Fillip — Folio A

Three or Four Types of Intimacy
Tom Morton

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.

At the age of twenty-two, a few months after I had concluded my formal education, I wandered, without knowing it, into a profession in crisis. Call it “art criticism” or call it “art writing,” this field of activity had, according to numerous commentators, apparently become if not untenable, then at least deeply problematic. Some blamed, as Raphael Rubenstein wrote in his 2003 essay in Art in America “A Quiet Crisis,” a combination of the post-structuralist aversion to hierarchies with a generalized Valley girl-like vapidity that created an intellectual environment in which, in Rubenstein’s memorable phrase, “value judgments and the quest for historical significance are so yesterday.”9 Others, such as Suzanne Perling Hudson, blamed the art market, which, as she claimed in her 2002 essay for October, “Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism,” now requires from the critic nothing more than “beautiful writing about beautiful objects and their beautiful makers.”10 Still others blamed the ascendancy of the curator—a position exemplified by Maria Lind’s assertion in Manifesta Journal that “most of the interesting discussions over the last ten years have been formulated in projects, from collaborations between artists, curators and other people—on the floor of an institution, but not through writing.”11

Today, ten years after I first wrote about art in exchange for money, these apparent pressures on criticism have, if anything, only increased. Commercial gallerists exert more influence on the way artists’ work is framed than perhaps ever before, currently the curator seems to have the upper hand over the critic in the arm wrestling match over who gets to be the prime mediator of contemporary art, and there remains a useful and, for some, frustrating uncertainty about, if not ascribing value, then about dubious notions such as “genius,” “masterpiece,” and “canon.” Does this add up, then, to a crisis in criticism? I’m not so sure. The art world I was born into is not, it is certain, a Panglossian best of all possible art worlds (life within it can be, in Hobbes’ formulation in The Leviathan, 1660, “nasty, brutish and short”), but neither is it somewhere in which the critic is a mere copywriter, or a madman ranting, alone and ignored on the trackside, as the great goods train of the market, or the nomadic caravan of curatorial practice, rumbles blithely past. If the critic is willing to ask where is freedom and adventure, and what does it mean to be awake, there remain messy, plural answers to be found.

frieze, the magazine at which I began my critical career and for which I still work, has, in Britain at least, been the focus of much of the formal and informal debate surrounding the so-called crisis in criticism. Typically, the accusations leveled at the magazine include a tendency towards “belletrist” writing, an emphasis on the affirmative over the negative, and, rather less seriously, that it possesses an “in-crowd” mentality (don’t all magazines have that?), and, my personal favourite, the charge that frieze is “sooo frieze.” The belletrist accusation is especially instructive, containing as it does the claim that proper criticism must be couched in the texture-free language of an operating manual or academic treatise, and anything else must be the meretricious stuff of, as Hudson put it, “beautiful writing about beautiful objects and their beautiful makers.” This, though, is to confuse plainness with plain speaking, lyricism with lying, and the avatars of these critical approaches with Roundheads and Cavaliers. Language, even the language of the operating manual, is never neutral, and the appearance of objectivity is, in the end, precisely and only that. Perhaps what is really being played out in these accusations of “belletrism” is an anxiety about the critic somehow trespassing onto the artist’s territory and dipping an inappropriate toe into the waters of creativity. To create, though, is not necessarily to deceive. If the novelist may tell a truth about the particularity or universalism of human experience without recourse to the language of the academy, surely a critic may tell one about that much smaller thing, a work of art? There is, then, it seems to me, no such thing as “appropriate” critical language, save perhaps that which a particular work elicits from the writer, tempered by their wider understanding of the world and all that it contains. Elsewhere in her October essay, Hudson wrote that what she calls “beautiful writing” now “fills the spaces left vacant in the evacuation of strident critical activity.”12 It’s hard to think of this as much more than tribal politics. To get down and dirty with art, to feel its grain and let it feel yours, is subjective, sure, but it is also the most meaningful critical activity I can imagine. To refuse this is to refuse the fact that all of us cast a shadow and that it will sometimes fall across a work of art, not only obscuring it but also, and perhaps paradoxically, making it in a strange way whole. Only vampires, after all, possess no shadow, and a vampire is something a critic should never aspire to be.

Back, for a moment, to the charge that much contemporary art criticism is relentlessly affirmative, one that might be repudiated by an examination of that seemingly most humble of critical activities: the exhibition review. The leading art magazines (Artforum, frieze, Flashart) carry anything between ten and forty reviews, often published in a separate section at the magazine’s rear end. While some titles carry lead reviews of over 1,000 words, the average review clocks in at somewhere between 500 and 750 words. In almost every case, no biographical information is given about the author of these texts, whatever their status in the outside world. On these particular pages their words are presented with equal weight. Reviews sections often function as an unofficial audition space for new critical voices. Non-writers might be forgiven for thinking this is a soft landing—surely 750 words are easier to wring out than a lengthy lead feature, and surely a single exhibition provides an imitable structure, a frame for one’s critique, that the diffuse stuff of an artistic practice does not? I’m not so certain. Delivering a successful review demands much of a writer, not least that he or she interrogate what the criteria of “success” might be. As auditions go (and even established critics are always auditioning, always stepping nervously onto the stage), it’s a tough prospect. You dance your dance in public wearing homemade ballet shoes. No second take. No erase and rewind.

