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