On The Doing(s) of Art Criticism
by Stephen Horne
I’ve been trying to think about what art criticism is, what criticality is — or could be — and I keep coming up with the image of Jeff Koons’ giant sculpture of a puppy dog (Puppy, 1992), a topiary made of living plants, growing and changing with the seasons. And its location is intriguing, posed as it is outside the Frank Gehry-designed art museum in Bilbao, Spain. For many viewers, the work is ambiguous: on the one hand, it plays off the architecture’s serious, high-tech look; on the other hand, it proposes a playful seduction. The latter is, of course, anathema to those of us indoctrinated in the snobby oppositional mode of criticism: we view this work as ironic, even cynical. But isn’t this aspect just a wedge driven in by the artist, his creation of a space for play and leisure where disorientation works to undermine the familiarity of our world? And perhaps with the goal of unsettling the superior vantage point to which criticality must condemn itself? Lest we convulse with mention of Jeff Koons, we might alternately consider the institutional popularity of artists such as Shary Boyle, Marcel Dzama, Daniel Barrow and David Altmejd, who also work within a similar model—the adolescent bauble—as derived from Mike Kelley and Jeff Koons. The difference being, for these two different moments, one of the relationship with a romantic conception of artist as “outsider,” a conception refused by Koons.
Does mention of “criticism” inevitably invoke modernity with its framework of foundations, history and progress, and its linear temporality? Such begins the commentary called postmodernism and the question of where we are with regards to modernity. This embeddedness of criticism in modernity is often termed its “crisis,” its apparently inevitable attachment to what it is turned against, its familial loyalty.
In the last few years, there have been dissenting voices regarding the viability of criticism, critique and perhaps criticality in general. Books, lectures and essays have appeared with titles containing terms such as “post-criticism,” or “the post-postmodern,” and even “alter-modern.” Paradox abounds in these critiques of critique and this leaves us between the extremes of two models: the modernist one of a hierarchy as viewed from a central point (the patriarchal West) or the postmodern one of a field levelled by mass media.
And so, the task of criticism becomes one of an ongoing defamiliarization, of “taking down the house.” Criticism’s work is thus that of “making strange,” revealing the uncanniness at the heart of the quotidian, reworking the dichotomy of the familiar and the foreign and shifting its components to build differently?, or even giving up building altogether in favour of cultivating, as did Koons. Le Corbusier identified the house as a “machine for living” and we can see the museum as another form-giving equipment. Carl Andre’s rug sculptures helped us to wake up to the groundlessness under our feet, the same with Sol LeWitt drawing on that limit that makes the play of near and far possible, just blowing away the continuity imposed by the museum with its walls. To be regarded as temporal as well as spatial, a museum’s walls see to it that a certain convention around time is installed—linear sequence becomes foundational, as the museum organizes temporality into time—into a particular social reality.
Criticality and modernity are inextricably intertwined, to the point that we could almost describe rationalist modernity as a project whose objective finally comes to be the dissolution of every horizon and every stability. This conversation usually takes place under the name of “postmodernism” and it is important to note that in this space criticism cannot avail itself of history or progress, these notions having been put on the shelf, along with the rationalist conception of linear time—and therefore perhaps criticality itself. What is left is to pursue the new connectedness offered by electronic communications media, which may very well be the true and future postmodernity.
Faced with these sorts of entanglements, Jacques Rancière responded to an interviewer’s question with: “For me, the fundamental question is to explore the possibility of maintaining spaces of play.”1 In this statement, Rancière suggests a “doing” that is itself a maintaining of spaces of play. Here we are “playing” on the multiple senses of this verb, including its use in the theatrical context. When actors are playing a scene, they are unmaking and remaking it in their space of repetition and rehearsal. In this space, the notion of a more fluid reality that follows from an emphasis on “doing” is another way of being-in-time besides our former social order based on “making.” Making suggests a certain way of regarding time: it builds an object, moves from a plan (concept) towards completion and end-product, with the result being a material object that already “gives” a market relation. As we begin to recognize how our understanding of technology has until now rested on a mechanical model, we can start taking up the possibilities of social reality offered by electronic connectivity—a reality that no longer rests on binary oppositions like subject to object or inside to outside.
Following this description of modernity, the art museum is an apparatus for formatting space and time and their model of continuity. This “continuity” maintains the model of “the new” as a negation of “the established.” It is also the place where encounters between the subjectivity of the artist and that of the viewer are staged. In addition, the exhibition is an arrangement that ensures these encounters are apprehended as a one-on-one situation, by contrast to the theatre, where we immediately recognize that the event is to be understood collectively. This relationality is called for by the made thing, the work of art. Thus, the art critic is simply one who waits on this call in all its unforseeability, dedicating him or herself to this waiting through the work of listening for and to this call and doing his or her best to respond. The critic’s response consists of asking the usual questions about issues of mortality—who, when, where—and then relating an opinion that is a sizing up or measure. This evaluation has to do with ascertaining relevance and whether the “made thing” bears all its conviction alongside all its uncertainty.
