No one cares about art criticism: Advocating for an embodiment of the avant garde as an alternative to capitalism
There’s an increasingly old adage, first invoked by Brion Gysin, stating that innovations in writing are fifty years behind innovations in visual art. But surely innovations in art criticism are a further fifty years behind.
In Parkett 84, Charles Bernstein argues that “art criticism, insofar as it succumbs to a paranoiac fear of theatricality that induces frame-lock, lags behind poetry at its peril.” I am going to argue the same: identifying professionalism—and therefore capitalism—as the key catalysts behind art criticism’s undying crisis.
In a 2008 feature for X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Damon Willick elucidates how art criticism has “seemingly been in crisis for at least the last fifty years.” I could list off a dozen other articles and a couple conferences vaguely articulating the “crisis in criticism,” (I’m sure you’ve seen them lurking out there) but I’d rather offer something else. Willick says that “today’s discontents have idealized [Clement] Greenberg and critics of his era as the antithesis of the noncommittal, jargon-laden art historians/critics they believe have guided art criticism to its current state.” But even the preeminent critic Greenberg himself opined that “contemporary art criticism is absurd not only because of its rhetoric, its language, and its solecisms of logic. It is also absurd because of its repetitiousness.” That was in 1962.
Art criticism, once practiced almost solely by poets, now has very little in common with contemporary poetry. Leaving the flamboyant realms of Guillaume Apollinaire, Frank O’Hara, and other dead white men, art criticism became stolid, academic, and serious. But I was reading about how William S. Burroughs looked to painting to “revive” his writing. Inspired by the likes of Hannah Höch and Nancy Spero, he borrowed techniques of collage, cut-up, and chance and applied them to the written word. Poet and criminal defence attorney Vanessa Place draws from long-standing traditions in conceptual art when she moves words from courtroom transcripts, unaltered, to her books of poetry. Once, she tweeted, “Poetry is now fifteen minutes ahead of art.” I retweeted her. These conceptual techniques are increasingly interdisciplinary, en route to fully being embraced by a broader mass culture. Yet art criticism lags on, both the subjects and styles of its reviews as isolated and protected as an artwork in a white cube. All of it, ignoring so much.
Kenneth Goldsmith, MoMA’s recent poet-in-residence and author of Uncreative Writing, said:
Poetry is an underutilized resource waiting to be exploited. Because it has no remunerative value, it is liberated from the orthodoxies that constrain just about every other art form. It’s one of the great liberties of our field—perhaps one of the last artistic fields with this privilege. Poetry is akin to the position that conceptual art once held: radical in its production, distribution, and democratization. As such, it is obliged to take chances, to be as experimental as it can be. Since it’s got nothing to lose, it stirs up passions and emotions that, say, visual art hasn’t in half a century. There is still a fight in poetry. I can’t imagine a more thrilling place to be.
I posit that any instance of the word “poetry” in the preceding quote could be replaced with “art criticism.” Amy Fung calls contemporary art critics “survivalists.” We’re in the same way right now. There is no money in this field and, therefore, no obligation to play it safe. It’s a rare moment in the arts where the stakes are so low that not to be as experimental as possible is foolish. Maybe it is time to complete the ouroboros and actively look to contemporary poetry to revitalize our criticism. After all, are not poets and art critics alike burdened with the task of articulating the inarticulable?
There are some kind of funny WikiHow articles on how to write art criticism, and they all differ drastically in their aims. Some encourage behaviour akin to journalism while others maintain that art criticism should function as an extension of art history. But what can art criticism learn from New Journalism, immersive reporting, and Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-addled sports coverage? What does art criticism look like in a world where a group of art historians are claiming that Martin Luther King Jr.’s sit-ins and marches were the greatest sculptures of the Twentieth Century? (I dare you to Google the collective Our Literal Speed and try to comprehend the tenebrous breadth of their institutionally-infiltrative practice.) I want to ask: what if art criticism not only charted the avant-garde but embodied it, too?
How can art criticism be so close to art but fail to reflect any of its spirit? Do the tenuous experiments of art necessitate the stability (and stagnation) of art criticism? Does art criticism need to remain a venue for objective, removed reflection? Or can its attitudes and approaches adapt to mimic the grandiose innovations of its host? (Here I am picturing art criticism as a remora suckling at the gills of the shark.) Maybe there is a future where art criticism is no longer a supplementary, reactionary activity. Maybe it can become revolutionary.
Let’s return to poetry. What do poetry and art criticism look like in the digital age?
I recently went for coffee with Calgary’s current Poet Laureate, Derek Beaulieu. He talked about text as something that could be poured from vessel to vessel, assuming new shapes and contexts while the content, strictly speaking, remains the same.
