Art Criticism and Obsolescence

This is a shorter version of an essay written in 2002 as part of an academic project (unpublished). The state of art criticism has been an on-going concern. Art Criticism is also my subject in an Internet article and in a Book Review published in Artefact, No. 5 (2011), pp. 91-94.

October 100b


To mark the hundredth issue of the journal October the editors organized a Round Table discussion titled, “The Present Conditions of Art Criticism.” Round Table discussions are nothing new in October; since Issue 100 in 2002 these have formed a regular part of October’s presentation for well over a decade. What was new was that this is the first time in October’s twenty-six year history that art criticism had appeared as a subject, much less as an issue which warranted use of the word ‘crisis.’ Since October’s original project was to precisely “raise the level of the discourse of art criticism,” (“Introduction” to October 100, p. 3), this seems all the more remarkable. Moreover, by the time October had got around finally to discussing the terms of its own project it is with the acknowledgement that, very possibly, the moment at which it had commanded considerable influence over these matters had passed. So, what are these conditions that have prompted such exceptional action? Typical of most group discussions destined for publication, it is cast between the formality of structured argument and the informality of conversation. It is planned so that several issues or positions are signalled in a kind of shorthand; there is scope rather than depth; and the published version is without the expansiveness, sustained argument and unifying order of the authored essay. The effect may be intended to draw attention precisely to gaps and lack of continuity—to limitations and different means of identification, and to various modes of practice and understanding as represented by the various participants. Such an effect may serve to emphasise that the nature of “present conditions” are problematic. At any rate, such an interpretation is a useful enough point of departure for a study in art criticism.

Here I will examine October’s Round Table discussion in order to trace premises, practices and issues within art criticism. By so doing an area that is effectively a tradition within art criticism will be identified. As such, I will make reference to the sense of ‘crisis’ among some of those engaged in and with art critical practices.1 I will identify individuals participating in this Round Table who represent roles and institutions within the art world which to a greater or lesser extent have a vested interest in art criticism: writers, obviously, but also artists, dealers, galleries and museums, and universities. The purpose is not to re-present October’s edited representation of a discussion on art criticism but to draw out again some of the difficulties and perplexities that are partially articulated therein. In so doing this tracking and re-drawing of the October discussion will assume more authorial coherence, hopefully in order to provide more stress on the context of the issues discussed. Nevertheless, the nature of “the present conditions of art criticism” much less art criticism’s ‘crisis,’ remains a matter of interpretation and evaluation. This essay is therefore an interpretation of, and an intervention in, a set of evaluations about which there may be said to be general agreement—despite differences over particulars—amongst the participants at the Round Table.

First though it will be helpful to identify the names, professional designations, and concerns of these participants, not only to locate points of view, agreements and differences but to establish the institutional frameworks which will to some extent shape the way they will interpret and represent ‘art criticism.’ Factored into such formats is that each will be representative to some extent of an institution or an area of knowledge or expertise, specifically or abstractly, negatively or positively, and at best the discussion will have the potential to transcend the reductive nature of such representation. That said, this Round Table has four (out of the current ten) October editors in the line-up and in this the representation acquires a further dimension: these four are not only commenting as participant-observers on “the present conditions of art criticism,” they have also management responsibility in implementing policies or decisions on what is published or not published in the organ that is October 2 There is an additional responsibility in shaping the direction of a flagship journal which directly affects the work submitted to it, and which in turn affect “the present conditions of art criticism.” The 100th issue is a special issue under the theme “Obsolescence” which will, as far as this Round Table is concerned, involve an unprecedented public display of self-reflexivity—a principle the editors have often recommended to artists. Obsolescence will have a more complex inference than its common meaning would suggest. “Obsolescence,” according to the editorial in October 100, will take in Walter Benjamin’s concept of “outmoded” in its liberating potential to offer “a point of view outside what some see as the totalizing ambitions of each new technological order” (“Introduction,” October 100, p. 3). The editorial specifies their awareness that the original project—to raise the level of the discourse of art criticism—may have been overtaken by “sound-bite-level media,” which permeates both art and criticism. The conditions for the possibility of critique in both are thereby diminished. Critique was the foundation connecting (certain) art and October criticism since the latter’s inception: here, ‘art’ involves institutional, social or political critique, and ‘art criticism’ expands on the implications of art’s deconstructions or interventions. Now critique is acknowledged to be endangered or even shattered.

The four October editors will have differences over how they see or articulate the present conditions of criticism but there appears to be general agreement on the issue of the expansion of the culture industry and its effects on criticism, if not on the nature and position of art criticism itself. Of the four, Benjamin Buchloh is most identified with his analysis of the culture industry. Buchloh has made the power and lure of the culture industry and art’s resistance to it a central feature of his writing for the past two decades. In this he has drawn from critical theory. Next there is Hal Foster whose work over the same period has explored similar issues on the conditions of art. However, Rosalind Krauss, one of the Founding Editors, has never been persuaded by ‘political art.’ Her work has concentrated on a post-Greenbergian analysis of the language(s) of art and the construction of meaning through its context, but she acknowledges political issues in the ways in which art is produced and consumed. In the Round Table she offers examples of the continued expansion of commodity culture into the traditional territory of art criticism, though she stops short of extending an analysis within the explanatory framework of critical theory. The fourth editor, George Baker, is new to the October setup and is of a younger generation, a point that has more potency in this situation than seems at face value. He agrees with the general prognosis but is more relaxed about negotiating specific contexts, and sees art and criticism in less fundamentalist terms.

