Fillip — Folio A

Times and Places of Critique
Jeff Derksen

Today, at the tail end of the long moment of euphoric neoliberalism, the shape of art criticism—and more broadly, cultural critique—is both over-determined and agitated by rapid economic and cultural shifts that have yet to hit their discursive bottom. For, while neoliberalism can be understood in a similar manner to Neil Smith’s description of Jürgen Habermas’s diagnosis of modernism—“dead but dominant”1—it still holds sway as a cultural logic and as a dense force against which all cultural discussion (even if it aims outside of politics) inevitably reverberates. This is simply the historical relationship of any cultural discourse, and any making of culture, to the array of mediations that culture both takes shape within and alters through its own insistence and bursts of imagination. Yet, in the long and troubled relationship of culture to the economic, the embedding of the economic into the cultural (in intensified and perhaps even novel ways characteristic of today) has produced new dynamics.

An affective economy in which value and counter-values are continually measured alongside literal surplus value signals a more profound entangling of art and other creative practices into a world administered through a logic of ownership, a valorization of singularity, a worshipping of surplus value, and a denigration of nonconformist senses of value. While the social revolution of neoliberalism is incomplete, as Habermas said of modernity, it has created a revolution within culture by molding the economic into a mediation between all levels of life. In this sense, the economic has come to occupy the position of culture as the process that holds together the “relationships between elements in a whole way of life,” as Raymond Williams famously defined culture in The Long Revolution.2 The economic has also opened itself, in unprecedented ways, to discursive dissection and aesthetic analysis.

Yet these shifts, and the assertion of the economic as the mediating process of the relationships of everyday life, have cohered into a dynamic set of pressures on cultural critique and art criticism that are both globalized and highly localized. This global-local logic, once the defining aspect of culture within globalization, is now central to neoliberalism as a commonsense and migrating form of governance. Locally, the pressures of neoliberal transformation (in the lead up to and wake of the 2010 Olympics) in Vancouver have amalgamated a new set of expectations, contexts, and possibilities for art criticism in the city and beyond. Art criticism and critical discourse is at an extremely potent or even bloated moment in Vancouver. Even in its modest scale, art and criticality have been drawn into a war of values in Vancouver as the city looks to rebrand itself within the nexus of “creative cities” globally. This public transformation is mostly driven by private initiatives, “visions,” and power configurations, and it involves the becoming “public” of art at a time characterized by the privatization of public space and goods. Yet the publicness of art is both subtly and heavily mediated through the coherence of civic and urban developers’ dreams of the city—a historical configuration of urbanism in Vancouver. The transformation of the texture and “livability” of the city over the last twenty years is intensifying precisely at the moment where the public-private sphere (the public-private partnerships, or 3Ps, which both replace and overlap the public sphere) is becoming more brittle and sterile in terms of democratic processes and more remotely shaped by what Leslie Sklair calls a “transnational capitalist class.”3 In this we can also see a smoothing out of the texture of art and other cultural production even as enticements (through funding structures) call for art to be more public and to occupy spaces produced by a complex deal with urban developers that trades off built and marketable space for public art funding. In a curious zero-sum game of space (following the myth that Vancouver has a set amount of space), space for art is produced as a by-product of another “Vancouverism,” postmodern residential towers carefully placed so as not to block the view of our timeless commodity, nature.

Yet, countering the logic of privatization and the reduction of public art to in-fill building in the urban space trade-off, in Vancouver we also witness the return of older demands that were to be satisfied by the incomplete project of modernism: the demand for housing, access to the streets, more meaningful forms of democracy beyond “stake holders” consultation, and the call for the return of the imagination in a new urban revolution. It is crucial to ask how art criticism might imagine itself within this texture of Vancouver—a city with a radical imagination of social protest and civic organizing and a city bursting with boosterism as its own exportable model of urban success. The complex politics of the interplay between two of Henri Lefebvre’s categories of space—spaces of representation and representations of space—provides a dynamically critical nexus for art production and art discourse in this city.

