Worse than Kenosis
The Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism forum pitted an unnamed set of “judges” against an intellectual generation with a strong ideological sympathy for “criticality” in art. In my keynote address, I made a stand for the latter that surprised even me in its resolve, fussily rejecting the idea of judgment in favor of self-reflexivity, persistent recontextualization, and so on. In place of judgment, I proposed the rehabilitation of notions of professional specificity. By the end of the forum, I was not so sure about this assertion. Contributions like my own, which advocated some free flow of post-factual ambivalence, seemed a little too nice, even self-congratulatory, in that fair-trade sun-dried-tomatoes kind of way. Clever, in the worst sense of the term. A position like Diedrich Diederichsen’s, by contrast—a persuasive plea for judgment as both inevitable and invigorating—seemed the reasonable way to go. A good old T-bone steak. To make things worse, Diederichsen was backed up by audience member Stan Douglas, who referred to Theodor Adorno’s mildly racist indictment of jazz to say: at least the guy had a position. Judgment, in this context, amounts to robust opinions asserting what is good, bad, or ugly, according to clearly voiced criteria, which is hoped to offer more transparency both in terms of the writers’ positions and in terms of characterizing the art that is being debated.
It wasn’t easy, but I’ve reconsidered. I’ve decided Diederichsen, Douglas, and Adorno can judge all they like. As long as the field is littered with professionals even half as perceptive. Judgment needs a critical ethos beyond a friendly set of advisory checks and balances. It needs to be repeatedly deconstructed from within. If you trace the matter closely enough, within the confines of the existing contemporary art field, you begin to notice that most things judgmental have a pointed tendency to be pointlessly injurious, pointlessly embarrassing, or both. You have newspaper critics offering unmitigated gut reactions to, say, the Turner Prize shortlist, as if their raw innards held precious gems of ideological truth: The frontrunner leaves me cold. He has never done more than mildly irritate me. Gut feeling is posited as the more “honest” source of insight. You have academy teachers with authoritarian aplomb encouraging impulsive judgment in their students, at the expense of prolonged self-criticism. You have curators in the Middle East making blanket evaluations that afford them an aura of spokesmanship and sometimes wanton political power. Inevitable? Perhaps. But advisable, useful, critical?
Since this book is critiquing critics and judging judges, I’ll begin with a comment that is modest but clearly prescriptive. I appreciate art writing that is specific in that it starts with the material. Not the art, necessarily, but the material format that supports the critical event in itself, be it situational, infrastructural, or such. This is why I tend to start with the premise of the current volume. After which I shall offer my own idea of a crisis, an alternative to the one sketched out in the forum’s original brief. Crisis is widely seen as a dialectical lubricant, moving things along from one stage of stability to the next, and in many contexts that is a reasonable definition, surely. But in a setting such as criticism, crisis needs to be addressed first and foremost as a constant companion, a trope that is conjured, more or less dramatically, more or less explicitly, as an inevitable step in the critical process. Crisis not as an exceptional disaster zone, but as a stabilizing, homeopathic cough drop. Following all this, I’ll finally pitch a few unexceptional, moderate ideas about directions to consider. The ideas are unexceptional and moderate in that they amount to little more than a circumscription of the distinctive features of the field under scrutiny. This in itself, I’d like to argue, is a step in a good direction.
Before we get to the material format of the brief that framed the forum from which this book has been produced, consider, if you will, the format of the exhibition review. The review is by now the most musty of master forms, the oil painting of art writing. The difference being that oil painting, much like stage theatre, has long come to terms with its anachronisms and often succeeds in making virtue out of necessity with self-reflexive verve. Reviews are about as reflexive as West End Samuel Beckett reruns or art biennials. Experimentation in content and ambition in form is encouraged only within the confines of the classroom or the hyperspecialized zine / journal, where it often becomes extremely affected and slightly boring. In the more influential art magazine arena, on the other hand, reviews are not only pedestrian, they are also deeply descriptive in character. A 2002 Columbia University survey1 showed a comfortable majority of critics saw their work as a matter of description first and foremost (interestingly, “judging art” was regarded the least popular activity). This is hardly surprising given that most of today’s reviews are as illustrative and explanatory as they were two centuries ago, when installation images were scarce and reviews were thus unadulterated ekphrasis.