As for the others, who comprise the majority at the Round Table, they represent an art world triumvirate of artists, curators and writers. All, however, have a particular interest in criticism. Helen Molesworth and Robert Storr are curators who write about art; Andrea Fraser and John Miller are artists who are also involved with criticism, or in Fraser’s case with ‘institutional critique.’ Lastly, James Meyer and David Joselit are art historians, though Joselit has adopted the more open-ended designation of, “visual studies.” It is not just Meyer and Joselit who form an academic contingent at the Round Table, for the October editors are themselves members. The “academy” (an oft-used word in October terminology to signify ossification) is a relatively rarefied environment compared to the critic’s traditional territory which is, as it were, on the front line between art and the public. A theoretical projection between the university and the public is repeated on a number of occasions during the discussion, a matter which will be of no small importance in considering the art criticism that is of concern to the panel.

As well as identifying those involved it will be useful to provide an overview of some of the questions at issue. Several oppositions are at work. There is art criticism then and now: Baker’s opening gambit is the state of criticism in the 1960s compared to the present and, by and large, the rest of the discussion is the extent and depth of changes. There are underlying questions such as, what is criticism, or what is good criticism? Some of the participants will offer their views with reference to what criticism is not, as well as what it should be. The popular art criticism that is circulating at the moment of the Round Table is seen as little more than surface appeal compared to the art criticism October aspires to. Other questions on the agenda include: is there any consensus left on the nature of criticism, or, is ‘art criticism’ now lacking identity? Has interdisciplinary writing swamped the traditional domain of art criticism, and is that domain a thing of the past anyway? Is what we understand ‘art criticism’ to be, either in the singular or in the plurality of ‘its’ practices, obsolete? Or, are there examples of art criticism that can be demonstrated to be useful to specific audiences? Does art criticism pursue theory, or is it sufficient that criticism operate at local levels? There is also the question of art criticism’s relation to art history: where is the border, is there a border? Then there is art criticism’s relation to the gallery and museum: has the advent of the curator as major player on the art scene usurped the traditional role of the critic in promoting emerging art? There is also of course the question of criticism’s relationship to art: does criticism act as an aid to artists, does it help articulate, and is there a necessity for dialogue between art and criticism? The flip-side of the last question is, why is there so little dialogue happening at this present moment?

If the questions above are ultimately philosophical questions, they are provoked in part by an underside to the discussion: commodity capitalism and its apparent continuing incursion into the more rarefied realms of contemporary art and criticism. This is not seen as yet another replay of Greenberg’s opposition to the forces of mass production (Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”). Here one is imbricated in the other for art and capital are no longer seen in oppositional terms. Today, capital is not simply the business of the managers of the art institutions, it is seen to involve the modes of art production and reception as well. If avant-garde art was once seen as resistance to capital, now the post-neo-avantgarde is seen as an intrinsic sector of the market-place in luxury goods. ‘Criticism’ therefore becomes part of the advertising machinery of capital.

It will be useful also to say something about the October context itself. It is clear from past evidence that the October editorship does not subscribe to the view that criticism is merely a response to art as critics find it; neither is it the critic’s business to prescribe particular forms of art. On the contrary, from the outset October set itself a mission of transforming the conditions of American art criticism of the mid-1970s. October’s original editorial of 1976 is explicit on the editors’ ambitions for art criticism, (“About October,October 1, pp. 3-5). This is followed through in the late 1970s with several articles articulating the changes that, as editors and writers, they are both witnessing and helping to produce. The actual number of artists promoted in October’s early years is relatively small. Some were already established artists, for example, Robert Morris (Morris “Fragments” October 3 ) and Robert Smithson (Craig Owens “Earthwords” October 10 ). A few emerging artists were represented. Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman are two artists who were identified with postmodernism (Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October 7 ). A summary of the October philosophy may be stated as follows: The only contemporary art worth proper critical attention is art which engages with the critical issues of our times, (art that is in a specific avant-garde tradition, or is in the October postmodernist frame). Therefore the functions of advanced art, and the art criticism which properly and adequately addresses it, have the same ultimate goal, the transformation of existing conditions. By definition this agenda is much more ambitious than the pedestrian and conservative art criticism which serves the mainstream media and in the more mainstream art media. However, the intervening decades have witnessed a breakdown of such straightforward oppositions. It is no longer taken for granted that any art of the present has the critical tendency that helped propel the October agenda in its early years and, while one can write criticism exhorting artists to produce critical art, there comes a point where the failure must come down to art criticism as well; this is acknowledged in October 100. But since art and art criticism are so closely aligned in the October schema they are still not singled out for separate treatment. Just as the original October mission was to critique the art and art criticism of modernism so it is with conditions now, albeit this time, October itself is implicated in producing those conditions. Unlike the early October, Issue 100 is much more circumspect about proclaiming the future; the ‘crisis’ of the present conditions can be no longer identified by the opposition of modernism and postmodernism.

The Round Table is generally agreed about the changed conditions since 1976. [Buchloh: “We all agree, major changes have happened on every level,” (p. 220).]3 However, the separation of causes from symptoms is not straightforward and may not be even possible. And yet there is one opposition that runs throughout, an opposition which represents the general context of the discussion. This is the continued growth of the strategies and practices of capital versus the strategies and resistances of the likes of October, or, as it is now cast as “obsolescence” or “outmodedness.” The latter terms represent art criticism as critical practice, while the ‘criticism’ situated in the former is referred to as “‘sound-bite’ criticism,” (p. 216), or as “D.J. culture,” (p. 218). There is a presumption that readers will know what critical practice entails in this context, that October’s readership can be “people like us,” (p. 209). At any rate, a few of those who are not “people like us” will be identified during the course of the discussion. Rosalind Krauss begins her input with reference to the way she feels critical practice has been squeezed out of the processes by which art is disseminated. She points out that where once art criticism was part of the way new art entered into the discourses of art, and these discourses formed the arena of legitimation, now it seems that all an artist need do is show work at galleries—that this in itself is how reputations are now established, (p. 202).

