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.


  • Eric Gelber

    I am not sure what we should do with this second fallacy. Journalists must write about exhibitions that are currently open to the public so they can’t write about art as if it is history, as if it is something they are recreating through the research process. Also, every single art critic working today writes about an exhibition or whatever that they have seen and/or experienced in real space and real time. Obviously there are exceptions to this but they are rare.

    So what are we to take away from the second fallacy? What are you suggesting in place of actually seeing the work of art in the real world and in real time? Should critics depend on secondary source material like historians and not be influenced by or obligated to experience the actual work of art? Would art criticism have more value in your eyes if the creation of it was entirely dependent upon documentation?

    Or are you saying that the tacit assumption on the part of art critics, that their readers will actually see the art they are writing about, weakens or cheapens their rhetoric? And if this is your point, what is the art critic supposed to do? Write from a perspective that is outside of our common humanity?

  • Eric Gelber

    Parts of my previous comment weren’t very clear.

    Obviously art criticism represents one individual’s subjective take on things.

    I assume that readers know this.
    Should an art critic’s observations and judgments be so obscure that no one who reads the criticism and then sees the art can relate to what the critic wrote?

    How could this even be possible?

    At the very least, the critic’s descriptions of the art under consideration should be clear and free from value judgments, and therefore easily communicated to readers.

    Readers can reject the art critics take on things, and often experience the art in a completely different way from how the critic did.

    But how can an art critic write criticism, observe things and judge them in such a way that every other human being who sees the same works of art would have no clue what they are talking about?

    Art critics might have influence over their readers’ judgments but I think this power is negligible.

  • JTDN

    Here I am concerned about the claim that a piece of criticism MUST say something about the work that can be ‘verified’ by the reader/observer. This is an abstract way of putting it, yes; but let me try to be more specific. I’ve often been involved in conversations in which someone suggests that this or that bit of art criticism is no good because what was written about the work did not address what it is that you would see or experience when viewing/visiting/engaging with the art at hand–in other words, the critic’s words have not addressed the phenomenological dimension of the art–i.e. what it’s like to actually BE there with or in front of or around the work.

    Now, this of course is a very important dimension to address, especially when it is central to what the art may be trying to do or to the artist’s main conceit. But discussing and describing the experience, the phenomenology, say, of walking into gallery in which the lights go on and off every five seconds, would, to my mind, be missing the point. It is an option, but it is not a necessity.

    This goes equally for work that is mediated by photographs or video or other forms of documentation. Some of the most trenchant criticism of Heizer and Smithson says nothing about what it’s like to visit ‘Double Negative’ or ‘Spiral Jetty’; in fact, it’s often the exactly the DENIAL of the phenomenological dimension that makes a work of art what it is.

    I am not trying to deny the importance of addressing the phenomenological dimension, the importance of seeing and experiencing works of art first hand. But obligatory? No.

  • Eric Gelber

    Okay. But art criticism written by journalists, the stuff that appears in magazines and newspapers, is always predominately ‘phenomenological’ in the way you define it. Plenty of academic writing on art falls into the theory or history camp and usually ignores the phenomenological component, as you define it. Unless it is intrinsic to the theory being expounded or the type of history being written. So I think that history and theory deal with the phenomenological plenty of the time. Even art criticism that appears in a magazine or newspaper and that focuses on conceptual work like the work by Martin Creed that you mentioned, will focus on the physical event for at least one paragraph. I believe that no editor in the magazine or newspaper world would have it any other way. In fact I remember an editor at a newspaper complaining to me once that they couldn’t picture what I was talking about early on in the review. So I get your point that it is silly and superficial to go on and on about the shape of the room, the wattage of the lightbulbs, the wiring of the building, the paint on the walls, when discussing “Work No.227: The lights going on and off”, and probably no review appearing in any context would do that. But there will always be at least some mention of the phenomenological aspects of the art. I wrote a review of Mark Dion’s work ( and his work is conceptual. However, my review combined phenomenological aspects with idea stuff. I thought the two were inseparable.

  • JTDN

    I think these are important points, which I will address a bit more in depth in an upcoming fallacy post (4th or 5th; not sure which): these distinctions between history, theory and criticism, and between criticism, journalism and ‘art writing’ more generally conceived. The material practice of writing criticism (i.e. the organs by which it appears, the process by which it is edited and vetted, the audience for which it is intended) will always have much to do with the shape that criticism takes. And to be clear, I do not mean these posts on various ‘fallacies of criticism’ to be prescriptive. My intention is to address certain criticisms of art criticism, largely as means to open up its (conventional) parameters and possibilities.

