Post-critical

In the interest of disclosure, I should probably first say that what has been called ‘post critical’ has been a personal preoccupation for, well, the last three years. I have been trying to finish a PhD on this exact topic. In response to the ‘crisis’ or ‘death’ of art criticism, which lasted roughly the first decade of this century, it’s strange that the discourse of crisis appears to be gaining some traction once again (1). Or, rather, a strange nagging sense that maybe the theme of crisis was done away with somewhat prematurely. Maybe it’s just me, but perhaps the superficial fact that the wheels kept turning, that criticism kept being written, somehow blinded us to the thought that yes, there was a rot in criticism per se. In fact perhaps it’s the ‘post-critical’ mindset that obfuscates, blinding us to criticism’s redundancy on a wider scale.

I’m not saying that truly fantastic writing about art isn’t being produced, far from it. Off the top of my head, in very different ways writers like Martin Herbert, Hal Foster, Chris Kraus, Brian Dillon, Marina Warner, Andrew Berardini, Christopher Knight, and Caoimhin MacGoilla Leith – amongst so many more – bring a wealth of knowledge and skill to the task of writing about art. It’s these writers that I aspire to, their ease of communication so inherent the words seem to ooze from the page like speech. That there’s great writing doesn’t mean there’s a crisis, though: it just means the terrain gets smaller and smaller, until its parameters recede so far back that it’s just me – or you – and some writing we individually like.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the so-called crisis of art criticism doesn’t mean a crisis in writing about art. That goes on. Rather, it’s a question of the critical function, and what value we ascribe to it, when writing about art. Bruno Latour, writing in 2004, described the role of critique – and here he specifically means its postmodern iteration – has been rendered impotent (2). Such a critique has become aggressively vacant, treating its object to a ‘critical barbarity’ that admits no solid ground: everything can and thus should be problematised, interrogated, etc. In a memorable comparison, he compares the postmodern critical method with that of the conspiracy theory (Jameson’s ‘poor person’s cognitive mapping’! 3): both, he says, admit a paranoid view of the world, and of ‘truth’ more broadly. To Baudrillard’s theory that the gulf war never happened, Latour says: well yes, it did actually. In the latter’s view, such objects – like death, or love, or illness – present a fundamental impasse to postmodern critique: here it hits a wall and comes to look like the deranged bully that it is.

Within this context, it is easy to see why critique and theory more broadly are themselves problematised as a guiding principle for writing about art. Art is now – to paraphrase Latour – a matter of concern, rather than fact. And yet, isn’t capital a fact, however nebulous? What relationship does art have to capital? I for one don’t think all art is a matter of concern, but still begs the critical method so eschewed by Latour. After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

To be ‘post-critical’ is to align too fully with the world as it is, and to perpetuate some naive Panglossian notion of it. For me it sits too easily within a horizon of individualised experience and attainment, which art – if you care for it at all – is supposed to exist as antithesis. Made by a person, art is something that should weirdly transcend the subjective.

As an aside, the Canadian art writing website Momus, which I really enjoy reading, was launched in 2014, with the bombastic tagline ‘A Return to Art Criticism’. Recently, I read an interview of its editor Sky Gooden with some other online art writing editors. In an astounding pronouncement, Gooden claims that – in little over a year – ‘the dearth of solid, evaluative, risk-taking art criticism has already begun to fill in. It’s become apparent to me that our tagline might be growing outdated, happily’. Now, to found an art writing website on that tagline is ballsy in itself, but I wondered on what criteria did Gooden base its increasing redundancy? What exactly happened in the last thirteen months, and why haven’t I heard about it?

Given the contemporary preference of art ‘writing’ over art ‘criticism’, I think it’s safe to say that Momus chose its tagline with a great amount of consideration. Arguably, it did so as to foreground its own critical agenda. After a few short months in operation, however, Gooden’s comment is indicative of the absolute co-option of criticality per se. Producing and publishing lots of art criticism doesn’t solve the crisis of criticism if that criticism is being funded by art galleries and art fairs, as it is in Momus’ case. Rather, it simply admits its deepened imbrication in systems of capitalist exchange.

All criticism is complicit, to be sure. As Boltanski and Chiapello have written in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), critique is in fact to be thought as a motor of capitalism, causing it to shift, mutate, and endure. Nonetheless, the ideology that says we’re post-critical just reaffirms and perpetuates that fact, and makes even the possibility of transformative criticism ever more unlikely.

1. Thinking in particular of Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (2015).

2. Latour, B., 2004, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Enquiry 30 (Winter 2004) pp. 225-249

3. Jameson, F., 1988, Cognitive Mapping. In Nelson, C., and L. Grossberg, eds, 1988, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 356

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Post-critical

  1. Hi Rebecca,
    As the founding editor of Momus, I want to comment on your above notes about the “crisis” in criticism as it relates to Momus’s role in, as you see it, either assuaging or contributing to its state as such. I’m happy to read your post, as it marks an investment in the issue (the “crisis in criticism” – so coined, perhaps, for its alliteration and poetics more than anything like realism) that many of us writing and publishing in this field have perhaps too easily dismissed as a red herring, or the histrionics of academics and critics who were resisting the plates shifting beneath their established publishing models (and, contingently, their funding models, their readership’s involvement, their relevance and tone). It’s important to visit recent histories and attempt fresh analyses, for sure, and for this effort, I applaud you.

