Artworks: A Closed System?

by Laurie Rojas

The practice of art criticism should be, first and foremost, concerned with the experience of art in its own time. The aim of this approach is to better comprehend the spirit of the times, to ask: what does art tell us about the present? Art criticism should ask whether contemporary artworks illuminate something exceptional about our present moment—and most importantly—how they go about doing that. 

Art criticism should also struggle against historical amnesia. On the one hand, against the quiet acceptance of newness of artworks; for this it needs (art) history. On the other, it should struggle against the amnesia of its own history and self-understanding as a practice; for this its needs critical theory.

Experience

No critic can afford to lose contact with the situation of art in its own time. That’s our bread and butter, so to speak. The question of aesthetic experience is one of the indicative questions that affects art discourse today. It is through the question of experience that we can grasp something about art in our times. The problem with emphasizing experience, however, is that it is rejected as often as it is encouraged. Experience does not escape reification.

In a time where art is experienced mostly through digital screens—or, at least, people keep insisting that’s the new phenomenon—art criticism’s emphasis on the experience of the work is urgently needed. This is not to point negatively toward the wonders that are the new forms of dissemination of art; this is part of the experience too. But, hasn’t most art been experienced through photographic or lithographic reproductions for a really long time? Did photography change art or did art change photography? Why is it that Instagram has supposedly changed so much? It probably hasn’t. And can we even say that scrolling through Instagram feeds is experience? Of course we can. How different is Instagram from the art history slideshows of just 20 years ago, before globe-trotting curators, or the black-and-white photo-reproductions that dominated art history books just 50 years ago? Isn’t Google Art Project letting us see artworks in ways we can’t even experience in person? Letting us see artworks that even the wealthiest of collectors might never get a chance to see? And aren’t there more and more people attending museums every year? Aren’t we seeing more art than ever before?

We have a proliferation of Gesamkunstwerk—grand expansive artwork-exhibitions—live art, and participatory art; at the same time, we have ephemeral “idea pieces” that were never intended to be experienced. Everybody talks about how horrible it is to experience art at art fairs, but they are still widely attended for purposes other than buying art. If encounters with art in galleries, museums or biennials, is lifeless, unmoving, disappointing, bland or banal, then that should be discussed, with an emphasis on the why and the how. Museums are trying to compensate for the difficulties serious art poses by trying to make their “passive” audiences more “active” by letting them touch, smell, move, and even “discuss” the art. But why does nobody tell museums that cooking and sharing food in museums is a trite experience? And why do people find such an experience fulfilling, without seeing a problem in that satisfaction?

Art criticism should be about experience; or, more precisely, it should be about extending and concentrating—if not enhancing—the experience of art. This is a task museums and other mediators have tried to develop further. Art criticism gives sustained attention to the experience of art in an attempt to push beyond immediacy, but in the unlikely case of that immediacy being overcome, it can help us understand and unpack that immediacy. Art criticism needs to push against superficial, bite-sized readings of works. Few can argue against that. But it can also deal with the surface phenomena as such. Art criticism should push for comprehension, not mere affirmation or negation. Good art will encourage this sustained attention to the experience of art, maybe in obscure ways, by being too abstract, esoteric, boring, intimidating or alienating, but it will be clear to the critic which artworks demand that sustained attention. Art criticism then, should be treated as a form of attentive experience, an opportunity to call an object/experience into wakefulness.

The emphasis on experience also helps us in understanding art criticism as an experimental, experiential form of writing. The writing, if treated openly as an essay, is to become a product and process of thinking. Art criticism is then a means, not an end itself. No piece of art criticism shall offer the last word on the questions raised by contemporary art.

History

Asking something like “what should criticism be?” presupposes that there is something wrong with art criticism to begin with. The whole topic of the crisis, or “death,” of art criticism has long felt overwrought and even over-determined.

Bringing up the paradox, offered by James Elkins in his book What Happened to Art Criticism? (2003), that criticism seems both vigorously healthy and terminally ill, is like walking into quicksand. But if we want to look to the future, we must attend to the present. With the exception of few intellectuals in Germany, everybody agrees that art criticism is not fulfilling the critical role that is needed. Even though art publishing is not making much money for its writers, art criticism is everywhere, and new publications—like this one—emerge every year with the idea of reviving art criticism.

The notion of the death (or end) of art is helpful to the extent that it is not absolutely terminal; it signals an eclipse in the comprehension of the concept of art, or as Hegel would have put it, an indication of the transformation of how art matters. The debates around the possible death of art criticism suggest that particular roles of art criticism have become defunct, where new roles, or old ones in a new context, could develop. In other words, there seems to be an element of possibility, of openness, to the “death” of art criticism. But this is too optimistic of a standpoint. There is no blank slate; there are thriving forms of art criticism out there that must be acknowledged, if not antagonized. Lest we forget, the “death” of art criticism was the term given to the self-liquidation of a practice. Therefore, in the present, we might consider that it is a practice in crisis, itself conditioned by a crisis in its own self-understanding. This could entail further historical investigations into what conditioned the crisis of criticism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with conceptual art and post-structuralism. This could also be accomplished by looking at the difficulties art criticism faced earlier in the 20th century with the demise of the public sphere.

