Confessions of a Punk Critic

When the ideas about art’s autonomy and the death of the author have been consigned to the landfill, all that remains is the naked sender.

Track Changes: A Handbook for Art Criticism, Paper Monument / n+1, 2023.

My curiosity was piqued when I saw that a new book on art criticism had come out – and a so-called handbook at that. A small red volume called Track Changes: A Handbook for Art Criticism edited by Mira Dayal and Josephine Heston, published with Paper Monument and distributed by the journal n+1. Of course, the best way to learn about art criticism is to read art criticism. Large doses of Susan Sontag and Rosalind Krauss will get you far, but there is no one to take us by the hand, and some of art criticism’s biggest personalities can, for better or for worse, come across as belligerent in ways far removed from the zeitgeist of 2023. Track Changes is a likeable publication, but it made me ponder how differently the generations seem to think about the same things.

In the Norwegian newspaper and magazine public of the 2000s, where I came up as a critic, people were tough on each other. According to the rules, however, we had to be articulate above all – wielding words like deadly weapons. Critics could go to great lengths in their efforts to explain just how awful a given work was. Since it was understood that we were not talking about the artist, the Christmas tree in the middle (the ‘work’) could be safely jabbed with bayonets without giving rise to any real danger. The premise was that we believed art should be criticised because it was vital to us. Therefore, we had to be as honest, detailed, and knowledgeable as possible.

A fellow critic held a firm ambition to write texts that were every bit as complicated and philosophical as the ones written by his theory gods. I helped read through his texts around the time when the 2000s turned into the 2010s, and at one point he had to rush to deliver something for a catalogue. You could not be sure of getting a proper review from your employer, especially if you delivered after the deadline. I read the text, which was written in very sophisticated English with long, rambling sentences and many interjections. In a sense, it was uniquely poetic in its attempt to evade all meaning. I found myself realising that I had no qualifications for discussing the content with him, but I did tell him that if the text was to live up to its high ambitions, it had to at least be free of incomplete sentences.

In 2012, came the essay on International Art English (IAE) written by Alix Rule and David Levine. Basing their argument on press releases published on E-flux by various museums, biennials, and art publishers of the world, they defined a distinctive language prevalent in the art world at the time. The authors trace IAE back to translations of French and German critical texts published in the 1970s in academic journals such as October. Many years earlier, in her book Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness (2004), Chris Kraus had written about how theory (especially so-called “French Theory”) was included as a kind of glitter kitsch in the high-profile MFA programmes at art schools in Los Angeles. She would know, because it was her ex-partner Sylvère Lotringer and their small publishing house Semiotext(e) that helped bring poststructuralist theory to the United States.

Roland Barthes, photo from Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter 27 Februar, 1969.

Before Kunstkritikk was founded in 2003, there was a clear need to get other types of texts into circulation besides those of the theory high-flyers. The Internet was still young, and everyone was fascinated by the fact that we could write to each other directly and instantly from the comfort of our own homes. Kunstkritikk’s comment sections saw the rise of an unbridled avant-garde atmosphere which was allowed to unfold without much or, indeed, any editing. Beneath the texts, long threads unspooled, full of experiments with video clips and everything else from the online toolbox, testing how far we could go. Artists and art students created chaotic, funny, and offensive collective works. It was a time without inhibitions, a time when transgression was allowed under the pretext: “Surely, it was art?” There was talk of the Olsson School, named after art critic Tommy Olsson, whose texts were inspired by New Journalism (Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson). Via these channels, a lot of dirtiness, humour, and storytelling were brought into art criticism.

Ideas of autonomy, of poetic flights into the higher philosophical spheres, and of subversive transgression were prevalent in the not-so-distant past. These were concepts that informed the appearance of Norwegian art criticism at the time. Our rebellion against authority was about escaping the symbolic order of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Here, the law of the father ruled, but we wanted to stay in Julia Kristeva’s semiotic chora, a sea of possibilities like the one Patti Smith sang about. The point was to avoid categorisation, and the escape attempts were imaginative. Roland Barthes’s essay on ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967) – one of the seminal texts of poststructuralist theory – is a call to refrain from seeking the meaning of the text in the author’s intention. But Barthes also writes that the death of the author is a way of negating individual prestige. It is capitalist ideology that attaches supreme importance to the author’s unique personality and lets it overshadow the work as an autonomous interweaving of references.

Few have taken the author’s death as seriously as the American writer Kathy Acker. Acker was inspired by William Burroughs’s cut-up technique and by conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Sol LeWitt. She perceived identity as a text that could be intervened in and spliced together like a filmstrip or magnetic tape. It is an uplifting thought, and her agenda could be said to be queer feminist before that term was even coined. Acker concludes her essay on art criticism called ‘Critical Languages’ (Bodies of Work, 1997) by setting out ten points under the heading “The Languages of the Body.” After the ten items, she adds the following:

Let these be the languages of art criticism: to scream, to forget, to do anything except reduce radical difference, through representation, to identity, singularity, calculable and controllable. Let one art criticism’s languages be silence so that we can hear the sounds of the body: the winds and voices from far-off shores, the sounds of the unknown. May we write, not in order to judge, but for and in (I quote George Bataille), “the community of those who do not have a community.”