    However a lot of what you’ve written reads incoherently to me, or at least cryptically, and occasionally contradicting, and vague, so I’ll limit myself to addressing one point instead of many: that is, you seem to dismiss the critical integrity of any publication that funds itself through advertising. This is wrong-headed, or anyway shortsighted, thinking, to my mind.

    In response to my quote about the rebound of art criticism’s voice and relevance that I’ve perceived and participated in, in recent months (that, since you asked, is evidenced in the propagation of numerous new critical art publications, and a preponderance of art-writing conferences and panel discussions that were programmed to address exactly this topic — art criticism’s newly valued or revived platform, and its way forward [please email me if you’d like a list of references]), you write: “Gooden’s [which should be, for what it’s worth, ‘Goodden’s’] comment is indicative of the absolute co-option of criticality per se. Producing and publishing lots of art criticism doesn’t solve the crisis of criticism if that criticism is being funded by art galleries and art fairs, as it is in Momus’ case. Rather, it simply admits its deepened imbrication in systems of capitalist exchange.” My response is this:

    First, I don’t know how my comment leads you to surmise that Momus’s stance on art criticism has been “co-opted” (a term that gets thrown around a little too casually for my liking, lately, in the manner of a “late-capitalist,” vaguely political insistence on … what alternative, exactly?) by participating in the art market through advertising. Yes, we are funded by advertisers and patrons, both (an 80/20 split in our first year; we’ll see how this equation develops as we grow our readership and, simultaneously, work to engage more donors for leading patronage support). What I want to remind you of is that, historically and now, art publications both large and small, print and online, whether those we herald for having pushed forward the avant-garde and/or for having pushed back against ruling or occluding parties, or those that have capitulated to obvious market agendas, have only and always been in service to someone or something beyond their own mandate, and been compromised — or made powerful — in their navigation of the market in order to fund their very product. The measure of these publications’ success in navigating and negotiating the market such that their agenda appears untouched is demonstrated in their product, and subject to perception. But whether it be Artforum, where the open secret is that they only publish reviews on shows or artists presented by clients; or Temporary Art Review, a marginal, regional online American art site that’s activated the barter economy in order to sustain its production, art publications have always required something be given in order to proffer its argument (product).

    What’s tiresome is the argument you’ve invoked, if not fully articulated: that the sources of revenue for art publications should be “clean” or, ideally, totally independent (ie., unseen). This ideologue, un-researched argument doesn’t list alternatives to the ready options, which are all compromised, however idealistic they appear (whether they be granting bodies, which require more capitulation in terms of mandate, conservatism, and national allegiance, at least here in Canada, than I care to enumerate), patrons, or advertisers. What I want to make clear is that art publications do not exist independently from their market place. And nor should they be. What I’ve discovered is that in order to be good, or not “co-opt” our integrity, we need our mandate to be not a ever-diminishing margin line, but a selling point. Momus is attempting just this. I am steadfast in only approaching potential advertisers and clients whose programming and business I respect. I am steadfast in being “above board” in making those sales on the transparent agreement that 1) I pay my writers and staff at above-industry rates (rates that stagnated in the 1980s and have only deteriorated since, with the advent of online publishing and the diminishing of print) and that they, my clients, are helping us do just this; and that 2) I retain full editorial discretion over what we write about, and what comment we make (positive or negative) regarding our clients’ programming and exhibitions. Number 2 feeds number 1. In order for our writing to be good, and our criticism to be without compromise, we need to pay our writers’s above-average wages, and as such, have confederates in the market, so to speak — clients who want we want, even if it comes at a cost (and I don’t just mean financial). I need to be clear that Momus publishes the vast majority of its content on subjects (galleries, museums, et al) that have no financial relationship to our publication. However, I want to stress, too, that when we do publish content on advertisers’ subjects, we do it with a tremendous measure of integrity and independence — and that it’s this very measure of feeling and rectification that lands us clients.

    Finally, it’s not just writers and publishers fed up with the state of art criticism. Our community’s general and absolute frustration with how things art criticism has devolved in recent decades, has reached a moment of impasse. Veiled, class-driven, nepotistical, profit-driven, obtuse, obsfuscatory, academic art writing has lost its audience. I am but a member of a movement working to change how art criticism reads. Our funding, if we do this right, should not — will not — change our focus or our voice. But, to make myself clear, good art criticism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even on our best day, our most righteous day, we still need money in our bunker. The trick is to figure out how to keep some revenue while speaking truth to power. And, I’m discovering, this is possible.

    I could say a lot more, but won’t, here. It’s time to get back to work, and continue my efforts in shifting this model — and perceptions like yours, from dissenting to decent. 🙂 Thank you for giving this topic so much thought, Rebecca. I do appreciate your investment.

    Sky Goodden
    skygoodden@momus.ca

  2. Hi Sky, thanks very much for your considered response.

    As should be obvious, my short post was as much a product of personal frustration as it was a critique of the kind of criticism that Momus endorses. I’m acutely aware there is no ‘clean’ art criticism, as you put it. However, I am interested in the term ‘art criticism’ and why Momus has marketed itself on that basis – why not ‘art writing,’ instead? What’s critical about Momus?

    The term ‘art criticism’ has been eschewed of late, most likely because of the taint of authoritarianism/utopianism. For anyone with a knowledge of the history and foundation of art criticism, this implication is obvious. So it interests me that you embrace the term.

    Anyway, thanks for the response, and best of luck with Momus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s