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Stefano Chiodi

What Happened to Art Criticism? This question was the title of a 2003 pamphletby James Elkins,[1] which has lost none of its topicality more than two decades since. For the American art historian, criticism has definitively lost its role as a privileged interpreter of artistic novelties and appears reduced to the validation of market mechanisms or confined to academic controversies. Crushed between the subjective value of its judgments (the ‘eye’) and the impossibility of elaborating a new general theory of art (given the ‘cynical’ condition of culture in the postmodern era), criticism thus migrates into the territories of aesthetic theory, activism, philology and curatorship. A discontinuous activity — and one by definition devoid of recognised standards — for Elkins, criticism has lost its value as a free and selective testimony of recent artistic production, as well as that essential function of mediation between art and the public that has constituted its raison d’être since the 18th century.  One telling symptom of this condition is the virtual disappearance of negative judgements — countercultural opinions if not outright panning — both in broadly circulated newspapers and in specialist journals.

This picture is aggravated in Italy by the age-old, sterile contrast between art history and art criticism, i.e. between a history reduced to the pure past, a prisoner of its artificial academic isolation, and a criticism fatally restricted to mere topicality, devoted to popularisation or storytelling. So, what answers are there to this condition of paralysis, of marginalisation? Elkins urged critics to offer ambitious judgements, based on a theoretical and historical awareness of their own reasoning. In other words, they should regain their autonomy in order to escape obsolescence and marginality and contribute to the writing of a new narrative of art. If criticism wants to return to being a distinct creative moment that is, at the same time, involved in the work of art, it must by necessity regain its lost independence, ceasing to become the vicarious preacher and cheerleader of the prevalent values of the day.

How can we not add our voice to Elkins’s call? Especially given that it still echoes a familiar idea, dating back to the dawn of modernity: Charles Baudelaire’s famous definition of criticism, appearing in his Salon de 1846,as an activity that is ‘partial, passionate, political, i.e. made from an exclusive point of view, but the point of view that opens up the widest of horizons’. According to this conception, revised over and over again but never entirely repudiated in the course of more than a century and a half of History, the value of criticism — artistic, literary or otherwise — is commensurate with its capacity to penetrate the individuality of the artist with another temperament, that of the critic herself, who is called upon to direct an unprejudiced, contradictory and paradoxical gaze towards her objects of criticism. And indeed, this has the corollary that the more exclusive the pre-chosen viewpoint, the broader the horizons it will open up.

Seductive as it may be, this view nevertheless avoids engaging with the either distant or immediate causes of the crisis and agony of art criticism. I will mention just a few of these. First and foremost, and for some time now, there has been a waning of its ‘legislative’ function as an agent of the advancement of the new. This is, one might say, a naive illusion, given the futurelessness dictated by the oppressive presentism of consumption and the correlated decline of the sense of history, which is undeniably emerging in every sphere of so-called advanced societies. As the central myth of modernism, the new was the driving force behind the political and cultural metamorphosis which the avant-garde aimed toward; today it is rather more a matter of adapting to the need for constant replacement, to the rapid obsolescence of every creation, indispensable to a market in perpetual search of new, exciting opportunities to create ‘value’.

Criticism is also crushed, as François Hartog has shown, by the opposite phenomenon, dialectically connected to the dispersion of historical meaning: the suffocating cult of memory and ‘heritage’, of an inheritance seen from time to time as an intangible deposit or as an inalienable guarantee of identity. Here, the discriminating, non-domesticating function that ought to characterise the critical operation is instead defused by the supposed self-evidence of the values at issue, and by their reassuring unchangingness. Consolatory pseudo-mythologies (the genius loci, the invariant and at the same time elusive ‘Italianness’, for example) put at the service of an emptying of historical experience no longer conceived as a constant and conflicting tension between present and past but reduced to the reaffirmation of supposed and perfectly consumable ‘roots’.

