Useless

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’)

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