Bikini Kill Zine #2, 1991.

I have been staring at those words a lot, and when I searched for the text online I found it on my own blog in a post from 2004. Officially, queer feminism is considered a third wave where the daughters of the second-wave feminists of the 1970s began to question the rather uniform white middle-classness of their mothers’ generation. The North American punk movement riot grrrl is a good starting point for understanding what the third-wave feminists had in mind. The riot grrrl manifesto, which was published in Bikini Kill Zine #2 from 1991, is made up of sentences that all begin with the word “because” in capitals, explicitly naming the prejudices that are to be confronted: BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, antisemitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.”

In early June this year, one of the most high-profile artists of the riot grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna, played in London with her band Le Tigre, who were on a concert tour for the first time in eighteen years. Hanna is a living legend, and right now she is alternately on tour with her first band Bikini Kill (the fanzine became a band) and Le Tigre. I would argue that Le Tigre is an art-critical band. Alongside Hanna, the band consists of JD Samson and Johanna Fateman. You will recognise the latter’s name if you read Artforum. Fateman is an original riot grrrl from the Pacific Northwest where the movement originated, and she is also a well-known art critic. An art-critical band sounds like fun, right? Can you imagine yourself performing in some kind of punk band as you sit at home writing your reviews?

In all her bands, Hanna has been good at channelling a kind of rebellious pre-pubescent girl energy. In London, she unsurprisingly appeared in oversized babydoll dresses in vivid colours. Le Tigre has always utilised coordinated dancing and flickering video backdrops, and in London the lyrics ran across the screen as if in a karaoke show where we could all sing along. A song like ‘Hot Topic’ (1999) constitutes a kind of feminist art canon where a long list of artists’ names is called out and celebrated. In another art-critical song, ‘What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes?’ (1999) we hear the friends discuss the filmmaker John Cassavetes, whose titles include A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Throughout the song, they vacillate between several options: Misogynist? Genius? Alcoholic? Messiah? Le Tigre brings something good to art criticism and feminism alike. Sadly, their special brand of multicoloured humour and irony is becoming scarce.

The aforementioned publication Track Changes is not exactly awash with humour; in that sense too it comes across as the product of a younger generation. We find a mixed bag of short texts written especially for the book and longer texts found in journals and anthologies. Between the texts are excerpts from a 2019 panel talk ‘Art Criticism & Agendas: Representation & Expansion’ that took place at the feminist non-profit gallery SOHO20 in Brooklyn. The handbook concept is taken seriously in a way I have not seen before, beginning with a pedagogical introduction in the form of  “a brief practical guide to the editorial process.” Classic art criticism has rarely if ever spent any time or effort on being practical and pedagogical, but here the aim is quite clearly another: to navigate a landscape where the intersectional riot grrrl-feminism has become the order of the day without any of the humour and irony that originally came with the package. Nevertheless, it is appropriate as an attempt to open up the field in order to recruit more broadly for the work, going beyond what is referred to as “tokenism” throughout the book, pointing to those who already come from backgrounds and scenes where writing art criticism is not a dramatic step. 

Le Tigre playing the Volcano Room, Indianapolis, 22 September, 2000. Photo: Sarah Stierch

In the introduction, Dayal expresses surprise at hearing, in discussions about recruiting new critics, that they have an agenda – a description clearly not meant to be positive. Here it seems to imply that critics are suspected of being guided by ideology, or possibly even of playing for a specific identity team. Art critics have definitely had strong agendas over time; it is practically par for the course. One might mention agendas such as hating Minimalism because of its alleged theatricality (Michael Fried) or defending the American neo-avant-garde from being perceived as a recuperation of European modernism (Hal Foster). Equally, feminist agendas stand proud: surely, everyone has read their Lucy Lippard and Griselda Pollock, but in 2023 our brains are exhausted by viral culture battles that have created a climate where minds are all too easily flooded by anxiety and impulses. Unfounded and spontaneous expressions of hostility have taken the place of elegantly articulated points and barbs, and the focus has shifted from the subject matter to the sender.

We’re missing the Christmas tree in the middle, the one we can hack away at without fearing that some poor artist will fall over dead. When the ideas about the autonomy of art and the death of the author have been consigned to the landfill, all that remains is the naked sender – and art often is its sender. A dizzying mix of circumstances has brought us this far. Activism has always been part of artists’ self-staging, and some of us art critics have also thought of ourselves as activists from time to time. When art addresses themes such as shared traumas from the HIV/AIDS epidemic or the international slave trade, this involves an inherent assumption that these experiences will wash over society like a vast wave and change it, and that the artist considers their art to be part of such a wave. Is art then its sender? Trauma and pain, community and pride are some of the elements with which activist art works. In such cases, the critic can come face to face with painful experiences that may be the artist’s own. Are these works we want to rip to pieces based on purely aesthetic objections? By all means try it, but it may keep you awake at night. 

The contributors to Track Changes are aware of these complications. How can you be an empathetic reviewer, an anti-authoritarian reviewer, and still be fearless and honest in your assessments? The situation is further complicated by the fact that not only activism, but also capitalism sees an advantage in having us validate identity categories. Get verified, is the new slogan. Are you who you claim to be? You can only be out: sign up as POC or non-POC now. Contributor Ariel Goldman struggles to understand their idol Susan Sontag’s insistence on keeping her identity as a lesbian confined to her private life. Goldman themselves is open and proud of their queer identity and wonders if Sontag was anxious about losing important publishing deals. At the same time, they are aware that Sontag is known for her essay‘Notes on Camp’ (1964), which points towards an aesthetic we would now call queer. Sontag was, thus, a queer trailblazer, yet had a clear agenda of talking about queer as an aesthetic without coming close to outing herself.

Things are also escalating as regards curation and the distribution of jobs for critics. In 2020, the exhibition Fantastic Women opened at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen. It was a perfectly nice and neatly executed exhibition that brought together a large group of relatively overlooked female artists from the Surrealist movement. A unique harmony arises between the interests of a feminist-minded audience and an identity category which is also a sales strategy. Exhibitions with these kinds of identity concepts are mushrooming as we speak, and they may look like uncomplicated celebrations of a field with similar shared opinions and no friction. As Leslie Dick puts it in Track Changes: “There is absolutely no question that feminism is a space of conflict, debate, contradiction, and complexity, and that there is no single definition of what solidarity would look like. Frustratingly, many of these exhibitions can feel revisionist, or worse, imply a capitalization on the trending socio-political resurgence of women’s rights, or the threat to them in our current politics.”

Frida Kahlo, The Little Deer, 1946. On display in the exhibition Fantastic Women at Louisiana in 2020.

How about an exhibition that not only addresses homosexual experiences, but explicitly brings together artists who live a queer lifestyle? Might such an exhibition, for example, include deceased artists who were not officially out in their own lifetime? Should we send Susan Sontag and see what she thinks? Can only POC critics review exhibitions with POC themes? Should disabled critics only be allowed to review exhibitions by disabled artists? Can we even comment on the experiences of others? As Emily Watlington writes in Track Changes: “Some disabled artists share my political agenda but offend my personal taste or artistic sensibilities. I’ve avoided covering them – though I’m always happy to see a disabled artist succeed, I don’t want to reinforce the ableist trope of being impressed that they could make art at all, thereby holding them to lesser standards.” 

Poly Styrene from the band X-Ray Spex sang in 1977: “Identity is the crisis, can’t you see?” I am not interested in taking over a prefabricated culture war vocabulary, but it is important to take note of changes in the field while at the same time maintaining one’s critical faculties. Do the younger generations express themselves differently and perhaps in direct contrast to the beliefs that I myself have been shaped by? Stop, look and listen; that must be the first rule. Another point to be brought across is that many of us from Generation X are deeply influenced by feminism and anti-racism and probably would not have become what we are – occupying the places we now hold in the art world – without this commitment. Fundamental disagreement is hardly likely here, but there are significant differences in approach.

I myself feel a fierce resistance to categorisation and was knocked sideways when I saw Poly Styrene (who was British-Somali) on an Instagram account called BIPOC in Punk. Surely, Poly was more than her skin colour? After this discovery, I fell asleep and dreamt that I had to find participants for a panel discussion under the auspices of the Arts Council Norway. I called up Poly and said: “Come join my panel, we are very interested in representing diversity and so we would like you to join.” As Merray Gerges says in Track Changes: “I can’t help but wonder if I’m approached on the basis of fulfilling some undisclosed diversity quota, to be paranoid of institutional claims of meritocracy and, therefore, of my own merit.”

Track Changes is an uneven publication and a report from a climate that seems extremely stressed. For the most part, the contributors bristle against the various dogmas of the time, and there is a good-hearted willingness to let all types of voices into the realm of art criticism. The critics’ climate in Scandinavia also suffers from stress, both good and bad, the latter represented by our almost impossible financial conditions. In that respect, I have to disappoint those who think that Scandinavia is some kind of socialist paradise. 

If you ask me, the star of the anthology is baby boomer Leslie Dick. In the essay ‘Soft Talk: Thoughts on Critique’, Dick takes as her starting point an experience she had as a substitute teacher for an art course at Yale, where she was criticised by another teacher for being too yielding and permissive during a review – or, in art-school parlance, “crit” – of student works. Dick tries to define an anti-authoritarian way of carrying out a crit. The text was previously published in the independent Los Angeles-based magazine X-TRA Contemporary Art Journal (founded in 1997), which has just announced that they need to shut down operations. I’ll let Dick have the last word: “I see it this way: I can never understand your experience fully. It’s going to be an incomplete understanding. But we have this thing called language, and language is so precious because it tries to do something with that incompleteness.”

Kathy Acker, 1996 in München. Photo: CorkyPleasures.