While it might seem obvious, it’s worth pointing out that the review occupies a particular place in the spectrum of art writing. While the monographic magazine feature or catalogue essay may be assumed, with the odd exception, to be broadly affirmative (few journals expend large numbers of pages on art that they do not in some sense support, and still fewer commercial or public galleries knowingly publish texts that undermine their business interests or institutional authority), this is not necessarily true of the review. Here the gloves, or at least all bets, are off. No reader, and certainly no interested party, should be able to tell how a given show has been received by merely scanning the contents pages of a magazine. Reviews sections, then, at their best offer up something rare and rather precious—a space in which art and curatorial practice may be assessed that’s insulated against the noisome buzz of power, money, and prior reputation, if not against the critic’s own flawed self.

If the review is about writerly freedom, it’s also about responsibility, not least to a magazine’s readership, to many of whom the reviewer is a necessary proxy, an ocular stunt double employed to see shows they’ll never see themselves. Most writers who have visited an exhibition with the purpose of reviewing it will have felt the flickering presence of the future reader at their elbow, chiding them not only to look and think harder, but to do so with an eye and mind that are not quite their own. This is more difficult than the dubious notion of critical objectivity assumes. While it’s clear that the reviewer cannot approach a show as a viewer in the casual, go-on-impress-me sense (criticism isn’t about whether a work of art rubs you the right way), neither can he or she approach it as the viewer—that mythical composite of you, me, and everyone we do and do not know. Caught up in the wobbly magnetic field generated by these two poles, they must develop a mode of address that is true to their subject matter, their readership, and themselves—one that evokes the absent exhibition rather than merely describes it, and one that evaluates it in terms broader than those provided by personal preference or any one prêt-a-porter theoretical position. If anything still signals critical authority (and if we can still usefully employ that term), it may be the ability to do this.

To write a review—to write anything—is to compromise, and the first compromise is always forced by time. The frequency with which most art magazines are published means that the reviewer has only a few weeks to shuffle thoughts into words—a fresh insight or shift in perspective might arrive, unbidden, after their copy has been filed, but this is not a business that deals in “Director’s Cuts.” Space, too, in the form of a word limit, has an effect: while it’s comparatively easy to parse every work in a small solo show, reviewing a large group show or biennial means presenting, at best, a partial account, and so a partial truth. Other (self)-limiting factors are more in the reviewer’s control—a knowledge gap can be plugged, a prejudice can be examined and lanced (or disclosed)—but the most wakeful of them are always aware of the beautiful, maddening failure of their project, which is to say the failure of language in the face of anything but itself. And yet, if every review ever written is furred by time, space, and the clumsiness of words, this is not something that is peculiar to the form. As with all writing, what matters here is honesty, along with the hope that one might communicate against the odds.

Exhibitions, unlike most art works, are transitory things, which eke out a second life through catalogue essays and documentary photography. What this material cannot capture, however, is how a show has worked on those uninvolved in a particular time and place. Given this, perhaps the most important function of exhibition reviews is to make solid the ephemeral stuff of reception, to write a history of attention, both to art and to the way it snags on the world and on the self.

Turning again towards the notional “crisis in criticism,” it is worth focussing for a moment on the economics of the profession. Anyone who writes about art knows that it is not well paid, and very few freelancers can get by on this type of work alone. One consequence of this is that in those sections of the art world that are in thrall to money, the critic is often considered to be a marginal, somewhat scruffy, and curiously old-fashioned figure. Another is that many critics are not only or even primarily critics, but also work in other fields, including, significantly, curating. To some degree, the idea of being both a critic and a curator might seem paradoxical—surely one cannot be a poacher and a gamekeeper at the same time? This is to forget, however, that historically art criticism has rarely been the sole activity of those who best practice it (think, for example, of Giorgio Vasari, Charles Baudelaire, John Ruskin, or Robert Smithson) and to set up what Alex Farquharson described in a 2005 essay as a “mock antipathy” between criticism and curating that “conceals the convergence of the two.”13 As Farquharson states: Most curators write criticism at one time or another, particularly when not working for an institution. It is hardly surprising, then, that some of these former curator-critics have helped make the institutions they now work for more discursive by emphasizing publishing and discussion. Although critics may not dominate the discourse in the way they once did, there’s little doubt we still need an independent forum within which the ideas of artists—and curators—can be analysed and evaluated. Otherwise, art’s archive will consist entirely of producers’ accounts of their own activities—and we’ve all seen how misleading and self-serving these can be.14

Farquharson’s point is, I think, important, and it underlines the fact that while art criticism seems unimportant, or at least infinitely manageable, to commercial art world interests, it is its intellectual marginalization by elements of the curatorial sector that, if anything, will plunge it into crisis. If a class of independent, prominent, and well-remunerated critics is not something the current art world feels it can afford or even really wants, those who do practice criticism are more necessary than ever. Theirs is the first draft of art history, written in the heat and intimacy of a first encounter. It is also—and herein lies its highest value—a historical deposit itself.

  1. Stuart Morgan, “Homage to a Half-Truth” (1991), in What the Butler Saw, ed. Ian Hunt (London: Durian, 1996), 234.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Boris Groys in conversation with Brian Dillon, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” frieze no. 121 (March 2009), 126–31.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Brian Dillon, “Art Power (book review),” frieze no. 117 (September 2008), 43.
  8. Boris Groys in conversation with Brian Dillon, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” 126–31.
  9. Raphael Rubenstein, “A Quiet Crisis: Is there a serious breakdown in the dialogue around contemporary painting? Should art critics get back into the business of making value judgements?” Art in America (March 2003), 41.
  10. Suzanne Perling Hudson, “Beauty and the status of contemporary criticism,” October no. 104 (spring 2003), 115–30.
  11. Alex Farquharson, “Is the Pen Still Mightier?” frieze no. 92 (June–August 2005), 118–19.
  12. Suzanne Perling Hudson, 117–18.
  13. Alex Farquharson, 118–19.
  14. Ibid.
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.

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