Criticism & Ambivalence

by Bret Schneider


Let’s take a moment and consider what is happening: the people who are supposed to be really interested in art, those who are expected to be professionally committed, connected, and engaged in art, are those who have essentially said, “meh, I’m not really that interested.” Those who are supposed to interpret difficult art for a confused but interested public don’t really care to do so. It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they won’t. The critics on the inside seem to feel that it’s fraudulent to advocate for a culture they don’t really believe in. When pressed, most art critics are ambivalent about contemporary art, and so the general public is as a result.

A case in point: last year Kunstkritikk asked a number of art critics whether or not post-internet culture has fostered a new generation of post-internet art critics, and consequently new modes of thinking through difficult cultural issues. The scope of the answers pointed beyond the question, raising issues not limited to post-internet culture (or even 21st-century culture in general), and strongly implying—more so than many other surveys on the state of art criticism—that before any new art criticism can be taken up, lingering issues from the old art criticism project should first be put to rest. The questionnaire is reminiscent of the student who asks their teacher a question they already know the answer to. The teacher, in this case a group of professional critics, seem to all respond in unison: “It sounds like you already know the answer.” The student senses in advance that, no, post-internet art has not fostered any new form of critical thought. The questionnaire is then haunted by a subtextual why?, and critics are forced to consider many of the same problems plaguing art criticism long before post-internet art.

This sort of absence of the critic has for the past half-century become an increasing phenomenon, with this serving as just another instance for art critics to reflect on why it is that they are left out, and in what sort of hypothetical culture they might have a critical role to play. At the same time, it was critics themselves around the post-internet phenomena who elected not to be sufficiently critical because this culture did not really need it. What it was perceived as needing was affirmation. None of this is meant to slight post-internet art or its artists, but instead to point to the contradictory role art criticism is put in. In fact, whatever one might say or think about post-internet artists is irrelevant. And this is exactly the point.

It’s not surprising that post-internet art is not perceived as fostering new critical thought, as it predigested thought in its neatly packaged equation. The impulse behind the affirmative design of the post-internet culture was to uncritically accept the readymade values of the late-postmodern (visual studies) generation, and project those values onto art that necessarily takes up new media. The theorists of post-internet art had from the get-go set out to render it an ethically positive and culturally desirable object, and brought it subserviently to the art institutions seeking out a younger generation that would in turn validate the status quo values of contemporary art. Paradoxically, it was at the same time expected to keep contemporary art moving. This was the case even though many of the artists involved seem to in many respects be criticizing the post-‘60s generation. Post-internet art, from the very moment it was designed, set out to penetrate the art institutions. But this penetration can also be seen as a liquidation of values: it should come as no surprise that many of its artists who were once resolutely against painting and sculpture are now making paintings or sculptures! As for the thought around it, it was never really a theory per se, but a veiled rationalization of the not-so-secret aspirations of net artists to show in galleries. In order to fluff up a positive culture on which careers can be made, post-internet theory was required to possess a flawless veneer. Yet its critical foundations were at the same time sorely lacking—criticism and theory around P-I was motivated by an opportunism to seize non-artistic materials and ideologies, and was eager to comply with a vulgar reality principle, even though many net art and post-internet artists seem to take up new media forms specifically to protest their reality. The theories that gave it its social meaning were both motivated by, and unable to fully explore, a thorough critique of late-capitalist culture. And the artists knew (and still know) this.

Criticism was at the same time the exact thing many of its artists yearned for. This occurred to such an extent that critics were (and continue to be) nearly patronized by artists, in a strange reversal of the usual positions. Over time this inability became a rule. Without an autonomous body of criticism, post-internet art has become characterized by a sort of compensatory “smartism” that works extra hard to frontload criticism into its work, attempting to conceal, instead of reveal its blindspots. This carefully crafted art of concealment that results from picking up the slack of criticism is itself its blindspot. It’s not surprising that the Berlin Biennial this year is motivated by the idea of contradictions: its artists endeavor to resolve problems, but also to position themselves as veiled problems. P-I artists have always been plagued by the feeling that the culture they are complicit with is sorely lacking in substance. In other words, they have been bothered by a feeling of ambivalence regarding their own work, as well as that of their peers, so the criticism leveled at them as superficial is not entirely true. The ultimate question is why was this self-canceling failure not only acceptable, but anticipated? It has served as the proof to a long-suspected rule that anything resembling a ‘movement’ is not only doomed to fail, but designed to. 

