Untimely Art Criticism

by Bret Schneider


"The gift of judgment is rarer than the gift of creativity."
-  Walter Benjamin quoting poet Oskar Loerke

"Everyone’s a critic."
-   Anonymous



The first modernist was an art critic.

Not yet a fully developed individual, the modern art critic first emerged as an anonymous face amongst the crowds, feeling its way around a new environment with inchoate senses. By working through new possibilities for subjectivity via aesthetic critique, the public art critic realized not only the latent aims of Diderot’s criticism, but also became one of the first manifestations of the modern idea of the public intellectual. Such a character emerged at a time when people felt that the era of art (just as religion) was passing, and consequently demanded reflection in order to survive. As such, the critic was the objective manifestation of a historical need. This new public intellectual would discuss aesthetic experiences that might develop into something beyond private knowledge because aesthetic experiences were common—but unknown—to all, and through this process, such an individual would make experience into something more than reproducible culture. The modern critic was the first avant-gardist, being the surplus product of art history and playing a leading role in the production of culture through clarification. With “learning in public” (Greenberg) as the program of criticism, modernist criticism would be the exact opposite of an elite class of intellectuals that know how to read a text or look at a painting via institutional nepotism. They would represent the interests of the many only insofar as they exemplified the self-critical activity of the many. The critic is, for the first time in history, free to imagine—and actively develop—the processes of culture by making the difficult judgments artworks themselves demand. Conjecture and speculation are inherent aspects of the modern critical condition. As individuals were a hypothesized category and not a sociological fact, the first public art critics could not stand above the society in which they were part and truthfully claim that cultural forms were fixed and known to them as if they were their own property. Only in today’s technocratic state, with our notions of society or individualism as ‘scientific facts’ instead of an active process, do we view modern critics, from Baudelaire to Greenberg, as characters standing above culture, casting shadows with their enlightened judgments. Criticism has since its conception been tasked with fulfilling the notion of the public intellectual in a society that constantly threatens it. Such threats have come in various forms, but only recently and contradictorily from within cultural works themselves. Those very things that cannot live without critical reflection will also not allow it.

If there were a job description for the art critic it would read as follows:

Looking for a highly articulate spokesperson for art, someone who can translate confounding experiences to an enthusiastic but confused audience. You will articulate what art is mute to say to those who are deaf to hear. Must have willingness to learn in public, and lead by example. Must have ability to use senses. Your workday will consist of making speculative judgments. No previous experience required, feelings a must, historical imagination desirable.

Art historical imagination has created culture as we know it, though not necessarily consciously. By giving culture an immeasurable ideal, the critic provided a foil through which all cultural forms are thrown into relief and gain substance. Without abstract ideals or criteria that emerge in front of artworks, culture rests complacently in the privacy of one-dimensional experience; literally ‘sub culture’. The modern art critic poses the problematic notion of a Sub Specie Aesthetic—a species in the image of aesthetic experience. Baudelaire’s interpretations of the strange life he felt around him in turn created the conditions by which culture gained public substance and traction. What is called contemporary art (or considered avant-garde art) today is so many reactions to the tendencies of society as perceived through the necessarily abstract reflections of its critics. Critics have not so much been objectively wrong or right about the directions of art as much as they have been intentionally proven wrong or right by those who disagree or agree on some abstract and tendentious level. Indeed, tendentiousness has been both a necessary and suppressed aspect of any art criticism (even in contemporary artworks themselves). This is because the tendencies of society as perceived via art are by no means ‘objective’ in the sense of the word today, but demand interpretation and completion through self-critical activity.

An image of art criticism and art is that of the two-man act: the first is original but silent, unable to speak, while the second must speak for him, but generates no original content except through interpretation. The art critic has always been in its makeup a peddler of experience, an appendage of institutions. The modern art critic posed the possibility of moving beyond this through public intellectualism. This project has relapsed. While only recently ‘tastemaking’ has become a bugbear, pointing to this relapse, contemporary art has become a den of subcultures founded on private taste communities and institutions. There is historical rationale to this: the critic emerges at a time when art has run its course and no longer fulfills the same needs. From the point of view of a highly critical society, the heroes appear to be Nietzsche not Wagner; Greenberg not Pollock; Adorno, not Schoenberg. And so on. There is a reason why reading about art is often more compelling than the art itself under review. In retrospect the artwork often fails to live up to the reviewers' judgments and projections. The significance of art is equivalent to the story told about it. But if critics were the storytellers of the avant-grade, the story ends in the 60s somewhere because that is when the project of historical consciousness is abandoned. So too the so-called crisis of art criticism is a result of a generation of critics lured by vulgar notions of objectivity—an objectivity that has become an excuse for a new type of austere, academic character unwilling to develop substantive feelings about particular expressions of art. Criticism has also been stifled by pseudo-scientific notions of ‘factuality’, and so forth. I call this a journalistic turn. This has meant that experience itself becomes private, reserved, and the property of ideological organs. Experience is bypassed so critics can stand by an artist or artwork the way journalists stand by political candidates. Whereas taste still goes in unpredictable directions, the contemporary critic has been too complacent to say that ‘art is not made that way’, reifying notions of a reality that doesn’t need to be. Such abdication is simply another way of saying that the unpredictable realm of taste in the modern world has not been sanctioned by the ideological institutions of contemporary art.

