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Five fallacies of art criticism (2nd fallacy)

That the writing should provide insight into the work or show that viewers can go and see on their own–i.e. that it must give them something to”acknowledge” or “recognize”  or–more to the point–“verify” from their own experience of the work or show.

We might call this the “verificationist fallacy” for short.  It is committed by the critic who is expected to provide something like a guide to the art work under discussion, a focus on just what it is that one will see when experiencing the work for one’s self.  There are a number of problems with this approach, the least of which is the presumed likelihood that the readers of criticism will inevitably be first-person-viewers of the art.  It goes without saying that the critic of contemporary art has the advantage of occupying this position; her authority as a critic derives, in part, from the reader’s trust that what she has to say about a work of art comes from some first-hand experience of it–though, I will argue, this does not hold in every case; as they say, it is sufficient, but not necessary.  Nevertheless, it is exactly that trust which obviates the necessity of writing as if the reader will, at some point in the future, share that same position.

Additionally, the geographical reach of the contemporary art world in particular creates an environment in which discourse increasingly comes to stand in for the work (which, of course, raises issues that exceed those germane to the verificationist fallacy on its own).  One cannot hope to “verify” a critic’s words when the work under discussion is on view half-way around the world; nor, given the volume of current production, can one hope to see everything for one’s self.  So a form of criticism that succumbs to serving as a “guide” to the work of art is, at bottom, a provincial criticism, one that trades in the authority of critical insight for that of physical proximity.

The problem with the verificationist fallacy is brought into sharper relief when we translate this stress on physical proximity into one on temporal proximity, which brings us to the (equally specious) division between history and criticism.  All writing categorized as art historical does away with the verificationist fallacy pretty much by definition: history being a discursive entity to begin with–i.e. one does not experience history first-hand (no matter how much one might feel it “in the making,” so to speak) except in its telling (and subsequent retellings).  Criticism is no different, and thus it need not, indeed it should not, find itself pressured to find its “completion” dependent upon the reader’s ability to go out and see just what it is that the critic was talking about in the first place.

Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

September 15th, 2008 at 6:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized