Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.
What is the purpose of art criticism?
This question has been on my mind for several weeks, ever since I read Ben Davis’s “State of the Art Culture, IV: Why the Art World as We Know It is Ending.” In this piece, Davis argues that art criticism is rapidly changing. Pointing to parallel shifts in fashion, he writes, “If the main point of culture writing is just what Renata Adler once disparagingly called the “consumer service” function—“this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable”—then getting attractive people to show up and show off for their many followers may actually be preferable, from an institutional point of view, than critical appraisal.”
In this world, where does the critic fit?
Davis points to a number of publications that are “trying to innovate” in this new art world/ecosystem. Tellingly, two of the new initiative are sponsored by for-profit entities—the Gagosian Gallery and Art Agency, Partners. In this context, art criticism, or what Davis calls “culture writing,” has been fully assimilated into commerce. Here, the purpose of art criticism seems to be performing Adler’s “necessary consumer service,” offering “a notice that the work exists, and where it can be bought, found, or attended; a set of adjectives appearing to set forth an opinion of some sort, but amounting really to a yes vote or a no vote; and a somewhat nonjudgmental, factual description or account,” perhaps also contextualizing the work in the broader history of art.
More and more, art criticism also provides another essential consumer service—placing the work in question within the art market, helping the reader come to economic, as well as aesthetic, judgments.
But is this economic dimension of art criticism truly something novel to our age? Or have economic judgments always been a part of art criticism’s purpose?
Dave Hickey believes that the biggest shift has been the art writer’s complete absorption into the art market. In an interview with Sheila Heti, Hickey described the change this way: “[Art magazines] want touting. In twenty years we’ve gone from a totally academicized art world to a totally commercialized art world, and in neither case is criticism a function. We’re all supposed to be positive about art. Nobody plays defense! I mean, my job, to a certain extent, is to be in the net. My job is to mow stuff down.”
This seems, at least to me, too dark a vision. I don’t want to argue too strongly for art’s economic exceptionalism (though David Beech is happy to do so in Art and Value—incidentally, this is probably the only academic book I’ve ever read that features an endorsement by the artist Jeff Wall). In any case, economic value seems to be just one of art’s selling points, if we can believe the 2017 UBS Investor Watch Pulse Report’s claim that collectors are “driven by passion, not profit.”
We might locate the origins of art criticism—at least, as it is practiced in the Western tradition—in the Greek concept of ekphrasis, in the practice of describing a work—and its experience—to another subject. Art criticism is necessarily intersubjective. Thomas Crow described the process:“Faced with a mute work of art, any interested observer enters into a process of translation, making sense of it by some form of paraphrase in thought or words. No one assumes any such substitution to be adequate to the original object in need of explanation; rather, the purpose of the exercise is to offer a vantage point from which salient aspects of the object can be mapped. Going from there entails further translations or substitutions to capture aspects and features of the object missed by earlier ones. These successive approximations accumulate until seriously diminishing returns set in, at which point the object should be nearly as intelligible as it can be.”
Jed Perl describes the process—and the relationship of the writer to the work—in slightly different terms: “What we want in criticism is a particular person confronting things. And, over a period of time as you read that critic, you begin to have a sense of where that person is coming from. I’ve had people say insightful things to me about my sensibility which they’ve deduced not from knowing me personally but from reading me over the years. When I’m sitting down to write a piece of criticism, the first question is, “What did I think and feel about it?””
From here, the writer moves to the interpretive and critical task, though of course these strands (description, interpretation, criticism) are not easy to disentangle. For most writers, they happen all at once. T. J. Clark strikes me as one of the best examples of this practice. Everything happens all at once in his writing–though I wonder if he would take kindly to having his writing filed under the rubric of “criticism”? David Salle brings the intelligence of a practicing artist to his criticism, an ability to inhabit the various ways of making—and knowing—deployed by each artist, an intelligence that shapes the experience of looking into pointed, precise judgments. See, for example, this paragraph on Laura Owens.
In all of these models of criticism, the work of criticism mediates between the universal and the particular. The critic’s work is grounded in a specific, individual, particular body, and yet in the work of writing, the critic must transcend that particularity, and yet not float so far and so free that the work of criticism becomes a litany of banalities.
Of course, a cynic might say that these qualitative judgments and valuations merely mask the quantitative ones—and in a capitalistic society, those quantitative ones are the ones that matter. Perhaps UBS had it wrong. It’s both passion and profit—but mostly profit, all the way down.
Reply All,, “The World’s Most Expensive Free Watch” (Gimlet Media)
Adam Tooze, “A Modern Greek Tragedy” (NYRB)
Doreen St. Félix “The Otherworldly Concept Albums of Janelle Monáe” (New Yorker)
Nick Richardson, “Even What Doesn’t Happen is Epic” (LRB)
Matthew Engel, “Malta: An Island of Secrets and Lies” (New Statesman)
Hilston Als, “The Color of Humanity,” (New Yorker)
Angus Dalton, “Blood on the Pavement: an interview with novelist and 78er Jeremy Fisher,” (Overland)
Pankaj Mishra, “Why do White People Like What I Write?” (LRB)
Samuel Moyn, “Mark Lilla and the Crisis of Liberalism,” (Boston Review)
Jacqueline Rose, “I am a knife,” (LRB)
Maria Rosa Menocal, “Writing Without Footnotes: The Role of the Medievalist in Contemporary Intellectual Life ”.
Frank Pasquale “Strange Elegies” (Commonweal).
Elaine Showalter, “Imagining Violence: “The Power” of Feminist Fantasy” (NYRB).
Edward Thornton, “Two’s a crowd” (Aeon)
Anthony Gottlieb, “The Ghost and the Princess” (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Sophie Putka, “Stuck on the Chaise Lounge” (Lady Science)
In honor of the season, Happy Holi to our readers!
Victoria Finlay, “The Meaning Behind the Many Colors of India’s Holi Festival” (Smithsonian)
Paul Laudicina, “Holi, Inclusive Growth, and India’s Future” (Forbes)
Krzysztof Iwanek, “Amul: the Pun-dits of Indian Advertising” (Diplomat)
William Souder, “The Fantastic Beasts of John James Audubon’s Little-Known Book on Mammals” (Smithsonian)
Steve Paulson, “The Critical Zone of Science and Politics: An Interview with Bruno Latour” (LARB)
Shalom Auslander, “Opposite of Modern” (TLS)
John Banville, “The Impossibility of Being Oscar” (NYRB)
Deepanjana Pal, “How Bollywood’s Sridevi Should Be Remembered” (The Atlantic)