As I see it, there are 3 distinct types of art criticism in this turn, each more developed than the last. The first is simple reportage; the critic reports on art as if it were a given fact of nature, the way a weatherman notes changes in the weather. The second is fluff, where the critic is the mouthpiece of a particular subculture. This criticism is limited to propaganda, and the difficult thought processes that aesthetics demands are taboo. The third, and the most refined, as well as the most barbaric, is evaluative. Evaluative criticism is the type of criticism implemented by all the major art criticism outlets (Pitchfork, Artforum, etc.) and it essentially evaluates an artist or artwork the way one would appraise a prized cow going to the county fair. Evaluative critics serve the same purpose as, for example, the FDA does in food, overseeing a long process of refinement culminating in a review that ensures that the art in question is fit for the public. Such critics are the administrators of culture, seeing that all which is threatening to the increasingly fragile idea of art is painstakingly purified, and that the public is not harmed. It has a palpable, homogenizing effect on art, in the attempts to save what remains of it, and serves the needs of a society generally concerned with social correction. Historically, it is the first type of art criticism that has effectively reached a public stage, but only in the most vulgar of ways. It is useful only the extent to which it displays both the necessity and possibility for a truly public criticism. But at the same time, it can only perform the act of editing difficult judgments out of an art criticism process that is simultaneously defined by judgment in its philosophical origins. This is an epochal stage in art criticism, and primarily for art. It is the historical moment when the culture industry has become so developed as to incorporate mass interest in art as an autonomous activity, but which has become so saturated that it offshoots a public art criticism to merely administer that need. The evaluative stage corresponds to a highly rationalized society that literally rations art to its audience, metaphorically, in a way reserved for bread in times of scarcity. It seeks in art the values that are needed to continue society, and which neutralize the particular ailments of an anaesthetized culture at any given moment. We currently sit at the threshold of a possible next stage, which is the reason why there is so much obscure, almost unintelligible criticism—such criticism attempts in vain to form judgments, but fall somewhere in the middle of evaluations and judgments, often having the quality of abstract ruminations. At the same time it is possible that thinking about art will simply remain unintelligible for an unforeseeable amount of time.

Much of this turn has some sociological basis in the birth (really the production) of the Middlebrow Critic in the 1960s. The Middlebrow Critic was socially divorced from everything that came before it—most relevant here the modernist art critic, who was made a taboo on the level of Bolshevism. Like a robot produced at the art factory, the Middlebrow Critic has no past, yet finds herself struggling to find a reason for her existence. Always on the brink of obsolescence, the middlebrow critic thinks only of its own aporias. Such a critic may have history programmed into it, but that does not mean they act on behalf of it, trying to develop it. The aporia itself is also programmed into it. But there is historical precedent for criticism to such an extent that society cannot live without it. Since its inception, the critic traffics in the new of modernity, which, despite its detractors, rages on, destroying the old, obsessed with the new, etc. So long as there is a concept of society as such, there is constant need for a type of character who translates new experiences to those who are dragged along for the ride. The critic is such a necessity that it had to be automated, made a reproduceable unit, in order to continue society. The fretting over a crisis in art criticism is an effect, and not a cause, of the reified condition of the critic in modernity. Trying to bring new life or a new theory to the critic would be like trying to repurpose the character of the King, the Priest, or the Plumber: they are social characters that fulfill the specific needs of a particular social order; in the case of art criticism it is the Bourgeois social order. That is, crisis is a symptom of surplus criticism, and not a deficit. For this reason, it might be considered whether or not the only radical art criticism today could be an orthodox art criticism (analogous to the ideas of orthodox Marxism)—the only way out being through. The recognition that criticism as it is currently practiced has not yet caught up to the original ideas of what criticism ought to do, and would point to the new stage beyond what we suspect is an obsolete journalism. Not only was the first modernist a critic, but the last modernist will also be a critic.

