byline: Ed Krčma is Lecturer in History of Art at University College Cork.
author: Ed Krčma
Why is art still important and why are some artworks more rewarding of our attention than others? An answer to these unwieldy questions would require the establishment of some criteria. What criteria for assessing the value of artworks, exhibitions and art writing are articulated by the present Circa texts? Most of the seven authors broadly agree that both art and art criticism operate best in a climate of openness and indeterminacy, where, for example, an irreducible obscurity proper to art objects – their fundamental resistance to being assimilated into language – becomes the spur to creative, affirmative, even elliptical forms of writing. Some examples: “Not quite knowing what the artwork is, or quite what words to use, enables a productive failure, precisely because there are no certainties, only possibilities” (Barnard, 271); “Criticism is not a single thing, but merely a medium to encourage, engage and create a polyphony of conversations and an endlessly open debate” (Fite-Wassilak, 15); “Criticism can cajole objects to speak. But, we must be prepared to accept that these very same objects may only be able to answer us in riddles, and, furthermore that we must be prepared to approach them in riddling form in order to elicit the most sophisticated or productive responses” (Fusco, 25); “I am very taken with [George] Baker’s extension of an ‘affirmative’ critical attitude through the envisioning of a space, liberated from long-standing responsibilities, of somewhat free(er) intellectual play and production.” (Long, 8)

The etymological root of the word ‘criticism’ is the Greek krinein, from krei-, meaning sieve, distinguish or discriminate. Related words include ‘crisis’, possibly ‘crime’, and most obviously ‘criteria’. The word ‘criteria’ – meaning principles or standards by which a thing is judged – is mentioned by only two of the seven authors (Long, 8 and Packer, 20), and the task of working through (or towards) a coherent set of criteria is not approached in any sustained way here (the word counts are, admittedly, restrictive). Nevertheless, the relatively consistent exhortation is to open out, augment, de-stratify, affirm. To varying degrees, I felt that these priorities tended to be more assumed than argued, perhaps more doxa than deliberateness. Indeed, even Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, perhaps the guiding theorists in the formation of such agendas, caution that “Staying stratified – organised, signified, subjected – is not the worst thing that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which brings them back down on us heavier than ever.”2

Several of the authors explicitly champion a kind of writing about art that is grounded in and responsive to an open, attentive and generous engagement with artworks. The stress is on a sympathetic comportment which seeks to foster the potentials of the artwork, so that the writing travels alongside it or even operates in a parallel creative way (Maria Fusco’s essay is particularly suggestive in this respect). This constitutes a kind of phenomenological approach: a bracketing of pre-given knowledge and attitudes to enable a richer and more direct apprehension of the thing itself. This kind of sustained encounter with artworks would then hopefully encourage more nuanced, lively, subtle and accurate descriptions, which would in turn enable new ways of perceiving and understanding what’s there, drawing it into the fabric of language and opening up the perceptual encounter in energizing ways. Indeed, the work of producing better descriptions would constitute a valuable corrective to the tendency of some art writing to leap-frog the object in its hurry to secure apparently higher stakes by appealing straight away to critical theory.

But is describing enough? Clearly an implicit value judgment is made by the choice of an editor and / or writer to focus upon one exhibition and not another. However, I would argue that the critic is not doing her job if she does not set the work with a framework of understanding beyond that suggested or prescribed by the object, artist or gallery alone. That does not mean the imposition of a hostile conceptual machinery to attack the object, but rather the placement of the work into a new constellation of meanings, relations and trajectories. That new set of relations might serve to enrich our appreciation of the art under discussion, but it might also radically problematize it, brushing it against the grain.

