author: Justin McKeown
byline: Justin McKeown is an artist and scholar from Northern Ireland. He is currently lecturer in Fine Art at York St. John University, England. See http://justinmckeown.com
So what should art criticism be, what should it do, and what does it mean to be purely online? (Peter FitzGerald)
I have been turning the above question over and over in my mind for some weeks now. In considering why it’s such a ball of string I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because at its nub is the desire to redefine an eighteenth-century concept – that of the ‘critic’ and ‘criticism’ – within the conditions of twenty-first-century life. This is not to say that these terms have not been in popular usage since then, but simply that the origin of the idea stems from and is indexical of a very specific way of thinking about the world, which is typical of eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe. Though to think about art criticism, one must first think about art. Just as each artist, through their work, has made propositions on what art might be, so too has each writer of art criticism made implicit suggestions through their writing about the purpose and scope of criticism. Here and now, a decade into the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves explicitly having to wrestle with this question of the form, function and purpose of art criticism. Though, since art criticism cannot exist without art, is it not worth giving some consideration to the question of the significance of art in the current climate?
Since the financial downturn the arts have took a good kick in the bollocks. For those who depend on the creative industries for their livelihood, this has been disastrous and has led to much decrying of government policy. Against these cuts I have heard several arguments repeated again and again. At the root of these arguments is an overly romanticised conception of what art is and its power to affect society. At its worst and most extreme the argument goes something like this: art is as old as the hills and without art society will somehow be unable to survive. There is an implicit sense that without art society will lose its moral compass and descend into another age of darkness. However, such arguments lack rigour. Art as we understand it today, just like art criticism, really is no older than the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. How did society survive before this? When people say that art is as old as the hills, what they mean is that creativity is as old as the hills. Art is the categorical commoditisation of creativity, one that impedes untrained individuals from availing of the currency of their artistic outpourings. Stewart Home made an interesting comment on this subject, which is worth considering here. He stated:
Rather than having universal validity, art is a process that occurs within bourgeois society, one which leads to an irrational reverence for activities which suit bourgeois needs. This process posits the objective superiority of those things singled out as art, and, thereby, the superiority of the form of life which celebrates them, and the social group which is implicated. This boils down to an assertion that bourgeois society, and the ruling class within it, is somehow committed to a superior form of knowledge.1
Essentially Home is saying that the production of art, far from being some innate function of humanity, is essentially a mechanism of bourgeois society that supports and bolsters bourgeois society’s sense of itself. Thus, far from being an essential feature of society, it is nothing more than window dressing: the steam above the factory, and not the spanner in the works some of the more romantic among us might envision it as. One could even go further than Home has. One could argue that the function of art in western capitalist society is to transform wealth into prestige. Art is not simply there to dress the windows but to provide an alibi for humanity’s pathologies and endless bloody mindedness. As an accumulative material history the ideological and material discourses of art give the illusion that despite all the Machiavellian games of state, wars and atrocities against human rights that there is perhaps something truly transcendent in humanity that somehow justifies our existence and, somehow, makes all these terrible things forgivable. For how could we possibly make sense of the terrible emotional and ideological complexities of things such as war without these things first entering into a symbolic system of representation in which they can be suspended so that we may extrapolate some sense of meaning, albeit romantic, melancholic, heroic or otherwise?
Then again maybe this view is too extreme. In considering both arguments I would have to say that to fully appreciate the difficulty of the question of the contemporary significance of art, one must consider that, far from being some kind of transcendent social consciousness, art is in fact more of a social reflex, i.e., something produced in negotiation of the socio-economic conditions in which artists find themselves. Therefore the most significant artworks are those that give us the most insight into the human condition, not because they reveal some hidden ontological truth, but because they correctly ascertain and articulate the socio-economic, cultural and ideological conditions surrounding their creation. It therefore follows that good art criticism is that which elucidates and explores the presence of these conditions within an artwork without robbing the viewer of the pleasure of experiencing the artwork or their own personal conception of it.
While the above may be as true of both art and art criticism in the eighteenth century as it is today, it is also true to say that today’s art audiences are less appreciative of didacticism. Indeed, it is fair to say of twenty-first-century western society in general that people are suspicious of authority and even more so of those who claim to possess it. Thus today the tone of art criticism – at least the kind I enjoy reading – is perhaps closer to that of conversation than that of the academic lecture theatre. Perhaps this has not come about by chance either. Perhaps this shift is indicative of a wider social shift in how we relate and communicate, for art criticism is part of the wider socio-economic system of the art market, which in turn is part of the wider global marketplace. Thus art and art criticism, as filthy as it may be of me to say it, are industries. To expand on this matter, it is worth looking slightly outside the field of art. In 1999, as the dotcom bubble was swelling, a text appeared, first online and then in book format, that changed how businesses thought about the relationship between themselves and their customers. The text of course was the Cluetrain manifesto that declared in its subtitle “the end of business as usual.”2
Cluetrain could be boiled down to a series of some ninety-five points that the authors believed would shape businesses of the future. They believed that bringing about the reshaping of business were the effects of the Internet upon how people communicate and relate to one and other. At the heart of Cluetrain was a very simple idea: markets are not made up of demographic sectors but rather of human beings. The essential nature of the market is that of a conversation and not a sales pitch. Companies had to learn to speak in a natural, honest and most importantly human voice, instead of their corporate rhetoric. They also had to learn how to listen to the consumer. The authors of Cluetrain believed that the businesses that understood this and their other related arguments would survive and profit from the internet boom, while those that did not would perish. Apocalyptic stuff: but not without a thread of truth running through it.
