Crisis of Criticism
Paper Visual Art talk with Declan Long, Joanna Derkaczew, Jim Ricks, and Rebecca O'Dwyer
Originally presented on 3 June 2014
by Jim Ricks
Just over a year ago, the newly appointed editors of Paper Visual Art, Marysia Wieckiewicz–Carroll and Nathan O'Donnell, invited four arts writers to respond, present, and discuss the question: "What do you expect from art criticism?" The following is my talk, re-presented now as it continues to be an entirely unresolved issue in Irish Visual Arts.
The following is by no means all encompassing and is a bit schematic. And don’t think I’ll answer the question “What do I expect from criticism?” I’m not sure what my expectations are. Perhaps they don’t exist.
As an artist and one that works in myriad of hybrid, meta ways, perhaps I offer a different position on critical writing. Perhaps Artist’s Writing describes my angle better than Arts Writing. Therefore, I will take a fluid approach with different reference points.
I see criticism as an important and necessary tool in my and the Irish Art World’s development. On the one hand, it is an extension of my art practice. It is a valuable mode of exploration, and articulation. Writing critically, sharpens the critical mind. It is an exercise in unpicking the dense collection of signs that comprise most artworks. An analysis, and a means of really looking, it is thus a conceptual ‘Way of Seeing’.
On the other hand, I do it because it needs to be done.
So maybe instead of my expectations, instead I will refer back to the original, somewhat hackneyed, working title of this talk ‘Crisis of Criticism’ or ‘Criticism in Crisis’.
I think firstly this is an ongoing struggle for many areas of criticism as they try to reinvent themselves, maintain credibility, stay current, and rescue their relevance. And I can’t help but think this is a very introverted self diagnosis and a form of collective hypochondria within the Irish Art World. I’m not sold on the relevance of the latter.
So, instead I will refer to something else overused, a persistent fallacy and rhetorical device. That is, that the Chinese word for crisis is comprised of 2 characters which on there own mean danger and opportunity. The reason why this is persistent is that, despite its linguistic inaccuracy, is that it touches on something we perceive to be true. That there is 'opportunity' inherent in a crisis. That a crisis is a fork in the road.
Therefore, in keeping with this, there is a reason we keep returning to this 'crisis of criticism': because we have not moved passed this fork; this point. Or perhaps we keep making a wrong turn and end up where we started. In fact, I think this crisis is really much bigger than Arts Writing. It is a crisis of the Art World; of curation and art making. And this, by extension, is merely a reflection of the crisis of humankind at present. And it is a political crisis.
Although I’m not in principle opposed to these, I do not mean political in the sense of Bourgeois Democracy: voting, Barack Obama, policy and lawmaking. Nor in the overt and direct sense associated with activism: campaigning, protesting, or working on a single issue. But I mean rather in the broader and original meaning of the word.
Our word: Politics, is derived from polis in Greek. Which meant city, but also importantly, a body of citizens and citizenship. So what I am proposing is an art world, an art criticism of citizenship. A focus on the community, how we engage with it, define it, shape it.
Criticisms of the impotence of ‘art about art’ should not be superficially directed at artworks dealing with past artworks. But rather with artists, writers, and institutions that engage only with established methodologies, forms, subjects, and audiences. This is de facto elitism, and therefore irrelevance, and stagnation.
Another way of saying this is: If your primary entry point into art and your primary goal from art is more art then I think there is a problem. Indeed, artist Thomas Hirschhorn has argued that one should “do art politically.” The Freee collective, which includes David Beech, recently in a text-based art piece stated:
“A properly political art must be twice political. 1. Political art must engage in the political struggles of the day... and 2. Political art must transform the social relations of art itself, to rid itself of elitism, its privileges, its hierarchies...”
Simon Shiekh when speaking on curation asserts “Another art world is possible (if we want it).” I see this as easily applicable to and an essential starting point for arts writing. That is, we can make a difference. That we can strive for a better art world here in Ireland.
But why and how is art writing not serving the citizenship, community here? (Forgive the generalizations.) The structures and styles of art criticism are derivative of arts writing in the larger Art World cities (London, New York) which are, of course, tied to the profitability of the commercial sphere orbiting these cities.
In essence, in these cities, books, essays, catalogues serve as grandiose advertising copy. Press releases inform the public and the critics. These are all paid for by the galleries. The point is to add value to work, to sell it. Usually by dressing it in intellectualisms. And as it is art, it doesn’t need to be and cannot be proven. Philosophy lite, pseudo science, a vague connections to post-structural cultural theory adorn works that are often nothing more than esoteric design projects.
While this may be suitable for collectors, I’m sure it doesn’t make for more interesting, engaging or accessible work.
The market drives these needs. Those outside the major currents of the market imitate those that are in it. Ireland suffers from such mimicry. But the inverse way of seeing this is that Ireland is situated in a fairly unique position as it does not have the same commercial ties to arts writing: We cannot sell our work and therefore we are free!
This freedom brings forward a number of opportunities. Opportunities to involve more people and build audiences. Opportunities to challenge the structures of the status quo as Shiekh and Beech suggested.
I’ll interrogate some of them here (and that’s not to say I have all the answers):
- Why not candor? /say what you mean? There is no reason to be cruel, but seeing as Ireland is at a disadvantage, opportunity and selling wise, why not open up the debate? If you can say it in casual conversation, why not write about it? This is to me akin to the academic critique.
- Why is print the final goal? Books, magazines are great for archiving, but digital is more fluid. Digital, online allows for new connections, new interactions, new audiences, faster. It is also far more cost effective.
- Why is writing authoritative or the final word? Artists and curators should have the opportunity to reply and counterbalance a review. Uncensored commenting should be encouraged. Or published alongside.
- Why not prioritise the discussion over the writer/writing? This means correcting your mistakes and engaging directly with your audience. And perhaps not taking your writing so seriously and accepting criticism yourself.
- Why not show your research? I think of this all the time with art as well. It is so easy to cross source information online. Images and video and gifs are readily available to demonstrate your points across disciplines.
- Can you define your community? Are you only writing for other artists all the time? Think about diversity of subjects and readership.
- How can new audiences be developed? Through expanded subjects. Through connections to the issues facing a broader citizenship. By allowing a range of points of entry to the subject matter. That doesn’t mean vulgarising, but instead popularising your writing.
- Why not more joined up thinking? Collaborate. Move beyond the individual egos and identities and engage directly with each other’s ideas. Try experimental ways of writing, conversing. Written debates. Publish alternate points of view.
In other words we need to strive to connect to bigger ideas. To be braver, bolder. To be more honest and to create new structures of discourse, debate, discussion... this is the way forward.
Baudelaire famously wrote in his Salon of 1846:
“Criticism should be partial, passionate, and political, that is to say written from an exclusive point of view, but the point of view that opens the most horizons”.
I think we have to agree.