a kind of fiction that has taken on a life, and very potent life at that, and that when publics are addressed there is a struggle engaged at varying levels of salience to consciousness, from calculated tactic to mute cognitive noise over the conditions that bring them together as a public.” [See Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 8.] To identify a public, Warner recommends that we discern whom is being addressed and how. Publics are, therefore, in Warner’s study, “essentially intertextual, frameworks for understanding texts against an organized background of the circulation of other texts,” [See Warner, 15] which are, in our world, increasingly images.
And so, Warner essentially brings us to the notion that publics are highly unstable and, thus, counterpublics offered by the artist and even the critic, among others, can put into circulation new engagements through their practices, and in the best case scenario this manifests in a kind of “poetic world-making.” [See Warner, 114.]
So, in relation to art and criticism today, I’m concerned that this word “crisis” is the word to which we continually return, because I feel that if we are frustrated or even alarmed by criticism circulating as is, it means we do not like what is being said because we do not identify with the publics being addressed. Faced with this fact, I think we have two choices, either to find the publics we seek or to create them. These are questions of distribution and production. Of course, practical dilemmas arise here, the first being how do we find our publics when criticism and writing about art is de-centered, multiple, and so voluminous? We therefore need filters to wade through this vast sea of content. And, in relation to producing the publics we seek, we must consider how to do this when resources are limited. In some cases, as Tom mentioned, we have the question of time, Perhaps Fillip represents the antithesis to the art diary or the art fair or the art blog, because we’re not even published monthly, we’re not even published quarterly, we’re published three times a year, so perhaps we’re giving a bit of time to folk to consider what they are going to discuss. And then, of course, in terms of space, there’s the 750-word review typical of most magazines and, of course, at Fillip we try to make that 1500 words. So, there is this question of time and space, but how do you do [criticism] with limited resources?
One of the things that I noticed in the October round table, in the discussion packet [Supplement for Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism], is that Helen Molesworth says that good criticism is what artists read. But, faced with this multiple number of publics, I’m sort of asking this question: which artists, which critics, which publics? I’d say that one of the roles I think Fillip is really trying to take on is this notion of creating these publics, and a place to start new discussions, and to change, therefore, the number of publics that we currently see in operation, and to distribute that information as well. Those are just a couple of questions that I have that I’d like to open for discussion: producing these new publics through criticism and how to distribute the information that we create through these new publics. I think that’s one of the greatest challenges of our time: how to find them.
John O’Brian – I’m trying to draw connections between Tirdad’s talk last night, Bill’s talk on the left, Tom’s on the right—and those aren’t judgments about political positions. [laughter] I was very much struck that in Tirdad’s talk he kept coming back to dance as a metaphor. You certainly were engaged in a critical foxtrot, like Adorno, as you put it, in terms of discussing questions of negation and denegation of judgment, or what Bill calls exclusive judgment—in other words, totalizations. You were performing a pirouette that at moments seemed to go out of control and then righted itself. So the messy pluralities that you discuss were present in your talk, I thought, in terms of the elegant quotation, the refusal to totalize, and adding up to something in the end, which was the judgment that negation was something to be watched out for. The processes of denegation are ones that we need to be talking about because they indicate that—as the forum’s workbook shows—other directions are being taken. I was struck as I read through this [the workbook] last night by how much [Clement] Greenberg figures in it, though Greenberg hasn’t figured much in discussions today. The workbook makes me pleased, because when I did work as an art historian on Greenberg, I did it so we could read Greenberg whole. What we had before the collected works were Art and Culture and a couple of other canonical articles that were always trotted out. In 1980, I was sitting in Widener Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trying to make sense of why the canon had hardened. I thought we should have Greenberg—this is the art historian speaking—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, that we could read whole. And it was my great disappointment in meeting artists later in Canada and the United States that they hadn’t even read Greenberg the first time around, particularly painters. They had had him in their studios and that had been the connection. It was the intimacy that counted for them, rather than the sometimes contradictory critical judgments of Greenberg. I think of Greenberg as something like the sanctified ur-modernist artist of British Columbia, Emily Carr. The sanctified ur-critic, as presented by the people writing here [in the workbook], isn’t [John] Ruskin, who is profoundly moral in his writing, nor [Charles] Baudelaire, who goes somewhere else with criticism. It is Greenberg, the sanctified and vilified ur-critic, the sort of originary critical figure in North America that comes to attention at the very moment the United States gains economic power following the Second World War (that is, a kind of exclusionary economic and military power following the Second World War). That made him read in the first place and that made it necessary for the sanctified view of him to be undone. The process of undoing that view—and here’s where, as an art historian looking back on histories of criticism, I am interested in the process—by, say, Rosalind Krauss, who was once a Greenbergian, by [Benjamin] Buchloch, by [Douglas] Crimp, indeed by others sitting in this room who have brilliantly insisted on refusing the totalizing— the magisterial, as you said, Tirdad—pronouncements of Greenberg, needs close attention. In the process of negating his judgments against the attempt now to denegate them, Greenberg got reestablished again. In other words, in the process of his work being undone it became necessary to read him all over again. You couldn’t understand what was happening in postmodernist and poststructuralist discourse in New York without re-reading Greenberg, if you were going to be serious in thinking about what Krauss, Crimp, Buchloch, and others had to say.
