Notes on Art Criticism as a Practice

Pablo Lafuente

4 Dec 2008
.The producers of art criticism today face practical questions with ethical and political implications.

In a philosophical context, after Immanuel Kant, critique has come to identify a type of philosophy that does not search for causes or grounds, but tries to determine the possible conditions for a particular faculty or activity. If applied to the criticism of art, this 'critique of critique' would not result in art criticism itself, but in a philosophy of art that delimits what can be said about art and/or its experience.

This philosophy could establish what the object of art criticism might be (artworks, whatever might qualify as such, and their display in the form of exhibitions; or an aesthetic experience that constitutes its object as art); it would then determine what art criticism can and cannot do with this object; and it would conclude by constituting art criticism as a discipline in opposition to other disciplines and practices, such as art history and theory, curatorial practice and art journalism, film and theatre criticism. Having done this, a new canon could then be constructed, the discipline taught within an academic framework, and supporting structures developed for the professional practice of the discipline. Such structures would then defend the discipline from both external and internal attacks. However, none of this seems close to happening, and the level of disagreement about the object, methods, function, state and goals of art criticism remains extreme.1

At present art criticism is just a practice - one with an empirically given domain, engaging a considerable number of people who play more or less specific roles within a cultural sector that has significant business ramifications. Those practising art criticism often consider themselves to be in a professionally precarious situation, affected by working conditions that reproduce the flexibility of post-Fordist capitalism, and occupying a position of irrelevance (common complaints among art critics today are their loss of influence and lack of audience). The transformation of this practice into a discipline might establish foundations from which to address those working conditions, although that is far from guaranteed. These conditions are no worse than those affecting academically-certified disciplines, both in the scientific and the cultural field, and they are considerably better than those from other professional sectors. Whether a 'disciplined' art criticism would bring with it a renewed influence and a wider audience is even more uncertain.

But perhaps this 'doubling-up' of critique in order to constitute art criticism as a discipline is wrong. Maybe it is best for art criticism to remain a practice. What is the point of embarking on a process of clarification, definition, stabilisation and institutionalisation of art criticism, precisely when art is involved in a process of blurring demarcated lines and eliminating distinctions? At the turn of the nineteenth century, early German Romanticism and French literary realism set up the grounds for a tendency that continues today by which the criteria for distinguishing art and non-art, and therefore those for distinguishing 'good' from 'bad' art, have vanished, despite recurring attempts to construct linear historical narratives and tight definitions.2 Today anything can be art, and it can be art in any way. With the disappearance of criteria, the possibility of defining an audience disappears too. The bourgeois audience able to decipher codes and distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' is replaced by an 'anybody' who can experience the text, image or any other material if he or she is willing to do so. Knowledge is no longer the main factor, mere will is. As a consequence of this, everyone has in principle equal access to art, and equal ability to decide what qualifies as such and how it should be approached.3

However, after more than 200 years, this principle of equality has not done away with inequality within the field of contemporary art, as certain factors continue to define levels of access and identify the authorised voices. These include the definition of a modernist canon by art theorists in conjunction with cultural and governmental institutions and private capital, Anglo-Saxon cultural and market dominance, or, more generally, a system of education, exhibition, exchange and discourse production shaped by public and private institutions and different interests in specific times and locations.

As participants within this system, the producers of art criticism today face practical questions with ethical and political implications - many of which are shared by others involved in contemporary art. They not only have to find a style, approach and genealogy to their practice, but also reflect on their desired level or autonomy in relation to art, its producers and others financially or institutionally invested in it. They have to guarantee an income (not necessarily from writing alone), while simultaneously discerning the role of art within society. They must decide who they are writing for but, before that, find a willing publisher. They have to work out what relationships to establish with art, artists and others involved, as well as determine the legitimacy of such associations, blindly guessing the effects any discursive material would have on art's production and reception. They must avoid exhaustion and, ideally, they should learn how to be truthful to the principle of equality by taking a position within concrete situations of inequality.

Is there a notion of critique that corresponds to this task, one that doesn't circumscribe what is possible but rather opens it up? Perhaps critique as intervention, as clarification of a critical point, and the establishment of a relation between this clarification and a decision. What is interesting about this conception is that it begins with a situation of crisis that demands intervention. The crisis is not something that takes place in a specific period or place within a linear history, but the permanent state of culture itself, as well as politics. If applied to the context of art criticism, this notion would displace the focus of critique from a task of definition and theorisation to one of action. And, through implied notions of crisis and productive/disruptive engagement, it would also dismiss any rhetorical lamentations for the current irrelevance of art criticism as a consequence of the dismantling of the bourgeois public sphere.