The implication is that there is no longer any mediation between art and the market, that dealers with the assistance of the art magazines which depend on gallery advertising for revenue, now have free reign over the promotion and distribution of art. The implication is made more emphatic by Benjamin Buchloh who argues the particular point but sets it in a larger context:

Once the traditional assumption that artistic practices supposedly generate a critical if not a utopian dimension of experience had withered away, we were left with a sense of the primacy of institutional and economic interests. The judgment of the critic is voided by the curator’s organizational access to the apparatus of the culture industry (e.g., the international biennials and group shows) or by the collector’s immediate access to the object in the market or at auction. (p. 202)

Buchloh suggests the connection between art and criticism, as critical endeavour, is endangered, and art criticism is marginalized or extinguished:

Criticism, as a voice that had traditionally been independent of both institutions and markets and that had mediated the various segments of the public sphere of avant-garde culture, was obviously the first thing to go (and the traditional functions of the museum were the next). (p. 202)

The original Victorian concept of the museum was that the general public should have access to art and culture in order to serve educational and aesthetically enriching functions. While the principle of giving the public the art and culture the ruling classes deemed appropriate is now questionable, it is the decline of a public sphere, the sphere which holds out the possibility of public exchange, which Buchloh is first and foremost complaining about.

Since this is an issue which is fundamental to the Round Table discussion, it is worth considering the kind of example Buchloh might have in mind. The decline of the traditional functions of the museum might be said to have been well encapsulated back in the late 1980s in Britain with an advertising slogan created for the Victoria and Albert Museum by the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising company. The slogan the company famously created, “an ace café with quite a nice museum attached,” knowingly refers to the culture in which the contemporary museum must be seen to offer consumer attractions if it is deemed by governments and media alike to be a desirable place for the modern public to visit, indeed frequent.4 The irony is that not only is Charles Saatchi a collector, dealer and then trustee of the V&A, his company’s slogan collapses two sets of values into one. There is the sign of consumerism whereby the advertisement uses the café as its motif, (the use of the museum’s shop doesn’t encapsulate the desired lifestyle image). This suggests style, way of life not commerce but the intent is the same since the café projects the sort of affluence that accrues from first world capitalism. While there is identification with the urban fashion that was an aspiration in Thatcher’s Britain, there is also a ‘knowing’ recognition that it is the product of a society in which the museum must conform to commercial demands yet somehow represent higher artistic and cultural values. However, these are now imaged so as to comfortably co-exist as a style-statement; or rather, the higher artistic and cultural values come as part of the package if subsumed into café culture.

For Hal Foster much of what now passes as art criticism is of similar ilk: “Many critics write in open identification with their constituencies,” (p. 213). For Buchloh this is precisely the sort of example that typifies the materialism of current attitudes, and is something that serious criticism should critique with all the weight of critical theory. The forces of capital require theoretical critique. Yet the issue within the Round Table is no longer one of straightforward opposition to these commercial values which have long assumed prominence in and through the art institutions. There is the probability that the broad art public is no longer interested in such theoretical debates as the nature and power of the culture industry and how it should be dealt with. In response to the same commercial demands ‘art criticism’ itself has become quick, easy, accessible; ‘sound-bite’ criticism has become the order of the day. One example cited in the discussion is Artforum. Where back in the late 1960s and early 1970s Artforum was not only the must-read magazine for the American art world, it also offered serious, in-depth criticism. Now it offers short, snappy general-magazine-style tasters on art world events and promotional articles on artists. The problem for October does not stop there because art too is implicated. Taking another British phenomenon from the 1990s as an example, David Joselit suggests that in the case of the so-called ‘young British artists,’ it was the popular and not the serious press who made the decisive moves in bringing these artists to public attention, (p. 203). There is a further rejoinder to Joselit’s comment which is that the yBas colluded with and eventually addressed the popular, not the ‘serious,’ press, that in fact the art press was by-passed as much by the artists themselves—with no small degree of help from their dealers—as by the popular press. While in the past critics were reluctant to be seen to accuse artists of being primarily interested in the pursuit of cheap publicity, Joselit’s general point regarding the ‘young British artists’ and the popular press is well taken.

When one looks in more detail a more complex picture emerges. In the late 1990s the ‘young British artists’ (a Saatchi derived nomenclature) helped propel the Tate Gallery’s annual Turner Prize to a chosen artist to unprecedented levels of media attention within Britain because one or other were invariably included in the annual short-list. But equally it can be argued that it was the platform of the Turner Prize that helped provide the media focal point for the yBas. It is after all the Tate’s showcase event and is intensively promoted, all the more so during these years with the sponsorship of Channel Four television which meant that the annual award ceremony was shown live on prime-time T.V. It is most certainly the case that during the late 1990s the Turner Prize event was of mutual benefit to both the yBas and the Tate Gallery. The promotion involved two British establishments, The Tate and Channel Four, keen to change their elitist image in an age when political, social and cultural interests dictate that public institutions broaden their constituencies. In this the collaboration perhaps reached its zenith at the 1999 Turner Prize when the Channel Four presenter of the event, the art critic Matthew Collings, fully embraced the yBa approach to publicity. Collings, who made no secret of his associations with the yBa, broke with precedent whereby the art critic ‘explains’ modern art to the public, with a further level of collaboration between artist and critic. The culmination of a short film made for the Turner Prize event on one of the short-listed artists (contestants?), Tracey Emin, was a panning shot of Emin at the head of a dancing group making their way down an urban street mimicking the opening scene from the John Travolta starring film Saturday Night Fever in which the Bee Gee song Staying Alive is soundtrack. The pastiche is two-fold: not only is this art following popular culture but in the lead-up to the Turner Prize ceremony Emin was attacked in the popular press for her Bed installation, the centre-piece of her installation at the Tate. Bed was deemed by one tabloid to be the aftermath of a casualty of a drug overdose, not ‘art.’ The Staying Alive routine was the literal and metaphoric response. The original film follows the fortunes of the Travolta character’s career from store assistant to successful dancer, while Emin’s mimicry also references her earlier video, Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995). Naturally, all of this garnered more publicity, adding to the media entertainment circuit. The ramifications of these simulated identifications require greater consideration than are examined here, but there is one final example from the film. Immediately after the Staying Alive sequence Collings’s film cuts to a betting shop, ostensibly to find out what the odds are on the winner of the 1999 Turner Prize. This is perhaps most suggestive of the nature of the presentation as a sort of art-house in-joke. The shift in sequence is supposed to represent a break in the simulation, a break directed out to the common public. That common public, however, appears only with reference to the betting odds. The ‘public’ is thus represented in the terms of speculative capitalism which indeed reflects the Turner Prize: critical judgement is more akin to a punt.

