From Singular Determinist Interventionism to Critical Pluralism – Reflections on Some Trends in Art Criticism Today

Art criticism today tends to revolve around a basic formula. It states a problem (say, consumer culture). It describes an art work (say, a video by Ryan Trecartin). Then it takes one of three positions: Trecartin’s work affirms consumer culture; it negates it by detraction; or it negates it by excessive affirmation. What it means to write about the artwork, then, is framed consistently by its relationship to a singular determinist theme – be that capitalism, the nation-state, or sexuality. We praise works because of their ability to undo something we deem pernicious, and we criticize ones that fail by the same metric. Witness the recent reviews of the Berlin Biennale. After two scathing take-downs in The Guardian and Hyperallergic for the show’s lack of criticality, a defense was recently posted on The Creators Project which argued that the Biennale was, in fact, “one big critique.” 1 The show could be defended on no other terms than that it was, pace its harsh critics, a useful act against capital.

What concerns me here is not, as Toke Lykkeberg put it, that “It feels like, for a terribly long time, art criticism has been a critique of various things except art.” 2 Such a stance, I believe, ironically re-affirms the basic underlying belief of much of today’s art critique: that art is a substantive thing which can make claims about other fields. It might seem counter-intuitive to name this as a shared problem of political and non-political critics alike. After all, isn’t the point of criticism today that art is related to politics, is not for its own sake, and must as such take a stance on the world? To be sure. But what Lykkeberg shares with the critics and supporters of the Berlin Biennale is an idea that is somewhat bizarre when we think about it: that the politics of an artwork are to be found (or not) in the work itself – that the work either “possesses” political effects or not, in some magical way.

Critical theorist Gabriel Rockhill has developed a vocabulary around this kind of criticism that echoes magical practices, speaking of “ontological illusion” and “the talisman complex.” What he is referring to are the ways in which it is assumed that there is a single meaning to an art work, and that that meaning is believed to have a talismanic power to create effects in the social world. The irony, of course, is that the actual social world is bracketed out in this process – questions about the conditions of production, the circulation of works, the conflicted field of interpretation, the parties and rumor and gossip – all of these conditions are actually part of the work’s political meaning disappears. 3

Thus while political judgements about art matter, there are also tremendous limits to this current mode of criticism. Perhaps most especially are the loss of the question of efficacy, the hubris of the critic who purports to know so much (the state of the world, the meaning of the artwork, and the way the art relates to the world), and the reduction of artworks to the political analyses of critics.

One practical concern in response may be that gathering up all that information can take years, even decades. (One of Rockhill’s examples is the still-unfolding history of the Cold War politics of abstract expressionism.) What can art criticism, meant to be immediately responsive to works on display, do in the face of such a critique of its governing practices? Equally, how are we to understand the meaning of criticism if that meaning is distributed so vastly over space and time, and not contained in the essay or argument itself? 4

And there is a potential problem here of self-contradiction. Critics are often quick to point out that critiques like Rockhill’s, or more famously those by Jacques Rancière or Bruno Latour, rely on the same basic structure in order to critique itself. 5  So what Rockhill must do to make his claim is gather up all the various bits of art criticism, name their general function, and then dispute them based on a given criterion that is again abstracted from the social world. Doesn’t criticism, like art, exceed its immediate given context and, take on new meanings through Facebook feeds, comments, rebuttals, rumors, prestige, long-term effects on shows and curation, and so forth? If art needs to be returned to its place in the institutions and ambiguities of the social world, surely art criticism is no exception either. 6

Critique and its criticism thus share the domain of what I would call “singular determinist interventionism.” This is the act of picking out a single thread of a practice, deciding that that thread determines the meaning of the practice, and then intervening for or against the practice as a result of that determination.

An obvious response to this claim is of course to turn it again on me – that, I, too, am surveying a vast field, naming a particular element, and making a claim against it. Except that this is not my point at all. I have nothing against singular determinist interventionism as a critical practice. What I am opposed to is a critical monoculture that defines this kind of critique as the highest operative value, 7 and ignores not only the multiple meanings of artworks, but also ignores such dimensions as the prestige generated for the critic, the institutional location of the critic, or the actual political efficacy of the claims.

The point is not that every piece of art criticism should understand the complex reception histories and production processes of every work of art, but only that more space should be made for analyses that integrate such research. One good example is Whitney Kimball’s fieldwork for a piece in Art F City about another hotly politically debated exhibition – Thomas Hirschorn’s Gramsci Monument. In “How Do People Feel About the Gramsci Monument, One Year Later?” Kimball showed how much of the artworld critique of the piece missed both the community’s appreciation and internal critique of the project. 8 Obviously not all criticism can or should become ethnographic, but the absence of such research is puzzling if we want to understand better the political valences of artworks.

