Three or Four Types of Intimacy
In his essay “Homage to the Half-Truth” (1991), the late British art critic Stuart Morgan writes that “chief among myths that underlie the critic’s task might be that of Cupid and Psyche”1—a tale of a woman joined in darkness each night by an anonymous male lover who forbids her to light a lamp lest she discover who he is. Curiosity, though, gets the better of Psyche, who one night illuminates their bedchamber, the better to stare upon Cupid’s sleeping form. In the moment she recognizes him for the god he is, she mistakenly pricks herself on one of his arrows, deepening her ardor and provoking her to kiss him, an act that causes her to overturn the lamp, splashing his bare chest with hot wax. Waking with a start, Cupid calls an immediate end to the affair. Total identification has brought about a total and irreversible rift between the lovers, and no mortal or immortal hand can wrestle the cat back into the bag.
Morgan, however, has a different take on the myth, claiming that its basis is not “identification at all, but recognition akin to that which a critic feels: some sudden awareness of a pattern that was previously only intuited, a flash of similarity between what is inside and what is out, between self and other, or of mental and physical distances brought about by the experience of loving, or at least of attraction.”2 What is important for Morgan is not the pinning of the butterfly to the board, but the wheeling, net-in-hand pursuit of it over the meadow. What is important is not judgment (“to be judgmental,” he writes, “is only finally the case”3), but the intimacy that precedes it.
Criticism is, it seems to me, an endeavour that turns on a set of intimacies: between the writer and the work, the writer and the artist, the writer and the reader, and the writer and him- or herself. To write even a short piece of criticism (a review, say, of some hundreds of words) is to spend a considerable stretch of time thinking about a body of work. When was the last occasion, I wonder, that any of us honestly sat for hours or days in silence contemplating nothing but our beloved? For Boris Groys, at least, it seems that in the early years of our young century, this is time squandered. In a recent interview with critic Brian Dillon, the Russian thinker claimed that contemporary art criticism is significant only in so far as the critic creates a search engine for the reader; fundamentally, he just says “Look at this!” Whatever is said beyond this is perceived merely as an explanation or legitimization of this advice to look. People are not so interested in why they should look at it; they’re interested in whether they should look at it at all. They’re also not interested in the critic’s opinion....4 Consequently, says Groys, as a critic, you have to decide what you want to advertise, what your ideological position is, what you want to make known. Of course, you’re no longer interested in criticizing anything; you’re interested in forwarding what you think is interesting for you, what should be regarded as interesting for culture in which you are living, what you’re ready to support.5 Even worse, being a writer, the art critic does what a writer generally does: he talks about himself. Under the pretext of explaining his position he begins to write.... And if the critic is a good writer, we read him as we read any other writer; just as a text, just as writing.6
Groys is, to a degree, being playful here. As Dillon asserts in an earlier review of Groys’s volume of essays Art Power, he is surely right to suggest (albeit ironically) that the much-rumoured decline of critical authority is in fact an unprecedented opportunity.... Radical, even Utopian, impulses are hidden today in seemingly enfeebled institutions and practices.7 That having been said, it is perhaps worth treating the markers of decline identified by Groys with a dose of skepticism. There are certainly those who subscribe to the notion that any publicity is good publicity, and there are certainly artists whose careers have been buoyed by great stacks of press clippings, favourable or not, although this cannot be said to be the sole secret of their success. (Do, say, museums really program exhibitions and acquire works on the basis of what Groys calls the “digital code” of contemporary criticism: “zero or one, mentioned or not mentioned”8?) Equally, there are readers who, from time to time, use certain types of criticism, most often newspaper criticism, as more of a “what’s on” guide than anything else. I am not sure, though, that we read criticism “just as text, just as writing,” or even that I know what this apparent demotion means—a novel, a paper in a scientific journal, and the copy on a cereal box are, after all “just text, just writing,” but each of them has a markedly different purpose and appeals to markedly different types of authority. The critic may, as Groys says, “talk about himself,” but it’s hard to think how this might be avoided—we have nothing but our better or worse selves through which to process the world. There is, after all, no possibility of a super critic, producing super text or super writing. Discontented as some of us may be with human frailty, we cannot transform the shambling journalist Clark Kent into Superman.
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About the Author
Tom Morton is a critic and curator based in London. He is a curator at the Hayward Gallery, where he has organized exhibitions by Cyprien Gaillard, Guido van der Werve, and Matthew Darbyshire. In October 2010, he will co-curate the major travelling exhibition British Art Show 7. He was previously curator at Cubitt Gallery, London, and co-curator of the 2008 Busan Biennale. Morton has been contributing editor of frieze since 2003 and also writes regularly for Bidoun and GQ Style. He has written numerous exhibition catalogue essays, including on artists Roger Hiorns, Erik van Lieshout, Pierre Huyghe, Glenn Brown, Andro Wekua, and Victor Man.