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Watchman, What Is Left of the Night?
Or, Critique of (Critical?) Criticism

Davide Sgambaro, Eroi #2, 2023, torn beer label, 21,5 x 30 cm

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Nicolas Martino

In an article published in a Sunday edition of Il Sole 24 Ore last September, Gian Maria Tosatti questioned, among other things, the state of art criticism in Italy, provoking a series of reactions and retorts both in that newspaper and other dailies.[1] A debate: hallelujah! This is an important issue and — apart from anything else — it concerns not only the art world but the world of cultural production in general. Criticism has been languishing for some time, even in the films of literature and film, for instance. Here, I will try to add a few thoughts to what has already been said, and also suggest an escape route, at least temporarily, from the impassewhich we have reached. First, however, I would like to make a couple of observations that I hope will be useful in better framing our object of inquiry, namely the crisis, absence or, perhaps, even death of so-called ‘criticism’. Way back in 1845, between one pint of beer and another two brilliant young German philosophers — who were not yet thirty years old and were destined to change the world — wrote an ingenious pamphlet with an equally witty and wry title: Critique of Critical Criticism.[2] Here, Karl Marx (especially) and Friedrich Engels railed against Bruno Bauer and company, i.e. the ‘holy family’ of the young Hegelians, emphasising that criticism was not a ‘transcendent essence’, something that stands and develops by itself in the heaven of ideas, as philosophy had long surreptitiously claimed. Rather, criticism was to be understood in materialist terms, as the result of the practical force of human beings organising themselves in order to live. So, the engine of History is not criticism but rather, we might say, struggles. This generally implies that the more that the society that produces criticism is imbued with social and thus ideological tensions of a certain importance, the livelier this criticism will be. In the same way, criticism will be all the deader the more that society is pacified or weighed down by a radical depressive crisis.

It is thus no coincidence if, when we think of the golden years of art criticism in Italy, we inevitably turn to the 1960s and 1970s, two hot decades during which this country produced, in almost all artistic and cultural sectors, what is still known and studied about Italy today, even outside our borders. We certainly do not mean to reassert a naively linear relationship between base and superstructure. But if we limit ourselves to looking at what happened after the great season of the movements, there is no doubt that the crisis of Italian criticism coincided with the beginning of the agony of a political-institutional system that had outlived itself, with the economic crisis and the gradual fading of Italy’s international geopolitical significance. In the field of art, I believe that there are two key texts which pointed to the initial symptoms of an illness and at the same time the becoming-chronic of a now-evident agony. These are the proceedings of an international conference on art criticism entitled Teoria e pratiche della critica d’arte,[3] held in Montecatini Terme in 1978, and an essay by Filiberto Menna, published two years later, on Critica della critica,[4]  almost a last attempt to awaken the patient from his coma.

From that point onward, there began a slow but mounting process by which criticism retreated from the Italian cultural scene. This coincided, internationally, with a qualitative leap in the world economic system, which increasingly tended to integrate cultural production into the general production of commodities. A commodity, and especially an aesthetic one, does not need to be critiqued, but rather to be promoted in order to improve its circulation. So, criticism has gradually turned into promotion, indeed not only in Italy — although it may also be true that in our country this disease has presented itself in one of its most acute viral forms. In so doing, it adapted itself to the needs of a cultural industry in step with the times. From these premises, we can already identify three reasons behind the crisis of criticism in Italy: an endogenous one, determined by this country’s economic-political crisis; an exogenous one, relating to the structural transformation of the global cultural industry; and a both endogenous and exogenous one, corresponding to a widespread slowdown in social conflict, determined by the free-marketeer cultural hegemony that has entrenched itself on an international scale.

Under these conditions, a critical function cannot be revived by willpower alone, any more than a corpse can be brought back to life by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It will not be the result of some individual effort to produce new ‘Appunti per una guerriglia’[5] or even a new ‘Citazione deviata’.[6] Clearly, the problem is ‘political’, i.e. has to do with the conditions that must be readied in order to have institutions prepared to fulfil this function. If, from the Enlightenment (the period that saw the birth of art criticism as we understand it) until the end of the 20th century, criticism was inextricably linked to the function of the intellectual as a single individual, the aforementioned transformations of the production system, dissolving the historical separation between manual and intellectual labour, suggest that criticism today can only be the product of collective work. This is especially the case after the decline of the modern intellectual and his function as a ‘watchman’.[7] Here, the problem is already — and will increasingly be — that of again combining research, which has retreated into university departments where excellent theory is produced, and the formation of public opinion through the social function of knowledge. How can the collective intelligences of the many groups that are getting to grips with the issues of contemporary criticism translate their cultural production into a widespread common sense?

This raises the question of language and the transformation of the mediumthrough which we, as human beings, relate to the world, know it, and narrate it to others. If it is true that from Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing up till the mid-20th century, we lived in a culture of the written word that determined our understanding of the world and its transmission to subsequent generations, it is equally true that today we are experiencing the waning of that hegemony and the rise of a post-literate society that understands the world through the multimedia of the digital revolution. If we consider accurate the arguments of the so-called Toronto School (Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong), namely that the medium determines the forms of our thought, we should ask whether it is possible to start doing criticism (including art criticism) using digital media — and how. Is it possible to do criticism, and thus develop a critical use of TikTok, or is this medium inextricably linked to the neoliberal logics of promotion and self-promotion? In this case, would it be concretely possible to ‘use’ alternative digital media or — avoiding a certain excessively radical technological determinism — to found an onlinecriticism magazine, without this being a simple translation onto the web of a project conceived in analogue terms, on paper?