While it is relatively easy to find examples of capital’s apparent incursion into the art world all of which would support Buchloh’s conclusions, it is not so easy to prove that art criticism per se has changed as a direct or indirect result. Where it is possible to undertake an empirical analysis of an art institution such as the museum and demonstrate change by reference to policy papers, etc., this is not sustainable with such a nebulous practice as ‘art criticism.’ Art criticism is not an object of study as such: obviously, it is not an institution, neither is it a discipline (i.e. something that is codified within the institutions), nor is there any general consensus about its definition or how or where it might operate. In a Wittgensteinian sense it is without a common property though there are family resemblances. However as an art-world institution of sorts, October has partly produced and occupied one understanding of art criticism as this has evolved over its past twenty-six years, but that understanding is now perceived to be in jeopardy from without and from within the art world itself—capital is not only something alien that erodes from the outside. As Buchloh sees it, “the crisis of criticism itself is a result of a larger institutional and social crisis that we have been discussing in various aspects,” (p. 224).

Once, October’s position was generally perceived to be critical and on the cutting edge of advanced art.5 Now the editors themselves acknowledge October has slipped into what they see as an archaeology of the field of modern art, (p. 227). Both Buchloh and Foster have come to the conclusion that the original mission is at an end, and as Foster says, “I agree that we need to reclaim (October’s ) critical function; I just don’t know if we can,” (p. 227). These are writers who earlier have shown no doubt as to what the critical function is, but who now identify that as past and either look to others for possibilities or look to the prospect of a shift of paradigm in the kind of art criticism they helped to produce. This will involve an examination of aspects of the history of the past generation (they are not concerned with meta-theory) and an examination of the practices and strategies of a more recent generation—or at least those of the new generation who are interested in carrying on the critical tradition embodied in October in some other ways. While art criticism is not an object of study as such, there is a history or histories of recent ‘advanced art’ which holds a close relationship with “advanced criticism” (p. 211) and, in some cases, there was direct dialogue. An obvious example is the minimalists some of whom wrote on their own art, critiqued other art, and had exchanges with critics including Rosalind Krauss. In this way the particular legacies of critics such as Krauss, Buchloh and Foster are already inscribed in the discourses of art history as well as the discourses of postmodernism and are subject to examination. Most of the other participants at the Round Table—the exception is Storr—are of that younger generation who are perhaps deemed to be more representative of a present moment, but who hopefully can come to embody a future or futures: “It is naïve to look for a single solution. I don’t think that is possible anymore,” (p. 228).

If this art criticism is not reducible to or governed by its own methodologies, it is nevertheless bound to artistic practices. Buchloh says it is “the secondary discursive text” in relation to those practices (p. 205), a traditional view of the role of criticism that Matthew Collings has forsaken in his collaborative work with yBas. Yet for all the apparent absence of methodology the Round Table, surprisingly, gives priority to the first principle of modernist art criticism since its emergence in the late nineteenth century. The trajectory by which judgement came to be regarded as the highest principle of criticism can be traced back to the discipline of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy. Since the eighteenth century questions of the ‘aesthetic’ and of ‘beauty’ had taxed philosophers: how and why did some objects fall into the category of art while other objects did not? In the immediate post- Second World War period a view emerged within Anglo-American analytical philosophy to the effect that by attempting to find the ‘aesthetic,’ either in the object or in the beholder of the object, philosophers were looking in the wrong places. An alternative is that the ‘aesthetic’ may be demonstrated by examining how language on art is actually used in specific situations. This anti-essentialism within philosophy involved a turn to criticism as the object of inquiry since critics use aesthetic language in their discourses on works of art. Criticism was thought to involve two important functions, acts of interpretation and acts of evaluation or judgement. Interpretation is other than mere description since description alone cannot correspond to the possible meaning of the work of art—the sum of the artwork amounts to more than its parts. Interpretation was therefore thought to be necessary to critical discourse even while interpretations are always provisional: it is impossible to arrive at a final interpretation of the work of art since an interpretation cannot be finally demonstrated. It was also apparent that works of art undergo constant reinterpretation not only from critic to critic but according to time and place. Where interpretation was in large measure provisional, judgement was understood to require the critic to exercise a standard that was in some measure objective. While the grounds of judgement are not subject to proof in any scientific sense, the critic’s reasoned argument in support of his or her judgement is something which can be assessed. The critic, then, develops reasons within his or her argument even while the exercise of such criteria is not absolute and varies according to the conditions of art and of taste.

This was the dominant view which fed into formalist criticism in the post- Second World War period, most particularly Clement Greenberg’s art criticism where judgement was segregated from other critical functions and elevated to a state of unparalleled purity. The impact on art criticism was positively one of greater rigour, a rigour which the likes of Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss have paid tribute to, but by the 1960s the critical functions of interpretation and judgement were often pedantically followed as the rules of criticism. It is the collapse of this orthodoxy of method and purpose that has plagued art criticism in the intervening decades. Above all else it is the concept of judgement which has been eroded since the height of Greenberg’s influence on American art and criticism in the 1950s. As Joselit points out, “Traditionally (criticism’s) function has been to judge or to parse. …but what is hard to maintain today is criticism as a mode of judgment that carries weight,” (p. 203). In the mid-1960s the minimalists critiqued the Greenbergian insistence on aesthetic quality as the absolute criterion of modernist art. As far as Donald Judd, Robert Morris and others associated with minimalism were concerned, the formalist critic’s ‘eye’ for quality was no more than an appeal for an idealized viewer; it ignored the specificities of time and place. In avant-garde terms it was also seriously outmoded in its belief in quality as somehow inherent. Instead, minimalist work prioritized the real time experience of the encounter with the artwork in ways that were antithetical to the formalist canon. It was upon this that subsequent waves of American, neo-avant-garde art were based, as was much advanced art for the succeeding two decades.

While critics such as Fried and Krauss were protégés of Greenberg, in philosophical terms their early art criticism owed much to Phenomenology. In this they were more concerned with the conditions in which an encounter with art occurs than with judgement as an absolute act. Indeed it was largely over the interpretation and meaning of minimalism that differences between Fried and Krauss became manifest, Fried adapting Greenberg’s canon while Krauss pursued a more conditional art criticism which coincides with her support of post-minimalist art. Her increasing reaction against formalism contributed to her co-founding of October and her adoption of French, post-phenomenological philosophy, now loosely and better known as post-structuralist theory. Important too was a growing awareness that Modernism wasn’t the single historical path that followers of formalism often made it out to be. For example, by the 1960s Duchampian traditions in avant-garde art assumed greater significance than hitherto in the pantheon of twentieth century art history. The Duchamp influence undermined the primacy of the quality issue with greater emphasis on the critique of art institutions or the power structures through which certain objects come to be accepted as ‘art.’ Judgement as to whether an artwork is good or bad came to be seen as of much less importance than the prior question of why something is deemed to be art at all.

It was feminism, however, which launched the most devastating critique of ‘aesthetic quality.’ In the early 1970s there were activist protests over the near exclusion of women from positions of power within the art institutions, as well as the extremely poor representation of women artists in galleries and museums. While the protests of the women’s movement of the early 1970s were relatively straightforward with the demand for ‘equality’ with men in terms of opportunity and representation, by the late 1970s feminism had evolved a more theoretical reappraisal of the cultural, social and political structures. The feminist critique extended to many sectors of western society. In art many feminist artists developed theory-based practices, while art historians such as Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock produced art historical texts which challenged the modernist exclusion of women artists. Among the questions which drove these texts was why were women artists not considered for a place in the canons of artistic greatness. But more than straightforward exclusion, the criteria themselves contributed to the perpetuation of the patriarchal system. Where feminism in the early 1970s was modestly seeking a role for women within the established structures, the structures themselves later came in for severe criticism. ‘Aesthetic quality’ was seen as an a-historical category that masked the gendered interests of those who created it.

In the late 1970s October published a number of essays which articulated changes in attitude about art, criticism and theory and their relations. These shifts were named as ‘postmodernism,’ which in turn came to be understood as a more general shift in cultural production and attitude. Within this ‘postmodern turn,’ the modernist category of the ‘aesthetic’ was castigated in for example Hal Foster’s use of the term “anti-aesthetic,” in the title of a book he edited in 1983 which rapidly became the seminal postmodernist text.6 Yet, however much the equation between judgement and aesthetic quality was reviled it was not something easily relegated to the dust-bin. For modernist criticism it was the ultimate justification for the existence of the critic; without it the critic may be said to engage in what are merely minor functions. The modernist critic had acquired the voice of authority on matters of quality, but once that authority is challenged and, simultaneously, evaporates away through change in art world power formations, the role itself becomes redundant. It is this combination of internal and external factors that the October editors now believe confronts them.

Buchloh puts it bluntly, “you don’t need criticism for an investment structure, you need experts,” (p. 202). Where in the early twentieth century art criticism was conceived along the lines of an individual encounter with the artwork, with the enormous expansion of art institutions particularly since post- Second World War reconstruction, the individuating of the experience of the artwork is often castigated as too exclusive, as too privileged. This is made more acute because, unlike conditions at the turn of the twentieth century which witnessed the birth of the avant-garde and modernist art criticism, gallery and museum art is now portrayed in government terminology as part of the leisure and tourism industries for the general public. In short, critics across all of the arts no longer have the authority they used to. Even October, an intellectually oriented journal, has had direct experience of ‘consumer choice.’ When it started in 1976 its defined role was to offer an alternative to Artforum;7 now it is one of many American academically-oriented journals which publish essays on art. Quality judgement, even if only articulated by the artists included in the October canon, has lost its exclusiveness and with it any absolute sense of difference between good and bad art other than by price tag or notoriety. Greenberg’s famous comment about the “umbilical cord of gold” between art and power seems even more in place than it was in the 1930s.8 In an age where consumer participation is promoted, it seems arrogant to openly maintain superior taste and judgement, much simpler to appear as an ordinary punter. The other option is that the critic withdraws into academe where vested authority does exist. Art history, for example, is a recognized discipline within the university system and a discipline can offer the security of methodology, object of study, and community, as well as career. As we shall see the university is acknowledged within October to offer sustenance, but it is not an alternative to the ideals of critical practice in which artist and public are addressed directly.