Another characteristic of a number of the Circa texts is that they tend not to register the pressure of history in a very powerful or explicit way. That is, the pressure that the past aspirations, achievements, failures and horizons of possibility of both art and art criticism might bring to bear on establishing a position regarding cultural production today. In connection with this, it is worth noting that there is a whole swathe of art exhibitions that seem marginal (at best) to the concerns of the Circa essays. That is, exhibitions and retrospectives that offer new ways of understanding major artists, movements or themes, historical or not; exhibitions for which a critic would need to do some homework, and for which the existing discursive context of the work is a vital presence. Some examples from New York’s recent past are the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art from 1984, or the Guggenheim’s 1979 retrospective of Joseph Beuys, or the 1992 Matisse retrospective, again at MoMA. Each of these shows received hostile but brilliant reviews, from Thomas McEvilley, Benjamin Buchloh and Lind Nochlin, respectively.3 Each writer combined extraordinary historical insight with theoretical acumen, and each offered precise, provocative, and enabling assessments of these shows. Whatever position one may take with respect to their arguments, the expertise and conviction of these writers, as well as the coherence of their critical positions, is thrilling.

It might be worth outlining, very briefly, some of the most important critical models to have emerged since World War II. These constitute some available positions – sometimes seemingly mutually exclusive, and sometimes not – which have both a significant degree of remoteness from our moment, and also significant purchase.4 Peter Bürger, in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), argued that the success of avant-garde art (embodied, for him, by Dada and Russian Constructivism) was wedded to the revolutionary transformation of the wider social and political spheres.5 With the triumph of liberal capitalism in the post-War West, the avant-garde was set adrift, unanchored from such social movements to become an impotent simulacrum of these former projects, replaying their formal languages while abandoning the radical utopian agendas that provided their logic. Clement Greenberg’s early writing was also characterised by a Marxian leaning, with his 1939 essay, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’ being published in the Trotskyite journal Partisan Review.6 Greenberg was later to abandon the kind of dialectical thinking that drove this early work, but he maintained his fundamental criterion for judging the value of an artwork: aesthetic quality. It was crucial, for him, that the abstract paintings he championed could bear aesthetic comparison with the art of the recent past, and indeed with the Old Masters.7

A provocative challenge to Greenberg’s model was delivered in 1965 by Donald Judd, when he insisted that “A work of art needs only to be interesting.”8 Interest over quality – the shift is significant, although surely there will also need to be criteria for what makes an artwork interesting (or not). Or one could adopt John Cage’s radical de-hierarchization of aesthetic experience, whereby no qualitative discrimination is made between the world’s expressions. For him, nothing is lost and everything is gained when all sounds are admitted as music.9 Indeed, as is well known, during and after the 1960s powerful critiques of Modernist Formalism led to an extraordinary expansion of the domain of art’s objects and spaces. An embrace of the Duchampian readymade, the found object, the combination of photography and text, and all manner of visual and semiotic material derived from the mass cultural sphere widened almost to infinity the kind of entity that could be considered a work of art. This of course posed profound problems for the establishment of criteria adequate to all these new art phenomena, and to the possible coherence of one’s frame of reference when thinking about what it is that art can, might or should be doing.

What then of art’s own ‘area of competence’ in the fallout from this situation? It is probably true that since the waning of Modernist paradigms, and the widespread crisis in Marxist aesthetics in the face of the rampant progress of liberal capitalism, more energy has (until recently, perhaps) gone into the dismantling of existing critical orthodoxies than into the task of re-imagining such models. Deleuze and Guattari have argued for art’s specificity in its production of affects. Affects have to do with the intensity of the body’s reaction, its capacity to affect and be affected by its encounters with the world. Artworks, ‘blocs of sensation’, are effective in both figuring and heightening the body’s vivacity: aesthetics opposing the anaesthetic.10 With very different priorities, Rosalind Krauss has since the late 1990s argued for the continuing relevance of the question of medium for contemporary art. Against the backdrop of the dominance of Installation, and working against the dissipative seepage of aesthetic experience into everyday life, a renewed concern with medium, she argues, enables the maintenance of a coherent set of (self-differing) conventions, which afford a necessary framework for understanding and judging present moves.11 Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential book Relational Aesthetics argued for an end to the revolutionary demands of utopian avant-garde projects.12 Artworks would now be kinds of stagings for micro-topian interactions: occasions for open and friendly encounters between spectator-participants, whose activities when involved in the work would make up the work’s content. Art is characterised here as a pocket within the social fabric in which a different system of interaction and communication is possible. Art as affective, de-territorialized affirmation; or as structured, mnemonic manoeuvre; or as interactive, interpersonal event-space. Clearly work in each mode would require different criteria by which it can be judged, but are they mutually exclusive, or is there room for them all?