In only a few short years, Post-internet culture turned out to be little more than a means for reproducing the status quo of contemporary art. So, when the question is posed to critics after its premature canonization regarding new forms of thought, all they seem to say is, “What? We were supposed to be thinking about this? I thought all the thinking was done for us?” Critical thought was never called upon to be a factor in this particular subculture. That is, P-I was from the beginning a kitsch phenomena, with the caveat that it was an attempt to assume an avant-garde role. But the inability to surmount this self-affirming kitsch culture has shown the undesirable way that critique is subordinate to reproduction, and not the opposite.

Regarding the Kunstkritikk survey, the responses vary dramatically, illustrating the disintegration of a unified practice of art criticism. Yet they are united in a common pathology that is difficult to identify—they revolve around trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, with a resignation that Humpty can’t be pieced together because the market has a vested interest in keeping it disintegrated (S. Gabrielsen), or pretending that Dumpty was never broken to begin with (G. Diez). A few responders proclaim that DIS magazine is creating a new critical culture, continuing the critical tradition. But not going into detail regarding that project, it smacks of opportunism to align with whatever is in vogue (which is not to say that there isn’t something critical about DIS), or simply grasping at straws.

Stian Gabrielson takes a sobering viewpoint that the market for contemporary art has so advanced beyond the need for criticism that the only thing left for critics to do is to project a critical importance onto artworks that have no need for it: post-internet art has thrived without it. The consequences of such a realization—and I think it’s accurate—are very real and paralyzing. It implies that art criticism isn’t needed anymore, at all, that it has failed to entrench thought into the market and consequently failed to transform it. For anyone involved in the art world, this will ring very true: contemporary art operates in society more like fashion. Art criticism’s social self-righteousness and overwrought, disconnected theory since the ‘60s has meant that it lags behind the production of curators, for instance, who are avid art lovers (aesthetes, often to a fault) and work tirelessly to buy and sell culture, treating the growing number of MFA and PhD students like new pairs of shoes. All along, the self-incurred minority of critics tries helplessly to demystify the outmoded concepts curators rely upon (e.g. beauty), only to their chagrin.

Likewise, Raimar Strange reflects on how artists are too aligned with the market, echoing a common sentiment from older art critics and historians who only see 'commodification' in the careerism of young artists. This viewpoint neglects the radicalism inherent in the transparent commodification of P-I art, which is its sole redeeming quality. But what about young critics who are often just as eager to devise an affirmative culture, to concoct wildly meaningless theories, and who are ultimately responsible for downplaying critical thought from the P-I cultural program? The new phenomenon of artists and critics eagerly hatching their careers, quickly cobbling together movements for their resumes, and planning for their retrospectives before they have anything to say, may sound vulgarly affirmative to those reared in the ‘60s communes or the ‘70s DIY subcultures. But it also shows how that preceding generation of postmodernists failed to raise aesthetics to a level of politics that can make any substantial difference for the social meaning of art, and have sought out not the voices of new criticism, but rather of sycophantism. P-I isn’t the subject. The subject is the questionable postmodern foundations of contemporary art that are thrown into crisis by P-I art—an art movement that can be seen as trying to move beyond postmodernism in many respects, but also subordinating itself to it in others. That is, P-I art has both regressive and progressive tendencies, and neither really have to do with new media or the internet etc., but rather art historical consciousness and its aporias since postmodernism. But without an autonomous body of art criticism, this potentially radical contradiction is leveled off into mere ambivalence. It means that P-I art can be construed as the either the end of the postmodern era, or the absolute affirmation of it.