George Baker asks the question, what is there for criticism “after quality”? If the traditional criteria followed from the principle of quality then what perhaps we are now looking at is “criteria in duress” (p. 210). The Round Table’s answers to the question are multiple though not particularly remarkable and, philosophically, the answers are not all that antithetical to one another. In fact the criteria as identified are not that very different from what was practiced and acknowledged back in the 1960s. It is generally admitted in the Round Table that interpretation plays a role, but clearly it is not a role that garners much interest among the participants other than a few complaints about the current popularity of overly impressionistic or subjective interpretation.9 In the October context the question of the foundation on which meaning is articulated will always take precedence. Rosalind Krauss’s career at least since she co-founded October is premised on this. The specific answers at the Round Table are partial and are uttered more from ‘experience’ than from theory. For Krauss the job of the critic is to scan the horizon for “some new blip appearing on it” (p. 216), though Krauss then agrees with Joselit that “A good critic produces as well as reports,” (p. 217). For George Baker criticism “necessitates continually redefining and tracing the transformations in certain previous discourses and practices,” (p. 220). For Baker, Buchloh, and Foster criticism involves “the archaeological resuscitation of that which has been obliterated or neglected,” (pp. 219-220). The latter might be seen as an inversion of the avant-garde’s pursuit of the new but the archaeological model is equated with Benjamin’s concept of outmodedness. And yet, while the reappraisal of modernism has embraced the overlooked or neglected in the avant-garde’s attempts to create a future, the principle remains the same: a vision that sets itself against established norms.

Andrea Fraser’s answer to the question of criteria—in so far as she is committed to art criticism at all—is that criticism should follow the example of art and operate on a “site-specific” level, (p. 223). She believes in the importance of participation rather than the division-of-labour whereby there are artists, critics, curators, etc. Rather, “artists and writers and curators are collaborators working together on a common social and cultural project,” (p. 214). While Buchloh thinks this is an ideal of the 1960s and 1970s which is now redundant, both James Meyer and Helen Molesworth believe dialogue if not collaboration to be of fundamental importance. Meyer states the need for exchange between art and criticism in the negative: “Much work at present does not bother to speak back to critics and to criticism,” (p. 203). He refers to a younger generation in fashionable art circles since the mid-nineties who claim little interest in “criticality.” The yBas are representative of this. But for Molesworth dialogue is not just a positive, it extends to a sense of the very nature of criticism in its public responsibilities:

Molesworth: I always thought one of the criteria for great criticism was that it was the kind of thing that artists would read seriously.

Baker: And the reason for that is that this form of criticism reconfigures the conditions within which one could make art.

Molesworth: Right, because in this scenario the artwork is functioning as a conversational gambit, taken up and potentially responded to in kind by the artist. Perhaps we are back to (Fraser’s) idea of collaboration. In this model really good criticism is a dialog between texts and objects, and I don’t think that happens in the popular press; there I see criticism functioning as an interpretive interlocutor of objects for an audience. In some ways I see my ideal form of criticism as potentially very intimate, with the caveat being that the function of criticism is to render the intimate public. For me it is precisely criticism’s publicness that transforms what could potentially be a conversation between persons into a dialogue between texts and objects. (pp. 221-222)

This question of a potential dialogue running through art and criticism all the way to a public is perhaps the main turning point of the Round Table. For now it should be noted that these partial and provisional criteria are relatively modest coming from, if you will, the think-tank of a journal which in the past was responsible for some of the most densely packed theoretical material ever to appear in an art context. There is something of a return to basics about this Round Table discussion, and there is a suggestion that the reasons for this return lie in a perceived drift between current art practices and the kind of art criticism exemplified through October.

In the Round Table Hal Foster makes unequivocally clear his opposition to treating contemporary art in terms of pluralism. It is a charge he lays especially at Arthur Danto who, Foster believes, gives philosophical credibility to pluralism with his use of the concept of relativism in his account of contemporary art, i.e. with the multiplicity of tendencies, one trend is just as ‘good’ or as ‘bad’ as any other. For Foster this relativity is “pleasing to the market,” (p. 204). In other words it means that the market is subject to no criteria or conditions other than its own which is the accumulation of capital. What Foster is articulating is representative of October as a whole: the editorship is diametrically opposed to the apparent neutrality of relativism; October seeks committed writing, writing that has an ideological investment with its object rather than writing that assumes a distanced ‘objectivity.’ This is different not only to Danto’s relativism but to those critics who pander an audience with their “identifications” with that audience: in the Round Table Dave Hickey comes in for such criticism. The name “Hickeyesque” is coined for criticism of this order which also follows the market trends, (p. 216). This is more than an academic argument because “Hickeyesque” criticism is acknowledged to be in the ascendancy at the time of the discussion which implies that October has witnessed a decline in its constituency, or its sphere of influence. Yet this is not primarily a battle over constituencies as much as an October sense of correctness. During the course of the discussion Benjamin Buchloh is questioned on his reasons for writing occasional articles for Artforum, (pp. 224-225). Buchloh’s response is simply that he does not make concessions in writing for it, and he believes his work can “transcend” that context since otherwise he wouldn’t write for it. However in the same context Buchloh also says, “I would prefer to read criticism that reflects on the current difficulties of writing criticism and makes these one of its subjects,” (p. 224). In truth it is difficult to envisage art magazines with their commercial requirements allowing the required depth for this level of self-reflexivity. As a very occasional contributor to Artforum, Buchloh is one of a number of writers who submit short reports, reviews and articles which make up the magazine each month, and there is no “to be continued” attached.

Ever since Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” essay of 1939 the “all-or-nothing” battle between high and low culture has waged (p. 224). And since 1976, October has refused to engage in the common-or-garden approach to criticism. Robert Storr will have a singular role to play in the Round Table. It is he who constantly remonstrates with the other participants on the need in the current climate for negotiation and accommodation. Storr is pragmatic. As he points out, his curatorial responsibilities mean he is “somebody who works with the public much more than (Foster),” (p. 215). His distinction suggests he sees Foster as much more of an intellectual who works primarily with ideas in an abstract context. From this position Storr has strong words to say on the stance of October editors: “We really have to wean ourselves from both utopian and apocalyptic visions,” (p. 225). The October project is nothing if not utopian and there is a sense in which they now feel besieged in an apocalyptic atmosphere.

