At The Value of Criticism seminar in Cork (see below), I railed against use-value, hinging my somewhat sketchy argument on the inherent ambiguity of art criticism. Inasmuch as its value is relative to art, I tried to say, its value is fluid, and, in response to this situation, I said, it’s less a case of solving the crisis in art criticism, than embracing it. To wit: crisis stalks art criticism like a shadow; get on with it.
(And here comes the but)
But nonetheless, crisis per se has become naturalised. The banking crash of 2008 was a crisis, to be sure, but one of finance, of what David Harvey terms ‘paper entrepreneurialism’. Criticism of this fact did not lead to any realignment in the financial industries, but rather shifted the weight disproportionately to those most far removed from any breed of causal link. This leads me to think did a separation needs to happen, between what is meant by a crisis in art criticism – which might be seen as in integral part to it – and the crises that precipitate a particular winnowing with regard to the efficacy of criticism more generally. Within a wider socio-political context, the potency of criticism has been eliminated. Things happen, and these things seem to happen with or without our consent. A sense of powerlessness prevails on a general level – what Mark Fisher (2009) has described as capitalist realism – that ensures battles remain local and small-scale: ‘folk’ politics (Srnicek & Williams, 2015). Change is pitched at a local, rather than international level, and this effectuates an inability to solve issues much more pressing than potholes. This does not mean that such politics is useless, but rather that such gains appear like scraps from the table, valuable but somewhat tokenistic.
What does this have to do with art criticism? The problem for me is that art is intimately aligned with the status quo. This has always been the case. But if I subscribe to this view, then it follows that we dispense with the notion that art is any kind of closed-loop, or sacrosanct space differentiated by a kind of ineffable good-ness. As Andrea Fraser (2012) has written, indeed art – and in particular, art discourse – can be seen as functioning as a distinctly homogenising agent: its homogeneity being one of capital. Following on from this, we can see that one role of art discourse, in particular, is to undo the making-homogenous of art, which transforms all value into capital. A crisis in art criticism, then, is made visible inasmuch as it reiterates the homogenising quality that art variously resists and performs.
This is a bit ranty, I know. But it’s also underlined by a definite anxiety regarding the efficacy of critical art, and criticism, more generally. Because if art-as-finance looks awful, its polar opposite – art-as-protest – seems equally impotent. Somewhere in the middle is the art that I love, that I write about and spend time with, but works because it doesn’t seem to do anything, that seems to have taken the fifth. It works because it doesn’t, or gives the sense of non-participation. But forceful estrangement seems a weird way to gauge value, now.
Perhaps it’s because as I grow older I feel the world more. This sounds oxymoronic, but hear me out. When I was younger, art was a kind of distinct space, a free-space. Let’s call this ignorance. Of course I knew art participated within wider systems, even unequal ones, but nonetheless it seemed a better system than most. I felt protected in a sense of art’s radical apartness, that the way we measured value, there, was different from elsewhere. A part of me still thinks all of these things. And yet as I grow older, it seems wrong-headed to make any distinction between the world of art and The World. And The World is a pretty shit place. Perhaps the ‘inherent’ criticality of art won’t cut it anymore.
Going back to Cork, I was struck by a comment made by Gemma Tipton with regard to her art criticism: namely, that alluding to art in her property journalism could make more people interested in art. It’s an interesting thought. And yet, though I completely understand the rationale behind Tipton’s property journalism – art criticism is terribly waged, if at all – I think her view is an overly optimistic one. People read the property pages if they want to buy a house, or, as is more common, to salivate voyeuristically over salubrious D4 piles, all in the knowledge that some shithole in Crumlin is in fact forever beyond reach. In this way, I think such a strategy only further imbricates art within a system that is both vastly out of reach and destructive, rendering it almost guilty by association. Furthermore, there is a natural obligation to vastly simplify artistic references, as evinced in the following pithy remark, which featured in a recent interior-design article:
It’s not the first time an artist has claimed a colour: in 1960, Yves Klein registered the formula for his deeply pigmented ultramarine as International Klein Blue (IKB). Like most artists, all he wanted was the glory.
