Fillip — Folio A

Worse than Kenosis
Tirdad Zolghadr

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.

Thesis: a theory-driven practice of metacommentary strives to do justice to a shifting, heterogeneous public, to the very dialogue unfolding between texts and their objects, leading to a rigorous detachment from questions of quality towards questions of context, ideology, etc.—a shift Irit Rogoff has successfully summarized as moving from criticism to critique to criticality.2 From finding fault to tracing tacit assumptions that make something seem persuasive to observing from an ambivalent ground that builds on both earlier moments but also wishes to acknowledge the speaker’s own complicities. “This show is bullshit” becomes, “What do I mean by show, by is, and by bullshit?” To eventually become, “How am I consolidating those notions by virtue of the very fact of discussing them, and I should be noting how people are dressed at the opening? Maybe that’s more important than the bullshit.”

The above process is, of course, easily parodied as affected and pompous. Even precious allies such as Terry Eagleton gleefully describe a post-60s generation heroically moving from “what is going on” to “what the fuck’s all this,” only to land in theoretically buttressed, stylish bewilderment. Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden Anglo-American academia, he argues, than to point to the inevitable bad faith of one’s position. It’s the nearest, Eagleton quips, that a postmodernist can come to authenticity.3

The suspicion here is that frictionless thoughtfulness is bad for agency. But also that it invigorates free market ideology. Or, in other words, that the death of the critic does not spawn the birth of the emancipated reader so much as that of the consumer, the nonchalance of “can’t everyone just do what they want.” In many ways, this is undeniable. In the present-day art context, a writer like, say, Alain Badiou is instrumentalized not to undermine categories of understanding in any rigorously uncomfortable manner, but in the way Vodafone marketing might tap into our appetite for something wild. Being critical means being radically open, non-committal, because new truths may strike at any time, a notion of epistemic flow that anyone from Vodafone marketing to Nicolas Bourriaud to the Israeli Defence Forces would subscribe to. How, critics rightly ask, can this temperament be helpful in a context of post-Fordist conditions of production, where professional uncertainty, apprehension, and interruption is to be welcomed as good, clean, crazy fun?

This complicity has been tracked down even deeper within the preferred modus of experimental art writing, the “essayistic,” by which I mean a preference for the formally light-footed, the associative, the brief and passing, over the well-referenced, commanding hypothesis. Artist Hito Steyerl, in her collection of essays Die Farbe der Wahrheit, describes Adorno’s laudatiae for these playful “rebellions against identity” and agrees that the essayistic is liberated from “the guild-like interdependencies of the academy and its systematic reproduction of its own class- and power-relationships. Since it is forced to communicate in constantly new contexts, its language is accessible, associative, and steers clear of jargons and quotation cartels.”4 But she’s quick to add that the Kraft der Unterbrechung, the freestyle staccato of essayism, also reflects the project-to-project goose chase that is part and parcel of latter-day professionalism. Aside from being rebellious against intellectualized identity, typical art writing seamlessly integrates the interruptions of post-Fordist rhythm into its form.

And yet, who is to say that more clear-cut forms of judgment do not go down well in a context of ferocious market pressures? Consider the mounting pressure in art schools and institutions across the world to produce “results,” to “engage with wider audiences,” to offer something visible, tangible, unambiguous. If anything, at the end of the day, the modesty of persistent self-reflexivity looks decidedly less marketable than the controversy of stolid black and white. If you won’t take it from an art writer, ask any museum director, or any artist, for that matter.

Moreover, there is a tremendous demand for any criteria (the starker and clearer the better) that might patch up the critical conundrum introduced by the internationalization of the contemporary art field when, in point of fact, criticality emerged with the realization that a strong dose of prudence, if not modesty, is appropriate when it comes to the convoluted critical discussions in a rapidly globalizing milieu.

