“Reinvesting Criticism”

Published in Fillip issue six, summer 2007.

A problem: The Crisis of Criticism, edited by Maurice Berger; the 2002 October roundtable on “The Crisis in Criticism”; Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice, edited by Raphael Rubinstein; and, in truth, this essay. What is to be made of contemporary writers—myself included—who lament the “helplessness” of contemporary criticism in the face of the current hyperinflated market, echoing sentiments expressed repeatedly since the dawn of the last century? A fact: Critics neither have much authority nor wield much power in today’s art world, no matter how you parse any of the terms in that statement. What is to be done? At best, the critic’s position (closer to the consumption than the production end of the art experience) and experience affords her more of a bird’s-eye view of the art-world whirl than many people get. If a critic is patient (and lucky), that social distance will help her translate on-the-ground experience with artworks to slightly broader, quasi-sociological insight. Pair those translations with opinion, sharp description, and a clear style—and temper the desire to fret about the infrequency with which they come together—and the writer can do the calling justice.

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Power is a contested and shifting phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, in the minds of most in the art world, it is an abstract concept. See Art Review magazine’s annual “Power 100” list for a perfect example of how power can be calculated arbitrarily. (These lists are much discussed, as when the critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz appeared in the 2006 edition, even if not taken too seriously.) What remains undefined in lists like these, which proliferate in a strong market, is as important as what is chronicled (primarily money). Who has nominated those on the list? Over whom is the power described held? How is it exercised? What is obscured when power is considered this way is that influence, like affluence, can lead to a pathological disconnect from not only the rest of the world, but also from one’s own needs, abilities, and—perhaps most importantly—limits.

One simple way of defining power is by equating it with opportunity. I have been fortunate enough in the last few years to be offered an increasing number of chances to expound upon some of my favorite artists and topics, which has offered me the chance to shape the dialogue surrounding artworks I have experienced. When efforts are rewarded in such a way, the moment arrives when these demands and opportunities outstrip the ability to use them fully, to honor them by taking them seriously. (It should be noted that this argument assumes that critics can turn down assignments they are not interested in or capable of fulfilling, a luxury that admittedly few have.) Yet the temptation to hold on to assignments—to always say “yes”—is very strong. Alongside every offer comes the realization that it is not being offered to someone else and that, should you turn it down, karma (or reputation) will cause these chances to pass you by in the future. By acknowledging that resources and opportunities (and the power and authority they generate, especially as one reaches are a greater number of people through more influential channels) are finite, one almost immediately enters a hoarding mindset.

But it is precisely the recognition of this finitude that should encourage everyone to be mindful of his or her own limitations. If one is fortunate enough to cross the line and have a surfeit of opportunity, one should become hyper-conscious of one’s limitations and concomitantly try to (for lack of a better term) spread the wealth. There is a simple, greater-good logic that underpins this statement: With no guarantee that what you or I do will be of cultural and/or historical significance, it behooves us to foster others’ attempts to achieve similar goals. Artist and activist collectives offer one model for this kind of group engagement, but, if undertaken widely, this communitarian activity need not be regimented into something so clearly defined. It simply stands to reason that if one hundred people are attempting more or less the same project—in this case responding to, imposing patterns upon, and generally making sense of the broad realm of contemporary art—the chances are exponentially greater that one or a few individuals will succeed than if one person, however capable, forges ahead alone.

Evolutionary biologists would consider this resource sharing a kind of efficiency theory. (It also sounds somewhat like the technophile’s push for freedom-of-information or something quasi-Marxist, which it isn’t necessarily meant to be.) But species reproduction is, strictly speaking, an unconscious action. Applying an “efficiency theory” to human affairs implies a conscious suppression of that hoarding impulse, a subjugation of our own pettiness in favor of creating a stronger community—both better able to achieve its goals and more tightly bound together in its attempts to do so. The goal is to turn self-interest into what philosophers and economists call enlightened self-interest. As the short-story writer George Saunders said in a recent interview: “The thing is, we all have both of those motivations within us, every second that we’re writing. So it’s an ongoing, lifelong battle to write for the right reasons.”

How can power be given a more concrete definition, and how can that definition allow us to re-connect with our community? For writers about visual art I propose as one possible solution a semantic shift, a redefinition of “work” from one’s output to the process by which it is created. Writers should live by the creed of verbs, not nouns; “I write about art” replaces “I’m an art critic.” As the editors of n+1, a relatively new literary journal, put it when discussing Leon Wieseltier’s choice of The Moral Responsibility to Be Intelligent as the title of a collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays: “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. [In this title] an attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them.” In this new conception of work, the writer’s efforts, if undertaken with enough consideration, become engaged in an ongoing process, one that furthers argument rather than stamps it out with the final word on a given subject.

