“Why waste breath talking smack about something?”; “Anyone pissing in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world is mucking it up for everyone.”; “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”
The literary critic Christian Lorentzen sourced these quotes from publishers and editors from major US outlets in a recent feature for Harper’s Magazine. Under the clickable title ‘Like This or Die’, he argues that serious criticism, and the review as a journalistic format, specifically, has suffocated under the demands of the market.
The article’s focus is literature. Art, along with cinema, he finishes off in a single sentence: “Film and art writing were corrupted so long ago by slavish fixations on the box office and the auction price that it’s now hard to imagine them otherwise.”
As an art critic, I am not blind to the shortcomings of the field, but still have to ask: is this really true? More so than “box office and auction prices,” I find that the shifts in media strategies evidenced by the statements above are just as resonant in the art context. However, even in this state, I am often called to answer to art criticism’s perceived obscurity. Sure, everyone has stacks of Artforum and Texte zur Kunst lying around as plinths for potted plants, but who actually reads them?
Precisely Texte zur Kunst promises to take art criticism to task on similar terms as Lorentzen does literary criticism. Its current issue, themed Diskriminierung /Discrimination – understood here both as distinction and exclusion – sets out to probe the basis on which things are judged in or out, good or bad, and how that judgment remains entangled with the rest of society’s exclusionary mechanisms. Accordingly, the issue is introduced by an essay by the magazine’s founder Isabelle Graw and art historian Sabeth Buchmann titled ‘The Critique of Art Criticism’ (more catchy in German: ‘Kritik der Kunstkritik’).
Graw and Buchmann paint a picture of criticism stuck between an anti-empirical “hermeneutics of suspicion” (here, they cite Bruno Latour), and what Kerstin Stakemeier has called “system-immanent value-creation,” an art criticism just too bound up in the art market to have any value in and of itself. In doing so, though in a far more academic register, they get at some of the same problems as those laid out in ‘Like This or Die’. At the same time, their academicism helps to perform what they name art criticism’s fundamental predicament: “participation in the production of value is one of its defining features, yet it needs to articulate a distance from these values of the market.”
Art criticism is capable of this reflexivity, but must go beyond mere signalling, they write, togenuinely “destabilise” its position. “Critics do not, as they like to think, survey the scene from above. The seemingly secure, system-stabilising judgement becomes vulnerable through recognition of one’s own particularity.”
I don’t know any critic who is not keenly aware of their severe immersion in the scene. But even disregarding that, writing from a place of particularity seems to me as much of a given as writing from inside capitalism. What else could one possibly do?
Thankfully, other contributions to the Discrimination issue discuss the matter in less alienating terms. In a conversation with Jenny Nachtigall, the artist Hannah Black relays finding herself at a painful impasse “as someone who has been marked in my career with a certain set of political and ethical expectations,” yet having to “articulate the problem of value from inside one of its spectral expressions … I don’t want that difficulty to totally subsume my work. But on the other hand it feels more generative to just go with that than to resist it. I’m scared of lying to myself.”
Don’t lie to oneself, that is, about the possible moral purity of one’s position, but go on working anyway. To be open to destabilisation, then, means to be in some way wrong, and let that slippage of reason be the cue for a valuable conversation that might go beyond the value of one’s work (whether as artist or critic).
In a roundtable conversation conducted by Texte zur Kunst’s editor Colin Lang on the subject of the marginalisation of global perspectives in the German art context, the author Max Czollek expressed the need to work from “not only the position of the marginalised, but also the position of privilege, the point where we have resources we can use … If being left[-wing] means being free of guilt, I am not interested in it.”
What Czollek seems to get at is the danger of turning a critical gesture like “destabilisation” into withdrawal or self-sabotage. The arts, as has been noted, can seem like a fragile enough ecosystem as it is. Like Black also said: I don’t want that difficulty to totally subsume my work.
In the same roundtable, Suza Husse, director of District art space in Berlin, wonders, “if you take the position of criticism, how much do you contribute to the progressive logic of the capitalist democracy of critique-improvement – critique – improvement?” Indeed, the progressive logic of the capitalist democracy of critiqueis what Lorentzen mourns the loss of. If contributing to that, too, makes a problem for art criticism, reflexivity, it might seem, has gone into over-drive.
But Husse refers to research done at District into opposition movements in the GDR – not capitalist democracy. “The way that marginalisation is organised in democratic capitalism is that the political space assigned to alterity is constructed in such a way that people and groups isolate and exhaust themselves within it.” She cites one former GDR-activist who was so frustrated by this that she stopped working politically.
Husse adds, “I think there is something to say for non-participation also as a way of decolonising myths of political emancipation.” Isolated and exhausted already describes a pretty futile state, so the argument becomes one for a non-participation that one can, at least, control.
These are the thorny moments that make the Discrimination issue a pretty bleak pronouncement on the state of criticism. In the philosophical essay that finishes the themed section, art historian Helmut Draxler declares that “a place of criticism that isn’t articulated from beyond contradictions but from within them” – such as that outlined throughout the issue – “is utterly marginal and ultimately impossible.” All Lorentzen asks for in ‘Like This or Die’ is to be allowed to talk un-sharable smack. Yet, here’s Texte zur Kunst: marginal, impossible, often erring on obscure, and going on thirty years. That’s good news for art criticism, I should say.