Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism: Preface
Jeff Khonsary and Melanie O'Brian
Over the past decade, we have seen remarkable levels of market speculation and investment in contemporary art while world economies find themselves on uncertain ground. Concurrently, there has been a new wave of interest in the efficacy and function of art criticism focused on the role of judgment and valuation in contemporary art writing. Yet while the economy of contemporary art seems to demand rigorous critique, art writing often functions solely in the service of an expanding, unregulated art market. It was in the context of this conflicted set of concerns that, in February 2009, Artspeak and Fillip presented Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, a forum that laid the groundwork for this publication. Organized in conjunction with a reading room and discussion series held at Artspeak, the forum sought to offer a space to trouble the so-called crisis plaguing discourse around contemporary art criticism by deferring the question of art criticism’s pending doom in favour of a discussion that stressed pragmatics over sensationalism and morbidity.
For many, the end of the twentieth century witnessed a mitigation of the importance of critical judgment initially established by Enlightenment principles and strengthened within high modernist discourses. Described by critic James Elkins as “one of the most significant changes in the art world in the previous century,”1 this “ebb of judgment” developed out of a larger poststructuralist project that actively resisted the ostensibly closed space of individual valuation. Instead, many critics argued for a more open dialogue between texts and objects, pursuing modes of critique that allowed for the exploration of ambiguity and interpretation, thus detaching art writing from questions of quality.
Yet with the start of the new millennium, a growing chorus of critics have begun declaring the failure of interpretation in the absence of evaluative criticism. As Christopher Bedford, editor of X-TRA magazine, argues: “Most vitally for me as a critic, informed judgment predicated on explicitly stated, clearly enumerated criteria represents the foundation for the most advanced, productive critical discourse.”2 Developed in tandem with anxiety over a looming crisis in the profession and the increasing prevalence of descriptive reportage, this position stresses that a return to qualitative judgment is a remedy to the cauterized state of contemporary art criticism.
Addressing this growing tension, the present project attempts to provide a space in which to discuss the prospect of critical valuation beyond questions of professional binaries. The questions we posed included: Can judgment operate within new modalities of writing that hold open a reflexive space for ambiguity and dialogue? How would these new forms read? What is the ongoing significance of more “traditional” forms of writing, such as the review? If, as Boris Groys has claimed, critical discourse today is an attempt to “bridge the divide” between the “inherited older public office” of the critic who judged art “in the name of the public” and the “avant-garde’s betrayal of this office,” can new forms of criticism remake judgment anew, without making explicit determinations of quality?3
It was with a longstanding interest in these questions that we developed the Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism forum. Held over two days at Emily Carr University, the forum was contextualized by a supplementary reader featuring reprints of key texts on art criticism and valuation distributed prior to the event. The forum began with a keynote paper by Tirdad Zolghadr that assessed current discussions around art criticism through what he identified as schematic, three-step process: a definition of a crisis within the field, a call to order, and a moment in which common ground is sought between the two. The first panel, addressing the critical space of the art review, featured papers by Tom Morton, William Wood, and Kristina Lee Podesva, and was moderated by John O’Brian. The second panel, examining valuation in more genre-blurred forms of art criticism, included papers by Diedrich Diederichsen and Maria Fusco and was moderated by Jeff Derksen. This forum was complemented by a month-long discussion series held at the reading room in Artspeak’s exhibition space. Events included a talk by architect / writer Markus Miessen, a video conference with critic Sven Lütticken, an interview between curator and writer Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker and Jordan Strom, and a screening of the film A Crime Against Art (Hila Peleg, 2007).