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Recently, Ellen Hetzel, who pens book reviews, is the coauthor of the unfortunately named “Book Babes” column, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, publicly asked a question writers on art also ask themselves: “Is a reviewer someone of lesser distinction than a critic—i.e. the equivalent of the untenured professor?” This was published on a website, and many people responded, almost all of them parsing definitions and heroically claiming the status of one or self-effacingly copping to merely being the other. (In case it isn’t clear, critics are the heroes and reviewers mere journeymen, guns-for-hire.) Hetzel opted to not enter the fray herself, instead retreating to the security of dictionary definitions: “Whenever people start defining terms, I try to ignore them—and rush for my Webster’s. According to the New World version, a reviewer is ‘a person who reviews, esp. one who reviews books, plays etc. as for a newspaper.’ A critic, meanwhile, is ‘a person who forms and expresses judgments of people or things according to certain standards or values, and/or such a person whose profession is to write or broadcast such judgments of books, music, paintings, sculpture, plays, motion pictures, television, etc., as for a newspaper.’ Well, the venues look pretty similar, and I’d contend that it’s hair-splitting to suggest much difference.”

It is hair-splitting. But what is rarely acknowledged in this discussion—which, it should be stated, can be useful but is always of secondary importance—is the amount of self-regard necessary to even engage in a lengthy consideration of this problem. Titles (critic, reviewer, whatever) are socially derived, bestowed by others: A community must agree that one has demonstrated a particular skill sufficient to earn a moniker. One doesn’t become an electrician or a chef by declaration, and so it is with those who write. Of course, I admit to having spent many hours doing precisely what I am agitating against, lamenting my reviews and comparing them, unfavorably, to the “criticism” of art historian Thomas Crow or the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn or the historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt or the literary critic John Bayley, or … well, you get the idea. Consider this a mea culpa. The critic-versus-reviewer binary now seems to me invalid in at least two ways. First, as Hetzel and others have rightly noted, the difference is so slight that one can hardly discern it and so subjective that even if one saw it clearly, another interested party might simply disagree with the terms—and be right herself. All written responses to cultural stimuli are, if undertaken in good faith, equally worth consideration, no matter their author; it happens often that a well-written 150-word blurb offers more insight than a bloated 1,500-word essay. Second, and perhaps more dramatically, for me the terms are themselves suspect, especially “critic,” with the shiver of impassive authority it sends down the spines of those subject to her judgments.

Focusing on verbs—to review, to write criticism—flattens out, to the extent possible, the hierarchy implicit in the relationship between reviewers/critics and readers, even potentially opening up the opportunity for radical and instructive role switching. This emphasis on verbs likewise creates a situation in which one must apply oneself fully to each task; there are no titles or laurels to rest on. If anything, success raises expectation and makes its recapitulation more difficult: Page through Arnold Rampersand’s new biography of Ralph Ellison, who never followed Invisible Man with a second novel, for a painful illustration of the disastrous, paralyzing effects of early accomplishment. I will use myself as another, extremely modest example. In the past four years I have published several hundred pieces of writing about art, but having done so neither guarantees that what I write next will be mind opening, authoritative—or even factually correct. (Although I edit for a living, I certainly rely on editors and fact-checkers when writing.) Nor does it grant me intrinsic authority in the field of art criticism over anyone reading this, much less in the art world at large. In fact, it’s probable you have never before encountered my name. This text and the ideas in it must stand on their own, a truth simultaneously chastening and exhilarating.

“It’s the critic’s job to make an evidentiary and rhetorical argument; and the reader’s freedom to reject it. One’s power lasts only within the space of the review: that is its frail beauty,” notes the literary critic James Wood. If there is a greater example than Wood of a writer working in English today who understands this fact and consequently puts everything he has into each text, I have yet to find him. The power he describes is bifurcated, applying first to the writer and then to the reader. For the writer, creating a strong, clear argument has a tonic effect, energizing in its re-affirmation of the value of what one has chosen to do. Second, the end result can reshape the experience of the reader (or viewer or listener) who comes into contact with said text and can discern the effort marshaled in its creation. In both writer and reader, honest creation begets—at its best—further creation. The initial act clears a space for reflection, reconsideration, and dialogue, each of which potentially leads to the furthering its aims.

This is by no means a call for heroic action. Yet by suturing together many small gestures, each undertaken earnestly, much can be achieved. For many, I suspect this is a simple point, but perhaps made more valuable by virtue of how infrequently it is foregrounded in the rhetoric surrounding contemporary art criticism. Katy Siegel is right to point out (paradoxically, in the volume edited by Rubinstein) that the perceived and widely commented upon “crisis” is no more than a lament about the waning of the critic’s “social importance and contingent personal dignity.” Fundamental questions about the nature of art (and by extension the nature of life), posed by an ever-increasing number of artists, remain to be answered. By working assiduously, with humility and patience and cooperation, we may finally be up to the task of answering them.