What do you expect from art criticism?

I know this took place about a month ago, but I have been too busy – and still am too busy, really – to write anything about it. Anyway, this event, with the massive question, What do you expect from art criticism?, took place at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios as a means of re-launching Paper Visual Art Journal under its new Dublin editors, Marysia WieckiewiczCarroll and Nathan O’ Donnell. Adrian and Niamh, now being based in Berlin, must now be editors-at large. I always wanted to be one of those.

The four invited panelists were critic and ACW coordinator Declan Long, artist and critic Jim Ricks, theatre critic Joanna Derkaczew, and myself. The discussion was firmly but sensitively moderated by visiting ACW/IMMA scholar Nuit Banai. Each of us in turn offered our thoughts on the question, which, although intriguing, was somewhat massive and could possibly have needed more pinning down. Certainly each of us came at the question from a different angle, using different criteria to base our respective interpretations of expectation on. Is it an aesthetic/stylistic or political expectation, or both? Is there a relationship between these different kinds of expectation? How do these expectations relate to the question of responsibility? Lots of aspects thus needed elaboration, not merely aesthetic concerns, but also the politics of display, dissemination, the kind of platforms used etc. Dennis McNulty, making a point later in the discussion from the floor, offered visibility as a possible entry into the latter questions, one as pertinent to the platforms of art criticism, and to the art critics themselves. In such a way, I would have liked to hear what Paper Visual Art had to say about the question. How do they see their role in making things visible, or indeed in omitting them from the frame? Critics, after all, write for platforms: journals, magazines, papers etc. A certain amount of snobbery continues to pervade our interpretation of editor-less art criticism blogs, and indeed rightly so: a good editor is invaluable. So, the art critic – if she values accuracy and rigour – will above all else aim to write for something, for an editor. Thus, the expectation of art criticism is one typically enforced by external means. It would perhaps have been interesting, then, to see what PVA had to say in this regard: not what they expect from art criticism per se, but, what do they expect of themselves as a bestower of value – visibility – to art criticism, and to the art it critiques? Unwieldy, I know, but perhaps one for the future.

To conclude, I must return to this topic another time. My vaguely confused answer to the question is to be found below.

Art criticism, by all accounts, should not even be a site of expectation at all. The gradual shattering of disciplines permitted – and arguably even demanded – by the action of postmodernity ensures that criticism, thought alone, cannot really do or think anything at all. The singular critic is actually a rare figure these days: instead she is the critic/artist, the critic/curator, the critic/artist/DJ/cheese maker…etc. Bizarrely, I have been described numerous times as a curator, even though I have never actively curated…

Being many things at once is of course not a new phenomenon, and yet for me, its contemporary omnipresence is indicative of a peculiar but pervasive imperative: to be one thing, and one thing alone, isn’t what’s required anymore. Peter Osborne describes this particular shift from disciplinary, to inter/multi-disciplinary, to the current trans-disciplinary, the advent of which he places in the 1970s. Disciplinarity affirmed the relative autonomy of the specific disciplines. Inter or multi-disciplinarity was then an exercise in reflection on the actual limitation of disciplines, thought autonomously. Trans-disciplinarity, in contrast, problematizes the very concept of the discipline, and, as such is symptomatic of a loss of faith in the political or transformative potential of any one discipline at all. The contemporary blurring of subjective positions – trans-disciplinarity – thus appears as a response to the political impasse facing criticism, which seeks to be overcome through its utilization in union with other, equally compromised, disciplines.

This trans-disciplinary impulse ensures that roles are fragmented and dispersed, and the critic is transformed into a split subject, never really capacious of speaking as a critic only. Of course, this shift was in kind a form of response to the monolithic authoritarian voice of modernism, and later, the October school, which sought to harshly demarcate the site of art from other disciplines. This form of criticism began to feel out of time, at odds with the plurality of roles and disciplines that pervade contemporary life. It didn’t really fit with expectations. The art professional ‘multi-tasker’ felt inevitably much more apt. And yet, I still expect something from art criticism, a thing nebulous and singular. And to expect anything at all necessitates a view that says criticism can, in fact, still do something.

So in my opinion to do rid with the singular critical voice – dispersing it with the ether of trans-disciplinary engagement – is but to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This voice would not need to be an authoritarian voice, but it does need to be a voice, holding the ability to speak on its own terms, as a critic. This, for me, necessitates a kind of dedication, or fidelity. That is not to say that doing the odd bit of curating on the side means that one is being ‘unfaithful’. I’m not moralizing here. Rather, I expect art criticism to be mindful of the conditions that serve to undermine it as a discipline. I expect the art critic to write like she does nothing else – whether she does or not is not really the issue at stake. Being mindful of the processes that threaten the practice, the discipline of art criticism, in my mind, should always exist as an affirmation of its own parameters, and right to exist.

Art criticism should not be authoritarian: it should not aspire to dogma. Rather, it should be open to change and contradiction. Even Rosalind Krauss, in later years, has radically updated – some might say overhauled – her views on the question of medium. Thus art criticism must be able to update and revise, and to admit it was wrong. To start every piece anew, in a way, parking the knowledge and self-assurance that experience brings: conceding, in such a way, what Krauss calls her ‘perpetual inventory’.

I do not really expect art criticism to do much apart from exist within this schema of fidelity and humility. I do not want it ‘put to use’. I wonder did we ever ‘expect’ anything tangible from art criticism, or is this merely symptomatic of its apparent redundancy, or crisis? What was it ever supposed to do, or is a neoliberal productivist logic simply slipping into the discourse that surrounds art criticism?

 
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