Notes on the Demise and Persistence of Judgment
Some commentators have located the demise of judgment within the massive proliferation of art styles in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Others have laid the blame at the feet of such culprits as the recently inflated art market and the legacy of institutional critique.1
I want to discuss the framework for the Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism forum as spelled out in the organizers’ printed Supplement and through texts selected and reprinted there.2 Through these texts, I would like to bring in historical and contemporary references to the conditions leading to our old friend, the putative, recurring crisis in art criticism. With that crisis in mind, and before addressing the impact of proliferating art styles, the inflated art market, and the legacy of institutional critique, I want to touch on a quote which has strong implications for the matter of judgment and art.
Art, considered in its highest vocation is and remains, for us, a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred to our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment, but our judgment also, since we subject to our intellectual consideration (i) the content of art, and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of both to one another.3
The quote is from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, last delivered in 1828. I raise Hegel’s reconsideration of art because, on the one hand, we can say that it engages a massive Wincklemann-like fantasy: the fantasy of citizens of ancient Athens walking familiarly among polychrome statues, or the equally erroneous vision of the Gothic cathedral as decorated with the “bibles of the illiterate,” both of which represent ideals of past art emphasized in forms of Romanticism contemporary to Hegel. Yet, in this fantasy, I want to note how Hegel’s emphasis on art’s belatedness encourages us to underline separation from art in our consideration of it. Meanwhile, the equally powerful desire to overcome that sense of being separate persists, whether in the revered spontaneity of Abstract Expressionist brushwork or the immediacy stressed in some accounts of conceptual art or behind a more current investment in the simulacra of community achieved through social practice or “relational aesthetics.” The pain of separation and distance, encapsulated in the notion of art being “a thing of the past,” which decisively divorces the present of forlorn art from its integrated past, is at least partially (maybe substantively) compensated for by endorsing and exalting judgment. As Hegel has it, art provides “not just immediate enjoyment” but calls us to judge appropriateness as well. Acknowledging that dreams of reconnection persist alongside the compensating reassurance of judgment, I wonder whether both constitute linked foundational fantasies: that is, fantasies of reconnection persist because we want always to imagine not being alienated from art, while, simultaneously, judgment—although promising finality—insists that we are, at least intellectually, constantly at a distance from art.
I came to Hegel’s reconsideration of art through the end-of-art thesis propounded by critic and philosopher Arthur Danto. In his After the End of Art, the idea that the proliferation of art styles in the closing decades of the twentieth century has impact on judgment can be fairly easily associated with his discussion of what he calls a democracy of pluralism in contemporary art. Danto claims that “there is now no special way a work of art must be,” tracing this condition back to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box of 1964, which possesses no significant distinguishing visual difference from the Brillo box found in the supermarket.4 While Danto has much more to say about that example, his point is that Warhol’s box signals the end of that notion of the “special way art must be,” which he attributes to what he calls the Age of Manifestoes. Broadly coincident with the period of post-Hegelian modern art and culminating in the rise of the avant garde and the neo-avant garde, the Age of Manifestoes is marked by practices of inclusion and exclusion which dictate that certain types of art work exemplify the most significant art and that all other contemporary art is inferior, perhaps not art at all. This declaration of inclusion and exclusion is an exceptional type of judgment where discrimination takes first place. One of the most often discussed example of this sort of exclusive judgment is Michael Fried’s 1967 “Art and Objecthood” (discussed mainly by Fried himself in subsequent writing). There, modernist painting and sculpture as distinct media and the theatricality of minimal art are opposed in a manner whereby, combining aesthetic with theological judgment, Fried could emphatically declare that “theatre and theatricality are at war