Five fallacies of art criticism (1st fallacy)

Over the next couple of weeks I will outline five fallacies of art criticism as a lead up to a talk that I will be giving at an SVA ‘Artist Talk on Art’ Panel, which will take place on September 19th. (The panel itself will address ‘Art Criticism Today’, and I will have the great honor of being joined by Robert Ayers from Modern Painters and More details on that to come.)

1st Fallacy of Art Criticism:

That the writing should only address what’s “in” the work–i.e. what can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, etc. in the work itself, which is understood in this scenario as necessarily and wholly ‘autonomous’.

It is a common swipe, often leveled at younger critics by elder practitioners, but just as often voiced by someone who is unhappy with something they label as ‘jargon’ or other unfamiliar language. Why, the unhappy party asks, must the critic make reference to some ‘ism’ or another, or some set of concepts, or theories, or whatever, which, from this perspective, seem extraneous to The Work?

Autonomy, of course, is not the problem here; it’s the confidence the unhappy party has in just what constitutes The Work, which is. As those familiar with the landscape of contemporary art are certainly aware, The Work, is not as stable a term as it sounds. In many cases, there is nothing “in” it at all. Arbiters of conceptual and performance art liked to call this the condition of The Work’s “dematerialization.” Though it is a foolish description, the sensibility is correct. To treat certain works of art as “aesthetically robust” is to miss their import: think of Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning (1953), or Robert Morris’s Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal (1963) or, for that matter, Koons’ Balloon Dogs (1993-).

Elsewhere I’ve discussed Gedi Sibony’s activity as one that walks the line of artistic “legibility”–indeed, I think this is its “content,” but it’s hardly a content that can be found “in” the work itself, as if some kind of “close looking” at Sibony’s surfaces of cardboard or drywall could reveal something more about its ultimate meaning. (And I don’t place much store by the idea that Sibony’s configurations are so carefully composed as to harbor some sort of subjective interiority; like any readymade, the gesture suggest it, but there is no subject there–though neither is it really an object either.)

The call for the critic to “treat” what’s “in” The Work alone stems from a presumption of what Work can stand, properly, as a Work of Art, which gets us into the business of asking, What is a proper Work of Art?–and that’s not interesting, nor productive, at least from my critical perspective. For something to fall under the critic’s gaze, it must have gained already some kind of (semi)autonomy; whether it did so through a convention or an institution or a theory (i.e. it qualifies as a Work of Art under some shared notion of what that is, or it qualifies because some institution with invested authority has ratified it as such, or because it achieves ontological status as a Work of Art under some transcendent definition) is of little concern, unless , of course, the critic takes it upon herself to make this (semi)autonomy a point of inquiry. (More critics should.)

Ultimately the call for paying closer attention to what is “in” the work itself has less to do with the Work than it does with the position of the critic: to place full trust in the “aesthetic” experience of the critic is to miss the fact that the function of the critic has always been to leave behind aesthetics for discourse, which is also to leave behind the personal for the public, the social, even when the language is dressed up in the rhetoric of one’s own opinion and judgment. If Wittgenstein taught us anything, it’s that the language is never our own…


  • Catherine Spaeth

    What is contested here is the nature of description. It is the conventional understanding of description that it adheres closely to an object. I’m very attracted to moments when a practice, such as description, is taken to its limit in critique, and more fully instantiated as a practice. This occurs in Robbe Grillet’s novel, The Voyeur. There is such sheer description that if one were to drop the book while reading it, and resume on a completely different page, they never would know the difference. In the end the description is an obsessive reworking of a lie, and the entire book sits in our hands as a deceit, but more like an object with its own peculiar qualities than most books can ever claim to be.

    I have just posted on my own site a history of garden gnomes, that is intended to be a response of sorts to Roberta Smith’s recent essay for the Times on a history of public sculpture. There is no “description” of contemporary art as we undestand it, but at the same time it makes visible the state of contemporary art. To describe well is to make something visible, and this even can occur in not describing that particular thing at all.

  • Eric

    “For something to fall under the critic’s gaze, it must have gained already some kind of (semi)autonomy; whether it did so through a convention or an institution or a theory (i.e. it qualifies as a Work of Art under some shared notion of what that is, or it qualifies because some institution with invested authority has ratified it as such, or because it achieves ontological status as a Work of Art under some transcendent definition) is of little concern, unless , of course, the critic takes it upon herself to make this (semi)autonomy a point of inquiry. (More critics should.)”

    This sounds icky to me. I would rather write about the work of art. If you want to read or write art criticism that takes into account the context the work of art appears in then go right ahead. I think that approach leads to shallow pronouncements about art history and the art world. Art critics simply don’t have a word count at their disposal to do these areas of interest justice. Sorry. If you want in-depth commentary about the context the art work appears in then read a book or a research paper, not art criticism. Art criticism is about the work of art. Is this essentialist, or formalist? I don’t think so. And yes art criticism is most definitely the direct by-product of the mind of the person who is writing it. Does this need to be pointed out? As an artist I would not give a crap about a review of my work that drones on and on in a very superficial way about the placement of my work within a pseudo structure, i.e., art history or the contemporary scene, nor would I care about the art critic’s thoughts about the institution my work is appearing in. Art criticism is supposed to be insightful musings about a work of art and if the art critic is focused on other things, the things you say critics should focus on, then they probably don’t like the art they are reviewing. And yes, even art that represents the dematerialization of the art object can be written about without bring all of the things you mention in the quote I pasted above into the discussion.