  • JTDN

    No, please don’t. I don’t think you’re missing the point at all. As I said, you’re raising the important ones, and I just need some time to get my thoughts on them in order. But here’s a question in the meantime: Don’t you think it’s possible to write about work, such as Creed’s, and to write WELL about it, without ever actually “visiting” it?

  • Eric Gelber

    Yes. Absolutely. However, I do think that the writer who writes about a work of conceptual art without experiencing it first-hand would still need a detailed description of what said work is and/or does, before writing about it. If the work of art consisted of a conversation, a series of actions, be they specified or unspecified, or a set of vague and general directions on a sheet of paper, the person writing about said work, would still need to know ‘about’ it. And this knowing has to do with phenomenology (“a philosophical movement that describes the formal structure of the objects of awareness and of awareness itself in abstraction from any claims concerning existence”). I would go to the SVA event if I was in town. Best of luck.

  • Catherine Spaeth

    Can you provide a good example of a critic who wrote well about what he never saw? And would this actual text proving the fallacy be a different kind of evidence than a work of art can be? Conjecture bores me.

    In an art history class you often have to teach things you’ve never seen, and there are many ways in which criticism is involved. Not all art historians rely on direct observation as research material. So I do think that bringing art history into the picture is relevant – importantly not moot, my brain is getting into some serious knots thinking about it.

  • Eric Gelber

    I can’t think of many if any art criticism that completely avoids art history and the experience of encountering the work of art in real time and space. Maybe my interpretation of the points made in the original post is too literal.

  • JTDN

    This will take us a bit far afield–and I’ve toyed with this idea but have never acted upon it–but one could write criticism of a work of art, and write well about it, if it were a FICTION. Yes, this would likely disqualify the entire enterprise as actual criticism, for which we take it as de rigeur that it maintains some connection to reality. But, in a sense, it’s something like the zombie or Chinese room argument within the philosophy of mind. If we didn’t know it to be a fiction, would we be able to disqualify it as criticism?

    To get back on point, the writing on the early ‘land art’ exhibition at Cornell in the late 60s, and anything that covered Robert Barry’s first conceptual pieces, push this point about experience to the limit. Eric is right to note, however, that there always has to be a ‘first responder’ of sorts, an initial account, the remit of which is to convey just what it is that is experienced (even if that experience is one of denial). But here’s my question: why are we so convinced that THAT is criticism?

  • Catherine Spaeth

    It’s good to ask, to parse out, the authority of criticism and to challenge its forms – I like this image of the “first responder,” but in phenomenological language there is also the “first word,” an utterance that makes visible what can be said but has not yet been made visible. First responders will usually become an anecdotal relic, compared to those who came after and hauled a new social world into being.

    On Artworld Salon not too far back I mentioned a work by Pisano, called “A sculpture turning into a conversation,” that was just this sort of investigation/construction of a fictive object – the conversation itself became what she was referring to as a sculpture. It sounds like, from her perspective, this fiction is not criticism at all.

  • Eric Gelber

    I would hope that the criticism I have written about artists who never get written about again, or who rarely get written about, does not turn into an ‘anecdotal relic’ simply because I describe the work of art along with everything else I write about. Criticism often does include anecdote. “When I entered the gallery…” “The first time I met the artist…” etc. But if the entire piece of criticism is anecdotal, description, whatever you want to call it, it is not criticism. The key components of criticism, historically speaking, are evaluation and analysis. Evaluation is “to determine the significance, worth, or condition of usually by careful appraisal and study” and analysis is “an examination of a complex, its elements, and their relations”. So if a writer writes about an art work that doesn’t really exist, even if the writer follows the structure or format of a typical example of art criticism (there are many variations obviously), then we would have a blending of types. It certainly wouldn’t be art criticism the writer was producing. Writers can treat historical precedents haphazardly and call their writing whatever the hell they want to, but they can’t expect their readers to do the same. I would also imagine that these imaginary hybrid forms of writing, criticism that is entirely fictive, would only get publsihed if they were packaged as satirical fiction or experimental fiction. ‘Experimental’ as used here, is a huge umbrella that a lot of stuff can be shoved under.

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