today, not just with modernist painting ...but with art as such.”5 Such exclusive judgment is presumably what critic and curator Christopher Bedford wants when he calls for a return to Clement Greenberg-style “critical criteria,” a “well-organized, well-argued, and clearly explicated system of value.”6 Yet Fried’s essay is remembered and expressly recalled as a bellicose swansong for a type of critical diktat which purported to offer exclusive judgment while actually being special pleading based on “an attack on certain artists (and critics) and a defence of others.”7 Bedford may point favourably to the richness of the debates that ensued, but I have doubts that anyone today could find in medium specificity sufficient grounds, or fervent faith in certain artists as righteous proof, truly to emulate Fried’s 1960s example—except Fried himself in his 2008 monographic paean disguised as an explanation of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.8
In her essay “Change and Criticism: Consistency and Small Minds,” also from 1967, Lucy Lippard is already preparing ground for moving away from the excluding mode when she argues that “a judgment on contemporary art is tentatively true, like a scientist’s law and unlike a legal law.”9 This comparison of types of laws indicates something which Fried’s call for medium specificity cannot tolerate, for she is encouraging looking not to a canon but to experimentation for criteria in engaging art and criticism. When Lippard goes on to say that “the critic’s role is descriptive rather than prescriptive,” combined with her allusion to the scientist, she points towards the oft-forgotten attraction of technocratic adventures such as communications and systems theory and the philosophy of science—as elaborated in books such as Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—on contemporary thinking about the arts and culture in the 1960s. Besides indicating an expanded field beyond media specificity, one outcome of this attraction which Lippard seems to be anticipating was her own subsequent practice as a descriptive critic of the conceptual art that overtly tried to avoid or render useless the categories of painting and sculpture—not to mention aesthetic conviction and cultural privilege—which upheld the exclusionary judgment of critics like Fried, as well as her later inclusive approach to feminist and activist art projects and her concern with aspects of locale in her writing.
We can see the legacy of this move from prescriptive judgment to tentative description operating in the October round table when David Joselit speaks of judging “what constitutes an object ...an object of history and object of aesthetic interpretation”10 or speaks of judging “the boundaries of a field”11 in the context of engaging both art and visual culture. Joselit is making a double move. On the one hand, we need to judge what is an appropriate object for criticism, as when a critic passes over the phantom of the “thing in itself” to determine how the work of art is articulated and refracted through institutional framing, curatorial context, and the histories, conventions, and subjects it emerges through and calls upon. On the other, where do the bounds of aesthetic interpretation lie? Are art critics (or art historians who act as critics sometimes, like Joselit) and their competencies able to reach meaningfully to other areas? Are we (since I occupy the same field) in possession of specially pertinent tools and analyses which might be fruitfully applied to a broader range of images and objects, from popular culture, non-elite spectacle, and subcultural practices? I do not want to get caught up in this question, but want to argue that this double move means that we need to come closer to considering not the proliferation of styles but the proliferation of objects and the proliferation of aspects in the field of contemporary art and criticism. For Sven Lütticken, the issue pivots on the distinction Joseph Kosuth is credited with elaborating between “specific” and “generic” art, with generic or art-in-general being a situation where “objects nowadays exhibited as art no longer derive their legitimacy from a tradition or an artistic medium but from the very fact that their artistic status is initially dubious.”12 Such a proliferation of objects for contemporary art has a consequence that, to Lütticken, differently politicizes the sort of pluralism Danto cheers on as democratic. Since art can include most anything, it is then open in a new way to the commodity relations of spectacular society, and so the artist has become an exemplary consumer. Meanwhile, the sort of criticism which stresses art’s “potential for dissent and difference” risks being merely the “marketing slogans for art that has sabotaged such a project,” promoting its consumption in a deceptive, probably repressive, but incrementally different type of pitch.