  • Eric


    Obviously Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917) can be used to prove how silly it is to focus solely on the work of art when writing art criticism. But historically speaking it is a one trick pony. Even taking that into account, I would argue that there are a number of interesting things going on with the work itself, the signature, the placement of it, that a critic could focus on before discussing the larger issues that “Fountain” obvbiously brings into play. Ignoring those issues would be silly as you point out. However, I would say that appropriation art, as it is currently practiced, is not as dead-pan as “Fountain” and is in fact much more complicated. Good conceptual art has as many layers of meaning as good paintings and sculptures do. Saying that “dematerialized’ art objects aren’t meaningful unless they are discussed within the framework of institutional critique, etc., sells them short.

  • Catherine Spaeth

    It is crippling, when writing about artists such as Tino Seghal or Chris Burden, for ex., not to consider how they engage with their varying contexts and their mobility from one site to another, as that IS their form. Art history and the contemporary scene are not merely “pseudo-structures.” For much contemporary art you won’t be describing the object if you limit yourself within what Caroline Jones has referred to as a “bureaucratization of the senses.”

  • Eric

    Yes I agree that you must write about how certain artists “engage with their varying contexts” if that is integral to their work. But I thought Jonathan T. D. Neil was making a general statement about art criticism written about all works of art.

    Art history will continue to be revised and reconsidered. Artists will fall in and out of the art historical narrative depending on the culture that is creating it. That is what I meant by “pseudo”. Just like the bible, art history was made by people and will be remade or abandoned by people as they see fit. The structure of art history is exclusionary no? There is a lot of subjectivity that is the by-product of a particular time and place and various temperaments incorporated into every art historical narrative. Art history is certainly real with regards to its existence in various formats, books, archives, research papers, etc., but if the things that we deem worthy of being called fine art or high art radically shift, then art history as we know it will become comepletely transformed.

  • JTDN

    I take your point, Eric, and it’s a good one. The problem, as I see it, is that we as critics are always operating under some auspice or another that shapes (dictates?) what it is that we see, or say, about The Work. This isn’t a question of “context” as much as one of “theory”, I guess (and perhaps this goes too far into Danto’s territory). But the theory behind directives to speak only about The Work is a very specific one; mainly, that The Work exists ‘out there’, as part of the furniture of the world. This holds for the majority of what artists do, but not all. I’m thinking here of Robert Barry’s various gestures (one cubic meter of air, one minute of spray paint, and so forth). And, I think (I may be wrong), that any directive to address The Work, discounts this (Barry’s) kind of gesture, or has to make excuses for it, or–what is more–already fashions a kind of judgment of it. The larger point I’m after by recognizing this first fallacy is that we as critics are always in possession of (or in the process of creating) some version of Art History (and yes, it’s subjective, exclusive, contingent) which determines how we write.

  • Eric Gelber

    I guess what I am trying to say is this: even artists whose work is entirely emphemeral, existing only in the moment, or encapsulated in a set of directions; art that only exists as a form of documentation or as a one time occurrence that only existed for the small group of people who witnessed it (or who did not witness it), art that rejects objecthood in favor of the idea, still falls under the heading of ‘high art’ or ‘fine art’. Works of art that do not hold up well when described succinctly, need the surrounding discourse, which is rife with theory and intellectual prejudices, in order to become a tangible thing (be it an idea thing or a physical thing). Without the discourse that surrounds it, what does a man jogging around in an empty museum or a light flickering on and off in an empty room ‘mean’? Obviously actions or objects created by artists that appear within the context of the art world are immediately entered into the ongoing discourse. There is no escaping this.

  • Catherine Spaeth

    There is a place for the criticism of jargon as a discourse of professionalism. “Big words” can be a mask for intellectual laziness and sensual autism with regard to a work of art. They can also wrongfully assume a particular audience. Another abuse of theory which falls beyond the scope of jargon is in the patching together of ideas from different bodies of thought, a hybridity of theory, if you will, as though theory were a grab bag for such purpose, otherwise known as the “tool kit.” There might be a danger that in saying “discourse is public” anything goes. Let’s put ethics into play, an ethics which drops the ego apparent in the three scenarios above and stands behind something like the “integrity” of The Work (allowing it singularity without limiting it to any one thing), the histories of the language one uses (which does not mean limiting oneself to its terms), and a responsibility to audience (which may not be “a public.”). Language is never our own and good writing is all.

  • Eric

    If anything, I think too many contemporary critics deemphasize the individual and subjectivity (the viewers and the artists) way too much. I think contemporary critics always include some anecdotal, factual, or condescending remarks about the contemporary art scene, the institution, and the way the art they are reviewing fits in with other art made prior to it. I have no problem with critics using big words, even though freelance journalists (that is what most critics are) have editors who want them to limit their use of obscure words. I just wish they used interesting and often ignored words. The same words are used way too often in art criticism. There is no need to bring up what those words are here because it has been done before. There are so many words in the dictionary. Critics need to be good writers and share an inspired use of the language with readers. They should be imaginative, approaching the art in surprising ways, and also exacting and clear when dealing with the specific work of art, whatever it happens to be.

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