But if anything defines the present, it is the sense of not knowing how to move forward. By and large, art critics recognize that criticism, as a discipline, has forgotten where it was going. This amnesia, whether self-inflicted or contingent, is an obstacle. As Elkins says, the lack of an updated history of art criticism has been a key factor in perpetuating its deep incoherence.

The absence of disciplinary history has produced two major problems: methodological anarchy and absence of purpose. One way to productively redeem the history of art criticism is through an invigorated interest in (re)articulating its raison d’etre. In the '90s, art criticism was a dying discipline insofar as a generation of writers abandoned certain historical problems imminent to art criticism. (The question of experience is one of these historical problems.) This should not be misconstrued as merely a romantic or nostalgic call for the days (and methods) of Greenberg and Baudelaire. No. Rather it recognizes that their work, and that of scores of their predecessors, followers and adversaries, can be profoundly useful in explaining the present state of art, offering insights into where it is heading. If one believes the meaning of artworks is not limited by its own historical moment, one must believe that neither is the meaning of art criticism. If the crisis of art criticism is bound up with the problem of a lack of self-consciousness of its history, its historical development must be investigated as part of a broader program seeking to progressively transform art criticism.

Idea

To be critical, in the Kantian sense of the word, means to be aware of the conditions of possibility attendant to the object of investigation and of the conditions for the comprehension of that object. Following Kant, in this sense, Hegel arrives at his often-cited formulation: philosophy’s task is to comprehend its own time in thought. Under the rubric of this notion, art’s task would then be to comprehend its own time in form. Broadly speaking, this perspective would suggest that criticism comprehend the forms (art, music, literature, film) of its own time, in thoughts. Of course, these suggestions, or other “paths-not-taken” that we discern in the history of art criticism, do not make simple models of art criticism unproblematically “available” to us today—the empirical state of art writing indicates at least this much. To take for granted that such paths were not taken, however, affirms the course of history, a tendency towards which even those writers most skeptical of modernism should be skeptical.

What is art criticism for?

The practice of art criticism is riddled with contradictions. These contradictions are sometimes reduced to sterile oppositions like form and content, social art and autonomous art, idea and experience, avant-garde and kitsch, idealism and materialism, so on and so forth.

One of the most significant contradictions is the one between art criticism and its sibling, art. Oscar Wilde recognized this over a century ago when he wrote that “criticism is itself an art.” But in the face of “critical art,” what is criticism when art takes up its function? Art criticism must recognize its tension with art, it must exploit this—it must be willing to enter into this tension with art—but it must explore this tension with so-called critical art above all.

The development of conceptual art in the 1960s was the most significant moment in which art criticism was undermined. One must, then, seriously consider whether or not the ideas and institutions that were so widely called into question in the mid-to-late 20th century, in terms of their being ethically and politically compromised, have actually been “overcome” in a manner that we can label progressive and laudable. If not, we must consider the possibility that in the context of hyper-mediation and the supposed usurpation of the art world by the art market, these institutions and ideas have simply decayed or, even worse, just come out of fashion. All that is called “new” and “contemporary” is not an indication of progress. It may not even be new. This is not to say that there can be no new ideas about contemporary art expressed in art criticism. I wish only to complicate the assumption of what is new. One often discovers that what contemporary artworks are trying to do has already been attempted before, and so the history of a certain practice, along with its critical response, can illuminate art in the present. On the flip side, a critic can ask why certain issues keep being revisited by artists, and how those issues differ. The point is that art criticism is a writing practice to explore continuity as much as change.

Art criticism should be about challenging what we take for granted in art. In order to be a tool in the transformation of culture it should be a process that questions, searches for problems, and raises doubts. It is not about seeking solutions, dissolving antinomies, or developing the tastes of an audience. Good art works should open up this field of inquiry for art critics. Being ambitious about art criticism is really about trying to grasp what has not been grasped, even and especially by the artists themselves. The artwork is not a closed system of significance and meaning, and it surely cannot be defined solely by what a curator or the artist says; however, without art criticism, it is.

What is needed is a reevaluation of what it means to be critical of art today. When terms like Zombie Formalism, Relational Aesthetics, Social Turn, and Post-internet came into being, they caught on fire. Despite the different ways in which these terms have been debated, misused and misunderstood, they were all critical categories used to establish commonality with artists. It comes as no surprise that many artists in each of these historical terms rejected their inclusions within those categories. Whether written by art historians, curators or art critics, these terms defined a tendency in art of the present and created a frame in which the conversation could be had; for good or for ill they were expressions of art criticism. We must try to do this better.

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