This text is clearly unable to offer an exhaustive account of the specific traits of this notion of criticism and address its implications in detail. Instead, it attempts to define the grounds of this practice and identify various approaches it opposes:

Independence and engagement

When used in the context of art criticism, the term independent often stands in for freelance. The financial constraints that a freelance critic experiences are different, but comparable, to those that a staff writer faces. Professional engagement with either the public or private sector results in a series of compromises which may have an influence in the practice of writing. However, these don't necessarily invalidate claims to a critical position. Perhaps this is a risky assertion at a time when advertising pages in art magazines have multiplied exponentially; publications are associated to commercial ventures; and some writers also work as museum and school directors and advisors to private collections. But the notion of the independent writer effectively functions as a screen to camouflage the real conditions of the practice. Instead of acting independently from the process of production and distribution, art criticism should be developed from a position of engagement with that process, establishing alliances and performing rejections. Engagement here doesn't mean continuity: the task of writing about the work is not the same

as the task of making it or exhibiting it. In fact, the work made by the artist is not exactly the same work written about by the critic - the critic makes the work appear other than it is, producing a new work.

Division of labour and hierarchy

Recognition of the specific character of criticism does not imply a division of labour between artist, critic, and curator or art historian. In fact, art criticism can be practised by anyone in the absence of any privileged positions. Different knowledge, sensibilities and approaches result in different criticisms, but no academic degree, no level of familiarity with the process of making, and no amount of knowledge alone makes one type of criticism preferable to another. (Art criticism, like art practice or politics, should be grounded on the assumption of the equal intelligence of all those looking at art, as well as those reading the text.)

Styles and methods

Accordingly, no particular linguistic tropes should be privileged over others. The 'knowledge effect' produced by academic writing is no better than the 'reality effect' that phenomenological or confessional writing brings forth, nor the 'communication effect' that journalistic writing aims at. The practice of one instead of the other is simply a matter of choice - perhaps by the editor as often as the writer - and none can be deemed to fall out of the remit of art criticism. Perhaps, and only because it betrays the principle of equality, mystifying writing of any kind should be rejected. This includes hermeneutic writing that looks for a hidden meaning, since it translates the artwork into something other than itself and limits its understanding to the search for a single meaning; normative criticism, which considers the artwork always preceded by an ideal model to which it must be referred back, therefore dismissing the work's specificity; or ethical writing, which proposes a debt of writer to artwork, artist or reader, moralising what is in reality a matter of will and turning art criticism into authoritative pedagogy.

Specificity and change

Choice of style, just as choice of subject, should be a function of the specific situation where criticism takes place. The crisis that art criticism is compelled to respond to is always concrete, as are artworks themselves. The response to the artwork and the situation of crisis around it, must avoid universalisations, instead always accounting for that specificity. Criticism should not be an exercise in reporting, archiving or advocating either the old or new, but a productive contribution that constructs the subject of its discourse and aims to produce change. As an activity criticism is continuous with that of the artist who makes it, the curator or gallerist who exhibits it, the institution that hosts it and audience that looks at it. And like each of

these positions it produces a new version of the artwork, modifying its status and reach possibly in disagreement with the versions produced by the others. As the principle of equality implies, this change always already relates the art that is written about to its surroundings. Perhaps one of the key features of art, as defined by the tendency identified above, is that it constitutes a privileged place for showing how things can be different. Sometimes it can even do so by effecting change itself. Art criticism can play an important role in that process, not only by pointing at what art makes possible, but also by helping it in the process.

Pablo Lafuente is a writer and academic, and deputy editor of Afterall


1 This is very clearly reflected by The State of Art Criticism, Eds. James Elkins and Michael Newman. London and New York, Routledge, 2008.
2 This conception is proposed by Jacques Rancière in books such as La Parole muette. Essai sur les contradictions de la littérature. Paris, Hachette,2005; and The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London and New York, Continuum, 2004.
3 This democratisation of the field of art is parallel and contemporaneous to a democratisation of politics, when, after the French Revolution, the masses, the anybody - rather than the aristocrats, the property owners or the citizens - become the subjects of politics.

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