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 artinfo.com. 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…