Critic Lori Waxman said that “technology has changed and art has changed, and that should be radically impacting the kind of art criticism that we write, how it gets published, how it gets received and who we write it for, and how it gets commented on.”
Even now I am thinking that Goldsmith might admonish my use of the word “write” in the preceding Google query—maintaining that the act of writing is a practice made archaic in the age of the Internet and word processors with copy/paste commands. His own work primarily takes the form of transcription. Past projects have found him writing down every word he said during the course of a week in a book called Soliloquy, transcribing a single edition of the New York Times into an 840-page linen-bound novel (Day), and, in Fidget, he took note of every minute action occurring in his body over an eleven-hour period. What if art criticism was this attentive?
Seven American Deaths and Disasters, his latest book, features radio and television reporters struggling to find words to describe the horrors of unfolding tragedies like the assassination of JFK and New York on September 11, 2001. Goldsmith apes these slackjawed reporters, simply taking their words and writing them down. After a presentation of his work, he tweeted, “Last night I did a reading of a transcribed text. When I was done, I saw people in tears. And yet I didn’t write a word of what I read.”
He calls this approach “uncreative writing.” Moving text around, taking it down from out of the air, letting it emanate from anywhere other than within. He argues that the dissemination of information is more meaningful than the creation of information in a world already overfull of raw data. Working contemporaneously, Jacqueline Valencia retypes passages from George Orwell’s 1984 and simply juxtaposes them with daily headlines from The Wall Street Journal. M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem Zong! directly takes language from an 1781 court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 slaves by the captain of the slave-trading ship Zong in order to collect insurance monies on “lost property”. NourbeSe Philip poignantly calls this is a story “that cannot be told, but … must tell itself.”
Poet Eric Shmaltz recently wrote, leaked, or stole a manifesto for new directions in conceptual poetry, building on Goldsmith’s advocation of uncreative writing but taking it a step further. Instead of merely appropriating text, relocating it from one place to the next, what if text was moved from one temporal location to the next? Taken from the future and forced into the here and now? What if it could be leaked, like premature torrent releases of pop albums or handycam recordings of blockbusters? What if the poet was not only a thief but a pirate, making others’ words public before they were even published? Before they were even written? “Since language is quantifiable data,” he writes, “it can be hacked and leaked.” I like thinking about this approach inspiring art critics. I’ve seen Facebook commenters take issue with calls for submissions, critiquing the exhibition before the artists have even been selected. I’ve overheard speculative criticism at 1:00 AM in a basement gallery, shit-talking other institutions’ trajectories based on hearsay and gossip. Hell, I’ve seen articles published in the local alt-weekly based on less. How can it go even further? This is an exciting and freeing path for art criticism to take.
What does art criticism look like if written by contemporary poets? What does art criticism look like if it isn’t “written” at all? And, let me add to that, what does art criticism look like when traditional methods of publication and dispersal are crumbling, when national magazines are going under, when decentralization becomes default? What does art criticism look like as a guerrilla activity unfettered by a dying print industry or unrestricted by pervasive neoliberal motivators?
Globe and Mail expatriate Nadja Sayej, feeling tired with written (and unread) criticism, began bringing a microphone and cameraman around to Toronto galleries in 2009, launching a meme-esque YouTube channel called ArtStars*. Notably, she marched around like a tabloid paparazza before interviewing Kristiina Lahde at MKG and editing the resulting footage to censor Lahde’s responses with an “artspeak” advisory over the latter’s mouth. Sayej’s biases were clear, but why shouldn’t they be? An individual critic’s opinions have never been definitive or immune to criticism of their own, even though some art writers might attempt to hold true to the blander bits of journalistic ethics. “ArtStars* is the new art criticism,” says Sayej. “In the age of the comment army, the new art criticism keeps up with the other critics—the commenters.” Her approach is no different from the innumerable poets who keep vlogs on YouTube and Vimeo, quick-cuts and in-your-face pronouncements galore. Indeed, her polemic and, at times, antagonistic approach inspires multitudes of comments. These discussions are important, giving rise to polyvocal responses that more roundly address the work in question—filling in the gaps between the extremes and encouraging democratic forums in which criticism can occur.
Xenia Benivolski’s Rearviews project is also worth mentioning, I think. In Rearviews (and the resulting Beginning No End publication, co-produced with Danielle St-Amour of Palimpsest) she invites artists to review each others’ reviews, beginning with some supercilious exhibition and continuing forth as a chain of reviews reviewing reviews reviewing reviews. Some participants pick at the prose of their precedent’s contribution, others offer ficto-critical analogies, and others timidly muse about the project as a whole. This is not dissimilar from the Surrealist’s exquisite corpse experiments, wherein poets and artists would contribute to the whole of the work by only responding to the mostly-concealed efforts of their predecessors. Someone would begin a sentence and another would end it, permitted only to respond to the tail end of what came before.
