author: Isobel Harbison
byline: Isobel Harbison is a critic, curator and AHRC doctorial candidate in the Art Department, Goldsmiths College, London.
“…What is the future of art criticism?” Circa asks me, alone online, its first time without paper. “Art criticism in crisis?” I say, “so common a claim, it’s now a cliché.”  Indignant, I continue “…if artists show, I respond, and you publish; then it exists…” “But what of its future?” Circa goes silent.

Perhaps this should start as a general enquiry on the quality of contemporary art criticism.  Virginia Woolf once observed a divide in literary criticism, “the critic… dealt with the past and with principles; the reviewer took the measure of new books as they fell from the press.”1 The distinction is time-based; critics spent honest time reflecting, reviewers ceaselessly produced ill-conceived and ‘irresponsible’ copy, serving mainly to boost or foil the novel’s commercial success.  Contemporary art critics who respond to the clock of fast-paced publishing are perpetually thrown between these two stools, pitching the work’s art-historical precedents against its contemporaneity, often as the paint is drying, and when any broader context is not immediately clear.  And, that is before published art criticism feeds, by association with its subject, into the market (in A. Warhol’s words, “I don’t read reviews, I weigh them.”).  Critiquing contemporary work is a risky business.  But surely this voice, however off-pitch, remains an important cohort to the artist and chronicle of the cultural context in which they produce? Perhaps one of the most important aspect of criticism is that, in a culture of cross-quotation and quasi-intellectual counter-pointing, contemporary evaluation exists in order feed its successor, itself to be overturned.

This could be instead an account of the evolving forms of art criticism, an opportunity to stand still and reflect upon them and what they reflect.  However, we risk not ever writing fast enough to catch them, for critical form and style now evolve as swiftly as the artworks at which they aim.  Over the last forty years, changing registers in art have challenged criticism, perhaps purposefully; from the increasing conceptualization of art, to the growing politicization of artistic intentions, to the strategic abstraction of the image, trends that have threatened to reduce criticism to flat description.2 Despite this, channels of critical reflection have proliferated, criticism and curating becoming demanding and occasionally reductive bedfellows, and equally their respective (and interdependent) lexicons have grown.   This might be understood as an environment not saturated but improved by a range of different styles, as illustrated by the multitude of critical voices and agendas in Circa’s last issue, its first online.3

The diversification of these critical voices is not just a literary issue, it is economic and political.  We work in a (post-?) post-Fordist economy where abstract intelligence is a major productive force and social capital is currency, but while the infrastructure may change, critical quality might not suffer. Before reminiscing alongside Matt Packer about the early Artforum era, I remain conscious that through the flood-lands of international art publishing, I, now have the option to write about art, and wonder how many female, Irish critics that period produced?4 Claims that art criticism is in crisis are common, but perhaps few are little more than reader-boosting campaigns amid the ‘… but will you be here next week?…’ culture of public media assassination.   Clever marketeering by publishers or institutions promoting a saleable product, event or conference ask us this with relish and frequency.  I have no clear prognosis for the future of art criticism, but perhaps suspicion can be productively redirected at those who confidently claim its weakness.

Figuratively speaking, to place art criticism close to crisis is essential. In 1980, Maurice Blanchot wrote the essay ‘The Writing of the Disaster’ where, by my interpretation, he amalgamated an analysis of a literary crisis (arguably, postmodernism) with the resolution of the crisis, by identifying writing as a disaster in its most positive sense.  Like Blanchot’s writing, art can be the disaster, an enormous, important, obliterating and potentially alleviating force that – however it manifests – is horrific precisely because it moves the bedrock of what we know, working through and beyond it.  That art criticism is close to the disaster, to this crisis, is exactly where it should be.  But instead of pondering the general or metaphoric potential of art criticism’s crisis, is it more useful in this instance to extrapolate two different questions: what is the future of online art publishing, and what is the future of Circa?