Consciously or not, Burbidge understands that the long derided ‘market’ around P-I is its determining factor, when he adopts a radical position in proposing that art critics should take big money from corporations! As a result, the art world would be less nepotistic, and possibly revitalize the role of the public intellectual. It indicates the way in which art, by its own necessities and modern character, is driven back into the big bourgeoisie, and finds that there is only so much slack on an umbilical cord of gold that has long been thought to be cut. Instead, P-I art shows the way it has been reeled in, but in a way that may be more progressive than what we've witnessed for the last 30 years. It shows how the post-‘60s project of anti-enlightenment, minor art and art criticism has failed, and now returns with its tail between its legs to a market that has found itself better off without postmodern criticism. If the project of critical art is to survive into the 21st century, it will need to lay aside juvenile ideas of creating alternative communities and alternative art criticism, and finally find a way to work through, not around the commodity form. The reason critics don’t engage in this more universal way is usually framed as a radical eschewing of a universalizing spirit. But this is in truth a cover-up for the sense that there isn’t any art they are confident enough in to support at such a level. Criticism is at the forefront of cultural ambivalence.

For the regressive side, P-I art’s rapid dissolution has shown that not even its members believed in it. As relevant as the P-I generation is supposed to be, it maintains itself as a mere subculture. The social situation of art after postmodernism responds by bringing it out of its minority anyway, and the critics find themselves a mere appendage, people who are herded into media rooms and separate dining tables to be shielded away from where the real, unmediated conversations lie: between artists, curators, and collectors. This has left critics out of the discussion and either looking for life on the margins, or struggling to create a wedge. Yet what defines the success of an artist or artwork is the criticism around the work, and how trenchant their work is within a broader historical discourse. P-I artists are painfully aware of their rapid marginalization due to this lack. What will become of P-I artists who may lament being lumped into a minor subheading in the canon of an art history that is only developing negatively? Does pigeonholing them into a subgenre make a case for their work being an overhaul of the very way we think of art and representation? Will they feel like the meaning of their work as possible game-changers in the history of art has been liquidated by serving as an ornament for the tech industry? Will they regret reproducing the lame ideas and characteristics that the postmodern generation expects of ‘millennials’ and youth culture? Do P-I artists sense that the flashy new theories that are grafted onto their experiments will quickly wane, the way the trends of the season do? I sense that the reason many P-I artists have been suspect of the term from the beginning is because it puts them in a difficult position of having to be parodies of themselves. Like good little boys and girls they did exactly what they were told by their teachers: "you’re a millennial, you’re supposed to be making art about the internet, identity, and X-Y-Z concepts." It is to their credit that they did their homework very well. But what happens when they grow up and rebel against a childish curriculum that has come to define their entire careers? Do they make small paintings in protest? Do they quit and become Yoga instructors? The carefully administered youth culture of the postmodernist generation has not been a means toward criticism, but rather a way in which the contemporary art institution prevents criticism of its curricula. This situation has rendered P-I a kitsch, rearguard movement, not a critical movement. Its acceptance of readymade cultural material illustrates its rearguard position, with the caveat that it attempts to think through such material and raise its own principles of organization to a higher consciousness. This is what criticism around the BB9 for instance has been unable to grasp. The contradictions reside in the art historical subject who take up new forms of media not to endorse them but to question them by implementing forms of representation that is in line with modern art's history. With criticism's marginalization also comes philistinism. A real investigation into the different artist's comprising this genre is forthcoming. Yet such investigations will also come too late.

With such ambivalence prevalent, younger critics mentioned in the survey, and many outside the survey have very understandably jumped ship, finding comfort in their own marginalization by seeking alternative models of criticism. It’s understandable to try and find alternative means, but the greater marginalization of critical culture will only leave art untouched and foster more missed opportunities. Contemporary art is a historically specific phenomenon defined by concrete social contradictions that appear as not concrete—one of those contradictions is that its sole defining characteristic is criticism and theory, while at the same time it is precisely critical theory that is not permitted. Contemporary art has been increasingly nailing itself into its own coffin, and post-internet criticism is merely the latest instance whereby the simultaneous necessity and absence of criticism is felt. Such contradiction implies that it is the critic, and not the artist or curator, who can make a wedge in the cultural status quo.