Slow Criticism: Art in the Age of Post-Judgement
I once went to the Met with a painter friend. The painter would visit the museum often in dutiful apprenticeship to the old masters. As we passed slowly through the dim galleries, we walked at a pace foreign to my usual clip. It reminded me of a story I once heard about Baudelaire taking his pet turtle out for a stroll among the frenzy of the Parisian arcades, the animal’s plodding steps creating a kind of subversion to the regular urban rhythms of the city, the manic tempo of modernity. Rather than cruising past the paintings, trying to consume as much as possible, we would stop and linger over individual works. “What do you see?” my friend would ask. At one point, while standing in front of a portrait by El Greco, we fell into silence. “Our eyes just haven’t adjusted yet,” he announced finally, and we waited some more. At first, it felt ludicrous to stand in front of a work of art this long, feeling the full weight of each minute ticking past, like stones in a river whose rushing eddies churn around them, but soon the parts of the painting began to rearrange. The somber grays and blushes of rose shifted and brightened. Black was no longer merely black but a conglomeration of color, with all the iridescent richness of an oil stain in the sun. The lines in the man’s face seemed softer, his eyes sadder. Depth had tendered itself to time.
We had reaped the rewards of what art historian Jennifer Roberts has called “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.”1 To her students at Harvard, Roberts assigned the task of spending three whole hours in front of the John Singleton Copley painting Boy with a Squirrel. It was an exercise that Roberts herself had performed in her study of the painting, an act of temporal largesse that had yielded insights not readily available in any single passing look. This is what my painter friend had also known: visual perception is not always immediate and artworks at times demand the space to unravel slowly. Decelerating in this way, Robert argues, is not merely some nostalgic bid in an age of instant communication but, more importantly, is a means of understanding the temporal realities of other periods in history. “The very fabric of human understanding was woven to some extent out of delay, belatedness, waiting,” she writes of Copley’s epoch. And if before patience was a virtue bred of resignation, a tacit acknowledgement of the world’s maddeningly ponderous cadence, then today patience is “an active and positive cognitive state.” Roberts writes, “Where patience once indicated a lack of control, now it is a form of control over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us. Patience no longer connotes disempowerment—perhaps now patience is power.”
In other words, slowness has become a radical act.
One of the tactics in a labor dispute is called a slowdown, which is exactly as it sounds: workers perform all their regular tasks yet at a severely slackened pace. In reducing productivity, this lag is a form of resistance to a capitalist system based on speed and efficiency. It is no wonder that our word “speed” derives from the Old English sped, which relates to success, prosperity, wealth, opportunity, and advancement. In contrast, slowness is often negatively linked to disability, yet what we often fail to see is that disability, that state of being outside what’s considered “normal,” can be transformative: showing us how to live differently from the status quo. To be slow is to be disobedient to the world as it is. I like to imagine what a slowdown might look like, the ballet of the factory or dockyards in revolt, the arms and legs floating for a moment longer in space, a slowness so useless it borders on the aesthetic. Because what is organized movement without teleology, after all, but a dance? Art wants to be slow.
See Olafur Eliasson’s slow motion studio: https://vimeo.com/32206496
I think art criticism often forgets to be slow.
Criticism, like many so many other spiritually worthwhile activities in the modern world, is said to be “in crisis.” The printed word is dead, the oracles say. The number of full-time art critics employed by newspapers and magazines, endangered species both, has dwindled to less than ten in the United States.2 Without a doubt, the shift from print culture to digital has played a major role, transforming how art is experienced, disseminated, and discussed. The proliferation of images of artworks circulating today, in the age of virtual access, has absolved written description of its old utility. The world is infinitely retrievable now, always in the process, through our inboxes and iPhone photos and Facebook accounts, of archiving itself. William Gibson has talked about this phenomenon, the endless availability and reproducibility of culture, in relation to film. Film was “largely unrepeatable,” he says, before the growth of television, videotape, and repertory cinemas, and thus “film existed primarily in memory, and the experience of actually seeing it was very intense.”3 I know I’ve at times not sat long enough, not paid good enough to attention to an artwork, knowing full well that I can snap a picture and refer back to it later for an essay or review. Again, attention is no longer a necessity but an act of discipline.
And, relatedly and perhaps equally important, online communication platforms have democratized judgement. If before knowledge was sequestered in sanctified enclaves, in monasteries or in the libraries of aristocratic men of letters, and later in libraries and museums and universities that still struggle with inclusion, you can see how discerning interpreters, the critics of the day armed with a developing artistic vocabulary, might have fulfilled an important role to layfolk without access to information, original artworks, or their own publishing platforms. Early critics of the 18th century, with the rise of the academic salons in London and Paris, positioned themselves as the mouthpieces of an emerging reading public. But the great information revolution of the internet, like the Gutenbergian revolution before it, was that it cut out the need for middlemen. Now anyone with a blog or social media account can sound their opinion, on a work of art or anything at all, in what’s been called “vernacular criticism.”4 Significantly, these are corporate-controlled platforms, timed to instantaneity, that most often trade in the quick and off-the-cuff. With the old chestnut “everyone’s a critic” truer than ever, judgement, it seems, is hyperinflated. Judgement has flooded the market. Opinions no longer hold the same currency. So what is the role of the critic?