But within this new set of mediations—both global neoliberal urbanism and local rebranding of the city through culture—gone are the days when we could calmly locate culture, art, or literature as merely secondary, reflective, or even outside of the economic. Gone are the days where we could seek the belatedness, the comfort, or the potential of being merely superstructural, of being miraculously the last out of the gate and at the tip of the vanguard. But now is not the time for moping, or tail-dragging, or seeking refuge in the “last instance” that is yet to come in its pajamas down from an apartment to the street. Instead, today is a time to assess the roles of critique and imagine modes of criticality in relation to what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello describe as “the new spirit of capitalism,” particularly as this spirit is materializing locally (in whatever “local” one may be in!).

In what I’m characterizing as the post-euphoric moment of neoliberalism, forms of critique that have historically been in the wheelhouse of left critique are now brought into an out-of-kilter dialectic with capitalism itself. Boltanski and Chiapello map this dialectic in the spirited reformation of capitalism from May 1968 to today in relation to “the rhetoric of critique.” They compellingly lay out a dialectical relationship between the focus of two modes of critique—social critique and artistic critique—and the ways in which capitalism has transformed itself by responding to and absorbing the very aspects of these modes of critique that were to burst us out of the reproduction of inequity and alienation. Artistic critique, as Boltanski and Chiapello outline it, is a deeply affective critique of the incompleteness of everyday life, of the stifling of the potential of life by the relations of capitalism, the sway of the state, the containment of city life and the life of the streets, and the relationships between people. The keyword for artistic critique is alienation, and it has historically sought to outflank new forms of such social (and soul) displacement as they cohere in the city, in the domestic sphere, and in all affective relations. At the same time, new management language and practices have adapted to dampen the effects of this critique and to give the appearance of new solutions to the old question of alienation within the relations of capitalist production: this, to a degree, has sought to “disarm” critique. This leads Boltanski and Chiapello to pose the question: Must we not instead start from different bases—that is to say, ask if the forms of capitalism which have developed over the last thirty years, while incorporating whole sections of the artistic critique and subordinating it to profit-making, have not emptied the demands for liberation and authenticity of what gave them substance, and anchored them in people’s everyday experience?4

Cultural critique and art criticism, then, whether they use art and art institutions or the social as their entry point, face a similar question: How to produce new publics and how to forge non-absorbable forms of critique that will allow us to take aim, take time, take space, and take collectivized pleasure in order to grab the present moment by the hand and lead it to the language of less arrogant forms of social reproduction? That is, what form of critique is forged by reflection and necessity in this dialectic of absorption, accommodation, and (ironically) non-transformation? Today we are caught in a moment desperate to reproduce itself despite its hollow slogans: “there is no such thing as society,” “beneath the paving stones, real estate,” or the sleep-deprived chant that “the market will correct itself.” How are critique and art criticism placed within this process of reproduction?


In his lecture for Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, Tirdad Zolghadr outlined a relationship between criticism, critique, and criticality, with the last being an inward reflexive turn. I wonder if we can locate this inward turn as a symptom of the mediations that neoliberalism brings to bear on cultural critique and art criticism? This turn could indicate a rescaling or containment of what commentators across the board define as a social and economic crisis to the cultural field. If this inward turn is such a containment, then, rather than an attempt to build a language of critique that can grabble with the uneven experience of the social today, we see critique caught in the swirling, yet pleasingly warm, pool of the new spirit of capitalism—accentuating individual consumptive and aesthetic experiences that spring from art situated firmly in a cultural sphere sure of itself. On the one hand, this surrenders the purpose of artistic critique in the manner that Boltanski and Chiapello define it, and on the other hand, it allows a focused examination of art criticism as a definable field and practice. But what type of literacy—if we conceive of literacy as a remaking rather than an expertise, in the manner that Richard Hoggart and Gayatri Spivak do—is art criticism making? In other words, a crisis that turns inward to locate itself—in art criticism, or in another field—risks missing the crisis outside itself. It misses being a part of the crisis by generating its own! And then it can take a detour around the central aspect of critique—the thrilling articulation of the aesthetic to the social and startling joining of the possibilities of art to the structures and mediations of life.

