Far too much critical writing, I believe, acts as an affirmation of propositions or theories already held by the writer. The subject matter is thus chosen to suit these ideas, which the writer is already invested in. There can thus be no true exploratory or magical hacking away at the field of enquiry, if the writer’s mind has erstwhile decided on a defined course of action. I remember watching a rather indicting documentary on Fox News called Outfoxed about a year ago. Although already posited within a firmly ‘right-on’ democratic topography, the documentary clearly demonstrated the problems inherent within the Fox slogan Fair and Balanced. It didn’t seem that hard to prove, to be honest. One thing that struck me was a ruse employed by female presenters to give extra weight to their claims, that is ‘speaking as a mother….’. They would typically then go on to endorse whatever views they held, which were generally deeply unethical and reactionary. This struck me as pertinent. Though obviously a critic doesn’t hide behind her maternal status to justify personal claims about subject matter, she can indeed hide behind her position as critic. We can thus make all sorts of claims that we may never have to justify. Or worse still, we might make no claims at all and assume that as our position. This self-imposed authority in justifying any multitude of standpoints is what I want to avoid at all costs.
Priorities concerning the critical position I wish to assume are wide-ranging and problematic. I believe too much critical writing centers itself around an unshakable objectivity which detracts from the work and makes it sometimes hard to decipher. Obviously one cannot write in simplistic or over-emphatic tones but simultaneously, one cannot allow one’s own voice to become muffled through hyperactive citation. To paraphrase Sontag, one must center oneself on the subject matter and work out from that, not the other way around (2009, pg 13). I am not necessarily against hermeneutics, but rather against a hermeneutics which does not derive from what one is looking at. This interpretation can be elementary or more subtle, personal or objective. By means of rigorous study these connections will hopefully be made with greater ease and sensitivity. After all, I am not reading in order to assimilate and regurgitate, but rather to gain creative insight into that which I write about critically.
Coming from a practice-led background the kind of rigorous study I did was generally to suit my own ends, to affirm something which I was involved in making. Although I am still active on a practice-level, I feel now that the process of study is much more democratic and investigative. I’m not really channelling my reading into a specific schematic, I am now decidedly omnivorous, and I’m enjoying it. However, the difficulty of translating this knowledge into language, of staying faithful to the subject while at the same time making it manifest through language, is one which will demand some negotiation. I am interested in language and want to use it with skill and with accuracy whilst at the same time not imbuing the field of enquiry with a resonance which is not present in actuality. I want to write critically about art, not only because I like art, but because I like language. I am reminded here of Sebald when he says ‘one of the chief difficulties of writing consists (ed) in thinking, with the tip of a pen, solely of the word to be written, whilst banishing from one’s mind the reality of what one intends to describe’ (2002 pg 186). The aim thus is to focus on using language in such a manner as to convey something of the essence of what one is grasping at. This will be no easy task.
Through my writing, first and foremost, I aim to learn and to come to a better understanding regarding that which focuses my gaze. That which I write on is in a sense less important, as long as there is a well-developed sense of enquiry which results in such an understanding. As long as that subject interests me, be that an artwork, a film or a concept, I aim to be able to write about it and to come to know it. But at the same time to hold a degree of humility in approaching a subject, to acknowledge the certainty that I can never uncouple this degree of unknowability from a work of art. Sebald, whilst paraphrasing the writer Thomas Browne, sums it up quite well.
All knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things….but we can not grasp their innermost essence (Sebald, 2002 pg 19)
The ordering of things thus is the task at hand, the hermeneutics of art itself having a kind of an inbuilt obsolescence. Thus to “speak as a critic” implies an acknowledgement of this obsolescence, and an unwavering attempt to try to come to terms with this through language. To “speak as a critic” involves making this inbuilt obsolescence apparent by never suggesting omniscience. This is a tricky maneuver, straddling a line of rigorous study on the one hand, and the inevitability of failure on the other. It’s not really a failure however, more an affirmation as to why we want to study art in the first place. When T.J. Clark studies two works by Poussain everyday and puts his changing perceptions on paper he hints at this obsolescence, but also at the exciting unknowability fundamental to a work of art. For he can study them day in and day out and he will never fully know them, but at the same time that is why he keeps going back for more.
Clark, T.J (2008) The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, Yale University Press, New Haven & London
Sebald, W.G (2002) Rings of Saturn, Vintage, London
Sontag, Susan (1964) Against Interpretation as in Sontag, Susan (2009) Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin, London & New York