A generation ago in the 1960 Preface to his book of essays The Tradition of the New, Harold Rosenberg commented that when dealing with new art there is a question which is prior to that of whether the work is good or bad. That prior question is, ‘What is it?’10 It is probable that the comment was at least in part directed at his chief rival in art criticism, Clement Greenberg, whose authority on the primacy of quality judgement was, by 1960, beginning to wane. What Rosenberg is getting at then, is that the importance of the critic’s role was no longer only in the evaluation of the artwork because another and prior evaluation is now required, and that is to identify the object before the critic. In other words, new art is no longer necessarily recognisable; it may be so ‘radical’ as to defy immediate recognition. Indeed this was thought by Rosenberg to be precisely the function of the avant-garde; that it overturn established norms and practices. When Rosalind Krauss started writing a few years later she already understood that the principle of avant-garde transformations of the artistic landscape was significant, and that this was to be assimilated into ‘art criticism’ not only in terms of writing about such work, but in the method of writing about it. Where once the art critic might have reported on a range of artworks from conventional to avant-garde, by the mid-twentieth century and specifically in New York, there had emerged a specialist art critic in avant-garde art.

The issues surrounding art criticism are large, complex, and lacking in definition. The Round Table seems intent on maintaining the discussion on as ‘experiential’ a level as possible. Where one might expect a theoretical exchange on the state of advanced art and the possibility of its critical counterpart, in its stead one gets a more down-played, modest even, response to some of the things criticism does, or fails to do, or should do. That is not to say that the relationship between advanced art and criticism—which October was originally committed to—is a natural one. When Rosalind Krauss says “this sense of scanning the horizon for some new blip appearing on it, is part of what I’ve always assumed was the job of a critic” (p. 216), she is saying something that is already deeply ideological. This is more than critical response to art, it is a projection of what might be and as such it was in alignment with the avant-garde project. This, was the aim of advanced mid-twentieth century art criticism, and particular ‘judgements’ follow from that. Krauss’s statement also draws attention to the fact that she is not interested in contemporary art as individual works of art; she is interested in the historical and present conditions in which works of art are produced and consumed. This will involve social and cultural, as well as ‘aesthetic’ contexts because it is only through such analysis that the concept of the avant-garde can make any sense.

Benjamin Buchloh is the participant who is specifically interested in a theory of the avant-garde. Buchloh has closely examined Peter Bürger’s theory which draws a distinction between an historical avant-garde and a post-war, neo-avant-garde.11 While Bürger’s universalizing of the condition of contemporary art is a bridge too far for Buchloh, he has nevertheless attempted to revise Bürger’s pessimistic view that the neo-avant-garde merely simulates the historical avant-garde. The bridge between criticism and theory may be constantly traversed, but criticism’s first obligation is to the particulars of the art object. However, the theorization of the avant-garde helps expose a number of problems. If advanced art and criticism are indeed bound together in this avant-garde project, where does this project reside and how is it identified? Whether the avant-garde is artistically or politically oriented, is the potential for the transformation of existing conditions in the artwork itself, or is the potential articulated in the interpretation of the artwork? It is just significance or potential which is upheld as primary in critical theory and it may be why Buchloh, in the Round Table, speaks of art criticism as the “secondary discursive text,” (p. 205). But, however art is understood, it seems increasingly difficult to maintain the case for the transforming potential of art. It is generally agreed that in literal terms the avant-garde project failed. The avant-garde did not overturn the institutions, in fact the institutions house avant-garde art. The neo-avant-garde is now largely discredited. And the October attempt to shift the terms of reference to a postmodern discourse has been abandoned. Yet the model for this art and this criticism remains the pursuit of radical innovation in the name of a better future.

In the years immediately prior to this Round Table Hal Foster has published less work on new art, choosing instead to do more of what he calls “archaeological” study on art and its institutions across the modernist period. On the face of it, this could be read as a retreat into history of art, or at least a retreat into the university. It wasn’t always so. When October started in 1976 there was a palpable desire to bring more of the university—in the broadest sense—into the practices of art criticism. The first editorial is a strident call for “the renewal and strengthening of critical discourse through intensive review of the methodological options now available,” (“About October, October 1, p. 4). The editors held that critical discourse had failed new art and October was to address the deficit by providing a more rigorous critical framework which will bring “intertextuality within the larger context of theoretical discussion,” (“About October” p. 4). By the time the Round Table discussion on art criticism appeared in 2002, there was a marked change in outlook. Far from “intertextuality,” it is indicative that the only reference to theoretical discussion not directly related to visual art and art criticism is a quotation from Paul de Man on the “crisis” of the 1960s. Now the “crisis” seems to have turned on its head:

Molesworth: Is, then, that sense of the diminishment of the audience for criticism partly bound up with this sense of criticism’s academicization? So now it’s for students?

Joselit : Academia’s relative disdain for the general audience is significant, because it encourages scholars to stay within narrowly defined discursive channels where certain kinds of work are rewarded and others aren’t. As a result, one’s readership is narrowed. (p. 221)

Yet Foster views the problem from the other side of the trajectory as well. This emerges following the introduction of conceptualism into the discussion as a crucial point in changes in the relationships between art, criticism and the audience. Buchloh had made the point that in the late sixties and beyond, conceptual artists attacked art criticism as the established intermediary between art and audience. This is at the same time “an integral part of the rise of the spectator/speaker/reader to competence,” (p. 206). Foster refuses this as a palliative: “In Conceptual art, the move to make art as transparent as possible had this pathos: art became ever more opaque, at least to viewers beyond an immediate milieu, beyond a coterie. The same thing has occurred with the model of collaboration,” (p. 215). It seems then, from every which direction, the processes of specialization and professionalization within sectors of the art world in a changing social context have created conflicts of method and ideology. These conflicts have caused casualties, not least within art criticism.