The work of the exhibition apparatus is that of formatting. What is “formatted” is a home place (a museum), a time (historical), works of art as objects/products, and the viewer/subject. It is this homely place/time that criticism infiltrates. As an intruder, criticism startles with its shock, defamiliarizing, or “making strange” as the historical avant-garde put it. Unfortunately, the avant-garde’s reliance, like oppositional criticality in general, rests on the bad spatial metaphor of an “outside” that is deployed against convention—against an “inside“—without recognizing how its own constitution is within and by means of convention. This failing of the historical avant-garde is repeated across the story of “socially” oppositional, subversive and resistant art, a story that hasn’t recognized its own already-social embedded character. In our time, art simply does not exist “outside.” So-called critical art, usually self-righteous or self- serving, is on thin ethical ground in that it fails to recognize or admit its own religiosity. This is not, however, to cast any aspersion on either the historical avant-gardes or their contemporary relevance as a modeling of thinking shaped by a conception of the future as the unforseeable.
If one admits that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar. For an alternative to orthodox criticality, we might instead pursue our inveterate tendency to wander in a circle, traversing paths already traversed. As critical practice, this circling embraces uncertainty, allowing space for the uncanny happening or event that disrupts the homely enclosure, breaks it apart and creates the possibility of openness to something strange and alien. The uncanny marks the possibility of an opening, of change, of that glitch in time that repetition with a difference is.
If “waiting” is conventionally understood to be passive while “doing” is active, the space that is art disrupts the binary in favour of a space that is in play. Gianni Vattimo has proposed just such a fluid reality, a space in which “…experience regains the characteristics of relationality, disorientation, and play.”2; His postmodern “place” is not one of artistic fashion, nor the march of progress described by art historians from the perspective of historical consciousness, but rather a reality “weakened” by the pluralizing shock effect of mass media. Countering the conventional critical position regarding mass media’s standardizing impact, Vattimo argues that it actually diversifies, representing a perpetually dispersing effect on consensus. In other words, the mass media is doing the critical work we always thought only art could do; that is, “creating difference” and thinking differently about what “thinking” could be.
Clearly, practice and theory intertwine, but perhaps it is also possible to see where they can be discerned, and in a way that doesn’t prejudice one over the other. Speaking at a conference at a Montreal university on the relationship of art to theory last October, Toronto artist André Jodoin proposed the following:_Art theory concerns art works as they are received (by a public or an audience) and art practice concerns the practice of making art. Art theory and art practice are two different practices and two different theories.3_
There are mountains of writing on critical theory and critical practice but less on what artists do from the perspective of art understood as “doing and making” rather than from the perspective built up from received commentary. Practice is difficult to specify: it concerns “doing,” making space where change “happens.” Change is expressed in what changes me. Speculating that art, as ontological, brings about “new realities” would be to speak of art’s role in change, but as art, rather than as publicity for good and serious causes. This concept implies that a work of art does something and that this differs from theorizing that it “says” something. Situating art in this way takes the perspective that a work of art is performative rather than an object of art historical discourse. The urge to contain, to package and to present is disrupted in practices of letting go: dispersal, discontinuity, distracted perception and dissolution. In other words, it is an abandonment where one becomes “other“—or beside oneself—no longer a subject mastering an object but allowing oneself to be acted upon.
In a further text on the same subject, Jodoin refers to Aristotle’s distinction between knowledge deployed as a demonstration of sophistication and knowledge deployed as wheel-spinning rhetorical ability. Jodoin sees knowledge embedded in the more Nietzschean perspective of its value for the living of life; a question that enfolds the ethical realm. He goes on to quote Aristotle:
What I mean by the practice of art is the practical knowledge of art, what Aristotle distinguished from sophia as phronesis. Aristotle says that phronesis “is not simply a skill…as it involves not only the ability to decide how to achieve a certain end, but also the ability to reflect upon and determine good ends consistent with the aim of living well overall.” The trouble is that practical knowledge in art practice has been generally bound up and confused with making things (techne), i.e. the production of art works.4
Perceiving art in terms of practice and event rather than object/product allows us to recognize our own assumption that, as Jodoin says, “there is nothing inherently critical in art.”5 Correcting this assumption allows us to consider that art is critical just by being art, as ontological and not as a contribution to mere critique. Critics, and even more so artists, could afford to have more confidence in art.
The efficacy of criticism rests in the critic’s call; opinion and evaluation are an actualization, and the risk is greater than habitual domestication—namely, the art market and its apparatus—permits us to perceive. Evaluation is performed by criticism in the discovery of relation, the opening of an interval, an in-between that is essentially intermittent, which thus allows for the “play” that is temporality. “Play” in this case invokes action: doing, acting, slippage or misalignment. These terms suggest that “time” is an ongoing continuity—a construct that contains—whereas what is intermittent is a matter of gaps, openings, spacings, re-starts. As gesture, action and activity, the critic’s call is a “play,” even in the sense of its usage in sports. Art criticism need not be concerned with scholarly defence as much as the writer need be engaged in an academic context. This work of having an opinion is the first item that distinguishes the “doing” of art criticism from the “saying” of art theory or the discipline of art history. Critical practice speculates and responds without establishing authoritative theoretical positions or adherence to a predetermined notion of a professionalized intellectual procedure.