I have a friend who insists on addressing the art whenever we attend an opening together. It doesn’t matter if I’m half-cut, she wants to make sure that the art becomes more than some excuse to get drunk and network with foreign artists-in-residence. So we stand there and discuss it. Sometimes we’re the only ones facing the walls, away from the open areas where everyone else is in huddled masses talking to each other or in line at the bar. She asks good questions, and has stronger opinions than any review that appears in print. She’s one of the best art critics I know, though she hasn’t written so much as a Tumblr post about art since completing her undergraduate degree. I think about Jacob Wren’s new novel, Polyamorous Love Song, and the group of “New Filmmakers” within it: directors and actors who live their films in realtime without cameras. Refusing to plan or write anything down, they simply go through life as if they are a character in a film, using this mindset to devise unrealistically-cinematic scenes. Was not poetry originally a purely oral tradition? This seems an absurd idea nowadays, when most poets greedily guard the order of their words and the way they break on the page. But art critics can do this too, I think. Criticism can exist ephemerally, undocumented, free from the burden of forethought or translation, unsullied by an assumed audience. It can be conversational, slanderous, and private. It can be as esoteric as the art before it.
As for me, I’ve copied out old reviews by Greenberg and altered only a few nouns to make them applicable to formalistically-orientated shows at local galleries. I’ve recorded the entirety of an opening reception using the Voice Memos app on my iPhone. Transcribing all overheard conversations as accurately as possible, I’ve ended up with a document that is a hundred pages long for every hour of vernissage, absolutely filled with gossip about local art scene politics and confused ramblings about NBA sex scandals. The reception’s raison d’être, the art upon the walls, is mentioned maybe two or three times. This is stuff I could never write by myself, rich and detailed and real. I’ve screenshotted numerous Facebook comment thread fights from walls of friends more famous than I, where arguments with disparate social circles for and against and around things like electoral platforms and the function of negative reviews are quantifiably validated by onlookers “liking” disparate individual posts. I like these approaches because transcripts and screenshots remove the ego of the critic. It becomes a polyvocal response to art, unfettered by individual opinions. The vox populi is embodied. The content is as it is, the critic is just a messenger. Right now I’m writing, taking this article and growing it to a novel-length narrative where characters fall in and out of love between paragraphs and ill-attended openings are the sites of drunkenly-invoked theses. A friend and I are preparing posters to wheatpaste across the facade of the civic contemporary art gallery, saying, “OPENING SOON: ANOTHER STRAIGHT WHILE MALE RETROSPECTIVE. ONE OF THE MOST UNIQUE VOICES OF OUR TIME.” These are all, in their own way, reviews. Responses to happenings.
But Brian Droitcour, a critic who has since taken his art writing to Yelp!, has lamented, “When you write a review at times you feel like it’s just giving the gallery something to publicize, another page in the binder, another line on the CV for the artist. I am super frustrated with reviews.” This is inline with Boris Groys’ thoughts about critical writing that is free from positive or negative pronouncements: either the art was written about or it wasn’t. It’s a binary judgment, on or off. Flattering or not, it still ends up in the artist’s CV.
Art criticism is in crisis because we have a problem with professionalization. We are steeped in the vernacular of capitalism, and we are afraid to leave it. Our world is rife with administration, mimicking the bureaucratic processes of the corporations so many of us profess to hate. We are content to let our artistry cease as soon we begin writing proposals, drafting business letters, and carefully collating our résumés. We push limits and subvert expectations everywhere except on the back-end, that realm which increasingly dominates artistic practices.
Too often, we seek to industrialize our passions. We simultaneously demand creative and financial nourishment from what my grandmother’s friend once dismissively called “a hobby.” Art critics laud artwork that resists capitalist pressures, but rarely does the criticism equally embody the form of this resistance.
So what does art criticism look like beyond the reactionary structures that play second-fiddle to the art proper? I can’t resist quoting Tirdad Zolghadr, when he says that “the review is by now the most musty of master forms, the oil painting of art writing.” Maybe there is a future where the form of art criticism will follow and eventually subsume its function. Maybe one day art will exist only in defence of art criticism. Maybe one day tourists will flock to admire art criticism, while flabby dads sneer “My kid could have done that.”
Art criticism is an underutilized resource waiting to be exploited. Because it has no remunerative value, it is liberated from the orthodoxies that constrain just about every other art form. It’s one of the great liberties of our field—perhaps one of the last artistic fields with this privilege. Art criticism is akin to the position that conceptual art once held: radical in its production, distribution, and democratization. As such, it is obliged to take chances, to be as experimental as it can be. Since it’s got nothing to lose, it stirs up passions and emotions that, say, visual art hasn’t in half a century. There is still a fight in art criticism. I can’t imagine a more thrilling place to be.