Let’s assume Fillip commissions a critical review of a video installation in Tehran. If the work is contextualized within a Tehran setting the audience is unfamiliar with, we risk instrumentalizing the art as an ethnographic return to the referent, an explanation or illustration of social realities. If, on the other hand, the review omits a rigorous description of the work’s surroundings, we run the risk of a formalist exercise, defining the installation as a work from nowhere, bereft of sociopolitical setting. In the worst case, which is what usually occurs, the writer, well intended, opts for a little bit of both, with just enough contextual information to render the work a faraway fetish, but not enough to preclude the audience’s wildest fantasies. The kind of contemporary art that is at stake in our field, in this book, and in this very essay, cannot possibly unfold without a reasonable amount of epistemic violence. The colonial subtext of the international contemporary art project is embarrassing and hard to raise, let alone theorize, no matter how much we believe in reinscription and appropriation and such. At the risk of sounding dramatic, reaching out, in a context of contemporary imperialism, will always also be a form of reining in.

So a good approach, possibly, would be to acknowledge that there is no possible reconciliation here, no moment of healing to be found, and to repeatedly bring the irresolvable contradictions to the fore. Things are all the more convoluted due to the fact that the internationalist agenda has long become a striking example of metalepsis, or a “metonymy of a metonymy.”5 We assume our cosmopolitan convictions compel us to travel and network across the Atlantic and beyond, when it’s undeniably a mix of professional pressures and basic wanderlust that is the driving force here. In other words, internationalism, far from being a quasi-socialist means to a new society, has become a tautological end in itself, but still lends us the sprinkle of agency we crave. Summa summarum, in a muddled situation such as this, so perfectly rife for an abuse of power of exceptional proportions, the conceit of judgment will make things only worse. There’s worse than kenosis.

To move on to the synthesis as defined by the brief, the antithesis naturally holds within itself the seeds of sublation. Rather than invoke a critical fashion police in Kantian knee stockings or Greenbergian corduroy, the forum brief asks us to consider whether synthesis is possible. A little bit of judgment, a little bit of kenosis, a little bit of autonomy, a little bit of authorship, a little bit of avant-garde. Of course it sounds like I’m being disrespectful, which is why I must clarify that Frankfurt Light, or Adorno Zero, really is what is proposed by my favorite art writers these days. It’s a logical, tempting, and perfectly reasonable reaction. But it’s based on a dialectic that is autogenerative and self-fulfilling and that says little about the empirical realities of judgment as critical practice.

It does, however, exemplify how the Hegelian foxtrot, one-two-three one-two-three, is constitutive of art writing. A definition of crisis within the field, a description of a nostalgic call to arms, and the conciliatory search for commonsensical middle ground. The thing about these teleological trinities is the fact that it always seems like we had to come to this conclusion. ABC, one-two-three. Dialectics offers rhyme and reason to wanton frictions, with the terms redistributed along an axis of opposition that is always already hierarchically oriented, so that the outcome of the tension is decided as soon as the opposition is identified.

Today, crises such as the one at stake in this very discussion hold strong geopolitical stakes, married, as they are, to the notion of radical pluralism marking a definitive stage in history, thereby marking in turn the supreme position of the West in the grander scheme of things. The idea of crisis here is a self-congratulating one. We’ve reached a stage of such utter democracy, pluralism, critical hubbub, it’s starting to get annoying.

The one most elegant description of the central role of crises in the self image of the critical profession is arguably Paul de Man’s “Criticism and Crisis,” where we can see “the incredible swiftness with which tendencies succeed each other”6 already being bemoaned in the nineteenth century. “Crisis” famously shares a common etymology with “criticism,” and without crisis, de Man famously quipped, there is no criticism. Without crisis we can have philology, history, and many other things, but no criticism, because criticism is always comparing a given standard with a better one, in a better time or place. According to some, genuine criticism occurs only when it brings something to crisis, as opposed to when it fixes one, which sounds reasonable, but I would add that it would require a particular kind of crisis—not the kind we can happily agree on over dinner and some Hegel.