These are doubtless questions that will unavoidably have to be answered. But in the meantime, some indication as to how to get out of this impasseseems to be offered by the work of contemporary philosophy, which, in an attempt to transcend its own boundaries, is now beginning to speak no longer of criticism, but of postcriticism.[8]  This magic word can be understood in the sense of an escape from the philosophical hegemony of criticism, which must now be cross-fertilised with anthropology, physics and botany, in order to continue to be productive in a post-idealistic world such as our own. It can even be understood as an escape from the domination of the written word. To continue the line of reasoning mentioned above: the question is how we can do criticism without using the words and without falling into the trap of ‘expository writing’ that all too often becomes mere spectacle, subordinated to the rules of the market.

Even if we are convinced that the problems posed above cannot be skirted around, and thus that the problem of an exit of intellectual life from writing must sooner or later be posed in all its radical implications (also in relation to the increasingly urgent questions opened up by AI), it is true that changes rarely take place by way of sudden apocalypses. This allows us to think, with a certain degree of cautious optimism, that in the coming years there will still be a place for the critical word. In considering the two-way relationship between the materiality of the ongoing conflicts over the major contemporary political issues (feminism, the Anthropocene and the use of technology) and the growth of tensions also in the field of the arts, we could in the meantime think about how to make criticism both less promotional and — with reference to the former model of art criticism — less cryptically self-referential and unnecessarily incomprehensible to the general public. In the meantime, we could begin to reconnect some kind of link between criticism and pop, between audience and theory. In this sense, adopting an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of writing within a ‘continental’ thought —borrowing, as it were, a ‘Barbero’ model[9] for art criticism — could be an effective strategy for trying to practise a critical use of mass media, including the newest ones. Having done that, we could stop asking the latest watchman what is left of the night. For in that case, we would, at least in part, already have got out of it.

Bibliographic references

A. Bonito Oliva, L’ideologia del traditore, Milano, Electa, 2012
G. Celant, Arte povera. Storia e storie, Milano, Electa, 2011
M. Croce, Postcritica. Asignificanza, materia, affetti, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2019
La postcritica è solo un pretesto, edited by M. Croce and A. Salvatore, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2023
K. Marx and F. Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956 [1845]
F. Menna, Critica della critica, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1980
Teoria e pratiche della critica d’arte, edited by E. Mucci and P.L. Tazzi, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1979
G.M. Tosatti, ‘Come siamo silenziosi sullo stato dell’arte’, in Il Sole 24 Ore, Sunday 3 September 2023
E. Traverso, Che fine hanno fatto gli intellettuali? Conversazione con Régis Meyran, Verona, Ombre Corte, 2014

[1] G.M. Tosatti, ‘Come siamo silenziosi sullo stato dell’arte’, in Il Sole 24 Ore, Sunday, 3 September, 2023; The debate then developed with the subsequent contributions, in the same newspaper, by Michele Dantini (‘La parola critica e la “comfort zone”’) and Christian Caliandro (‘Gli studi ci sono. I critici camminare insieme agli artisti’) on 17 September 2023, and by Stefano Chiodi (‘Dare voce a quanto rimane rimosso’) and Luca Bertolo (‘Grazie agli occhi di altri, vedo ciò che non vedevo’) on 22 October 2023.
[2] K. Marx and F. Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956 [1845].
[3] Teoria e pratiche della critica d’arte, edited by E. Mucci and P. L. Tazzi, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1979.
[4] F. Menna, Critica della critica, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1980.
[5] This is Germano Celant’s manifesto text on arte povera, ‘Appunti per una guerriglia’, in Flash Art, V, 1967, later published in his Arte povera. Storia e storie, Milano, Electa, 2011.
[6] The reference is to the article by A. Bonito Oliva, ‘La citazione deviata’, in Critica in atto, Atti degli incontri (Roma, 6-30 marzo 1972), edited by A. Bonito Oliva, II, Rome, 1973. This was the starting point of a reflection on contemporary neo-mannerism that would later help inspire what is probably Bonito Oliva’s most important text, L’ideologia del traditore, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1976, new revised edition, Milano, Electa, 2012.
[7] On the history of intellectuals and the crisis of their function, see: E. Traverso, Che fine hanno fatto gli intellettuali? Conversazione con Régis Meyran, Verona, Ombre Corte, 2014.
[8] On postcriticism, see M. Croce’s essay, Postcritica. Asignificanza, materia, affetti, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2019, and the collection of essays, La postcritica è solo un pretesto, edited by M. Croce and A. Salvatore, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2023.
[9] Alessandro Barbero, a medievalist historian, academic and pupil of Giovanni Tabacco, has achieved great popularity first through his participation in popular science TV programmes such as Quark, and through a series of lectures and interventions broadcast on social media.