There is another decisive factor. For those who, explicitly or not, take up positions that can be traced back to a form of militant deconstruction — often identified in journalistic jargon with the term ‘wokeness’ — the artwork today no longer represents the focus of aesthetic experience. The autonomy of artistic practice had already been reduced in scope, if not demolished, by the anti-authoritarian impulses of ‘Institutional critique’and by experiences centred on a programmatic detachment from the art-institution — for example, the various forms of participation or socially engaged art. Today we are faced with a further radicalisation of these positions, centred on the changing conjugations of identity — of gender, sexuality, ‘race’, etc. — as sources of an automatic, or indeed obligated, mirroring in the artwork, seemingly without discrepancies or shadow zones and without ambivalence. Observed in such a suffocated perspective, the works are reduced to a jumble of ‘signifieds’ which are considered unequivocal, non-dialectical, marks of an identity that is considered to have been irrevocably assigned.

It is not difficult to grasp, at the root of this vision, the harshening of a postmodernist deconstructive position that originally aimed to unmask how any historical or institutional narrative has an irreducible, structural complicity with the systems of power. Pushed sometimes to ‘neo-Zhdanovite’ extremes, the rhetoric of identity today takes on the simplistic and liquidatory forms of the moralistic denunciation of an artistic modernity considered complicit with colonial, oppressive, ‘white’ etc. power. This is, moreover, a denunciation incapable of formulating alternatives to the all too real contradictions of the late-capitalist form of life, its cruelty, voracity, and destructive capacity. From this perspective, criticism — compromised because it is considered the bearer of indelible faults, first of allits Western ‘privilege’ — is only admissible if it becomes political pedagogy.

A last factor is the instrumental exaltation of the artist as a figure, their self-narration and their intentions. These are the only guarantees to vouch for a work that has lost all traditional connotations and can really be ‘anything’ (or, at the extreme, nothing). This vision conforms perfectly to the need to point to individuality — to the ‘name’ — as the ultimate guarantor of the value of creative operations now disconnected from any collective perspective. In continuity with a vision that had emerged already in the years around 1968, in this perspective the essential instrument of criticism, the text, is seen as intrinsically authoritarian. Put differently, interpretation undermines the self-referential power of the artist. Thus, ‘curation’ and expository writing can take the place of criticism, denying the latter its residual intellectual prestige.

This is only a limited diagnosis of the state of criticism (and of art) in the era of what artist Hito Steyerl a few years ago called the planetary civil war.[2] Once we have established the impracticability of any solution that is not fully aware, as Steyerl rightly argues, of the inevitable binds of complicity between contemporary art and systems of power (primarilymeaning, economic power), one possible way out of the paralysis may lie in a reappraisal of the less ‘sociable’ and thus more lively and disruptive side of criticism. Indeed, given its social irrelevance, criticism has maintained intact its capacity to give voice to what remains silent, unperceived or repressed in the artwork — which I continue to believe, as the original creative act, is art’s authentic contribution to the world.

It is thus necessary to continue posing the question of the work’s symbolic significance beyond the ‘lifeworld’ that generated it, i.e. its ability to symbolise realities unknown to its creators themselves. Rosalind Krauss, one of the most influential voices in late 20th century art criticism, set ‘misreading’ at the basis of her method: a ‘perverse, but very canny, deep understanding’[3] that releases from within the work a potential that has remained hidden. This is the ‘negative’ that criticism is called upon to grasp: the indispensable, fertile dialectic between the artwork’s ambition to embody its present and its capacity to make visible multiple identities, times and worlds. In other words, to open the present up to the non-present, finding within it that which escapes the spectacle, and to reanimate the past by identifying the germ of a future therein. In this way, we would recognise in artistic images — as against their dilution in generic visual production and reduction to mere manifestations of monolithic identities — a more conscious autonomy and a specific intelligence and density, capable of engaging in dialogue across time to construct a new, unforeseen contemporaneity.

[1] J. Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism?, Chicago, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003. See also, for a discussion integrating many voices, the collective volume: The State of Art Criticism, edited by J. Elkins and M. Newman, New York-London, Routledge, 2008.
[2] H. Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, London – New York, Verso Books, 2019.
[3] R. Krauss, ‘The Crisis of the Easel Picture’, in Jackson Pollock, New Approaches, edited by K. Varnedoe and P. Karmel, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1999.