But Foster, it seems, also rejects the prospect of criticism becoming ever more bound up within the university. This emerges in an apparent difference of opinion with David Joselit over the location of criticism:

Joselit: I think one of the major critical issues of the moment actually emerges from, but exceeds the limits of art history. It has to do with the question of visual culture, which pivots on a boundary distinction—a judgment about what the object of aesthetic interpretation should be. …

Foster: What David proposes, if I hear him right, is that one task of the critic now is disciplinarian, or, if you prefer, antidisciplinarian: to decide whether boundaries between categories of art and categories of visual culture should be drawn or crossed. It sounds like an academic task, but for you it is a critical one. (p. 207-8, 209)

Now, with an ever more “expanded field” (to use Krauss’s term) not only in art itself but in the object of study (Visual Culture) and in the extension, indeed the ‘popularization’ of subjects within the university sector, the critic’s task and position continues to diminish. For Joselit, as for John Miller, the present conditions require a de-skilling or re-skilling of the critic and they take their model after Duchamp’s readymade, a paradigm whereby art’s traditional craft base shifted to a more conceptual model. For Joselit, these fields—criticism, history of art—ought to be opened up, but Foster believes that the critic’s business does not lie in the drawing or re-drawing of category distinctions. The difference might be seen as parallel to the distinction between Duchamp’s installation of the readymade and the subsequent categorization of the readymade. They are different tasks for different contexts. In this view, if criticism is seen as the secondary text then an analysis of the relations of different fields is a third text. Foster sees the latter as academic, as something more proper to the scholarly work of the university. With this, the Round Table discussion is pushed to its limits.

The Round Table acknowledges the changes in art world power structures that have occurred over the past generation. These changes have particularly impacted on the position and function of the art critic, but have wider implications. If once the art object was seen to provide an aesthetic experience, by the mid-twentieth century the avant-gardes had re-directed this towards a sometimes artistic, sometimes social or political potential. Advanced criticism followed suit. However within and without these relationships further shifts have occurred whereby, as Benjamin Buchloh argues, institutional and economic interests have overtaken the critical if not utopian experience that artistic practices are meant to generate. There is then a void and a need to consider how critical practices might be re-directed. David Joselit believes that the established categories need to be disbanded, that ‘fine art’ and with it art criticism are elitist categories. Hal Foster is adamant that in the present conditions of art criticism there is no longer a basis for a common discourse, a discourse that is shared by artists, writers and viewers: “It just doesn’t happen anymore that a critic chases a shift in art that has repercussions for many people. There are too many ripples going every which way, and we’re not all in the same waters anyway,” (p. 218). But is this to say that Foster will opt for Andrea Fraser’s call for a “site-specific criticism,” criticism that will operate within the more intimate conditions of ‘local’ production and consumption? October started out as a journal with major ambitions. For two decades the journal engaged with major thinkers of the times and published texts across the spectrum of cultural inquiry.

At the Round Table then, while it is remarkable that the participants acknowledge ‘quality’ judgement as a major issue, it is no surprise that the tradition of the avant-garde should be present. The surprise is the extent of its presence. The Round Table begins with reference to avant-gardism in the 1960s, not through Harold Rosenberg—who is even more discredited within this circle than Clement Greenberg—but through the literary theorist, Paul de Man. George Baker has selected as the starting point of the Round Table a quotation from De Man’s 1967 essay, “Criticism and Crisis,”12 in which De Man appears to complain about the rapidity of the avant-gardes and their immediate obsolescence as not allowing time for the rules and conventions of criticism to take their course, (p. 201). However, De Man goes on to argue that the ensuing sense of crisis is actually productive. While Baker says he cites this as a nostalgic reminder of just how positive it is compared to the situation now, it remains the only direct reference to the tradition of the avant-garde, or the neo-avantgarde, in the entire discussion. The present context is worse than a ‘post’ or an ‘after;’ there is no summation where such positioning seems possible. De Man’s productive “crisis” has turned into an impasse.

  1. The Round Table discussion is restrained in the use of the term ‘crisis.’ This may be contrasted with Maurice Berger ed., The Crisis of Criticism (New York: New Press, 1998).
  2. October set out to represent work it supported across the arts, as well as across sections of criticism and theory. It is not, therefore, a ‘visual arts’ journal. However, the founder members of the editorial board were based in the visual arts, and this continues to be a primary concern within the journal.
  3. “The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” October 100, pp. 200-229. All references thereafter refer to the Round Table except where indicated otherwise.
  4. Robert Hewison, “Commerce and Culture,” in J. Corner and S. Harvey (eds.) Enterprise and heritage: crosscurrents of national culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, 162-177.
  5. See, Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: a history, London: Routledge, 1995, pp. 82-108; Stephen Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, New York and London: Guilford, pp. 124-194; and, Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era: from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, New York: Harper, 1996, pp. 332-374. Where Bertens and Best and Kellner refer to October as a key contributor to the history of postmodernism, Sandler is writing as an art critic and he is particularly vehement about what he sees as the tyranny of the journal and its editors.
  6. Hal Foster, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983.
  7. See, Amy Newman, Challenging Art: “Artforum” 1962-1974. New York: Soho, 2000.
  8. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in J. O’Brian, ed, Clement Greenberg: the collected essays and criticism, Vol. 1, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 10-11.
  9. During the 1950s and 1960s Art News developed a very subjective style of art criticism. Harold Rosenberg was a key contributor. There are contemporary versions. Matthew Collings was mentioned above. The Round Table makes several references to Dave Hickey in similar regard.
  10. Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New, London: Paladin, 1970, p. 9.
  11. Benjamin Buchloh, “Theorizing the Avant-Garde,” Art in America (Nov. 1984), p. 19, 21.
  12. Paul de Man, “Criticism and Crisis,” Blindness and Insight: essays in the rhetoric of contemporary criticism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp. 3-19.