History, solitude and hermeneutics in contemporary art criticism

This essay was originally published on the online art magazine A*DESK in January 2012

Art criticism is in crisis. The proposition is already a clamour in the world of art, above all at an editorial and academic level, which are, as it happens, the areas where the critics reside. However, one could have the sensation that, given the intrinsic instability of the genre, manifested in its effervescence in some eras and insipid inertia in others, crisis has accompanied art criticism since its early infancy, the date of which, incidentally, nobody can agree upon. In this sense, the fact that both concepts share the same root, in ancient Greek “krísi” implying the idea of judgement as much as that of schism, shouldn’t be considered a mere coincidence. In this text, however, the idea I want to explore is that in regard to art criticism, obsessively looking backwards can be more counterproductive than anything else, plunging critics into a state of doubt and mental block not so different from being turned into a statue of salt.

Clement Greenberg speaking in New Delhi in 1967 at a presentation of the MoMA exhibition 'Two Decades of American Painting'.

So, let’s return to “today”. In the last month of 2011 two conferences took place in London about the state (cause for concern, if we pay heed to the titles) of art criticism. The first took place in the auditorium of the Tate Britain at the beginning of December, under the rubric “The Art Critic in a Cold Climate” was organised by the AICA (International Association of Art Critics). The event, though not lacking in interest, was limited to a presentation by the art historian Stephen Bann, in which he touched on the porous relations between criticism and art history. Illustrating his thesis by way of the careers of various critics–such as the historian Michel Fried (author of the still polemical essay “Art and Objecthood”, published en Artforum in 1967), the British Lawrence Alloway or, of course, the inescapable and monolithic, Clement Greenberg– the talk was, in itself, a historical discourse which didn’t actually ever explore the present cold and unpropitious climate of the title. The condition of criticism is to process the present and evaluating its state by way of a historical discourse ends up being both an oxymoron and the perfect illustration of one of its more paralysing dilemmas: criticism is not history, however much both disciplines and their professionals endlessly intermingle as if in a hippy commune. Criticism, and it’s worth keeping it in mind lacks the weight and solemnity of what is written in the annals, thereby offering infinite possibilities to try out new ideas and points of view.

The following week, “The Trouble with Criticism” brought together a reputable cast of critics under the auspices of the ICA: Tom Morton (Contributing Editor for frieze, independent writer and curator), Adrian Searle (art critic for The Guardian newspaper), Melissa Gronlund (managing editor of Afterall) and JJ Charlesworth (associated editor of the magazine ArtReview). The discussion began with impetus thanks to the moderator, curator and critic, Teresa Gleadowe, who asked the participants if the supposed crisis in art criticism could be in part due to the unstoppable ascent of the curator as the principal mediator between the artist and the public. For the one who is writing these lines, convinced that this is without a doubt one of the causes of the low moments that critics are experiencing, the conference for a moment looked very promising. However there were no conclusive or satisfactory replies.

JJ Charlesworth made a series of interesting comments though, for example that critics are currently immersed in a perennial and anguished fight to justify the value and need for their role. A tribulation to which one could add the question: in an art scene where curators decide which artists are promoted at an institutional level; where university education, as a result the hegemony of conceptual practice, has taught artists to articulate their works as if they were doctoral theses, explaining the process, concept and even on occasions the “appropriate” interpretation; and where galerists and collectors handle the economic resources to ensure the visibility and viability of the careers of certain artists, in a panorama such as this, I repeat, what is exactly the role of the critic?

Rosalind Krauss. Photo by Ann Gabbart from the book 'Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974'.

Another of the problems that plagues the genre, a result of the aforementioned hybridisation with other disciplines such as history or curating, is what Christopher Bedford identified in 2008 in his essay “Art Without Criticism”: “Art historians, even museum curators, spend more time formulating their theses than looking at the objects that anchor those arguments; works of art for most theoretically-inclined contemporary art historians are not generative, they are illustrative”. It is precisely this trap that works of art serve to “illustrate” the ideas of some curator, critic or historian that limits the experience of art and its critique. Perhaps we should give more room to the works, not placing them in mental boxes constructed a priori with the materials that afforded by the vertigo, or even panic, that can arise when facing a piece that is at first glance incomprehensible.

A possible “cure” for this ever so generalised hermeneutic strategy (of which I am guilty as well) was already proffered by Lucy Lippard in 1970, in her text “Change and Criticism: Consistency and Small Minds”: “The recompense of art criticism resides in the act of looking at a work of art and allowing oneself the time to experiment and re-experiment, to think, consider, articulate, vacillate and rearticulate. The critique of contemporary art is not an appropriate ambit for somebody who expects to be right all the time or on the majority of occasions. Rapid and not always significant change begs an illogical criticism that creates a dialogue between historic fact, the visual and opinion in an “open manner”, instead of trying to establish a pedantic system that permits no variations and that is only perfect with regard to its own limitations. The idea of self-correction is precisely what is most interesting about art criticism. Oscar Wilde said that criticism is the highest form of autobiography. I would like it not to be autobiography or self-expression, but auto-didactic, a printed record of the process of learning and, ideally, a demonstration that the art discussed is stimulating.”

What was Lippard telling us, now 42 years ago? That criticism is an organic process, mutable and that in its name it is allowed to make mistakes. Her quotation also implies that one of the functions of criticism is to stimulate debate and discussion. And if there is something that makes this impossible it is the asphyxiating presence of generalised consensus in the international art scene. Criticism suffers a crisis that needs to be faced up to with courage and generosity, in public: in the forums where critics talk amongst themselves and with their audiences. For this alone, aside from evaluating the results of one conference or another, it is heartening that these conferences or editorial projects such as the fantastic “Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism”, are taking place in such rapid succession over the last few years. But, above all, a critic should study himself/herself. As a writer, the working process is a solitary one and on rare occasions does one know what opinions or effects one’s texts can give rise to. It is in this solitude, and in the exercise of self-imposed correction that accompanies it, where the crisis of art criticism can begin to be combated.

This text was originally written in Spanish. You can read the Spanish version here.

About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso


One comment

  1. Lippard as ever furnishes us with a quote. Yes criticism is auto-didactic, but for me the problems are two fold, ie not only the rise of the curator, and indeed pantomime horse artist/curator, but the tendency now for official party lines about reading the work to be promulgated by artists as controllers, marketing people too, and secondly the stereotyping that the whole circus of career driven activity brings with it, ie you are a critic, and not a dustbin man etc. I prefer to just think of the writing rather than the stupid denomination process, whereby others perceive you. Then it is a question of modes of writing, that may include critically inflected writing, and even writing that uncovers issues buried in artists’ works that they are in denial about. This is where it starts to get interesting.

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