As the late political scientist Herbert Simon astutely observed, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”5 In an economy premised upon speed and saturation, it’s not connoisseurship or judgement critics have to offer but a more precious resource. What the critic has to give is the fruits of looking laggardly, an attention that appears in increasingly lesser quantities today, a long and sustained commitment to coaxing meaning from mute objects. Though we “pay” attention, our attention need not be regulated by the industrial logic of clock time. What the critic has to offer is her own subjectivity, her own careful, glacial experience of a work of art, especially ones that do not immediately break open to the spectator’s gaze. I believe this type of slow looking restores both art and viewer to the gift economy, an economy that Lewis Hyde has said is governed not by the logos of the marketplace but eros, an economy of reciprocity and mutual exchange.6 Indeed, the word “attention” comes to us from the Latin attendre, which literally means to stretch towards something, that reach for the space outside the self that forms the basis of kinship. Where logos alienates, eros brings near. So perhaps the role of the critic is this: to attend-by-proxy for the public.
I have to admit I have a soft spot for the impressionistic poet-critics of the nineteen fifties, poets like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery who brought a literary sensibility and romantic enthusiasm to modern painting. Under the auspices of ARTnews, these critics dealt in consciousness before Greenbergian analyticism took over. Forfeiting any interest in scientific rationality, they collapsed the pretense of cold distance. They were often friends with the artists they wrote about and why not? They were operating in the gift economy and made no claims to objectivity, their reviews not the artifacts of reason but experience. They stretched towards; they described, with all the complexity of cognition, all the messy subjectivity, that act entails. I don’t think the abundance of images of artworks negates the necessity of description. As the writer Patricia Hampl has noted, description is “where the self is lost in the material in a sense.”7 She is referring to memoir, but could just as easily be talking about art criticism: that exquisite point at which the perceiving self partly dissolves and merges into the external world; when our attention is whole and complete. Too often we leapfrog over description in favor of judgement, dismiss it as pointless fluff, but description above all is the product of rapt attention. If you are not looking at something long and hard, you cannot describe it well.
Painting aside, contemporary forms of art-making could benefit from this same slowness of attention. New ways of working–including the performative, collaborative, curatorial or publishing practices that comprise the “expanded field” of “post-studio” art–demand new discourses to interpret them. One of the acute points of the now-infamous article “International Art English,” one often lost amid the controversy surrounding the article and its methodology, is that accompanying the dematerialization of the art object was a crisis of language –that there was no there there, and the bastardized jargon of continental philosophy emerged as one way of unifying this global, multifarious field of endeavor known as contemporary art.8 In other words, IAE became a means of standardization, a discourse that quickly slipped into the specialized, rote and lazy language of industry. Museums and galleries often manufacture their own IAE criticism in the form of press releases, meaning-making machines that, at worst, can render the critic a mimic of the party line. This is not to say that publicity itself is to blame–Vasari himself was nothing if not a Venetian hype man–but I can’t help but think of this as the language of speed and supply chains, a language that’s become quick and transactional and thus poses real barriers to slow criticism. Any time language becomes mechanized, thought is threatened. If our experience of artwork is to be a dance rather than an assembly line, we need artful, original and complex prose.9
What would it be for an art critic to sit in front of a sculpture for three hours? Or visit a performance piece over a period of days or months? Or interview all the participants in a social practice potluck, and then interview them again long after the dinner was over? Clearly, I realize the market is not kind to slowness, and that questions do exist about sustainable venues for slow criticism and how critics might be compensated for their work, yet I’m heartened by institutional publishing platforms and recent thinking about alternative funding models for art criticism. But for now, what I’m calling for is criticism as temporary communion rather than appraisal. A criticism that’s slow, descriptive, subjective, a criticism that values process and experience over judgement and whose language is as intricate as its looking. Our eyes still have to adjust. We have to slow down. We have to lose ourselves. It is only then that the black becomes not merely black but all the colors in the spectrum. If art is nothing but “a reified request for attention,” as scholar D. Graham Burnett once noted, then the role of the critic is simply to grant it and grant it well, for as long as it takes.
- Roberts, Jennifer. “The Power of Patience.” Harvard Magazine. 2013. Accessed February 04, 2016. http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience. ↩
- Russeth, Andrew. “There Are Fewer Than 10 Full-Time Art Critics in the U.S. (Updated).” Observer. 2013. Accessed February 04, 2016. http://observer.com/2013/05/there-are-now-less-than-10-full-time-art-critics-in-the-u-s/. ↩
- “Williams Gibson: On Technophobia and the Power of Film.” Literary Hub. Accessed February 04, 2016. http://lithub.com/williams-gibson-on-technophobia-and-the-power-of-film/. ↩
- Droitcour, Brian. “Vernacular Criticism.” The New Inquiry. 2014. Accessed February 04, 2016. http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/vernacular-criticism/. ↩
- I first came across Simon’s work in Michael H. Goldhaber’s early, prescient essay “Attention Shoppers!” Wired. December 01, 1997. Accessed February 04, 2016. http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/5.12/es_attention.html. ↩
- Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. ↩
- Hampl, Patricia. “The Dark Art of Description.” Iowa Review 38, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 74-82. ↩
- Rule, Alix, and David Levine.”Triple Canopy – International Art English by Alix Rule & David Levine.” Triple Canopy. Accessed February 04, 2016. https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/international_art_english. ↩
- n interesting model of slow journalism that perhaps art criticism can learn from is Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk, a seven-year quest to walk across the world and report on the stories discovered on this journey. See: Blanding, Michael. “The Value of Slow Journalism in the Age of Information.” Neiman Reports. Accessed February 4, 2016. http://niemanreports.org/articles/the-value-of-slow-journalism-in-the-age-of-instant-information/. ↩