Judgment, Objecthood, Temporality
Some time ago, I began playing a game with myself: whenever a gallery opening threatened to be boring, I compared every art object at hand with The Simpsons episode that aired the same afternoon. I probably don’t need to tell you that, in most cases, the cultural industrial product of three scriptwriters, three hundred Korean draughtsmen and women, several actors, and many other people was not only more intelligent, funny, and entertaining than its counterpart, it also succeeded on the home turf of fine art: a self-reflexive discussion of its own means in order to achieve a specific aesthetic goal: justification of that goal.
This game interrupts high art’s dream to live in a perfect world in which human production is not measured and debated on the grounds of normative ideas and criteria. This dreamworld—in which art exists outside of the rules of cultural industrial production—is not pleasant. It is a hellish, petit-bourgeois dystopia in which people play games without winners and the idea that anything is preferable to anything else is grinned away by zombies who avoid conflict by any means.
Judgments, especially negative judgments of value, have increasingly bad press. Opinions are supposed to be relative, debates open, and results postponed. The widespread attitude among artists and curators these days is that recipients (many single people) would rather interact than judge. Theoreticians seem to agree. Complaining about this is similarly widespread. Here, I agree with Tirdad Zolghadr’s remark that complaining about the lack of judgment is as widespread as judgments are absent.
But to support the notion of judgment is not necessarily to call for a return to order, as Zolghadr suggested in his keynote address. It may as well be a leap forward, a redefinition of disagreement on the basis of argument instead of taste; a re-rationalization of distinction against its naturalization. Only the ironicist, who observes discourses not for their argumentative, transitive value, but for their object value (beauty, rarity, newness, complexity)—an almost a hegemonic intellectual type these days—will refuse this possibility. He or she avoids right / wrong alternatives by all possible—and often dandyistic—means. I have certain sympathy for this attitude based on historical merits that date back to the days of a hopelessly deadlocked but still hegemonic critical discourse. But I disagree in the contemporary situation, in which an avoidance of judgment is not only held to be natural, it is also politicized in a semi-heroic rhetoric. These were the programmatic and normatively anti-normative statements of the 2006 Viennese conference Kritik on the state of the art of criticism: What is critique? It is certainly not simply a practice of judging, much less of condemning. It may be that these kinds of reactive, abbreviated forms of “critique” charged with resentment are still being preached from the pulpits of academic teaching and announced from within the bunkers of art criticism, a practice that is perhaps even stronger than ever. In a contemporary concept of critique, however, it can no longer be a matter of a more or less rigorous yes or no to a certain object.1
I would indeed agree that it is reductivist to limit critique or criticism exclusively to judgment; one could say, for example, that this would identify the process with the result. But certain things in these programmatic sentences irritated me: “Condemning” and “negative judgment” are “stronger than ever”? Where? In which “bunkers of art criticism,” and where in the discourse of “academic teaching”? Where are you living? If there is one thing you never read anywhere nowadays, it is a negative judgment against any show, project, book, or catalogue by anyone involved in the fine art world—this simply does not exist any more. The reason is that, in all likeliness, producing negative criticism results in social death. Writers would need the support of other structures, outside of the art market, to achieve the social power to negate any object or project within it. But, on the other hand, to adequately address contemporary art, one needs so much insider knowledge that criticism from outside is hardly possible and not even desirable.
There is a similar situation in newspaper journalism and in many specialist discourses such as film criticism. The only exceptions, at least in the European situation, are theatre and classical music. Here, at least in some old-school bourgeois newspapers—which nobody takes seriously anyway—the editors keep up a traditional form of review culture in which negation is still possible. This often leads to a widespread misunderstanding: judgmental criticism is possible only within traditional fields. In today’s complex contemporary art world, you can only guess the value of art in general. But if traditional rules don’t apply within contemporary art criticism, the social rules that make certain art beautiful for specific people are based on judgments and their defence. Every conversation about contemporary art progresses through disagreements, exposure of criteria, and so on. The unexplained absence of these discursive habits in written art criticism fulfils even the easiest criteria for some kind of false consciousness or ideology —that is what a certain discourse hides and that it is hiding it.
I want to support a practice of criticism that eventually produces judgments—of course not final, holy judgments, but judgments of value. Eventually, I hope to come up with some ideas for a certain practice of judging that I will find defendable, as opposed to the pseudo-noble withdrawal from judgment. But first I want to discuss an antagonistic constellation that I found in one of the texts of another Viennese symposium on critique and criticism, organized by the same European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies that was responsible for Kritik in 2006. In his introductory lecture for the conference The Art of Critique (2008), Gerald Raunig refers to distinctions based on Foucault’s text “What is Critique?” and a reading of Foucault by Judith Butler.2 In this discussion, Raunig makes a distinction between critique as an open process—a general perspective towards the world—and a narrow-minded notion of critique as a practical and useful instrument that helps you get through the world—or rather, helps you decide between consumer options.3 Raunig quotes Butler as having argued that critique in the first sense is the very process that suspends judgment.
By the way: I found my fellow panellists at the Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism forum well dressed. I like Jeff’s jacket, I like Maria’s jacket, I like my jacket.
This idea of critique as a process-oriented attitude gravitates towards the description of people, their personal mindset, their self-image, their morality. In other words, it develops a tendency which drives the practice of this process-oriented critique-as-way-of-life towards focussing on issues of the self, a self which is not completely free of petit-bourgeois notions of the value of a self. It does not prescribe the discursive side of a discursive practice, but the personal, psychological, habitual side of it. This critique might still be a discourse, a discursive practice, but in order to conceive of it in that way—as a suspension of judgment—it must be thought of as a discursive activity involving living people, not just critical or theoretical production. This suspension of judgment can make sense only as a quasi-aesthetic and / or ethical practice that organizes itself around the life of thought, its infinity and physicality. It is by no means the asymmetrical activity of people vis-à-vis objects or vis-à-vis the world, which one might associate with critical practice in the first place. Instead it describes people vis-à-vis themselves, how they grow, develop, avoid, play and maybe even produce—but all from a position of sovereignty, self-control, and even narcissism. Maybe this is a deeper reason for the strategies of avoidance and fluffiness that Zolghadr mentioned in his opening lecture. You shy away from judgment because you feel that, in this post-Fordist world, objects, especially art objects, are people or are very close to people. That means that when you judge, you insult someone, not just on a professional level, but on a personal level. We are all far too well educated to do that.
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About the Author
Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic of art, pop music, theatre, and politics. He is currently Professor for Theory, Practice, and Communication of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and was formerly editor at the music magazines Sounds and Spex.