This volume presents papers developed out of the two-day forum and an excerpt of transcripts from the public discussion during the question periods.4 These texts are complemented by essays by Sven Lütticken and James Elkins, who were asked to participate in the discussion as respondents. Lütticken’s and Elkins’s analyses of the field of art criticism were central to our own internal discussions of the field as this project developed, and their inclusion here provides an important addition to the discourse. Vancouver itself is an important context for the debates that have developed during this series of events. Over the last several decades, significant public conversations in the city developed parallel to discussions of critical art writing, but no formal consideration of the field of criticism itself emerged.5 Central to our project, therefore, was an effort to develop a conversation that engaged both international and local critics and artists in a discussion of contemporary criticism. Although the city is positioned at a geographic periphery, Vancouver’s cultural identity has evolved in tandem with debates and concerns influencing international contemporary art. This dialogue emerged through interactions with visiting artists, writers, and curators throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s—a moment when conceptual art and the spread of independent publishing and writing created new possibilities for a decentralized critical art community.6 It is Vancouver’s longstanding connection to an international critical community that provides the conditions within which Artspeak and Fillip operate.
The concerns of the present volume have been central to Fillip’s own development. Through an active publishing and event program, Fillip scrutinizes the form, function, and efficacy of critical discourses around art. Like Fillip, Artspeak provides a space for extended dialogue between visual art and language. Since 1986, Artspeak has published critical writing within the context of contemporary art, from belle lettrist, parallel texts, and ficto-criticism to descriptive and cultural commentary, as well as ongoing public discourse and conversation. The Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism project constitutes a significant, rather than a definitive, contribution to an ongoing international discussion regarding the role of criticism in a rapidly changing art system.
This project would not have been possible without the help and support of a number of individuals and organizations, foremost the writers and participants in the forum and subsequent discussion sessions: Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker, Jeff Derksen, Diedrich Diederichsen, James Elkins, Maria Fusco, Sven Lütticken, Markus Miessen, Tom Morton, John O’Brian, Kristina Lee Podesva, William Wood, and Tirdad Zolghadr. Particular thanks are due to Jordan Strom, who was crucial in the conceptualization of the structure and focus of the forum, and without whom this project would not have begun. Additional thanks to Meredith Carr, Peter Gazendam, Jonathan Middleton, Kate Steinmann, and Amy Zion for the countless hours they spent in support of this endeavor.
This publication has been made possible through the specific support of the British Columbia Arts Council’s Special Project Assistance Unique Opportunities. The forum was presented with the Vancouver 2009 Cultural Olympiad, with additional support provided by the British Columbia Arts Council’s Special Project Assistance Unique Opportunities. The keynote paper received support from the Emily Carr University speaker series. Both Fillip and Artspeak would like to acknowledge the ongoing support received from The Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council. Artspeak acknowledges the additional support of the City of Vancouver.
- James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), 48.
- Christopher Bedford, “Art Without Criticism,” X-TRA 10, no. 2 (winter 2007), 7.
- Boris Groys, “Critical Reflections,” in The State of Art Criticism, Michael Newman and James Elkins, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 63.
- Those interested in hearing the original talks are encouraged to visit the Fillip Web site, where they are available in an audio podcast. See http://fillip.ca.
- Clement Greenberg and T. J. Clark visited the University of British Columbia in 1981 for the conference Modernism and Modernity: A Question of Culture, or Culture Called into Question. Stan Douglas organized a public series of talks in 1990 that led to Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art (Vancouver: Or Gallery and Talonbooks, 1991), which was followed by Artspeak’s reconsideration of how a local art history is articulated in this city in the forum and publication Vancouver Art and Economies (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press and Artspeak, 2007).
- Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), xviii.
About the Authors
Jeff Khonsary is Publisher of Fillip.
Melanie O’Brian is Director/Curator of Simon Fraser University Art Galleries in Vancouver and Burnaby. She was Curator at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto (2011–12), Director/Curator of Artspeak, Vancouver (2004–10), and Assistant Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery (2001–04). She is the editor (with Milena Hoegsberg) of 5,000 Feet Is the Best: Omer Fast (Power Plant/Henie Onstad Kunstsenter/Sternberg, 2012); Stan Douglas: Entertainment (Power Plant, 2011); Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism with Jeff Khonsary (Fillip/Artspeak, 2010); and Vancouver Art & Economies (Arsenal Pulp/Artspeak, 2007). She has written for numerous catalogues and magazines such as C Magazine, The Exhibitionist, Fillip, X-Tra, and Yishu.