Do ‘most’ artists want the glory? Or is this just the particular narrative that Tipton feels her readers can participate in? Rather than prompting her readers to actually like and engage with art, such a comment seems to actively ensure that they don’t, reinforcing generalisations about art and artists. Certainly, I think most artists I know would like their life’s work presented in rather more flattering terms. I think Tipton’s strategy is well meaning, of course. Trying to get people to like art is worthwhile. But the reality is that she writes about property so as to live. It’s not something she’s particularly passionate about – she’s passionate about art – and that’s ok. She doesn’t need to justify it by bringing art into it, in so doing running the very real risk of pandering to a particular editorially-conceived idea of art.
But the above strategy is at the same time demonstrative of a wider wish for art to do something, anything, and to extend itself outside of complacency. Art criticism, as I said at the start, is somewhat useless: its importance is relative to art. This relativity, I think, produces a deep complicity and, if not resolved, a crippling anxiety: namely, that I participate without really wanting to; that I participate, unwittingly, even as I criticise.
(File under ‘millennial woes’)
Below is my contribution to ‘The Value of Criticism,’ an event that took place at the Glucksman in Cork and featured some really insightful contributions from a lot of people working in or around art criticism in Ireland. The topic of our (Brian Fay, Declan Long & I) panel was ‘Who is Criticism For?’ and as you can see, I responded to this pretty tangentially. Hopefully I can write something about the day as a whole soon.
The subject of today’s conference, ‘the value of criticism’ is, to my mind, a more positive rephrasing of the so-called ‘crisis’ of criticism, which gained currency – particularly in the wake of the roundtable published in October in 2002. In 2008 at UCC a similar event to this one took place – even featuring some of the same participants – and culminating in a book (edited by James Elkins and Michael Newman) called The State of Art Criticism. Last year, I contributed to another panel discussion, ‘What do you expect from art criticism?’ (organised by Paper Visual Art Journal) alongside some more of the participants here today. I also vaguely remember a similar event taking place at the Lab – with more familiar faces – in 2011.
In short, there seems to be a constant, maybe even paranoid, need to rehearse the value and stakes of art criticism. Increasingly, though, such a need is moving towards outlining the practical expectations of it, rather than revolving around the theme of crisis. I’m thinking in particular of something like Gilda Williams’ 2014 book How to Write about Contemporary Art. However, if we’re still trying to articulate its specific value, it could be argued that the theme of crisis has not been fully dealt with. Perhaps it is a healthy self-criticality, but on the other hand, has there ever been a conference on the value of painting, for example?
I’m going to park this for today, as it’s the topic of my PhD research and I don’t want to go there. Today, the question is: who is art criticism for? The temptation here is to talk about audience, which I don’t want to think about – it is already well tread. For me, the imperative to think about your audience is a tiresome one: it’s probably much more beneficial to think about the art (or your editor). The audience generally follows from these considerations.
This ‘who’ is of course related to the ‘why’ of art criticism, and seems to frame the debate so as to name a particular group of people that art criticism is for. At the same time, it seems to work to divide art criticism’s reach down the middle – into those it is for, and those it is not. The question, then, is centred on the use-of criticism, assuming that art criticism only becomes useful in its orientation towards an audience, which is a typical enough assumption, I guess. Received wisdom says that something becomes valuable only through its reception. As something without an audience, then, art criticism is somewhat pointless. My question, though, is: is art criticism actually useless by virtue of it being for no one, if it never gets read?
The short answer is no. Thinking and writing about art are always valuable. This does not mean that the art criticism in question is good, per se, but simply that it is valuable to think and write about art. Hinging its importance to an audience means to deny that fact. It also means to suggest value where often there is none.
Most of what we do these days is treated as useful only by virtue of its use-value. Numbers matter: targets: “reaching” people. We can sense this in the art criticism of Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, for example, who surely composes his reviews to be as inflammatory as possible. When Jones writes texts with names like ‘Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries’ or (a personal favourite) ‘The artist who lays eggs with her vagina – or why performance art is silly’ (2014) – he – and the Guardian – seem to pre-empt its audience negatively – gleefully anticipating its incredulity. It is art criticism as click-bait. Jones could have readers than his colleague Adrian Searle – he is there to perform the role of provocateur – but does this make Jones the better critic? Probably not.
Let’s take another extreme example: the American book reviewer Harriet Klausner (pictured below), who wrote a staggering 31,014 unpaid reviews for Amazon before her death in 2015. Back in 2006 a journalist from Time magazine described Klausner as:
…part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don’t care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see. They’re increasingly likely to pay attention to amateur online reviewers, bloggers and Amazon critics like Klausner. Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can’t match. They’re not fancy. They don’t have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do [i].