The 9th Berlin Biennale is many things. It is a too-hip, too-slick, too-ironic rebranding of an accelerated consumer culture. It is also a critical examination of that very culture at its most perverse extremes. It’s meaning is not contained in either of these, nor in the exhibition itself, but also in the ways we debate it in person and online, and the ways in which it will echo into future artworks and exhibitions in ways we may never know. Slamming the show, praising it, researching its effects, or simply describing what it was – these are all important critical acts whose plurality will help shape art discourse to come.

More than an opposition to a certain mode of criticism, then, what I am in favor is a kind of critical pluralism – one that embraces the fact that there is value in all kinds of works and in all kinds of critiques, and that the task of the critic can be to define the problem, or a problem, or a social field, and that works of art can aim to be beautiful or mirror-like or lamp-like or hammers (as Brecht had it), with implications that can be located both immediately and over the longue durée, both good and bad, and different for different subjects in different times and places, and even for the same subject given the multiple affects and cognitions unleashed in any viewer by any work of art.

Pluralism is not relativism. It does not reject taking positions or criticizing others. It only rejects the hubris of those who claim to know the world and what must be done. It refuses the friend/enemy distinction that dominates certain modes of art and criticism and politics – the sense that you are either with us or against us – and pursues instead the tragic and difficult work of creating a common world with those with whom we want to live least of all, be they misogynist abstract expressionists, post-internet brats, or social practice goody two-shoes.


Image: Ei Arakawa, “How to DISappear in America: The Musical (Studie study),” 2016. Image courtesy Ei Arakawa.

  1.  Batycka, Dorian. “The 9th Berlin Biennale: A Vast Obsolescent Pageant of Irrelevance.” Accessed July 12, 2016. http://hyperallergic.com/306932/the-9th-berlin-biennale-a-vast-obsolescent-pageant-of-irrelevance/.
    Buffenstein, Alyssa. “Disposable DIS-Dain: Berlin Biennale Critics Miss the Point.” The Creators Project. Accessed July 12, 2016. http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/berlin-biennale-critics-are-missing-the-point.
    Farago, Jason. “Welcome to the LOLhouse: How Berlin’s Biennale Became a Slick, Sarcastic Joke.” The Guardian, June 13, 2016, sec. Art and design. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jun/13/berlin-biennale-exhibition-review-new-york-fashion-collective-dis-art.
  2.  Lykkeberg, Toke. “The Critique of Critique.” DIS Magazine. Accessed July 12, 2016. http://dismagazine.com/discussion/59621/the-critique-of-critique/.
  3.  Radical History and the Politics of Art (New York: Columbia, 2014), p. 7.
  4.  One solution would be for criticism to become “slower”, as Anya Ventura has argued. “Slow Criticism: Art in the Age of Post-Judgement,” Temporary Art Review, February 15, 2016, http://temporaryartreview.com/slow-criticism-art-in-the-age-of-post-judgement/.
  5.  As Hal Foster has recently done in Bad New Days (New York: Verso, 2015), chapter five.
  6.  The “sociology of philosophy” of Jean-Louis Fabiani, building on the work of his mentor, Pierre Bourdieu, tracks some of these concerns.
  7.  Rita Felski has developed this point in The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  8.  Kimball, Whitney. “How Do People Feel About the Gramsci Monument, One Year Later?” Art F City, August 20, 2014. http://artfcity.com/2014/08/20/how-do-people-feel-about-the-gramsci-monument-one-year-later/.

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  1. Aeron Bergman

    This is an important topic. Few parties negotiate their positions cleverly, especially in terms of privilege and power. Speaking of general trends: art criticism tends towards an ongoing defense of class by insisting on taste (overt or covert). Contemporary art tends towards an ongoing restatement of the status quo by fulfilling market values. Looking at the bigger picture, structural realities come into focus: art is more than its formal components (as Tokke Lykkeberg and other “universal formalists” would like us to believe), and criticism is rarely more than the institution that hosts it. However, an objective, critical stance that does not rely on taste is not as difficult as it might appear: for any given show, do a simple count: if the majority of artists in the show are white, upper-middle class, youngish artists from predictable regions, who graduated from “prestigious” universities, then we have a structural problem that cannot be answered by how clever any individual work of art is in that show. In other words, we see conformity via class and race as usual. Add a gender count, and we have the old specter of the usual power dynamics that have not advanced despite our “advanced” western liberal democracies. This basic, extremely basic, structural problem is made more acute by the fact that people in art usually self-declare as culturally liberal, and more or less progressive, thus making any “radical” and “cutting edge” inventiveness in the work pure, self-serving cynicism. Charles Esche put it this way “What comes over – in addition to the acute irony that strays into bleak, sophisticated cynicism in Berlin’s playful fascism – is a deep level of contentment with the status quo. Art is produced, supported and financed by a privileged elite and artists and curators (‘we’) seem to like it that way. ”

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