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.