Thankfully, language has a tendency to disassemble any object it attempts to police. A Florida ordinance against mooning defines buttocks in the following terms: The area at the rear of the human body which lies between two imaginary lines running parallel to the ground when a person is standing—the first or top of such line drawn at the top of the cleavage of the nates (i.e. the prominence formed by the muscles running from the back of the hip to the back of the leg) and the second or bottom line drawn at the lowest visible point of this cleavage or the lowest point of the curvature of the fleshy protruberance, whichever is lower, and—between two imaginary lines on each side of the body, which run perpendicular to the ground and to the horizontal lines described above, and which perpendicular lines are drawn through the point at which each nate meets the outer side of each leg.7Language is a very bad tool with which to introduce the stringency of clear definition, as language will only ever lead to more language, and so, much like theses and antitheses themselves, the ethos of judgment holds the seeds of its own surpassing within it.

But what if we tweaked the definition of a crisis rather than rejecting it outright? As a friend of mine likes to say, “A couple of dilemmas and you have yourself a crisis.” Which dilemma, then, might conjure a healthy crisis that need not partake in the dialectical bemoaning of Too Much Criticality? One such dilemma may be the question of how to define, and thus more precisely discuss, the activity of the critic without unnecessary limitations being imposed. The attraction of judgment also bespeaks a return to the moment when the function and the persona of the critic were crystal clear—a reaction to the loss of professional specificity that emerged with criticality’s inherent bias toward radical interdisciplinarity, at the expense of clear art historical standards and institutionalized method.

It seems the art-critical insistence on epistemic carte blanche has borrowed heavily from the artistic side of things, from the artist’s license, now more or less a century old, to colonize academic, architectural, activist, and televisual traditions with impunity. It is further buttressed by a formidable intellectual tradition ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “gay science” to the now established poststructuralist doxa of the 1970s and 80s to Bruno Latour’s recent affirmations that our intellectual life is out of kilter, this being a hallmark setting us apart from pre-postmodern societies. We also have a range of curatorial approaches of comparable bent, from Sarat Maharaj’s “xenoepisteme” to Irit Rogoff’s “smuggling.” Coming from a background in comparative literature, I know the benefits of this transdisciplinary culture very well, but I cannot help but notice there is indeed a dicey dilemma at hand. Because whenever critics, curators, and artists fail to be rigorously circumspect, they end up aping other traditions—emulating genealogies that are architectural, televisual, activist, and academic, all of which have far clearer sense of purpose than the arts. Finally, and most importantly, if the world is the art field’s xenoepistemic oyster, then there’s no place where it can be expected to sit down and shut up. This is not a good thing—particularly in the internationalized context I’ve been describing above.


All of this leads me to propose not a rehabilitation of judgment but merely a stronger sense of critical specificity, a strategic essentialism to challenge the comfortable professional hybridizations that have become the rule: writer / researcher, critic / journalist, critic / editor, critic /  curator, critic / journalist / editor / curator, critic / artist, writer / artist, etc. Not in the aim of constructing an empirical referent that lives up to conceptual purity of some sort, but to trace—and perhaps encourage—a particular atmosphere that pervades the room when you use the term “criticism.” Teaching at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, I have been pursuing a similar discussion when it comes to curating, and it hasn’t harmed anyone yet. On the contrary, this may be a modest alternative to the sublimating synthesis of “judgment plus ambiguity”: “a definition of art writing, minus method and canonization.” Specificity = definition – (method + canon). Can we have specificity without being the pompous old cretins in corduroy that Rogoff, Maharaj, and many others have worked hard to put back in their place?

To begin with, we have the issue of crisis itself. The ancient Greek krisis refered to a turning point in a disease. At the same time, krinein actually does mean “to judge,” which confirms that judgment and crisis are, surely enough, part and parcel of one and the same deal. Crisis is undeniably the etymological mascot of the profession. Just as curators are endlessly reminded of the fact that their professional ancestors were the custodians of churches or, initially, the mentally disabled, the critic will have to listen to the occasional smartass quoting Paul de Man and, so I’ll give it a rest. Criticism also has its own specific histories, both canonical and subjugated, including a history of public roles and reputations. As significant as these genealogies are in this context, I don’t think I need to go through them now. Instead, I’ll offer a brief laundry list of four tenets the critic is (ostensibly and intrinsically) bound to. Tenets that may be worth revisiting, maybe not.