Now, by rights, Klausner should have been the most influential book critic in the world, shaping popular taste to hitherto unknown heights. But she wasn’t. Instead, and in contrast with the view of the above journalist, people still look to the professionals, people who work to define ideas about art – and indeed are paid to do so.
And so, whilst it is important that as many people as possible read art criticism – I for one think its is a valuable thing to do – its value should not be dependent on people reading it. Of course, the same applies to art: gauging something’s value by merit of attendance figures and press coverage is painfully reductive. It is a much more diffuse affair.
The critic and curator Morgan Quaintance, writing recently for e-flux, described a creeping conservatism that he perceived in architectural collective Assemble’s Turner Prize win, in late 2015[ii]. Their win, he says, represents a keen desire for art to do something; to produce some kind of tangible, public good. In so doing, it negates the fundamental radicality of art as something that is basically useless. Such a view can be seen slipping into the discourse of art criticism, too, as it grows increasingly professionalised. It needs to do something. More and more art critics become curators. But the inherent radicality of art criticism is its basic uselessness – the fact that no one, not really, reads it. It is a relatively free space.
Dave Beech, writing in a recent issue of Art Monthly[iii], describes art criticism in very familiar terms to mine. He says that the art that he is interested in, typically conceptual, tends to require further reading before he can write about it. Essentially, that reading helps him to understand the art better; that there is in fact little to be gained from looking at this kind of art for an extended period of time. For this kind of art, its sense is to be felt through reading, and then writing, about it. This view repurposes art criticism as an almost selfish activity, working to subjectively unearth this or that work of art. As an activity, it becomes almost completely self-sufficient, taking cues from the artwork in extending it. And indeed, this is something that I’ve found more and more recently. More and more, it is when I get home that I begin to understand the work better. I can’t perform in the gallery. Thinking that question again – who is art criticism for – it seems mostly to be me. I accepted that not many people read my writing a few years back.
In fact I want to conclude with the hypothesis that art criticism might be for no one and, at the same time, everyone. This is of course a difficult position to uphold – that something can be useful by virtue of it being useless. And yet everyone in this room wants to be here, and wants to talk about art criticism – as something that still performs in the world. Art criticism doesn’t have to have a quantifiable use to matter. It doesn’t have to bend to a managerial logic of numbers – of “outreach” – but can in fact seek out new ways of defining value. Or not!
[i] L. Grossman, 2006, ‘Harriet Klausner’. Time, December 16th 2006, available at http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570726,00.html
[ii] ‘Teleology and the Turner Prize or: Utility, the New Conservatism’. E-flux conversations, 2nd December 2015, available at http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/teleology-and-the-turner-prize-or-utility-the-new-conservatism/2936
[iii] ‘On Critique’. Art Monthly no. 393 (February 2016)
Block T is of course only the latest victim in the Dublin art scene. Last year, Broadstone Studios were unceremoniously evicted from their Harcourt Terrace location, leaving a good number of Ireland’s best known artists without studios. Which is crazy in itself. The building is apparently still empty (of course). The Joinery closed in 2014. Market Studios also.
Of course, the recession created a situation where it was a bit cheaper – but, let’s be honest, not that cheap – to get things open, and to innovate. However, it was nonetheless people that did this, mostly self-funded, with little or no help from a (neutered) arts council or Dublin city council. Artists pay for their studios. OK, a ‘vacant-space’ scheme was initiated, but this is vastly oversubscribed, and leaves artistic groups completely conditional on an economic upturn. If and when that happens – and artistic groups help to make that happen – these groups are sent on their way. (Thanks for doing our job for us, lads.)
Also, is it the role of art to fit into the gaps made vacant by commerce? I know it’s practical, and that art organisations are of course enthusiastic about it – it’s something, after all – but shouldn’t art have more than a conditional space? And shouldn’t there be provisions made for this?
Of course, the other side is that art is a gentrifier. Let’s look at Smithfield/Stoneybatter, where Block T is, and where the Joinery was. When I first moved to Dublin in 2004, it was – to put it mildly – somewhat run-down. But it had character and cheap rents, and most of NCAD lived there. All the parties were in dingy terraces off Manor Street. It was a place where people were able to live and to make art, even – somehow – in the heights of the boom. Artists and artist-run spaces make places, like Smithfield, more desirable to live in. They create value. But regardless, once that role has been performed there must be some kind of system of state support there that allows them to stay put. Having created value, mostly on their own backs, it seems wrong-headed to push them out and make them suffer on the back of their success.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’m wondering at this stage what Dublin has going for it. I moved out of there two years ago, but it appears to me as though it’s becoming increasingly like London – but without the culture – or the wages! – that makes its ridiculous prices more tolerable. More to the point, no governmental body seems to care about this.
