A Critic’s Job of Work

A Critic’s Job of Work

I don’t see my job as making or breaking an artist. I have other responsibilities toward art.


Art was no part of my milieu when I was growing up; nor was art criticism. I must have first heard tell of that profession in the movies. I dimly recall watching a horror film about the enmity between an artist who declares “I live by my hand!” and a critic whose motto is “I live by my eye!” After the critic murders the artist, a pair of disembodied hands takes revenge by tearing out his eyes.

Yet I remember, too, the grade-school art teacher who showed us reproductions of works by Matisse and Picasso. When I made a crayon drawing of some downhill skiers—I’d never seen a ski slope any more than I’d met an art critic—she praised my decision to have one of the skiers cut off by the bottom edge of the paper. She thought this very sophisticated. I didn’t understand what the big deal was. That was probably my first practical experience of art criticism, and it made me at least nebulously aware that what someone sees in a picture isn’t necessarily just what its maker meant to put there.

Many years later, I learned of Marcel Duchamp’s view, usually paraphrased as “The viewer completes the work.” It’s a dictum I repeat regularly. What Duchamp proposed was that “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” I suspect that he did not know—nor did I, until after I was already familiar with Duchamp’s idea—that Walt Whitman had much earlier declared that “the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.”

It was thus Duchamp and Whitman who gave me a ready answer to an artist friend who once challenged me with a piercing question: “Why do we need art critics?” After all, she continued, “scientists don’t need science critics. Why is art any different?” And it’s true: There are no science critics. Yes, scientists doing a peer review are acting as judges of their fellow scientists’ work, but only in a sense: They are acting as fellow practitioners, not as critics. Science is not founded on a compact between maker and receiver. The art critic, however, formalizes and deliberately exemplifies the role of the spectator who realizes the artist’s work—not by leaving it just as it is, but by adding something to it, making a personal contribution.

If the art critic is, as I say, the self-appointed representative of the spectator whose existence is essential to art’s own, then the validity of the critic’s role ought to be assured. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It is not, as might have been true at times in the past, that the critic is too powerful, figuratively murdering with his eye the poor artist trying to live by his hand. Instead—or so one gathers from all the recent articles and symposia on the crisis of art criticism—the critic seems to be losing all influence. The overheated, ever-expanding art market on the one hand, and the explosive growth in the number of big international public exhibitions on the other, have rendered the critic’s aesthetic judgment superfluous. The critic no longer has the power to participate in forming a consensus of value; somewhere above his or her head, the collectors and curators are doing that. The critic can either tag along or get left behind.

There’s some truth to this story of the critic being superseded by collectors and curators. While the latter two have different roles and motivations, what they share is the command of material resources (private in one case, often public in the other) that can help chosen artists produce their work, make a living, and gain exposure and reputation. Critics have only words at their disposal—­literally so, more and more, as the transformation of publishing by the Internet has made it ever harder for writers and journalists of any description to earn a living. And in the global economy of recent decades, with its relentless upward redistribution of wealth, money talks louder than ever, drowning out other forms of exchange.

* * *

I have to admit that the critic’s loss of power doesn’t worry me much. I don’t see my job as mainly that of making or breaking artists’ reputations, or of informing collectors or curators what they ought to buy or exhibit. If they don’t listen to me, fine; I have other responsibilities toward art. The meaning of a work is finally independent of its price and its exhibition history, because its meaning is made and remade by anyone prepared to formulate a contribution to the creative act already embodied in it.

If there is a crisis in art criticism, it has to do instead with an inner transformation in the nature of art itself. What if art no longer requires a public—that is, someone like the active spectator Duchamp spoke about? That would be a conundrum, for the critic would no longer have a position from which to evaluate art. It’s not impossible, and it’s not even a new idea: Back in 1966, for example, Allan Kaprow called for “the elimination of the audience”—for participation rather than a merely “empathic response.” In recent years, in great part as a result of their revulsion toward the financialization and globalization of art, more and more artists have been taking this idea seriously, avoiding the audience and instead working only with participants, with collaborators and communities. Nicolas Bourriaud, in his landmark book Relational Aesthetics, quoted Félix Guattari’s question: “How can you bring a classroom to life as though it were an artwork?” As it turns out, the question for many artists is a bit different: How can you turn an artwork into a classroom? Whether this would be worth doing isn’t my concern; but to succeed in so doing, which would eliminate the disinterested public, would also eliminate any role for the critic. A subjective response from a participant would lack the sense of spectatorial distance essential to criticism, while an objective account would not be criticism but reportage.

As for me, I still prefer Duchamp’s model of the spectator who, through his or her distance from the artist’s creative act, nonetheless makes an independent contribution to it. I don’t think the idea is original to Duchamp or even to Whitman; it was implicit in the practice of great critics like Diderot and Baudelaire. It’s not just that I like my job and want to keep it; I also think the critical distance of the spectator is in itself worth preserving and developing. And my experience tells me that a great deal of art is still being made with this kind of viewer in mind.

I tend to think of the critic as a perpetual guest, to recall the title of an essay I published in these pages several years ago. If ours is the age of an art world dominated as never before by market forces, of biennials that are ostensibly immune to the vagaries of the art market but in fact are promoted as part of the global tourism industry, then the critic seems to be in the art world but not of it—a guest at the party who is there on sufferance, contributing much less to the art world’s functioning than once was the case. Really, I sometimes think the critic is welcome just because he’s been on the scene for so long that, even if few can quite remember how he got there, it seems more trouble than it’s worth to eject him. Besides, his occasional malicious comments can be witty and entertaining.