1. Criticism is Critical The a priori announcement that you’re “critical” is usually self-emasculating, like calling yourself “rebellious” (or announcing how funny the joke is going to be). It evokes the idea of criticism as a contrapuntal reflex: once the critical becomes a principle, one’s own position is not a position, really, but the mirror image of whoever is vis-à-vis yourself. The critical imperative also implies a restrictive chronological marching order. Critics react. They are not proactive or preemptive. You may have some who are ambitious enough to think curating, or art practices, can temporarily create a small movement, a fleeting scandal, or a specialized public. You will rarely hear that about criticism. Even Eagleton, diehard campaigner-zealot par excellence, argues that true criticism cannot fully exist until socialism has come into being and that this cannot be the result of just criticism itself. Criticism, he mumbles in the melancholic conclusion of The Function of Criticism, is thus intrinsically condemned to wait.8 The idea of the critic as “always too late” and similarly contrapuntal, deconstructive positions are of course simpatico. Perpetually rendering visible the mechanisms of political preconception, intellectualized laziness, institutionalized superstitions. But there’s more to it, surely. The one most productive merging of critic and crisis lies in the idea of critics not shoring up crises and restoring law and order, but bringing things to crisis precisely by trying to deepen or enrich the crisis to the best of their abilities. This is not necessarily the same as being critical. If it’s related to the critical, it’s a distant cousin who is less noble, less refined, and less predictable.

2. Criticism has an Audience Art criticism beyond the newspaper barely has an audience at all. No one has taken this to a more rational conclusion, and with as much boyish candor, as Boris Groys, with his notion of “textual bikinis.” A critical art text is not necessarily meant to be read, he suggests. Rather, it is there to avoid the embarrassment of discursive nudity.9 Which is no cause for concern. The failure to communicate beyond a tiny specialized professional field is a liberating blessing—no promises made, none broken. Think of academia, with its countless books with no audience, their importance depending only on publication lists that prove to the respective patrons and benefactors that cultural capital is accumulating. If the pseudo-universal audience was finally banished from the art writing equation, then the peer group could be taken into account with more rigor. This brings me to a third tenet.

3. Critics are Individuals Critics are expected to be loners. Criticism is written individually, through a single fountainhead of analytical acumen. Unlike artists and curators, art writers do not have a peer group. No network or socio-professional alliance to help them along. This precludes all sorts of collaborative possibilities that might make criticism a less predictable, more vibrant thing. A place where the aforementioned professional hybridities could come to the fore in the shape of variable, supple give and takes. Another disadvantage is tied to the work ethic. With such rigidly individualistic premises, post-Fordist conditions of production can only worsen. Critics rarely have much leeway beyond the usual shades of servile virtuosity, the most humiliating manifestation of which is the catalogue essay: the one well-paid commission critics can hope for is the one where they’re paid to smile.

4. Critics Use Language As analyzed by W. J. T. Mitchell throughout his body of work, most famously in Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (1994), art criticism is indeed hopelessly indebted to language and the broader heritage of literary studies. Rather than complain about denegation, I prefer to suggest we live up to the resulting scopophobia with pride. The visual in visual art needn’t be the teleological be-all end-all for the writer, but a pretext or camouflage, like calling something a sculpture park when it’s more of a drinking corner, or a pork barrel. Ekphrasis doesn’t do anyone any favours, least of all the artists. Personally, I now read reviews only of shows I’ve already seen. It’s not that can you measure your opinion with that of the reviewer, but you get the most out of efforts made to see a show. More return on investment. Also, there is little point in writerly precision, textual verisimilitude, when art writing and art do not pursue the same agenda aesthetically or professionally.