Cluetrain, whose authors were a group of software and IT specialists, sensed a wider cultural shift in how people were relating to and communicating with each other thanks to the growing proliferation of networked communication technologies. The same changes were discussed several years earlier, though to quite different ends by contemporary philosophers such as Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard. In art the idea of markets as conversations could also arguably be said to have manifested through the rise of relational aesthetics (a term reportedly first used in 1996) and the popularisation of the notion of dialogics as opposed to dialectics as a mode of relational analysis. In short, Cluetrain spotted something that was much bigger than the field of computers and business, which its authors were operating in – though it articulated these conditions in such a way that business professionals could understand and utilize them. Today, one need only look at the style and tone of advertising campaigns such as those by the Innocent smoothie company, for both an understanding and a confirmation of the effects of Cluetrain.
Although slightly dated, some of Cluetrain’s original observations hold good, especially when it comes to the subject of art and art criticism. Just as audiences no longer want art that preaches at them or speaks as though it is the repository of some hidden knowledge, neither do they want an art criticism that preaches authority and leaves no room for the viewer’s own experience. People want the option to join in the conversation. The Internet lends itself well to this. Just compare the length of any good online article on any major newspaper’s site, to the length of its comments feed. People want to talk. Though, if Cluetrain is right, if markets are conversations, then what makes the position of the art critic tenable? Why is their voice more significant than those of other audience members?
To this we might return again to the concept that within the western system of capitalism the function of art is to turn wealth into prestige. To this we can add that both art and the language in which it is discussed are a kind of cultural capital, and capital, as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in his 1986 text ‘The Forms of Capital’, is “accumulated labour.”3 Hence the value of the critic comes not only from the significance of their opinion but also from the fact that they have been doing what they have been doing for a long time. Their writings are weighted with the value of their previous utterances. It therefore follows that the work of those critics who are most widely publicised and who have been writing the longest carries the most currency as social capital. That said, this does not necessarily make their writing the most valuable or insightful in terms of rigour or fact.
This issue of value and cultural capital raises another problem, for there exists an abundance of speech in contemporary western society. Indeed it is my contention that while the problem of the former eastern block was the right to speak freely, the problem of the West is the right to be properly heard. To try and frame this up in more concrete terms: there exists an abundance – perhaps even a surplus – of conversation about art in western society. How do we distinguish what is of value from what is not? For speech, especially quotes culled from philosophers and theorists, has become a kind of currency which, detached from the context of their original historical utterance, has become ambiguous comments aimed at all things in general and has therefore ultimately lost its value. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure – and I use that word broadly – of being party to the musings of a ‘thinker in residence’ at an art event may well know what I’m talking about. Then again I may just have been unfortunate in my experiences of such things.
It would therefore seem apparent that to address the questions of “what should art criticism be, what should it do, and what does it mean to be purely online?” one must consider the social, cultural and economic position we find ourselves in. For just as the form and function of art is affected by these things, so too is the form and function of commentary upon it. The largest single factor affecting the production of art at the moment is the economic climate we are operating within. In considering, I find myself reflecting on Suzanne van der Lingen’s comments in her text ‘Critical Masses: Towards a New Medium for Art Criticism’ – particularly her statement that “With advances in technology and cutbacks in finances, change is a given…While this transformation is immense, it is not isolated; it is representative of a paradigmatic shift in the relationship between the economy, technology and culture.”4 While I find myself in agreement with her observation that we are in the midst of a time of great change, I do not find myself agreeing with the notion that this shift is paradigmatic. It is not the underlying conditions supporting the relationship between economy, technology and culture that is shifting but simply the configuration of the relationship between these things. Thus, while the current situation may be chaotic, the means by which we derive and negotiate value and capital remain the same. It is only the mechanisms of distribution and prioritisation that are shifting. Thus, I would argue that we are not undergoing a fundamental change in our approach or underlying assumptions. Rather we might more aptly, with an eye to history, recognize the current situation as a political shift to the right. But what does a shift to the right mean for artists and the criticism of art?
Aside from the financial changes that are already underway, one would imagine the popularisation of the kinds of arguments against art that I – devil’s advocate that I am – tabled at the beginning of this text, i.e., that society can survive fine without art and that art is a superfluous activity. I can also imagine – not least because art is a soft target – more hostility towards art and artists from the working and middle classes, since funded art will be seen as both an unnecessary waste of time and a luxury. This doesn’t bode well for artists or critics. Thus the questions asked at the beginning of this text seem to take on a new relevance, as do some of the areas I’ve covered herein.
In closing it is perhaps worth my time stating a position on the opening question of: “what should art criticism be, what should it do, and what does it mean to be purely online?” To my mind, the role of art criticism is to initiate a conversation between the critic and the audience regarding the socio-economic, cultural and ideological conditions that gave rise to a given artwork and the experience of it. Given the current climate, I think the critic has a certain responsibility to open up discussions around forms of visibility and forms of capital in relation to art. Also, I feel critics have a responsibility to argue on behalf of art in terms of its social value. Being online is a perfect space for this communication, thanks to the way in which the Internet embraces and supports asynchronous dialogues. The Internet offers a set of possibilities that are not available through conventional printed media. In times such as these, where society is swaying dangerously to the right and the risk of social alienation is high, the Internet offers a means of consolidating communities through dialogue, exchange and self-organisation. Its production costs are comparatively cheap and its generative potential is great.