The Article, Unfinished
Thank you for publishing Barry Schwabsky’s thoughtful meditation on the role of the critic in today’s art world, “The Complete Thing, Unfinished” [March 28/April 4]. His observations about the difference between participants in, and observers of, art show how some old debates about art spectatorship—the debates animating Rousseau’s theory of theater, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle—are still very much alive. I’ll be bringing Schwabsky’s work to my seminar on aesthetics, precisely because it shows the continued vitality of a grand old debate.
highland park, ill.
Schwabsky presents a most interesting view of the status of contemporary art criticism. Allowing that critics no longer have much, if any, power in the art market, he says that he has “other responsibilities toward art.” By preserving “the critical distance of the spectator,” and thus establishing a “critical distance between art and politics,” he seeks to establish a role for his art writing. Grounding his way of thinking in a sociological analysis, he argues that he “aims to keep art unfinished” by offering interpretations which will, in turn, be supplemented by later commentary.
My critical question is what this position amounts to, particularly in the context of The Nation. To the extent that Schwabsky abandons any hope of a critical analysis, what does his political account amount to? In asking this question, I recollect that he is the successor of the most famous Nation critic, Clement Greenberg, who offered a quite different view of art and politics. In his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg looked “to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.” In this obviously very different time, what hope, if any, does Schwabsky offer for people interested in making or supporting politically critical art?
Schwabsky’s answer to the question of why we need art critics “since scientists don’t need science critics” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the progress of science. In arguing that scientists doing peer review are acting only as fellow practitioners, not as critics, he implies that peer review is the only opportunity for scientists to engage with one another’s work. He goes on to assert that unlike the art-critic-as-spectator, who realizes the artist’s work by adding a personal contribution, the scientist is not positioned to act as a “spectator” realizing the work of another scientist. This is simply not the case.
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Although there are collections of scientific instruments and technology, it is uncommon to see actual scientific “work” in a museum or gallery. This is because any scientific work, unlike most works of art, is rarely complete. Only after observations are made, experiments completed, data analyzed, and results published does the real work begin. Other scientists read, study, and interpret the results. More important, these interpretations are used to engage with the other scientist’s work, to expand it, rework it, and realize it in new (and yet still incomplete) forms. The central role of the interpretations, reworkings, and realizations of a scientific “spectator” in the process and progress of science was enshrined by Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery: Scientific hypotheses can never be proven, only supported or rejected with available data. New observations or additional experiments always are done with this contingency in mind.
In short, we scientists work as critics all the time. With apologies to Sir Isaac Newton and in the spirit of Thomas Kuhn, not only do we stand on one another’s shoulders as we work, but we are also constantly trying to cut out one another’s legs from underneath.
Aaron M. Ellison
petersham, mass. / new haven
I was greatly irritated by Schwabsky’s statement that scientists aren’t professional critics. A major role of the scientist is precisely to be a professional critic. Not only is this an essential job role, but graduate and post-graduate education stresses critical training.
Most statements that compare and contrast science and art are ridiculous, but here’s one that isn’t. Anyone who can write or speak can hang out a shingle and say they are a professional art critic. Having gone through art school, done reading on my own, and taught art and criticism, I think it’s fair to say that professional art critics don’t have to write coherent or comprehensible statements to be published. (Although Schwabsky does usually write columns that are coherent and logically consistent, in the conclusion of this unfinished one he admits he’s just bandying about ideas.)
Scientists are trained to review their peers’ work. They are trained to review papers and grants. They are trained to dissect their colleagues’ hypotheses and ongoing work. They criticize the work of their friends and enemies, of collaborators and competitors. Journals, educational institutions, foundations, and governments pay for these critical services. Review articles are published on a regular basis. While these may be compendiums of recent knowledge, they represent the authors’ own agendas and critical stance.
It is wrong to say that, because scientists act as fellow practitioners, they are not properly critics, as distinct from art critics. The article discusses Duchamp and Manet as themselves critics, and while Schwabsky privileges critics who write because they use words, he disproves his own point by championing nonverbal art that is critical of art.
As for artists who should be dismissed as critics because they were fellow practitioners who wrote, what about Vasari?
New York City
I am surprised David Carrier thinks my stance is one that “abandons any hope of critical analysis.” On the contrary, my fear would be that, misconstrued, it would condemn me to being only analytical—or maybe I should say, analytical/contemplative; in other words, condemned to being able to understand the world but not to change it. The way out, though, lies precisely in remembering that whatever art is for, it is not to do the work of politics. In most circumstances, to do politics by means of art—let alone through art criticism—is to make a big mistake. Art can be political, but it is not politics. I was just reading, in Kristin Ross’s book May ’68 and Its Afterlives, the painter Gérard Fromanger’s recollection of that moment: “Artists are no longer in their studios, they no longer work, they can’t work any more because the real is more powerful than their inventions. Naturally, they become militants, me among them.” I think the distinction to which Fromanger held even during the most fraught political conjuncture of his life, between being an artist and being a militant—or perhaps, let’s say, an activist—is still valid, and I distrust the effort to erase the boundary. But there is a parallel between art and politics, which is that in both cases one is trying to realize something incalculable, a reordering of things, and to do so means producing the very space in which to think and to act.
As for the difference between art and science, no one appears to dispute that, but it seems I was unclear about what that means for criticism. Aaron M. Ellison believes that I see no role for a scientist “to act as a ‘spectator’ realizing the work of another scientist.” In fact, what I meant to say was that only a scientist could take this role—that there is no place in science for someone like me, a nonpractitioner who plays a liminal role by reflecting back to the practitioner the contribution of the receiver. Artists work as critics of other artists just as scientists work as critics of other scientists, but nonartists have a role in art that nonscientists don’t have in science, and this is because of the peculiar ontology (if a nonphilosopher may use the word) of the artwork. That’s why it’s absolutely true, for better or worse, that “Anyone who can write or speak can hang out a shingle and say they are a professional art critic,” to quote Michael Cammer (and for much the same reason that anyone can try to become an artist). Well, maybe not a professional—for that to be an accurate label, you have to be persuasive enough to get someone to pay you, an ever more difficult proposition these days—but a critic nonetheless. Even artists can do it; it’s just that being one is not a requirement. I’m glad that Robert Archambeau, at least, understood what I was getting at. As a notable poet/critic, he’s a perfect example of how one person can take on both roles.
new york city