Obviously, there is a multitude of ways critics present opinions, ranging from the American-style populist language of Dave Hickey to the nuanced differentiations of Sarat Maharaj, or the cinematic intervals of Trinh T. Minh-ha. In any case, critical practice comes back to opinion and evaluation. This is the productive ground of confrontation with established authority and with authoritative discourse in general. Whatever authority criticism may have has been initiated through the practice of opening a space through assertions of opinion and evaluation—with their feet in aesthetic feeling, these are the basics of interpretation.
Attending to art as event means taking a step back to a place where the art critic enacts critical practice in an attempt to discover art. In effect, this means taking the standpoint of art, of something that is not, or that was and that may again be. This is the paradox of taking the impossible standpoint of the unforeseeable. As a living through of such an encounter, the critic is lost in the task of discovery.
I have proposed an affinity for practices of criticism like that of the avant-garde’s “defamiliarization.” In turn, this makes it attractive to raise “the” idea of the uncanny, whereby its destabilization of binary oppositions and the familiar versus the strange makes it a privileged term for criticism. Uncanny gets lost in itself, being neither presence nor absence. As critic Leo Bersani demonstrates, uncanny thinking is that of difference, a difference that disrupts the technological relationship between a dominating subjective power or force and its “object,” allowing instead for a relative passivity, a space of relationality where the home place and the lost become unfixed.
In former times, the work of art criticism grew from individuals whose primary work was poetry and playwriting. Of course the obvious example is Baudelaire, but in the mid-20th century, Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s publications include an important study of Duchamp as well as writings on peers Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tàpies. Samuel Beckett’s Three Dialogues is one of the best pieces of writing anywhere on painting. The American critic Michael Fried is also essentially a poet, although he has been employed as an art historian. The writing of Vietnamese-American filmmaker and writer Trinh T. Minh-ha is now well acknowledged for its vigorous use of literary procedure. Immediately preceding Baudelaire, the Romantics proposed a conception of aesthetic experience that included Wordsworth’s notion of epiphany, Browning’s “infinite” moment and Coleridge’s “revelation.” What makes these historical figures pertinent here is the importance given by them to the constructive role of discontinuity in their conception of aesthetic experience, an isolated momentary that meets its response in a participatory and relational mode of attention. The near and the far trade places, as do the familiar and the strange, in their crossings from sense perception to symbolic order.
These examples suggest that the critics of 20th-century art have not always been art historians or cultural studies “inter-disciplinarians,” but rather individuals getting lost. It seems accurate to say that art critics perform their critical practices between other occupations, such as teaching and researching in the field of art history. While this particular occupation would seem somehow foundational to art criticism and for studio practice, closing the gap between these roles imperils the marginality and instabilities shared by critical and artistic practice. Art historians are primarily employed to do the academic work of teaching and research, with ongoing positions in institutions such as universities and museums. The day-by-day sequence of the institutional passion for continuity must see art in a timeline of progress. To its credit and benefit, art criticism as such appears rarely on the curricula of university studies. Without the ambiguous benefits of institutional employment, critical practice operates in a mode of discontinuity where it is the servant of a sporadic unfolding rather than any progressive regularity, of being rather than any becoming. In a culture of administration, the reliance on established authoritative points of reference encourages a professionalized self. The increasing conceptualization of art practice as research follows the corporatization of the university with its lived experience evaluated in terms of excellence. In turn, this practice displaces that of the aesthetic understood as a feeling for life.
Distraction and “filmic” perception are the dominant modes of attention in our epoch. In this condition we cannot really expect the kinds of concentration and dedicated practices of attention that once belonged to the aesthetic realm. Disseminated meanings replace the aura and genius. Perhaps in an absence of the work of art, in the absence of its attendant modes of perception that belong to the aura, new possible worlds will appear to which artists and critics will attune. With technology no longer understood in terms of mechanization, discontinuity, spacing and interruption take on a new excitement. If the digital/electronic media environment is an overcoming of various dichotomizations—such as subject and object, or inside and outside—then what were previously understood as deficiencies must be re-evaluated.
The art critic’s task is to pursue complex and sometimes obscure aesthetic situations with the aim of evaluating their relevance as art within a conception of art. This vision is one embracing its own disappearance in kitsch, utopia or silence. The critic drives in a wedge, fragmenting space into an in-between, a space of multiplicities, otherness and difference. This is the practice: a breaking up of the house in a play of near and far, then and now, disorienting reception as the work of art enacts an antidote to modernity’s success.
Stephen Horne has published on art in periodicals, journals, anthologies and catalogues in Canada, the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia. He taught media arts at NSCAD University in Nova Scotia, and theory of art at Concordia University in Montreal for many years; he now lives and works in Montreal and France. In 2011–2012, he was Visiting Scholar at the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art. His essay “Abandon The Future” was published in German by Verlag Dumont and included in Jochen Gerz’s Art Anthology. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal recently published his essay on Pierre Dorion.