But at least the review is recognized as a critical genre. The conference brief, by contrast, goes unnoticed and untheorized. Conference briefs are aggressively prescriptive, often drastically reining in the speaker’s intentions, and yet they are carelessly discarded in cabs and bus shelters after lying folded up in our Wranglers. In this, the brief is similar to exhibition press statements and vernissage gossip blogs. Rarely mentioned in analytical settings, they are potent, volatile, and overwhelming when left unchecked, like heroin or swine flu or any matter that is left to fend for itself. Sometimes, they are mistakenly considered harmless due to their lack of narrative specificity. Indeed, they often render the issues obscure, like the near-proverbial rhetorical spin cycle on the curatorial washing machine: Which are the key criteria underlying decision-making processes in the competitive struggle for public attention in the arts and the creative industries, and, moreover, in this context, what is the precise function of immaterial goods such as “authenticity,” “originality” and the like, etc.? On the other hand, when they are more specific, they’re utterly unrealistic in timing: Each of you has ten minutes to make a statement on the current state of art criticism, art magazines, the relationship between the art critic and curator, how contemporary theory and politics feed into curatorial practice, etc. But influence does not depend on narrative specificity or on well-timed logistics. One of the accusations criticality is facing is that its dense, ambiguous rhetoric makes it precisely less vulnerable. The Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism brief avoided these pitfalls. The title is refreshingly deadpan and unassuming. A relief from necrophiliac proclamations of the demise of the public, the death of the critic, the devastation of humankind, and this and that.
The e-mail brief sent out to the conference participants prior to the event argued that twentieth-century “mitigation of the importance of critical valuation established within high modernist discourses” led to many critics arguing for a more open “dialogue between texts and objects.” More recently, however, a growing chorus of critics began to argue that “a return to judgment was a remedy to the cauterized state of contemporary art criticism.” The question is, therefore: “Can judgment operate within new modalities of writing that hold open a reflexive space for ambiguity and dialogue?”
There is more drama to come. The context is defined as “unbridled art market speculation in parallel with war and economic collapse.” Whether one has spawned the other, or whether they all suffer from similar causes, is unclear. But the organizers ostensibly provide the backdrop for the question of function and efficacy of contemporary art writing. Surprisingly, the invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of financial markets, and the inflated price of a Peter Doig are indeed related, be it only in their implications for the efficacy and perceived agency of art writing. The common denominator here is a perpetually frustrated appetite for consequentiality on writers’ behalf, the shameful suspicion that the symbolic is not enough in a setting as volatile and violent.
Shame, as Karl Marx would have it, is an underrated revolutionary sentiment. But if we agree that shame is not an option, that a more dignified response is expected at a professional conference, perhaps the most optimistic way to frame agency within criticism and to posit writing as an actual high ground of agency is to evoke the comic strip division of labour between word and image and to argue that word is to image as speech is to action or thought is to bodies. This is to imply that we intervene in the overall distribution of forms of visibility, that we put things on the map. And in this, ours is not fundamentally different from internationalist humanitarian efforts, seeing as, after all, even the UN draws attention to crises—in a manner that disregards boundaries between institutions, disciplines, nation states—as a central part of its mission. Others have argued that inefficacy is not the problem, so much as is the shame in it, precisely. One might embrace the inefficacy instead. Perform the marginality and espouse the latency in the hope of construing pockets of ambiguity in a mass culture of high performance. The idea of kenosis—self-emptying in the spirit of openness to signals from above—is as old as the hills. As the tastefully ambiguous, the strategically latent, and the otherwise marginal have liked to point out since Aristotle, the highest form of power is actually the power not to act. The conference brief names a third possibility of reacting to the crisis of inefficacy: “value and judgment are returning to the forefront of debates about the social function of the art critic.” Beyond Rancièreian regimes of visibility and Bartleby the Scrivener, we have the Tough Love approach. Someone’s gotta sweep them streets. Setting aside the content for a moment, it is undeniable that the dialectic at hand is a familiar structural ruse.
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About the Author
Tirdad Zolghadr is an independent writer and curator based in Berlin. He writes for frieze and teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York. Zolghadr is currently curating the Taipei Biennial 2010 with Hongjohn Lin. He recently organized the UAE (United Arab Emirates) pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2009 and the long-term exhibition project Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie, with Nav Haq. Zolghadr is Editor-at-Large for Cabinet. His first novel, Softcore, was published by Telegram Books in 2007. The working title of his second novel is Top Ten.