This is a worrying state of affairs. If the art we want to see is only that which is found in (a) public galleries, or (b) commercial galleries, then the messy middle and provisional bits of art get lost along the way. The preparatory performances, conversations, the accidental. The things that often count as much as the finished product. Also, and on a much more obvious level, where the hell are artists going to make art? Their bedrooms?
Anyway, I really hope Block T can find a new home. Here’s a great article by Nathan Hugh O’ Donnell on these issues, which says a lot more than I have, and in a much clearer and more rational way: http://www.wearedublin.ie/dublins-disappearing-art-spaces/.
Revisited Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall yesterday, which is running at the Project Arts Centre until December 23rd, in so doing closing a pretty fantastic year of exhibitions there.
Hopefully I can get some words down on what I think is an important, terrifying, and prescient work. Here is my short review of the exhibition for this is tomorrow. Below is curator Tessa Giblin speaking about the exhibition, alongside Oisin Byrne’s contribution to it, and also a panel discussion featuring Dara Birnbaum, Hal Foster, Robert Longo, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tim Griffin, which took place on the occasion of Bender’s 2013 New York retrospective, Tracking the Thrill. Really recommend seeing this show.
Interestingly, my interest in criticism and post-criticality is also leading me in a very different direction: namely, when critics get it wrong. And here I’m not referring to factual errors, or some gradual reneging on a judgment of an artist. I’m talking about the god-awful, crazy errors that become shockingly apparent with the passing of time. I’m interested in about-turns, and how they are verbalised and defended.
In 2012, art critic Peter Schjeldahl publicly backtracked on A Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (below, 1909), a famous and well-loved painting by Gustav Klimt. Six years prior he had deemed it ‘exquisite and brazen, compelling and brittle’ and ‘transcendent in its cunning way’. Now that verdict had changed. Instead, the work for Schjeldahl was now an almost obscene illustration of both economic and formal excess, of narcissism. In his own words:
The content of the gorgeous whatsit seems a rhyming of conspicuously consumed wealth with show-off eroticism. She’s a vamp, is Adele; and for whom would she be simpering but the randy master, Herr Klimt? The effect is a closed loop of his and her narcissisms. They’re them, and we aren’t. I think we are supposed to be impressed. And let’s be. Why not? Our age will be bookmarked in history by the self-adoring gestures of the incredibly rich. Aesthetics ride coach.
Quite a change. Other examples would be Greenberg – no surprises there – changing his mind about Monet, indeed coming back to it through his own justification of abstract expressionism. Another example would be Greenberg’s hyperbolic valorisation of Jules Olitski as ‘the best painter alive,’ the enthusiasm of which has been definitely undermined. I’m interested in Krauss ditching Greenbergian formalism, and how she justified that (1). I’m interested in the mutability of criticism, and how that plays alongside judgement – of the black and white variety, in particular.
Krauss wrote of her practice as a ‘perpetual inventory,’ the implication being that it is a shifting one. Some things run out, but maybe they don’t need re-stocking. In such a way, the work of writing criticism keeps itself open to change, contradiction even, in the face of a certain demand.
In respect to Schjeldahl’s reappraisal of Adele, we can put it down to two possible reasons: one, that his taste changed, and that those six years effectuated a kind of aesthetic hardening or maybe refinement: the second, and the more likely I think, is that the painting now meant something different in 2012, that its context had changed. Its ostentatious character was no longer able to differentiate itself from its own lurid context. In fact, maybe it even reproduced it.
By such an understanding, there’s actually an imperative to change your mind, no matter how committed that initial judgement was. Anyway, just a few thoughts here, hopefully I can develop them at some point. I really need to find Lucy Lippard’s 1970 essay Change and Criticism: Consistency and Small Minds, so if anyone has a copy please do let me know.
1. See Rosalind Krauss, 1972, A View of Modernism in Harrison, C. and P. Wood, eds, 1992, Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford & Malden, Mass: Blackwell, pp. 953-957