This is already noticeable in the respective labour markets. If once there was a surplus of text with respect to image, at present, artists are writing their own commentaries, not because their agendas have merged, but because of a shortage of Groysian bikinis. A second way in which the critic momentarily has an edge over the artist is in that the former runs far less risk. Critics cannot err, seeing as, in the worst case, no one reads their work, and in the best case, the text functions much like a horoscope, wielding the graceful magic of self-fulfilling prophecy. If Fillip publishes a critique of the grizzly bear, chances are bears will not alter their behavior in any noticeable manner. But the said text on the hypothetical video installation in Tehran may have a considerable impact.

The lazy, easy, predictable way out is to simply play up the inherently ambivalent nature of language. Consider what critic / curator Polly Staple and I have termed “binary fluffing”: the wanton pairing of vaguely incompatible terms to achieve poetic effect in a review.10 Comically serious, playfully sincere, pleasantly troubling, obscurely illuminating. John Smith’s work is poetic and deadpan, enjoyably disturbing, high and low. It calls into question the way we create meaning. His work eludes categorization. His carefully selected objects are both specific and generic, metaphorical and actual. All of which goes well beyond questions of style. Consider Rogoff hailing the “theorist undone by theory,” or Liam Gillick talking of “unproductive factories” and “research without experimentation.” But also the widespread Rancièrian notions of the “artwork as monument to its absence,” or the “artistic community as a dissensual one,” or aesthetic efficiency as “paradoxical [in that it] is produced by the very break of any determined link between cause and effect.”11 What is useful to remember, amid this amiable climate of suspension of judgment, is that the meaning of a term depends on context even here, so a paradox cannot be the pairing of terms that would form oxymora irrespective of context. The contradiction emanates from the very pairing itself. For example, a sari and a cell phone have no intrinsic contradictions to offer until they’re paired as “tradition versus modernity” or “east versus west” in the service of a journalistic agenda. Why would “dissensual community” be any different?

You can often sense when the curator, artist, or critic is pursuing ambivalence and ambiguity in the name of political circumspection and aesthetic incommensurability and when it’s a matter of laziness or careerism. But more often than not, the lines are not clear. Goldsmiths scholar Andrea Phillips has recently been conducting research on the figure of the “prop.” A prop is neither present nor absent, neither a full-on narrative device nor a mere decorative object. As such, it’s a useful figure through which to symbolize and summarize what Phillips terms the “weak politicality” of the field of international contemporary art.12 Which is where paradoxa create an atmosphere of successful global communication in the room, of networked forms of living and working, and thereby promise some vaguely democratic potential. But allow me to end this essay by pointing out that there’s little sense in calling for a great post-ambivalent yonder when the overall political atmosphere outside the field offers little more than the weak politicalities within.

  1. James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).
  2. Irit Rogoff, “What is a Theorist?” in Was Ist ein Kuenstler? eds. Katharyna Sykora et al. (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2004). See
  3. Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism (London: Verso, 1984), chapter 5.
  4. Hito Steyerl, Die Farbe der Wahrheit (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008), 139–40.
  5. Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 102.
  6. Paul de Man, “Criticism and Crisis,” in The Blindness of Insight (London: Routledge, 1983), 3.
  7. Elizabeth Diller, “Bad Press,” in The Architect Reconstructing Her Practice, ed. Francesca Hughes (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998), 76.
  8. Eagleton, The Function of Criticism, chapter 6, 114.
  9. Boris Groys, “Critical Reflections,” in Art Power (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008), 111.
  10. Thomas Demand, Mark Godfrey, Jörg Heiser, Jennifer Higgie, Adrian Searle, et al. “Binary Fluffing,” frieze no. 100 (summer 2006), 220–25.
  11. Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art,” Art and Research 2, no. 1 (summer 2008).
  12. Andrea Phillips, “Objects, Props, Assemblages,” in Showroom Annual: Props, Events, Encounters (London: The Showroom, 2008), 2.
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.

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