That the Middlebrow Critics have become experts and authorities has obscured the reality that so much of the public now has critical tendencies and well-defined taste. It is more difficult not to judge than it is to judge. The only difference between a critic and the public is that the former has the courage to follow something as simple as liking a color or a tone to its ultimate conclusions. Whereas the experts proclaim that judgment leads to failure, this is only a justification for a generation that has failed to lead its audience. It has failed by being too cowardly to be partisan, too afraid to offend. In a complex authoritarian state, taste will always offend and judgments will always be a nuisance. In the future, art criticism, and not art itself will be censored. Middlebrow Criticism doesn’t do its job to "learn in public" and to make the mistakes that real criticism inevitably will do. But more importantly criticism is partisan because that's what it is at its bourgeois core: criticism makes judgments like the spleen purifies the blood, separating the aesthetically true from the aesthetically false. This is how culture is made and consequently changed. In our critical society it is but a short step for artists to become critics. Indeed, the many turns towards dematerialization in contemporary art are a means by which history manipulates artists into critics to fulfill a need, even though this need is easily repressed.

It's difficult to speak about criticism without assessing particular but common expressions of culture at large that vilify critical reflection. Culture has recently found a program by which it can build into its works forms of anti-criticism. The problem with kitsch or middlebrow art has always been that it doesn’t want people—critics—to spend time with it. It’s not that it’s dumb, but rather is plagued with shyness, as odd as this sounds. If kitsch could speak, it would say something profound, but then eat its words and attack the person who finds the profound statement appealing. I only invoke kitsch here to illustrate that art today often aestheticizes the inability to think about it, and stigmatizes the critic in particular. Whereas this is generally perceived as no more than ad hominem or flippant, it indicates a nihilism of society at large when considering the social character, and not the private person of the critic. Art supposes it is attacking a private and marginal sensibility when in truth it is attacking society in general by attacking its “honored nuisance” (a phrase Adorno once used), even though this honored nuisance may in fact not be honored or a nuisance at all anymore, but simply a relic. Criticism is repelled by its objects of critique that are more and more hermetic and that shield themselves from reflection. When criticism tries to penetrate through this superficial affect it is vilified. This has perhaps been the case since Wagner and Nietzsche. This is in part due to the widespread recognition that critics so often have served certain social orders or state-sponsored institutions. But if this has been the case, the situation can not be willed away, and, in any case, artists have proven to be more tools of the state than critics ever were. The antagonism towards criticism is in truth an appeal to its necessity. Art criticism is an attempt to create a culture worthy of our sustained attention instead of a culture promoting self-loathing, scorn and derision. Everyone has taste, everyone has critical tendencies. Only a couple hundred years ago this could not be said. A criticism revolution seems afoot. Yet only a few are willing or able to follow their tastes or judgments into something substantial. Public art criticism should be the aspiration of anyone interested in art today. It is not clear that we are creating an enriching culture that serves our needs, not emotionally, intellectually, or physically. There is much evidence to the contrary, that we create a culture we loathe, that we are constantly discontent with, that intentionally serves not our needs but our further estrangement from our senses. We are not any closer today than we were 100 years ago (let alone 10000!) in comprehending the primal reasons why we like or dislike things, ranging from a simple line or color to a film. As a result we are further away from emphasizing the things we like—and probably need—to live fulfilling lives. What is perhaps needed more than ever is the cultivation of sensitivity in order to combat a desensitized and anaesthetized society. Criticism is a means towards such sensitivity. If such a virtue is unattainable in our current social situation, capitalism has at least birthed criticism to draw attention to this deficiency. If more people were self-reflexive in their taste, who knows what might happen.

This article is part of a series, Four Essays on Late Criticism.

Charles Baudelaire, the first modernist

Charles Baudelaire, the first modernist

From the Freeze d/e instagram

From the Freeze d/e instagram

Berenson, an 'art critic' robot programmed to make determinations about the quality of artworks, based on how  others  around him react!

Berenson, an 'art critic' robot programmed to make determinations about the quality of artworks, based on how others around him react!

Clement Greenberg posited that art criticism was not an intellectual activity in the academic sense we mean today, but rather tried to strip criticism to its problematic essence of making judgments.

Clement Greenberg posited that art criticism was not an intellectual activity in the academic sense we mean today, but rather tried to strip criticism to its problematic essence of making judgments.