Should the ‘attitude’ of art (and, indeed, art criticism) be affirmative or negative? Should the ‘direction’ of its gaze be self-reflexive, securing its own premisses and capacities, or explicitly angled onto the external world? I would argue that art operates usefully in both ‘attitudes’ and in both ‘directions’. The relative emphasis must be a strategic (or perhaps tactical) question of ‘dosage’, worked out within the whole complexity of an ongoing practice in formation, and established according to where, when and with whom one is intervening. This means that one would need to bring different sets of criteria to bear upon different kinds of artistic contribution; but such criteria are still necessary in order to give the critic’s work a purchase beyond the more banal, instrumentalized functions it performs at the service of art’s publicity machine. Clearly accurate, suggestive and engaging descriptions of artworks are very helpful, especially given that most readers will not have seen the exhibition in question. But it is satisfying to also have that encounter with the exhibition set within broader frames of reference; how does it take a place within the articulated but mobile field of art and cultural production more generally? How appropriate is the comportment embodied by the work towards language, materials, the social world and psychic life? What kind of world-view does the exhibition figure, however latently or obliquely? And why this type of intervention now? How potent, compelling, intelligent or rich was the contribution: how well was it realised? Both historical awareness and a set of criteria, however precarious and incomplete, will help give substance to answers to these kinds of questions.

1. Page numbers are taken from the PDF of the issue, which is downloadable here: 131.pdf

2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, 1987), 161.

3. Thomas McEvilley, ‘Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: ”Primitivism’ in 20th century art’ at the Museum of Modern Art,’ Artforum vol.23 (November 1984), 54-61; Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,’ Artforum, vol.18 (January 1980), 35-43; Linda Nochlin, ‘Matisse’ and Its Other,’ Art in America vol.81, no.5 (May 1993), 88-97 (for a brilliant lecture by Nochlin on her own practice as a critic, visit

4. For an illuminating account of the present state of play, and of the philosophical foundations of aesthetic judgment, see Michael Newman, ‘The Specificity of Criticism and its Need for Philosophy’, in Michael Newman and James Elkins (eds.), The State of Art Criticism (New York, 2008), 29-60.

5. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minnesota, 1984).

6. Clement Greenberg, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’ Partisan Review, 1939, vol.6, no.5 (Fall 1939), 34-49.

7. “You cannot legitimately want or hope for anything from art except quality. And you cannot lay down conditions for quality. However and wherever it turns up, you have to accept it. You have your prejudices, your leanings and inclinations, but you are under the obligation to recognize them as that and keep them from interfering.” Clement Greenberg, ‘Complaints of and Art Critic’, Artforum, vol.6, no.2 (October 1967), in John O’Brian (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol 4 (Chicago, 1993), 265-72.

8. Donald Judd, ‘Specific Objects,’ Arts Yearbook, 8, 1965, 74-82, reprinted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Oxford and Malden, 1992), 813.

9. See John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Wesleyan, 1961).

10. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York, 1996), and Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (New York and London, 2003).

11. See, for example, Rosalind Krauss, ‘Re-Inventing the Medium’, Critical Inquiry, vol.25 (Winter 1999), 289-305, and ‘The Rock: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection’ October vol.92 (Spring 2000), 3-35.

12. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris, 1998).