The following is an excerpt from a roundtable on contemporary criticism published in the fall 2011 issue of Fillip. The article is an edited and expanded transcript of a public discussion that took place in March at Queens Nails Projects in San Francisco, and includes artist and writer Bruno Fazzolari; Tara McDowell, senior editor of the Exhibitionist; art historian and critic Julian Myers; Fillip editor Kristina Lee Podesva; and Triple Canopy editor Alexander Provan.
Kristina Lee Podesva: In his book Art Power, [Boris] Groys writes that the art critic cannot err like a biologist can err if he describes an alligator as being other than an alligator is, because alligators do not read critical texts and therefore their behavior is not influenced by them. While amusing, what I find most interesting about Groys’s insight is that indeed we do not have true errors in criticism, nor standards per se, nor real debate.
Alexander Provan: Perhaps there is less substantive dialogue among critics because their purpose has been diminished as their language has been co-opted, their voices ventriloquized by the press release, which is circulate—by e-flux, for example—in such a way as to bypass magazines. Galleries and institutions use the press release to simulate criticism, and short-circuit the process by which art is received.
Bruno Fazzolari: So, as a result, do you think critics are being excluded from critical dialogue? I think that actually their language, a particular style of discursive, critical language, is driving and buttressing a lot of studio practices these days.
AP: My point is that art doesn’t so much need that critical shell anymore because a substitute, which is indistinguishable to a sufficient number of people—and which itself drives studio practices—has been invented.
Julian Myers: I want to speak directly to Groys’s argument about criticism: “The only form of judgment that still function…is criticism; the judgment lies in the decision to write about an artist or show, or not.” It seems to me that his idea that criticism is strictly a positive proposition, that coverage is everything, and that critical reviews are publicity regardless of content—all this strikes me as too totalizing. To say that criticism functions as publicity is valid, as far as it goes‚ but does this preclude other possible uses?
KLP: No, I do not think so.
JM: I have read reviews that seemed off base, or factually mistaken. And this was not a negligible thing for me as a critical reader, even if the gallerist dutifully entered this illegitimate review into the artist’s curriculum vitae. On the other hand, I’ve read articles that have in a single stroke delegitimated an artist’s practice—Steven Stern’s priceless review of Banks Violette in the September 2007 issue of Frieze 109, 2007, comes to mind—or persuaded me to see an artist’s work differently.
KLP: In Art Power Groys goes so far as to describe art writing as a “textual bikini” that protects the work itself from nakedness and embarrassment. More troubling, though, is his suggestion that real debate is stifled in this new predicament. I would hope our conversations might foster something like what Chantal Mouffe describes as dissensus, which means to make a space for dissent and to put into question all forms of exclusion.
JM: I find the idea of dissensus attractive, but still too schematic and abstract—especially in the conditions Alex is describing, where a dispersed audience toggles between different sites in a consumeristic and idiosyncratic way. I’m not sure how well dissensus describes how people actually or democratically engage in culture, as opposed to some idealized or hopeful image of that activity.
KLP: I think that is a fair point. I bring it up because I want debate and disagreement to take place in the critical field, rather than just a range of affirmations. Perhaps this is nostalgic on my part, but it seems that critics in the 1960s and earlier engaged in great debates about the value of certain artistic practices in the pages of art magazines. I don’t see much of that happening now. I do agree with Groys, however, that any coverage is affirmative, because, in a purely pragmatic sense, the artist can put a review, whether damning or ecstatic, on their c.v., and no one is going to go and check the evaluation. Instead, the artist will be seen as being of consequence because they have received critical attention.
Tara McDowell: I don’t think this is necessarily true. As a curator, when you request a packet of information on an artist from their gallery, they do weed out the negative reviews.
JM: I check the evaluations. I see reading the existing literature as part of my due diligence as a writer—and in the process one retrieves all aspects of this critical conversation, including negations, if they exist.
KLP: Good! Perhaps what I want to argue for here instead is that debate in criticism (whether in the form of a negative review or something else) is essential and can lead to paradigmatic shifts, with Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” essay as a case in point. We are in a different era than 1967, of course, and Fried’s was a particular exercise in criticism, but without such exercises, affirmative or negative in intention, I feel we do lose something significant.
BF: I want to return to this issue of debate, the absence of which seems to preoccupy many critics these days. I recently interviewed Bill Berkson for Art Practical. Berkson, who has been writing criticism since the early 60s, lamented how disagreement has become socially improper and almost unheard of, both in print and in conversation. This may be related to the proliferation of art practices and discourse. Before you only had Artforum, ARTnews, and maybe a couple others, and everybody could argue about what was in those four magazines and whether it was worthy of being there. Now we have an unprecedented excess of content. It has come to a point where what is being broadcast substantially exceeds the capacity to receive it—the phenomenon seems narcissistic. What’s curious is that in spite of all these opinions, there isn’t much disagreement. Most of our energy is directed toward trying to keep up with it all, so that little remains for pursuing and maintaining contentious positions.
JM: It’s such a peculiar condition we’re describing: both too much and not enough. And here maybe we see the other side of Groys’s paradigm, where critics write and publish on spec that someday, hopefully, their labor will be rewarded. Writing is seen as speculative production. And I would say that the value of this speculation is offered up by the market in no uncertain terms, by the fact that many publishers pay little or nothing for it.
KLP: It becomes an almost voluntary practice.
JM: But it doesn’t follow that this state of affairs precludes the possibility that writers can still say things that might matter to someone.
AP: What still has value—financial value, even—is not necessarily criticism, but authority—the authority to make claims or judgments that dictate or at least influence public opinion—which can’t be entirely supplanted by e-flux announcements, and which may even attain greater importance against the backdrop of the proliferating opinions and sales pitches on the Web. Authority has value because it produces and distributes power and because it is by nature scarce—only a certain number of people can exercise authority if it is to mean anything. Maybe that number increases as markets and readerships increase, but I think authority is still highly concentrated and probably worth the money people pay for it, unfortunate though that may be.