Circa’s online-only status was perhaps premature but it will not be alone for long: sci-fi décors have no bookshelves.  And anyway, the most interesting current example of art publishing is not the magazines that exist in print and online, but online only. E-flux Journal was built on the foundations of its advertising mailing list, rather than amassing its mailing list from the strength of its journal.  That said, it has now consolidated the familiarity of its brand into a following of many readers due to its editors’ consistently commissioning high-quality, far-reaching criticism and by providing, rather than competing with, links to fifteen other popular international titles.  Abandoning the notion that the Internet allows for the democratization and proliferation of news provision, readers are now even more dependent on familiar mediators as agents.  Success, in the e-flux model, was achieved by promoting the title as visible and trustworthy, symbiotic qualities, and by using joined-up thinking about diversification and maximization of its resources (e-flux often produce public-facing live events and even started a New York public art library).

Circa cannot copy this model because it is starting in a different position, but in relinquishing some of the practicalities of printing and distributing paper copies, it has time to self-reflect; what is its critical agenda and scope? Which elements can remain and which might usefully change?  Critically, Circa’s copy has always been of high standard.  But I disagree with Fite-Wassilak that user-generated content is the most exciting prospect of its new online status, I think it might be the most destructive.5 Circa should think seriously about space it offers users to generate uncensored comments, and the purpose of that space it offers it. That a website might be considered ‘accessible’ on the basis of providing word-bins to throw uncensored material in is too literal to really validate.  Which is not to suggest that critics should be granted immunity, but that any counter-argument provoked by a reader might be more beneficially articulated in full, edited, and then published alongside and not below the criticism that has incited it.  This is how art criticism regenerates itself and how new critical voices are given the confidence and support to emerge.  That the editorial process be accessible is perhaps more important that the webpages themselves.  Because here, now, projected onto a screen, with two open browsers with five competing tabs apiece and three and half rolling documents, there is even more Google-brained competition for every word and inch.  And the webpage, Circa, is now your only home.

Which brings me to content.  That Circa fosters native writing talent is long established and remains necessary but that it identifies and invites critical voices from elsewhere is now vitally important. Having had a largely rewarding stint as guest editor in 2009 alongside some four non-Irish collaborators, we were left both confused and redundant by Circa’s significant bias to reviewing Irish art, however expansive that category might be.  Sarah Tuck suggests that “it might be interesting to ask what an artist from Indonesia resident in Ireland would encounter in their first serious interview in an artists publication…” and in doing so “disrupting the axiomatics of the arts, art criticism and globalization.”6 However, surely this risks reducing art to reflectors of local politics and I would ask in return, why would this artist need to be in Ireland for their view to be relevant or interesting to a reader, Irish or otherwise?  If Circa’s critical focus is on contemporary art, rather than contemporary Ireland, then its commissioning and content should reflect that.  And this might pay dividends, not only conceptually.  Circa’s paperlessness must be attributed in part to the downturn of the Irish economy.  However, if Irish art does not depend on its native economy – being viewed, acquired and reviewed in an international system of exchange – why did the magazine?  Fielding diverse critics, expanding the scope of coverage and clearly reevaluating the editorial line is something the magazine has to look forward to within this new format.

And when Circa addresses not only what makes it good, but what makes it contemporary, it might also use the techno-potentials of its new format to challenge itself as an ongoing and re-definable entity.   It need not sacrifice on content to be a useful collaborator to organizations and agencies around the country whose ongoing endeavor is to support contemporary art, and make a significant critical exchange with readers everywhere, at home, abroad, online.   And so, with optimism, perhaps the real answer to the question the magazine has asked me, is that Circa itself is the springboard on which the future of art criticism really depends.

1. Virginia Woolf, ‘Reviewing’, first published in the Hogarth Sixpenny Pamphlet Series, November 1939, republished in The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, Selected Essays: Volume Two, Penguin London, 1993.
2. George Baker suggests that criticism has failed to go beyond the mere cataloguing of these developments in search of a ‘social explanation’, because “the social forces subtending this shift have become increasingly unrepresentable.” October 104, pp. 71 – 96.
3. For that reason, I cannot imagine the benefits of defining a style to guide Circa into the future, despite enjoying Declan Long’s articulation of the ‘affirmative mode’, Circa 131, p. 8.
4. Matt Packer, Critical Fantasies, Circa 131, pp. 20 – 22.
5. Chris Fite-Wassilak, The Hope for an Open Wound, Circa 131, pp 13 – 15.
6. Sarah Tuck, Art Criticism: Disrupting or Creating Consensus, Circa 131, p. 16.