Art Criticism’s Great Invention

Walter Benjamin’s 1921 doctoral thesis on Jena Romanticism can help raise the bar for contemporary criticism.

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940).

A few years after posthumously publishing Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood in 1950, his publisher could note it as their least-selling book ever. Only in the 1960s did the great interest in Benjamin start to grow and become permanent – even outside academia. And yet it would take another thirty years before his groundbreaking doctoral thesis from 1921 on Jena Romanticism became available in English, and a full half-century before it was translated to Swedish by Nils Järvinen and published by the small, independent publisher Opulens förlag.

Although the book is a standard reference for Romanticism scholars, in Benjamin circles it is likely one of the least studied works. I also imagine that it is Benjamin’s least read work outside academia, as his joyless prose is exceedingly unwieldy. In part, this is surely connected, quite simply, to the difficult epistemological commentary on Fichte (it comprises half the book). Yet it has also to do with the fact that Benjamin never really manages a style of philosophy that consists in putting thought itself in motion. He appreciated Kant’s style, probably because thought flies through it like a comet, the tail of which is the text. With Benjamin, however, thought often stands still, leaving it to the reader to move it from one elegant sentence to the next. As a reader, one remains captivated up until the very last pages where, finally, things move along somewhat.

Walter Benjamin, Begreppet kritik i den tyska romantiken (“The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism”), Opulens förlag.

Benjamin had a contemporary reason for discussing art criticism in the romantic age. In fact, it was the Romantics who developed the theory and praxis of critique, which according to Benjamin differed from the depraved and aimless praxis of his contemporaries, not only because of the Romantics’ quality of writing, but also their methodical constraint, which made it possible for them to establish the unambiguous character of true criticism. The critique that Benjamin opposed was ultimately oriented towards judging works of art. This practice was made impossible by the Romantics because their theory of art leads to the equal appreciation of all works that are works of art. Works that fail to measure up to the concept of art, however, are beyond critique and can only become objects of irony.

Romantic art criticism distinguished itself, primarily, by focusing on the work in order to find its “immanent regularity.” The objective was to liberate the work of art from both the criteria of judgment and from the conditions of its origin, whether understood as the rules of art production (rationalism) or artistic genius (Sturm und Drang). Our contemporary version is to focus on artistic research and method, which is another way to avoid speaking about the work and its reception.

The Romantics had two reasons for sticking with the work. One being that the work itself is a center of thought, a “reflection” as they put it, which can be approximately understood as an active intellect. This means that the work does not have to be understood in relation to its making and its maker, since it is, itself, an in-itself. While reflection is what makes the artwork autonomous in relation to everything given empirically, it is also the sole thing capable of opening the artwork toward criticism. This is the second reason for focusing on the artwork. Its “criticizability” is the major notion presented by Benjamin in his thesis. And what makes an artwork criticizable is not a criteria – as when Donald Judd replaced “beauty” with “what is interesting” as a way forward for criticism – but the very presence of reflection in the work. The possibility of critique, therefore, is itself part of the work, a fact belonging to the very fact of art: criticizability is what makes a work a work of art. Criticism – this is the great revolution, the copernican turn in the romantic age – thus constitutes the artwork and can therefore be said to precede it. And because criticism had not been discovered before, Novalis was only coherent in pointing out that “one makes a great error if one believes that the ancients exist. Only now is antiquity starting to arise.”

Romantic art criticism, too, dissolves the work, yet neither by returning to its maker and its history, nor by turning outward to the present, but by coupling the work’s reflection to the idea of art, and in this way continuing the reflection. Criticism thus stands above the work. Works of poetry are extended through the sober prose of criticism in a way that allows one to think how the form of the work is continuous with other art forms contained in Art. Formally, a meme is related to chamber music, a comedy, and a monochrome. What makes this progression – from work to idea, and the continuation of the idea – possible is this very reflection, the criticizability, which is the (invisible) form of the work. This is what can be “romanticized” or made absolute by being incorporated into the idea of art.

Criticism, then, operates on two different levels. Firstly, by comparing the work to other works for the purpose of individualizing its reflection. Then by entering into reflection (i.e. thought), extending the thinking in relation to art, and in this way dissolving the work into Art’s endlessness. At that point, criticism has let the movement of thought in the work become realized in art. Admittedly, this sounds like a task worthy of criticism. 

The most interesting part of the book is in the last chapter that, according to Benjamin, strictly speaking falls outside of the study. There the “pure problem of art criticism” appears in the contrast between the romantic notion of the work’s criticizability and Goethe’s notion of its uncriticizability. It is an elegant presentation, where the absolute proximity of Goethe to the Romantics is sketched with fine dividing lines between, for example, the notion of the work as “torso” or “fragment.” Thereby, Benjamin finally arrives at “the systematically fundamental question of art philosophy,” namely, the relation between art’s idea and the ideal of art. This is, in itself, a romantic elevation of the usual question regarding the relationship between form and content in the work, now situated at a transcendental level: for art’s idea is the idea of its form, while its ideal is its ideal content. What the comparison between Romanticism and Goethe demonstrates is that art’s idea and its ideal can never coincide. A third element between idea and ideal, form and image, would be necessary – at least, the divide between them ought to be investigated.

To think that art criticism today would deal with what Benjamin calls the fundamental question of art philosophy, would be substantially raising the bar for debate, which normally stumbles on the question of how criticism should be financed (the question of amateurism or professionalism), or how criticism in the daily papers can provide finished material for subsequent academic research (the question of knowledge or opinion). For Benjamin, critique satisfies spiritual needs, not those of academia or the market. Yet, even in detail, it is a demanding vision, in which critics refrain from speaking about artistic practice or well-founded choices of material, and instead delve into the work and, from this, think something not dependent upon the work, but preceded by it. Perhaps such a procedure demands a culture – although it is possible such a culture already exists – not oppressed by this age of specialization in the arts, where critique mostly plays the likewise specialized part of advising consumers. Such a thinking criticism would at least differ from the press materials produced by exhibition organizers. That would already be a considerable gain.