In response to this potential sabotage, Lütticken (with a nod to Boris Groys), discusses Marcel Broodthaers, seeing him as a figure whose acts of consumption amounted to “not merely a reflection of spectacle but a reflection on it” and further claims that this sort of “meta-consumption” can result in “decoding, deviant commodities which are more thought-provoking and productive compounds” of the “irrational rationality of the spectacle.”13 Though he appears to laud this tendency—and to link it to other scripto-visual artists like Dan Graham and Robert Smithson—Lütticken is also concerned with the way in which the “ideology of art” stipulates that the culture industry represents the big Bad Cop while the art business represents the Good Cop—the one who “is good for people, refined, complex—and critical.” Aware that critical writing—whether or not it is exclusively judgmental—is part and parcel of art’s privileged position as something somehow regarded as not entirely instrumentalized, Lütticken writes of the uninflected importation of contemporary cultural theory into artistic and critical discourse as often constituting unreflective consumption, what he calls a “pathetic, pathological tangle of slogans and hype.”14 Here we might also consider Julian Stallabrass’s contention that a good deal of contemporary art’s charm lies in the way it acts as a cipher for notions of artistic and creative freedom while simultaneously being nicely positioned as spectacle in the status stakes played out by powers who are bent on increased capital accumulation through increasing inequity.15
We are now up against the question of the recently inflated market and its impact on judgment. Is this really a problem? Many commentators on contemporary criticism, including Lütticken and James Elkins, write of an imperative that art must appear with some form of writing attached to it and, equally that there has recently been more publishing of commentary, gossip, blogging, publicity, and art writing than ever before. In addition, Elkins claims that most of what is produced is not read and certainly not worthy of close reading.16 Meanwhile, in a 2008 discussion of “Art and Its Markets,” Tim Griffin, editor of Artforum, said that the abundance of advertising in his magazine had lead him away from the market to areas where he could use the ad revenue “to do something completely counterintuitive: slow down, be late, even slightly out of sync.”17 Hence, the magazine had recently featured articles and tributes to figures seemingly extraneous to the fungibles of art dealing and collecting—philosopher Jacques Rancière, dancer Michael Clark, novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet among them. In this example, the judgment of “an object of history”—which Joselit upheld—sustains what Hal Foster calls “the archaeological function” of criticism,18 returning the forgotten or revaluing the marginal thanks to revenue from a market whose interests it, nominally, does not represent—though here, we must recall that reviving marginal figures extends the stock available for dealing.19 As well, dealing, whether in words or of works, can come to have reciprocal effects by generating subsequent circulation of works and in words.
I am not, like Dave Hickey, an apologist for the art market, but diffidence about the art market’s relationship to questions of criticism and judgment necessitates neither an embrace of the ubiquity of market pressures nor a disavowal of those pressures. Rather, we can look to the art market’s many contradictory aspects—the lack of a clear sense of what art is worth, what it can do, how it is promoted simultaneously as token of freedom and as owned object, as luxury goods and as cultural patrimony, as things useless as instruments but viable for all sorts of speculative purposes.20 These questions are grounded in matters of autonomy and heteronomy, the two poles which, according to Pierre Bourdieu, structure the field of cultural production, making its nineteenth-century French formation “the economic world reversed.”21 (To revise the terms for the field of contemporary art in the recent past, we might speak of the art market as representing the economic world synchronized.) It is not that the market dictates criticism—Tim Griffin wondered: “Could a publication seriously damage anything anymore?”22—but to recognize that inflation in a bubble market and especially the corrosive effects of presuming market relations to be the prevailing model for social life has taken on the character of a neoliberal monolith, resulting in the eradication of remaining vestiges of publicness while endorsing weak citizenship.
In front of the Richard Serra-like monolith, we might turn away from the art market towards the question of funding and governance of public institutions like museums. As Andrea Fraser points out in the 2002 October round table on “The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” the privatization and corporatization of museums and galleries is the result of “a historical shift” since the 1970s where: “The progressive ambition of building audiences for art museums ...[whereby] museums began to recognize that they had publics and public responsibilities, as did artists and critics and curators” came to be “seen through the prism of professional and institutional needs.”23 As she concludes: “So art for art’s sake was replaced by growth for art’s sake—which was often seems a thin cover for growth for growth’s sake.” This is somewhat related to an argument brought forth by Benjamin Buchloh concerning how one “target” of conceptual art’s thorough criticism of the field of contemporary art in the 1960s and 1970s was “the secondary discursive text that attached itself to artistic practice.” As he further states, “readers’ competence and spectatorial competence had reached a level where the meddling of the critic was historically defied and denounced.”24 What interests me here is the trend to revise the relatively recent past regarding the encouragement of “democratization and decentralization”—in the progressive bureaucratic language of the day—in postwar cultural organizations and individual reception. That is, to see how laudable aims that pointed away, again, from exclusive judgment and inherited privilege, need to be understood as plays in a field where every part is active and unforeseen consequences need to be exposed and subject to analysis. If, in the museum, opening up the institution to more publically sensitive accountability also advanced administrators’ adoption of corporate methods and standards, so the redirected energies of the empowered viewer / reader of conceptual art could also be seen to contribute to the quelling of the exclusionist critic as well as a harbinger of intensified heteronymous, inclusive forms of art writing—like gossip, blogging, and publicity. A further implication is that, just as the corporate methods of the museum stress attendance numbers and fundraising goals, so inclusive modes of art writing remove barriers to publication along with the residual conscientiousness of the professional critic.
