Developed from a conference that took place at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main in December 2007, this book responds to Harrison and Cynthia White’s 1968 survey Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World, the main argument of which is that ‘it is careers (and not canvases) that have to be managed’.
This shift in emphasis from artwork to artist, whereby the ‘credibility of an artwork depends more and more on whether the artist stages his or her personality in a convincing fashion’, freezes out the critic, whose legitimising role is diminished by the artist’s assertion of critical sovereignty. With the advent of conceptual art, criticism becomes immanent in the artwork; the dealer/critic relationship is slowly replaced by a dealer/collector one, and the critic must now operate as the lubricant of a mobility culture, a knowledge-based economy whose blurring of distinctions between artist, critic, curator etc allows his ‘judgement’ to circulate as liquid capital.
For George Baker, the dealer/critic system ‘is historically false… No such beast arose in the mid to late 19th century only to be dismantled in our own time’. If criticism consolidates its autonomy only with the development of the bourgeois sphere, it also inaugurates an obsession with the new, from which we have yet to emerge. Baker’s suggested remedy is ‘late criticism’, ‘a criticism of wilfully anachronistic criteria… a criticism of anomalies’. He doesn’t specify whether this project would be archaeological or architectural; whether the critic would, for example, be exhuming the skeletons of an established/deceased artist (say, Magritte’s vache paintings) or building the careers of iconoclastic rookies.
In his response, André Rottman questions whether ‘late criticism’s own sense of exile…wilfully weaken[s] the remaining power of criticism by itself taking refuge in the idea of apartness and outmodedness; a power in which it must believe in order to operate at all’. It’s unclear whether, by ‘the remaining power of criticism’, Rottman is still referring to some form of legitimisation. Such legitimisation as criticism retains is surely guaranteed today through its pervasiveness rather than its intrinsic power. For John Kelsey, the critic’s estrangement is due, paradoxically, to a loss of distance: ‘If the old critical distance is lost, then we need to invent new distances’. Or, better still, abolish distance. It is the ‘hack’, he maintains, that ‘is the one who starts from no distance’, from the mere fact ‘of being for hire’. ‘Attuned to the promiscuous circulation of information’, the hack always has something on the hob, and his schedule is more likely to force him to adopt ‘performative’ rather than scholarly measures. Kelsey likes performative measures. He prefers writers who intoxicate themselves with the object of their criticism to those who maintain abstemious detachment: writers like Mallarmé, Serge Daney.
He’s not the only one to advocate a more feral criticism. Tom Holert’s notion of ‘counterpublic criticality’, adapted from Michael Warner, demands an approach that does not so much ‘scrutinise, ask, reject, opine, decide, judge’, as find the critic ‘curling up, mumbling, fantasising, gesticulating, ventriloquising’. And this critic is not appointed as such. No, he’s you and me, or any of ‘the indefinite number of strangers who are “socially marked” by their very participation in the counterpublic’. Johanna Burton reminds us that models of ‘wild’ criticism are not new, but can be traced back to Susan Sontag’s advocation of ‘erotic’ over hermeneutic criticism in her 1964 essay ‘Against Interpretation’.
Though ‘preferring a model of clarity’ to ‘Kelsey’s thesis about fucked-up or “hack” criticism’, Merlin Carpenter is an exponent of wild criticism. Where his colleagues come with well-ironed briefs, Carpenter arrives dishevelled and reeking, nail-varnish cracked (see the pictures), and ready, it seems, to shove Isabelle Graw’s book up her arse. ‘…I was horrible to her about [contributing my conference paper to the book] firstly because I felt I was being manipulated to provide long-term content to the Städelschule, one of the new Art-MBA Frankenstein courses.’ I enjoyed his piece. I marked the courage it must have taken to disclose his annoyance, then his sense of personal failure at his initial contribution, before hitting his critical stride.
Melanie Gilligan is not hostile to the idea of critical renegades, but she wonders why so few of them are willing to express value judgements. Comparing the self-cannibalising instincts of postmodern art with global finance, she comes close to calling for a moratorium on appropriation (the default setting of contemporary art), whose ‘formal operations’ resemble those of ‘financial derivatives [which] take the form of contracts, whose value is derived from the value of something else, such as commodities, stocks or exchange rates.’
Much criticism still amounts to little more than showing how the value of a given work is underwritten by the value of past work. There are so many connections to be made, bases to be touched, critiques to be invoked, that the reader scarcely notices the deferral of value judgement. If the modernist critic, your Greenbergs and Frieds, is an implacable guarantor of cultural value, then the postmodern critic is like a debt-consolidator. This book, which is worth buying for Gilligan’s paper alone, presents several alternative models without ever countenancing the obvious stance: a form of criticism that militantly refuses to reciprocate art’s reconfiguration of past styles by playing deliberately dumb.
Sean Ashton is a writer living in London
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