I was glad, Bill, that you brought up the subject of institutional critique, because that’s on the agenda here. This is absolutely central to what we are talking about. We are all within the habitus, the social field of art. That social field is a frame, perceptual and mental as much as it is physical. Institutional critique came out of the critique of institutions and is precisely the requirement for self-reflexivity about the institution that we all participate in. [John] Berger had interesting things to say about this. I think Andrea Fraser’s article from 2005 in Artforum is the best single account of it because she lays out a particular history of how that occurred from a position of parti pris. “I may have given the term institutional critique currency,” Fraser states, in this way writing herself into the history and reflecting on the kind of biases that may be involved there. Criticism as a practice is nothing if not engaged in the institution of art, within the habitus, within the frame. At its best, criticism is always going to refuse those totalizations. It’s going to recognize the messiness of projects, the range of art, the different voices that have been used, the possibility of other interpretations. Of course, what was particularly horrific about the late Greenberg were the critical exclusions. They were based, however, on theories about the social arrangements of capitalism, ones we should still pay close attention to because they are still with us, even though they have become more transnational. The refusal of the negation of judgment, the denegations that have been presented by the three of you [Tom Morton, Kristina Lee Podesva, William Wood], seems like a good place from which to continue the discussion.
Audience member: What can art criticism—in its various forms—learn from music and architectural criticism? And how does the criticism of time-based and static work differ?
William Wood – Well, it’s fundamentally questions of competence. I mean, I like music, I know what I like. When people say “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like,” I come back and say that “I don’t know much about chemistry but I know what I like.” [laughter] I spend a lot of time looking at visual art and working with the structures of visual art, so I really can’t talk that well about other forms [of art]. There are other people, such as Diedrich, here who do, who can, write about many forms well, and that’s a remarkable thing to do. Regarding time-based work: Obviously music and some forms of theater and film and so on can be seen iteratively over a longer period of time than works of art in the form of exhibitions. And that’s a limitation. That’s one of the traditional limits of art criticism—that it’s a report on an ephemeral situation and event. In terms of static and time based, I don’t think that we encounter images in those forms anymore. They are sort of mixed up in some way; static images seem to be implicated in moving and moving in static (except for how long can you stand to watch the piece and whether there are limits to your ability to do that). But there are also artists who have played very much with that. You cannot experience the whole work (Boris Groys goes into this) because you just do not have the time. And it’s constructed to be a kind of monumental thing that’s beyond comprehension. That’s my answer to the question.
Tom Morton – What I have to add in terms of static and time-based media? I absolutely agree with Bill that these distinctions aren’t so useful. But apart from, if one is writing a review in a very small number of words, accounting for the absence of a work, the evocation of it can almost be the whole review (there [might] be nothing apart from describing what’s going on in an artist’s film). So there are questions, in terms of that short form of criticism, there’s part of it that is evocation, and there are questions of balance with that, and some form of kind of thinking of the thing evoked, and possibly judgments somewhere along the way. So there is some difference, but to some degree it’s practical.
Kristina Lee Podesva – Well, I just wanted to return to this point about competencies in criticism. When I think about this, I tend to think about Marcel Broodthaers’s Interview with a Cat from 1970. Of course, that came out of the project where he, I believe, was in Düsseldorf in the basement putting on his institutional critique projects and dealing with the museum. And what he’s doing is asking a cat various esoteric questions about art, and the cat only responds by “meowing” over and over and over again. And he comes to the point where he asks, “what do you think of this, what should we do, should we close the museum?” And the cat just responds, “meow.” But I think what he’s pointing to is the context of the museum and the context of criticism often can legitimate it, and you don’t have to have any competencies. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but I’m just saying that the context can very well legitimate all kinds of gibberish, and with the understanding that there is some kind of competency behind it. But I don’t know how much that’s always the case. That’s all I would offer.
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