What possibilities do we have at hand, in our globalized-local, in our public-private neighbourhood of “the ownership society,” or, conversely, what possibilities do we have in our counter-collectives or in our affective alliances of everyday life? Let me use two tendencies in the critical practices of two other participants in the forum—Maria Fusco and Diedrich Diederichsen—to frame the possibilities we have had historically and how they may crystallize as critique today. Firstly, I would identify interdisciplinarity as an operative mode, not as an institutional mode of organizing, but as a mode of thinking and writing that compounds and overlaps other possibilities of thought. Secondly, there is an expansion of the cultural field through “art writing” or a poetics of critical engagement that extends not only into narrative modes of critique, but also into an expanded field of cultural practices focused through the eye of art writing. This approach relates to both the art object and the institution, but also the form of art criticism as an institution itself: too often taken as a formally transparent or static practice (partly due to its relationship to the promotion of art, as Sven Lütticken argues) and often unquestioned in its function to create value for artists and artworks, art criticism can calcify through a bland trust in the representational function of language.5

The “personism” (poet and art writer Frank O’Hara’s term6) that is often called in to rescue the art review and give it value as an experience in itself—both de-skilling the article and adding a dollop of taste culture—continues to take the architecture of meaning for granted. Even with an expansive and compelling personism in which we may recognize our own affiliations and affections, such criticism does not yield the experience of a text in that it is not a parallel engagement with the making of meaning—the art text is never allowed to be in excess of meaning and is harnessed to a language of representation within the strictures of description and evaluation. To pick up on another point from Tirdad Zolghadr’s paper, the incommensurability of the art object is only a referential aspect of the art text.

This present volume questions the limitations and temporality of criticism—that is, the time that criticism and judgment build. Much of the reflection of the critics in this volume cuts across the language of crisis within the discipline of art criticism to provide some positions within a texture of research, knowledge, necessity, and critique for the present moment. If we feel overly constricted by such a moment, or even overwhelmed by mediations that bear down with the force of commonsense or coherent and fully armoured logics, Henri Lefebvre reminds us that “Events belie forecasts: to the extent that events are historical, they upset calculations.”7 This imagination of time and agency as event, history, and upset calculations seems to be a fertile construct for cultural criticism and art writing: historical, present, and yet overturning calculations.

  1. Neil Smith, “Toxic Capitalism,” New Political Economy 14, no. 3 (2009), 407–12.
  2. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), 46.
  3. Leslie Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).
  4. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2005), 420.
  5. Sven Lütticken, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2005).
  6. “Personism” was a short statement on poetics that O’Hara contributed to the groundbreaking anthology Poetics of the New American Poetry, eds. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove Press, 1973). As a poetics, “personism” was a defining feature of the New York School poets. For an extended reading of O’Hara and his relation to visual art, see Lytle Shaw, The Poetics of Coterie (Iowa City: The University of Iowa Press, 2006).
  7. Henri Lefebvre, Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution, trans. Alfred Ehrenfeld (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 7.
About the Author

Jeff Derksen is a cultural critic and poet who teaches at Simon Fraser University. His writing on art and culture has appeared in Springerin, Hunch, C Magazine, and Open Letter, among other publications. He is the author of Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics (Talonbooks, 2009) and After Euphoria: art / space / neoliberalism (ECU Press and JRP Ringier, forthcoming). Derksen was a research fellow at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, CUNY Graduate Centre, New York, and is a founding member of the Kootenay School of Writing. Under the name Urban Subjects, he collaborates with Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber on curatorial projects and visual research.

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