My sense of being a perpetual guest also reflects my role as the art critic for a publication whose focus is on political and social as well as cultural issues. Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor and publisher of the lively magazine Jacobin, recently told an interviewer:

We generally try to avoid cultural content. To the extent we do cover culture, it’s mass culture. So we’ll run something about the latest Planet of the Apes movie or the latest Superman movie, covering mass culture in a way that’s reminiscent of Michael Gold—my favorite Stalinist writer of the 1930s. Our cultural content is intentionally very directly political, very polemical. But we’d never cover an opera or a play, or avant-garde culture.

If I were editing a political magazine, I might do as Sunkara does, wanting (as he says) to “make sure there’s a political take-away for people who aren’t particularly interested in culture for its own sake.” But this is exactly the opposite of what I try to do for The Nation. I want readers who are not primarily interested in art to understand, among other things, why an art made submissive to politics is no better than what Walter Benjamin called an “aestheticized politics.” The relative autonomy of the two domains is conducive to the health of both.

So, instead of trying to find a political angle from which to write about art, I let the critical distance between art and politics—or between my writing and its context—display itself. The writing reflects, and sometimes reflects on, its not-quite-at-homeness. I work from within—within the particular artwork, within the history and conventions of art as a whole—to find the edges where art, as Duchamp said, comes “in contact with the external world.”

Perhaps the profound connection between art and politics rests in each being essentially unfinished and unfinishable. To say “The viewer completes the work” is to believe that the work can never be completed because, as long as it still has life in it, others will always be making their own contribution to its ideal future. There are those who plausibly maintain that in our second Gilded Age, in which art has become one more “asset class” in a portfolio of investments, one more lifestyle ornament for the latest cohort of robber barons (now the titans of finance rather than industry), the only conscionable position is a withdrawal of one’s labor—to renounce art and the art world. But I’m not ready to give up on art. The obscure needs it fulfills, the imaginative doors it opens, are not entirely at the disposal of the objects’ owners.

* * *

Much of today’s art, in appearance, is entirely unlike that of centuries past, or even that of 50 years ago. Where once “art” meant pictures and statues, usually with edifying religious or mythological stories attached, now, after abstraction, the ready-made, and conceptualism, it seems that art can be embodied by almost anything—or next to nothing. For some, the lesson would be that a clean break has been made: that art has reinvented itself from scratch, and that criticism should do the same. I would argue otherwise. Art as we see it today is the outcome of a cultural shift that’s been a long time in the making, and slow to reveal all its implications. Around the middle of the 19th century—not accidentally, in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848—­various European artists, mostly French, among them Édouard Manet, began to believe that the self-proclaimed guardians and continuers of tradition were, in fact, its gravediggers. The tradition had to be rescued—and in the process, reinvented. Church and court, the institutions that had sustained art for centuries, were no longer relevant; art had been thrown upon the tender mercies of the market. How would it manage to thrive in this unfamiliar situation? Art could no longer address its public from a position of borrowed authority. Its only authority would be its own aesthetic validity, of which there could be no final judge. Art and its public—perhaps, now, its consumers—would have to meet on a plane of equality. And neither its subjects nor its forms could be specified (or excluded) in advance.

Although new institutions like museums and schools of contemporary art now claim to anchor art in a secure consensus, they’ve hardly attained the authority once enjoyed by church and court. And it’s hard not to hear a different institution—the art market, which has flourished so fearsomely in recent decades—ventriloquizing as they make their pronouncements. No more today than in Manet’s time can aesthetic judgments be anything but contentious. And no more today than in Manet’s time can we hope to understand the art of the present by forgetting, as Zola wrongly imagined, everything learned in the museum in order to somehow see things as they really are. What Manet knew is that in order to represent the present, the art of the past could not be forgotten; instead, it would have to be reimagined. And it would have to be reimagined as not finished, not complete, and therefore not sealed away in the past; rather, it would have to be reimagined as radically unfinished, and for that very reason operative in the present.

It might be true that Duchamp changed everything, and that we have to understand the philosophical status of the art object differently having come to know his work. But as I suggested in an essay on Velázquez as “a painter of our time,” Duchamp’s peregrinations around the idea of the object are not alien to those of the 17th-century painter. Those who see Duchamp—or Warhol, or whoever—as marking an absolute break with the art of the past represent the latest way of betraying the past, which, as Benjamin wrote, has a secret appointment with the present. This betrayal doesn’t try to freeze history in place by formulating its dictates as a set of rules, as the old academies did, but by imagining that it’s possible to cut loose from the past—a misinterpretation of the modernist avant-gardes that would condemn us to a kind of historical provincialism, denying us any perspective on the present. It’s not for nothing that Manet’s favorite painter was Velázquez, whom he reimagined as his contemporary.

I try to open up such perspectives without, I hope, belaboring them. Although each of my essays is a separate undertaking, the recurrent themes that thread their way through them and add up to a single developing project are probably only discernible when they’re read together. But this is not to say that gathering them in one place ties up all the threads and knots them into a conclusion. My writing aims to keep art unfinished, and for that reason has to stay somewhat fragmentary in its turn.

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