This brings me to the legacy of institutional critique inasmuch as Buchloh is credited with its initial analysis and Fraser is surely one of its most articulate practitioners. Indeed, Fraser offers perhaps one usable definition of criticism: “I define criticism as an ethical practice of self-reflective evaluation of the ways in which we participate in the reproduction of relations of domination, which include for me the exploitation of competence and other forms of institutional authority.”25 It is through “self-reflective evaluation” that institutional critique causes problems for judgment since critique and reflective thought demand questioning of the authority of those who present themselves fit to judge. Taking this definition into consideration leads Fraser to recommend a “site-specific” type of art criticism that means “not misrecognising your readership as the other of your discourse but as the actual people who are probably going to be picking up the magazine and looking through its pages.”26 Sven Lütticken comes to a similar conclusion when he writes of the possibility that the “ideology of art” which sponsors Good Cop / Bad Cop notions can also permit “fragile alliances between institutions and individuals in the art world.”27 This, to me, is a large part of the legacy of institutional critique because Lütticken and Fraser not only recognize the importance of critique and contextualization but they also display an abiding involvement in the institutions they subject to critique. Such investment has always marked the strongest manifestations of the critique of institutions—the ethically sound conviction that Hans Haacke held that his 1971 real time social system, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, would be shown at the Guggenheim Museum because officials would recognize its public importance. In the end, of course, they did not: Director Thomas Messer enacted and excited subsequent critique by cancelling the exhibition, proving the limits of tolerance within the notionally liberal establishment. In this example, the legacy of institutional critique prompts judgment of matters of exclusion and inclusion in cultural life and questions those “relations of domination” we all participate in by venturing that the description or re-description of institutional conditions leads towards attempts to fulfill repressed and latent potentials otherwise not considered.
Having discussed the three factors leads me to propose some tentative conclusions:
1. If we move from regarding the proliferation of styles to considering the proliferation of objects or the proliferation of aspects in the field of contemporary art, we realize that the actual difference is that we no longer judge works but assess or analyze projects or practices. Partly this is an effect of a shift in the way artists produce work; artists no longer make works but prepare exhibitions—they make shows. Again, although one can trace this back to the decline of state and private commissions and the ascendance of the commercial gallery in the late-nineteenth century, the most obvious example is the “post-studio” condition of the 1960s when artists like Carl Andre or Dan Flavin had component parts delivered to the gallery and assembled the show there. One might go further and, recalling that a Flavin requires a certificate to distinguish it from directly store-bought fluorescent fixtures, agree with Boris Groys when he argues that much of what we approach as contemporary art in galleries and museums is not art work but art documentation that depends on art being “no longer present and immediately visible but rather absent and hidden.”28 This means that we may personally prefer certain examples but we can no longer faithfully argue that this video is better than that photograph on secure, pseudo-connoisseurial grounds.
2. The recently inflated market is an aspect, maybe an extremely volatile aspect, of the relations of domination whereby art and culture are part of the “dominated dominant” portion of social life. The feints and moves of all the agents in the field affect judgment not by dominating it in the literal sense of dictation, but by inciting all manner of play between autonomous and heteronomous positions and dispositions. This is not meant to be comforting but it does offer, though critique and analysis, the possibility of plotting the players and comprehending their moves in relation to each other. Once we cease judging by appeal to an impossible autonomy and recognize the inevitability of heteronomy, we see that it takes ingenuity rather than faith to manoeuvre in the field.
3. The legacy of institutional critique is best understood as an unrelenting ethical imperative, as Fraser put it, speaking of her own practice, “to perform the inseparability of freedom and determination; to perform that contradiction without distancing it in facile irony or collapsing it in cynicism.”29 With talk of freedom and determination, we can return back to the quote from Hegel and note something latent in his writing which might be more explicit in my description of the replacement of exclusive judgment with the judgment of objects of interpretation and of aspects of the field of contemporary art. Namely, that art is not now in pursuit of its highest vocation but the memory of that vocation and the idealism it entails persists in rumours and fantasies that art has become alive again under new circumstances. Though the idea is tantalizing in many ways, I hope we can also see that it is tremendously unlikely to be so.
- Supplement for Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism (Vancouver: Artspeak and Fillip, 2009), 5. This booklet included reprints of texts by Lucy Lippard, Sven Lütticken, Christopher Bedford, and James Elkins, as well as “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” October no. 100 (spring 2002).
- The Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism forum was accompanied by a reading room / gallery installation and a brochure publication, both put together by Fillip and Artspeak. Besides mapping the overlapping territory that prompted the collaboration leading to the forum, these coordinated opportunities to read the texts and handle the products of criticism also offered the speakers and the audience selected writings and provided the hint of a history to consider prior to and following the two days of papers and discussion. For a list of texts included in the Supplement, see Bibliography, page 169.
- G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 11.
- Arthur C. Danto, “Three Decades After the End of Art,” After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 35.
- Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (summer 1967), 12–23, as reprinted in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 163.
- Christopher Bedford, “Art Without Criticism,” X-tra 10, no. 2 (winter 2008). I could add that one can say that Greenberg had a “clearly explicated system of value” only if you forget about the various and often conflicting attempts to sort out his position by critics and historians such as T. J. Clark, Thierry de Duve, Charles Harrison, Caroline Jones, Rosalind Krauss, and Barbara Reise.
- Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” 167.
- Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
- Lucy Lippard, “Change and Criticism: Consistency and Small Minds,” in Changing: Essays in Art Criticism (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971), 24.
- Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, Andrea Fraser, David Joselit, Rosalind Krauss, et al, “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” October no. 100 (spring 2002), 209.
- Ibid., 217.
- Sven Lütticken, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Culture (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2006), 8.
- Ibid., 14–15.
- Ibid., 14.
- Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- James Elkins and Michael Newman, eds., The State of Art Criticism (New York: Routledge, 2008), 72–74.
- “Art and Its Markets: A Roundtable Discussion,” Artforum 46, no. 8 (April 2008), 300.
- “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” 220.
- Along with the “Art and Its Markets” roundtable, the April 2008 issue of Artforum has a discussion of how a sizeable posthumous market for the work of Lee Lozano has been generated through a “circle of belief” consisting of fellow artists, critics, curators, dealers, and collectors. See Katy Siegel, “Market Index: Lee Lozano,” Artforum 46, no. 8 (April 2008), 330, 390.
- For a study of at least one aspect of this complex and contradictory diffidence, the pricing of works of contemporary art, see Olav Velthius, Talking Prices (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
- Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic Field Reversed,” The Field of Cultural Production, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 29–73, 273–79.
- “Art and Its Markets,” 300.
- “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” 213.
- Ibid., 205.
- Ibid., 214.
- Ibid., 223.
- Lütticken, 16.
- Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” Art Power (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008), 53. On the subject of Flavin’s certificates, see James Meyer, “The Minimalist Unconscious,” October no. 130 (fall 2009), 143–76.
- Andrea Fraser, “Performance Anxiety,” Artforum 14, no. 6 (February 2003), 103.
About the Author
William Wood is an art historian and critic. Since 1984, he has published on recent art in journals, anthologies, and exhibition catalogues, as well as held editorial positions with C Magazine, Public, Vanguard, and Parachute. Recent catalogue essays and articles have dealt with artists such as Stan Douglas, Brian Jungen, Mike Kelley, Becky Singleton, and the entity known as the Vancouver School. He has taught art history and critical theory at universities in Canada and the United Kingdom.